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LAT's 2008 Paralegal of the Year and Runners-up Flourish Through Networking Ties

By Amanda Flatten

(Originally appeared in print as "The Career Connection")

September/October 2008 Table of Contents

Sponsored by Case & Point (by Corporate Legal Solutions) www.caseandpoint.com

Since 1999, LAT’s Editorial Advisory Board has been selecting the Paralegal of the Year and runners up. Meet our editorial advisory board.

 

Community service, association involvement and dedication to the paralegal profession all describe many paralegals from across the country. Taking all of those things to the next level describes LAT’s 2008 Paralegal of the Year and runners-up. Whether it’s petitioning to have a firm recognize paralegals’ tenure, taking the lead in national and local association activities, or participating in community service projects, these paralegals have worked tirelessly to advance the paralegal profession while recognizing that it’s all possible due to networking with their peers.

 

2008 Paralegal of the Year:
Mary Willard, CLA, CLAS, NCCP

 

For 18 years, Mary Willard has been a champion for the paralegal profession. She has a successful career as vice president/senior paralegal for Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C.; received the bank’s Award of Excellence; was instrumental in implementing the legal department’s senior paralegal designation; does pro bono work; serves on local, state and national paralegal association boards; and is on the North Carolina State Bar Paralegal Certification Committee. And these achievements are only the tip of the iceberg.

Numerous colleagues, peers, supervisors and friends nominated Willard for Paralegal of the Year, all commenting on the many ways they have been touched by her career and passion for the legal field. It’s this recognition of her achievements and her dedication to the profession that have earned Willard LAT’s 2008 Paralegal of the Year award.

Getting Started

Willard grew up in Phoenix hearing about the law. Her father was a court reporter for the Superior Court of Maricopa County and later for the Federal Ninth Circuit Court in Arizona. “My dad had me proofreading and reviewing documents when I was 13 years old,” Willard said, adding that her dad also discussed the paralegal field with her. But Willard didn’t start her career as a paralegal. In 1975, she landed a job as a reporter for a magazine in Phoenix. This eventually led her to corporate communications, where she worked for 10 years, with a focus on financial public relations.

In 1985, while still working in corporate communications, Willard moved to North Carolina and, in 1988, she married her husband, Bob Willard. Two and a half years later, “we were meeting with my husband’s attorney to work on our wills, when my husband looked at me and said, ‘you look like you belong here,’ and I told him I’d always thought about becoming a paralegal,” Willard recalled. “So my husband and I worked out a plan to make that dream come true. Sadly, my dad died before I became a paralegal, but he would be very proud now to know that I committed and went on to achieve that goal.”

Willard attended Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., and graduated with her associate degree in paralegal technology in 1990. From the beginning, Willard knew she wanted to become a corporate paralegal. While attending school, she was an intern at Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte, N.C., and was hired as a full-time paralegal after graduation. She worked at the firm for a year and a half. From late 1991 to 1997, Willard was a paralegal for Laporte, Inc., a U.K. specialty chemical company. When the company’s U.S. headquarters moved to New Jersey, she decided not to follow, but continued to work for the company for a year as a freelance paralegal. In 1998, Willard was hired at Compass Group, but was laid off a year later when the company restructured. A week later, thanks to great networking opportunities provided by her local and state paralegal associations, she was hired as a paralegal at Bojangles’ Restaurants, a fast food chain in Charlotte, N.C., where she worked for a year and half.

Then, in 2000, Willard took some time off work as she and her husband built a new house. Three years later, Bank of America came calling. “One of my instructors at Central Piedmont who helped me get the internship at Moore & Van Allen called and said, ‘Mary, they need you here.’ I’ve now been here for five years,” she said.

Extraordinary Work Life

At Bank of America, Willard is involved with corporate governance work; deals with officers and directors; is the coordinator between the line of business and the corporate secretary’s office; and works with the line of business to develop policies and procedures used in governing the bank’s subsidiaries for legal entities.

Another part of Willard’s job is working with the Investment Bank of Bank of America. “I deal with the broker/dealers and the registered investment advisors who have to have Securities and Exchange Commission registrations to do what they have to do, and I help keep up their registrations,” she said. “It overlaps my corporate governance work. [With] the broker/dealers, if there’s a change in officer or director, that has to be reported on the registration statements. I’m a funnel. People come to me and ask, ‘how do I …’ and I find a way to get it done.”

Willard and her supervising attorney, Stuart Dean, work out of two different offices. Dean is in the New York office, while Willard works in Charlotte, N.C., and the arrangement works surprisingly well for both. “We have the same kind of work style, work ethic and the same type of sense of humor,” Willard said. “We’re on each other’s speed dial and e-mail saves us.”

Dean said no matter the issue, he has faith Willard will get the job done. “[Willard] excels at marshalling resources that are necessary to get a project to the finish line,” said Dean, who was one of Willard’s nominators for Paralegal of the Year. In fact, Dean said during Bank of America’s acquisition of FleetBoston Financial Corp., a large Northeast bank, in 2003, Willard was involved in working with the various business units to assimilate FleetBoston into Bank of America. “She has continued to be called on when we are acquiring a large company,” Dean added. “[Willard] has a knack for identifying issues that need to be addressed so that we can anticipate, rather than react, to ensure a smooth merger.”

Willard also supports other attorneys throughout the legal department, including one in Hong Kong. “[Willard] is a walking, talking Google for Bank of America. She is always assisting other people,” Dean said, adding that he constantly receives e-mails from co-workers about Willard’s excellent work.

Her amazing work ethic earned Willard Bank of America’s 2008 Award of Excellence, the bank’s highest award that only is given to the top 1 percent of employees in each department. In addition to the award, she and other winners from her group were treated to a trip to South Beach, Fla. The trip included training sessions, team building exercises and more. “I really admire and respect a lot of paralegals and attorneys I work with, and there are so many people that are deserving of the award, so it means a lot that my colleagues and peers recognize my level of work,” Willard said.

Paralegals at the bank also have Willard, among others, to thank for the implementation of a senior paralegal distinction for deserving employees. While adding a senior paralegal designation had been discussed before Willard started working at the company, the issue had stalled. Upon Willard’s arrival, she became involved in the company’s paralegal forum. “Getting some kind of designation was very important to the group,” she said. “It didn’t seem fair that all the paralegals were on the same plateau — a new paralegal like me as well as paralegals who had been here for 15 to 20 years. We felt like there needed to be a recognition of the paralegals who go above and beyond.” After a lot of research, Willard and a committee wrote a proposal and presented it to the general counsel and head of legal administration, and it passed.

Willard also was instrumental in helping to set up a Certified Legal Assistant/Certified Paralegal study group at work. Along with co-worker Theresa Irvin, CLA, NCCP, a vice president/senior paralegal at Bank of America, Willard established the study group to help Bank of America’s paralegals study and pass the National Association of Legal Assistants’ certification exam. The group meets every other year. “We have done this three times now and the bank has been very supportive,” Willard said. “They pay for all the books [and] the exam fees, and paralegals across the country can attend the training course through the company’s Legal University.”

Irvin, who also nominated Willard for Paralegal of the Year, said it has been a pleasure to work with her on the CLA study group. “I’ve learned a lot from her,” she said. “She is a wonderful instructor and I appreciate all she does for the profession.”

Bank of America’s legal department has opened the door to several unique pro bono opportunities that have become important to Willard. For several years, she has been involved in the firm’s Elderly Wills Clinic. “We help write wills, financial and health care powers of attorney, and living wills for elderly people who otherwise could not afford it,” she said.

Another special pro bono project Willard has been involved in is the StreetLaw program. The purpose of the program is to get more diverse candidates into the legal field by partnering corporate law departments with diverse local high schools. In 2007, Willard was the project coordinator for her firm. “We had a representative in the classroom pretty much every week [in] October [and] November, and then we had a day where the kids (30 sophomores) came into the office,” Willard said. Students were offered instruction in intellectual property, real estate, consumer identity theft and securities. “Bank of America was the first corporation in the Carolinas to attempt to do this, so we were very excited, and we will do it again this year,” she added.

Willard is quick to say she would not be where she is today without the support and opportunities she has had from her current employer. “It’s wonderful that I work for a corporation that gives me these types of opportunities,” she said. “The company recognizes the contributions a paralegal can make.”

Associations, Certifications and Teaching

Willard has been involved in paralegal associations since the beginning of her career. She joined the Metrolina Paralegal Association and the North Carolina Para­legal Association while she still was in school, and won scholarships from both associations.

For the past 16 years, she has held some role in MPA, including president in 1998. “[Willard] will always be known in MPA’s history as a true influence on its growth and success,” wrote real estate paralegal April N. Ritter, CLA, NCCP, in her nomination of Willard for Paralegal of the Year.

Active in NCPA, Willard has spoken at numerous seminars. “Our state association has excellent continuing legal education seminars, annually and at mid-year, and I’ve been a speaker and/or participant for that,” Willard said.

For Willard, being a part of para­legal associations isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. “It’s as natural as drinking water to me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my involvement in paralegal associations and my networking.”

Willard has been a member of NALA since 1993, when she received her CLA designation. In 1998, she received her Certified Legal Assistant Specialty in corporate and business Law. Then in 2000, she was asked to be on NALA’s certifying board. The board grades the CLA exam and writes new exam questions. It also is up to the certification board to keep up with changes in the law and continually review the questions on the exam to see where changes are necessary. “I loved the three-and-a-half-year experience and met so many wonderful people from across the country — attorneys, educators and paralegals,” she said.

On July 1, 2005, North Carolina implemented a voluntary state certification program for paralegals, and the first exam was given in May 2006. Willard was asked to be on the state bar’s certification committee, along with Irvin. “I was not in favor of state certification when they first started talking about it,” Willard said. “I wasn’t sure it was needed and felt like the national certifications that we had covered it. I always felt voluntary certification was the best way, and then the state certification turned into a voluntary certification, so I eventually became one of those people who says ‘if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.’”

On top of Willard’s outstanding work and association involvement, she also has a heart for students. She is on the advisory board at Central Piedmont Community College and she taught various courses there for five years, from 1998 to 2003. She also taught for one semester at Kings College in Charlotte, N.C., and has been a guest speaker at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Paralegal Extension Program. “I love students and teaching, and I will go back to teaching one of these days when I have time,” she said.

Looking Ahead

What’s next for the Paralegal of the Year? Willard plans to continue to expand her career at Bank of America, help the state certification exam continue to run smoothly and spend more time with her supportive husband of 20 years.

Willard said surrounding herself with successful and wonderful people has helped her become the person she is today. “Because I’ve worked with and been involved with so many great paralegals, to be chosen as the Paralegal of the Year — there aren’t even words. It’s totally overwhelming,” she said. “It makes me feel good about all the work I’ve done, all the time I’ve put in, and I feel like people appreciate it.”

 

Runner-up: Kristine M. Custodio, CP

 

Kristine M. Custodio didn’t originally plan on becoming a paralegal. In fact, in 1999, she received a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif., in human development with an emphasis in physical therapy. That same year, she was planning to obtain her graduate degree in the field when her mother became ill. Custodio returned home to San Diego, where she became the administrator to her family’s adult developmentally disabled residential facility because her mother was too ill to work. Custodio continues to be involved with her family’s business to this day.

Upon returning to San Diego, Custodio worked at a design firm for three years while also taking classes to obtain her paralegal certificate from the University of California, San Diego Extension’s American Bar Association-approved paralegal program. “Even as a small child, I had been obsessed with the pursuit of justice, so I thought I would do well in this field,” Custodio said.

After she received her paralegal certificate in 2003, Custodio was hired at the San Diego firm Butterfield Schechter as a file clerk and, just a few months later, she was promoted to paralegal. A paralegal for just five years, Custodio has hit the ground running and shows no signs of slowing down.

Work Ethic

As one of four paralegals in the 4-attorney firm of Butterfield Schechter, Custodio wears many hats. The firm specializes in employee benefit matters including pension plans, Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) compliance and litigation, stock option plans, estate planning and more. “I work in most areas, especially retirement plans and litigation,” Custodio said.

Custodio supports partner Marc S. Schechter in all phases of pretrial litigation and research. In the retirement plan practice, Custodio is the project manager for more than 250 plans. “In the pension practice, I often draft amendments or ancillary documents to keep the plan in compliance with the law and submit those documents to the [Internal Revenue Service],” she added.

Another of Custodio’s duties is handling Schechter’s IRS and Department of Labor audits. “[Custodio] is organized like crazy,” said Schechter, who nominated her for Paralegal of the Year. “We are very paper-intensive and she handles calendaring, keeps us on top of deadlines, drafts plan amendments and oversees all of our firm’s e-filing.”

The firm mostly handles federal court cases, which must be filed with the court electronically. Custodio built the firm’s e-filing database from the ground up. “[Custodio] has pioneered the integration and modernization of our law firm,” wrote Butterfield Schechter attorney Elizabeth Sales in her nomination letter. “She has attended numerous [CLE] courses during her free time in order to gain the knowledge and competency to allow our law firm to implement the latest software for our litigation, audit and retirement plan practice.”

Custodio’s marketing skills have not gone to waste either. She designed and put together the firm’s 10th anniversary newsletter. She also helps update the firm’s Web site. Custodio said she enjoys working for a boss who gives her the freedom to succeed and learn along the way. “Marc Schechter has been in the field for more than 20 years, so it’s really an honor to have someone like him have that kind of trust in your skills,” she said.

According to Schechter, the feeling is mutual. “[Custodio] is an amazing paralegal and makes it easier for me to practice law,” Schechter added. “She is so dedicated, hard working and passionate about her work. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went to law school one day.”

A Passion for Schools        

Networking is extremely important to Custodio. “I live by the saying, ‘the more people you know, the more you know,’” she said. To that end, Custodio has become heavily involved with the San Diego Paralegal Association. “This is where my heart and soul is,” she added.

The duties Custodio performs for the organization are a testament to her love for the association and the para­legal profession. When Custodio first started working with SDPA in 2005, she served as director. “She immediately hit the ground running,” said Darlene McLellan, a 22-year paralegal at Hargreaves & Taylor in San Diego, and SDPA’s vice president of programs and education. “[Custodio] volunteered for every event in some capacity. She also took on an important role of editing and finalizing new bylaws, which are the main foundation of SDPA.”  

Currently, Custodio is executive vice president of marketing for the grassroots organization, as well as the school liaison committee chair. “The school liaison committee is where I have found my absolute passion in life,” she said.

Within the school liaison committee, Custodio manages four programs — the speaker’s bureau/leadership development committee, the mentor program, the student commission and the scholarship program.

Her work with students doesn’t end there. According to McLellan, Custodio spearheaded SDPA’s reunification with all the colleges that have paralegal programs. “She contacted the directors of each program and established a professional rapport,” she said. “She provided each paralegal program at the schools with classroom speaking appearances by SDPA members.” Custodio also is on the advisory board for the University of San Diego’s Paralegal Program and this year she headed the committee for SDPA’s annual Bridging the Gap event, which facilitates relationships between working paralegals and students.

Custodio is involved in paralegal associations at the state and national level as well. SDPA is a member of the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations, and Custodio is active in CAPA’s leadership and educational conference events. Last year, SDPA hosted CAPA’s 19th Annual Education Conference, which Custodio helped coordinate.

SDPA currently is working on becoming a NALA affiliate. “I’ve been appointed by my board to be the NALA representative for SDPA,” Custodio said. “I’m a NALA member and I became a certified paralegal in January 2006.”

Speaking, Writing and Volunteering

As if all her association work was not enough, Custodio still finds time to engage in public speaking, write for industry publications and volunteer.

Custodio speaks at various paralegal schools on a regular basis. She also gave a presentation on ethical decision making in the workplace to the 32nd Street U.S. Navy Legal Command. She writes for SDPA, CAPA and The Daily Transcript, a daily business publication in San Diego, on various topics, including California Business & Professions Code 6450, which Custodio finds many California companies and law firms still don’t know about, even though it has been in effect since 2001. “I have nicknamed [Custodio] ‘The 6450 Enforcer,’” McLellan said.

This year, Custodio started volunteering, along with McLellan, at the Center for Community Solutions in San Diego to help domestic violence victims. There, they assist attorneys with the preparation of forms, provide resources for the clients, and act as liaisons for other community programs and volunteers. “From a paralegal perspective, it’s amazing to be able to offer our expertise and serve clients in need who otherwise would not be able to obtain those services,” Custodio said.

Setting an Example

McLellan said Custodio is a perfect role model for paralegals nationwide. “She has pride. She is passionate. She exudes personality. She is knowledgeable [and] congenial, and her ethical standards are impeccable,” she said. “I want her to continue to be all she can be, and this nomination is something for the students she speaks to [and mentors] to look up to and strive for themselves.”

Custodio is flattered to be selected as a Paralegal of the Year runner-up. “It’s such an honor to me that people like my mentor, who have been in the field for 20 years, think of me in that high a regard,” she said. “The best thing about receiving this honor is that I’m touching more and more people, and I hope they will in turn touch more people so we can make a concerted effort to benefit our field and each other.”

 

Runner-up: Cassandra Oliver, CLA, ACP

 

Cassandra Oliver was working as a legal secretary in the Tulsa, Okla., law firm of Holliman Langholz Runnels & Dorwart, interacting daily with paralegals, when she realized that was the kind of work she wanted to do. She already had a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., but she was ready for a new career path. While still working as a legal secretary, she went back to school and got her paralegal certificate from Tulsa Community College in Tulsa, Okla., in 1987.

After she completed her paralegal studies, Oliver continued working for Holliman Langholz, but as a paralegal. “It was more rewarding, presented a challenge and gave me [an] opportunity to do a different type of thinking,” she said. Oliver continued working as a paralegal for private law firms for 15 years, and then, in 2002, she made the switch to the corporate setting. “I was involved in paralegal associations and, through my interaction, I heard about all kinds of opportunities. In my networking with corporate paralegals, their line of work piqued my curiosity and I wanted to venture into something I had not done before,” she said.

The Corporate Switch

For the past six years of her 21-year paralegal career, Oliver has worked as a senior paralegal for The Williams Companies, Inc., in its Tulsa, Okla., office. As a senior corporate paralegal in the Williams legal department, Oliver manages multiple projects across diverse business units, including litigation discovery work; preparing responses to due diligence requests; preparing and maintaining chronologies; keeping track of crucial dates and significant information using databases; and conducting legal research and writing. If a case goes into the discovery phase, Oliver gathers documents, coordinates the project, and is a liaison with outside counsel, clients and other groups.

Oliver’s main work duties relate to discontinued operations, an area in which she works with senior attorney Angela Hooper. “When you’re dealing with discontinued operations, chances are that the records are in storage, the assets may have been sold and the people have moved on,” said Hooper, who nominated Oliver for Paralegal of the Year. “When a claim comes in or we’re trying to sell off a parcel of land related to those discontinued operations, [Oliver] is an amazing detective. She can find records in dusty warehouses or archived databases. She is the Indiana Jones of disc ops.”

Recently, Oliver started assisting with transactional matters and said she enjoys the growth opportunities she receives at Williams. “We recently rolled out a multi-year, in person, compliance training module across our enterprise, but ran across some scheduling and communication glitches,” Hooper recalled. “[Oliver] kept all of the stakeholders informed and coordinated information as well as schedules. Because of her teamwork, we are going to meet our deadlines and the training program has gotten off to a great start.”

Senior counsel Pamela Shelton also nominated Oliver for Paralegal of the Year. The two have worked together on a wide range of cases. “[Oliver] always is willing to help and always wants to learn,” she said. “She has a positive attitude, great work ethic. She’s a joy to work with.”

Williams promotes diversity in the workplace and has various business groups with which employees can be involved. Oliver is a member of the African American Business Resource Group Steering Committee. “Williams feels that its strength lies in having a diverse, high-performing workforce,” Oliver said, adding that she has benefited professionally and personally from Williams’ encouragement for personal development.

In the Community

Community involvement is very important to Oliver. In fact, she has taken advantage of the numerous opportunities Williams provides to its employees. For example, every year, Williams has a United Way fundraising campaign. This year, Oliver is the finance chair of the campaign. Company volunteers also are involved in the United Way’s Day of Caring and last year Oliver was one of the event coordinators.

Yet another community offering at Williams is the Williams/IBM MentorPlace project, where Williams partnered with a local elementary school to mentor children through e-mail. Oliver has volunteered in this program for three years. “The elementary school has a computer classroom and we communicate with our mentees through e-mail,” Oliver said. “This program encourages students to become familiar with technology.”

Apart from volunteering through Williams, Oliver is involved in several community organizations. For the past 17 years, she has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer who advocates for children who have been abused or neglected. “My interaction with CASA started when I was very inhibited and wasn’t confident about what I could bring to the table, but I was willing to try.” Oliver said. “They have an excellent training program and that was key in my feeling secure about getting involved.”

For a number of years, Oliver has been on CASA’s Speaker’s Bureau and currently is the chair. The Speaker’s Bureau provides presentations to business groups, agencies and organizations to educate them about the CASA program and services for children. “CASA is a mechanism that allows people who love their community and children to come together as a team,” Oliver said.

As part of the Leadership Tulsa Program, a program that matches community volunteers with various nonprofit agencies, Oliver served an internship and currently is on the board of the Resonance Center for Women, which provides services that lead to self-sufficiency for women and their families. Also, as part of the Leadership Tulsa Program, Oliver served on the Youth Leadership Tulsa Committee. “We introduce youth to opportunities to serve in the community,” she said.

Oliver also is part of Toastmasters International, an organization that helps members develop communication and leadership skills. “I got actively in­volved in Toastmasters to improve my communication skills and it’s been very rewarding — not just for my presentations, but also in my job,” Oliver said. She currently is the division T governor (of District 16) through June 30, 2009.

In addition, Oliver volunteers for other organizations, including Legal Aid, the Parent Child Center and the Tulsa Food Bank.

Association Connection

Oliver became involved in paralegal groups at the local and national level as soon as she became a paralegal. She earned NALA’s CLA designation early in her career and the Advanced Para­legal certification in 2007. “NALA has a standard that is known across the nation. It has been beneficial to me professionally. When I started at Williams, [having the CLA designation] was a requirement of the job,” Oliver said.

Most recently, Oliver was the ethics chair of NALA’s Professional Development Committee (her term ended in June), for which she served as an advisor for ethical issues and wrote ethics articles for Facts & Findings. She also has served as NALA’s region IV director, supporting NALA members in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.

At a state level, Oliver recently served as vice president of the Oklahoma Paralegal Association, building the association’s membership and assisting the president. And at the local level, Oliver is involved in the Tulsa Association of Legal Assistants, where she served as president and has been on numerous committees. “We have to take initiative to stay abreast of new laws and what’s going on in the legal community, and you can do that by being involved in associations,” she added.

Making It Count

Those who have worked with Oliver are impressed by all she has accomplished. “[Oliver] exemplifies professionalism,” Hooper said. “She is one of those rare people who [is] able to be ambitious and customer-service oriented at the same time.”

Through her work at Williams, volunteer opportunities and involvement in paralegal associations, Oliver said she has worked with some amazingly talented paralegals and she is honored to be LAT’s Paralegal of the Year runner-up. “Working with NALA and within my legal department, I’ve interacted with high-caliber, awesome paralegals from across the nation, and any one of those paralegals could have been named,” she said. “I’m deeply appreciative. My life is a basic, simple one, and I am in a continual learning process, personally and professionally.”

 


 

Amanda Flatten is the former editor and publisher of LAT. She currently is the editor of Dallas/Fort Worth House & Home magazine based in Dallas.

 

 

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