American Heroes. They are among us. Look to the right. Look to the left. Looking right in front of us is Conni Hebert, ACP, smack dab in the paralegal field whom I had the privilege of getting to know. What an astounding background. A paralegal for over 23 years, Conni developed an interest in the legal field while serving active duty in the U.S. Air Force. She is a Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran and received the National Defense Service Medal and the U.S. Air Force Achievement Medal for her contributions to the Gulf War mission.
In a nutshell, Conni graduated from the American Institute in Phoenix, Arizona in 1993, magna cum laude. She was appointed one of the 2000 Most Notable American Women in 1994 by the American Biographical Institute. She is currently employed as a commercial litigation paralegal at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP where she serves on the firm's Pro Bono Committee, Paralegal Advisory Committee, and Technology & E-Discovery Committee. She has worked in insurance defense, construction law, contract law, personal injury, medical malpractice, product liability, ERISA subrogation, and general civil litigation.
Conni has worked with general counsel for a major land developer in Las Vegas as a corporate paralegal handling multiple real estate transactions. She is currently the Chair of the State Bar of Nevada - Paralegal Division, an active member of the Clark County Bar Association, and actively involved in the Las Vegas Valley Paralegal Association currently serving on the Board of Directors as the NALA Liaison. Conni is a Certified Paralegal and earned the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) credential in Discovery from the National Association of Legal Assistants-Paralegals (NALA).
Folks, let me present an amazing profile:
CBE: Conni, let's get personal. Tell us about the side we don't get to read in a LinkedIn profile!
Chere, I will be turning 48 years old in a few months, whew! I have an amazing husband who is very supportive of my busy career and understands when I often bring work home. We have been together 17 wonderful years! I have two kids (one grown daughter and one teenage son) and two grandsons who call me “Grandma Blondie”. My parents, my daughter and my grandsons, along with most of my immediate family, all live in south Texas so I try to visit as often as possible! I grew up there and I love my big family, but I do not miss the humidity of that area of the country at all!
CBE: Tell us the military story:
I went into the U.S. Air Force when I was only 20 years old. I wanted to travel the world and get out of small town, USA. I had been attending community college, and I just felt like there was so much more out there in the world that I wanted to see and do. I signed up for overseas duty, and lucky for me, I was assigned to Torrejon Air Base, Spain – a military base just outside of Madrid. I spent three years living in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, and traveling Europe
CBE: How did you feel when you were assigned overseas? What was it like to be a woman in the military?
Living overseas was amazing! I served during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, my daughter was only 4 months old. I was assigned to fleet management for the Gulf War mission, and I was responsible for the safe and timely transport of the flight crew and passengers to and from the flight line. There were many nights that I had my baby girl on the flight line with me greeting troops coming back from Saudi Arabia. Our base had cargo aircraft and fighter jets landing every few minutes, so it was an overwhelming responsibility. I received the Desert Warrior Commendation and the Air Force Achievement Medal for my dedication to that mission.
For fun, I played softball for the Air Force and I was given the opportunity to travel Europe and play softball for the military. I have been to Italy, Germany, and I also spent Christmas in Paris, France one year. After my tour in Spain, I was assigned to a remote duty station in Gila Bend, Arizona – in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, the hottest desert in North America.
CBE: What drove you to become a paralegal?
I worked in the base legal office on the military base while I was in the Air Force and I just loved it! I realized that I was really good at organization and administration of the legal files. I decided to pursue a legal career so when I completed my military service I would have a new career to go into. I pursued a degree in paralegal studies while stationed at Gila Bend, 75 miles from Phoenix. I was so determined to get my degree that nothing was going to stop me! I would change out of my camouflage uniform and combat boots at 4pm on class day and hit the road… what a journey that was. I did that long distance college thing for a year, four days a week. Graduation was very sweet.
CBE: Tell us a little about your career as a paralegal.
My first paralegal job was in a personal injury firm. It was a large, well-known, billboard advertising firm in Phoenix. My job was taking phone calls from accident victims, evaluating the facts, asking about injuries and accident coverage, and determining if the caller had a potential claim. I set appointments with attorneys and met the client after they retained our firm.
Now, after working as a paralegal for close to 25 years, my work day is filled with the unexpected. I support attorneys in the litigation and corporate departments, and serve on the firm’s pro bono committee. My duties include everything from drafting legal pleadings, reviewing thousands of electronically stored documents to analyzing pro bono hours data for the firm.
CBE: What are some of the most significant changes you have seen?
In the past five years, the biggest changes have been in technology. With the increase in consumer technology use, e-discovery is becoming more prevalent. Paralegals are becoming skilled in using document review platforms such as Relativity to search and review case documents. The paralegal is now a tech-savvy employee, merging the skills of a paralegal with a legal technology specialist. Law firms today are looking for highly sophisticated and experienced paralegals to manage their cases. In addition, although electronic filing has been around for more than a decade, more county and state courts are now offering e-filing, so paralegals need to have that experience. Paralegals are also becoming the liaison for attorneys using trial-prep technology, in and out of the courtroom. Advancements in technology used by law firms have blurred the lines between paralegals and legal secretaries; there is a growing trend among law firms to create hybrid positions. As a paralegal, it is imperative to stay on top of technology trends in the legal field.
CBE: What were those "pet peeves" again? Why do those bother you so much?
My biggest pet peeve as a career paralegal is knowing that there are legal professionals in our field that do not know the difference between a “certified” paralegal and a “certificated” paralegal. If you don’t know the difference you shouldn’t be in this profession! There are paralegals on LinkedIn, for example, that are representing themselves as “certified” when they have not earned the certification, but have instead graduated with a paralegal certificate. I think that if a paralegal is misrepresenting themselves on social media and on their resume, who knows what else they are fibbing about? It is an ethical problem and does not sit well with me. There needs to be more education in our profession about paralegal certification. Recruiters, attorneys and law firm administrators should be educated on certification and know what qualifications they are seeking when recruiting for a paralegal.
CBE: Where are the challenges?
Challenges for paralegals: high stress, long hours, lack of recognition, and billable hours requirements. I have heard paralegals complain about disrespect from attorneys and unreasonable demands made on them. You simply have to demand respect. There is difficulty in some firms to meet the billable hours requirements. Unlike attorneys, paralegals do not generate new clients and cannot generate billable work. On that note, one challenge for me has been under utilization. Unfortunately, I have witnessed billable work being assigned to associate attorneys and that work not being delegated to a paralegal that can handle the task. By delegating the assignment to a paralegal, the firm would be providing the client with a cost savings, while freeing the attorney’s time for more substantive, higher level tasks. Delegation of billable work to experienced paralegals is something that law firms can do better.
CBE: What are the two most important things someone can do to move their career forward?
CLE and CLE! I am big on continuing education, and for a paralegal, continuing legal education is a must. The law is always changing and technology is always improving. You have to stay on top of the changes to be a successful paralegal.
CBE: What's the hottest thing going in the field today?
CBE: Why is joining a paralegal association so important?
Joining a local paralegal association is the least a paralegal should do. Meeting other paralegals can be invaluable to your success. You would be surprised at how often I am assigned to a case where I know the paralegal for opposing counsel. It is very helpful to have that connection, especially when you need an extension for written discovery responses. In addition to networking opportunities, membership in a paralegal association also provides you with amazing benefits such as CLE courses, seminars, discussion forums, newsletters, and resource libraries. Paralegal associations often have notice of job openings before they are publicly advertised, so it can be a wonderful benefit to have knowledge of an opening before everyone else does.
CBE: , What do you get personally from pro bono work and why should someone go the extra mile?
Pro bono work for me is personal. Every individual has something in their personal life that ignites a passion. That passion may be helping children in the foster system or volunteering at the soup kitchen, feeding the homeless. My passion is helping military veterans. Of course, being a military veteran, I understand the difficulties that veterans face. Paralegals are in a unique position – since we are not the attorney, we cannot actually provide the legal assistance to someone less fortunate; however, we are able to assist the pro bono attorney and that assistance can mean everything to someone less fortunate. Paralegals should be valued and appreciated for enabling more legal services to be provided to those in need. Paralegals can help build and expand pro bono programs, recruit volunteers, keep attorneys active in their pro bono assignments, and document pro bono activities.
CBE: If you could design a recipe for someone's career, what three ingredients would you put in it?
A recipe for a successful paralegal career should include:
1) Education – you must have some education in the profession, formal or informal. On the job training can be as valuable as a college degree. Practical experience combined with a degree in paralegal studies has been the key to my success. Continuing your education by attending CLE seminars or courses is a must for any successful paralegal.
2) Networking – Connect with others in your field, whenever the opportunity arises. Join your local paralegal association or go to a CLE in your field, and talk to others that do what you do. Learn from others’ mistakes and experiences. You will develop a network of colleagues that you can turn to when you need help.
3) Certification – Always strive to be the best in whatever you do in life. Although there’s been discussion in recent years about some kind of formal paralegal registration, certification, or licensing, to date there are no mandatory certification requirements. There are a number of voluntary credentials you can obtain by taking a certification exam offered by NALA, NFPA, NALS, or AAPI. Some states offer state-specific competency examinations as well.
CBE: What are the three hardest lessons you learned about what it takes to be a successful paralegal?
1) Learning how to be an effective communicator and effectively collaborate with your attorney
I have learned that regularly scheduled staff meetings are essential in keeping the lines of communication open for the attorney-paralegal team; know what your deadlines are and know who is doing what. You have to utilize the most cost efficient way to complete a task, to keep the client’s costs to a minimum to provide good client service. Sometimes the attorney should perform the task, other times it may be more cost-efficient for the paralegal to perform the task. You have to work as a team with your attorney.
2) Knowledge is key
Never ever pass up a CLE that is on legal technology. Never stop learning and always keep on top of rule updates and technology changes.
3) Be prepared.
Just like a Boy Scout, a successful paralegal is always prepared for the unexpected.
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing providing nationwide staffing opportunities for paralegals and legal professionals. She is the President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP) a non-profit providing online technology training and CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute providing online training for experienced paralegals. An author of 10 books on legal careers, Chere is a national seminar speaker and author of hundreds of articles. She is a recipient of the Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award and the NYCPA Excellence Award. Chere is a former paralegal administrator in two major law firms, an exec in a $5 billion corporation and Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association. Talk to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.