Kristy Russell has had an interesting career, starting out as a docket clerk with the Missouri Office of the Attorney General’s Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) Unit and making her way to her current job as a paralegal with a small law firm where she works in Estate Planning, Family Law and Civil Litigation. Kristy opened up about a dynamic career that has given her the opportunity to work in both civil and criminal law.
Tell us a little about yourself; where do you work and what are your interests?
My name is Kristy Russell and I am a paralegal for a small law firm in Linn, Missouri. I am married to Zach Russell and have two daughters, Isabella and Paige. In my spare time I teach Zumba, I raise money for the Trisomy 18 Foundation and the NICU at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Columbia in memory of my daughter Paige, and I am part of our local community theater group, Osage Community Players, Inc.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the paralegal field?
I got a job at the Attorney General’s office—I started out as a docket clerk, typing stuff for their worker’s compensation department. There’s a huge turn over at the Attorney General’s office. Everyone kept leaving, which meant I kept getting promoted. I came to be in the legal secretary position and realized how much I enjoyed it, and they actually offered a tuition reimbursement program for me to go back to school, so I thought, well, I’ll get my paralegal studies degree. I did that, and then got promoted to a paralegal job in the public safety unit.
It was kind of just getting moved up and ending up here. I actually went to school for computer programming, so this is completely different for me.
What have your experiences been like working in different areas of law?
I started my paralegal career at the Attorney General’s Office working in Public Safety, specifically with the Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) Unit. That job was not easy, but I did it knowing I was doing the right thing and helping people. That type of law is all I dealt with at that point. I wish I had known how intense it can be at times. There were times that I felt I couldn’t do it because of being easily overwhelmed, but you learn how to handle it.
Fast-forward to my current job where we do all types of law. The office consists of me and the attorney and she practices everything from estate planning to family law to civil litigation. Because this is a general practice office, you really have to be diligent and pay attention to the law for each specific matter. I have been at this job for 6 years and I’m still learning new things every day, but I am more confident in my ability. I have learned how to switch from Estate Planning to Family Law without losing track. I have been able to quickly change my mindset from one type of law to another.
One thing is that you don’t realize how involved you’re going to get in some of these matters. You bring your work home with you sometimes. We do a lot of guardianship cases, and we really go above and beyond when it comes to kids. I wish I would have known how involved it would be. When I was an official in the sexual predator unit in the Attorney General’s office, I saw a lot of heavy stuff, heard a lot of stuff. All different types of law require you to get involved, but when it involves children, it’s a little more intense.
We’ve dealt with emergency guardianships, preparing estate planning documents as quickly as possible because a client wasn’t going to have much longer to live, and we’ve dealt with many Family Law instances where we felt the kids were in a bad place and it’s our number one goal here to put the kids first.
You definitely don’t want to do guardianship or even family law, as it can get pretty ugly sometimes, if you can’t handle it. Keep your mind open when you’re in school and learning about the different types of law- figure out what it is that you want to deal with every day. I’m in general practice, but there are a lot of specialized people out there too.
How can you be prepared for success as a paralegal?
You have to do the job to be prepared. My educational program gave me an idea of how things would be and kind of opened the door, but you have to do the job. Especially since each law firm is different, you have to do what they want you to do.
As long as you have an overview, it seems like each law firm likes it if you get your experience from them— or working directly in the field—as opposed to a bunch of schooling. I’ve heard that quite a bit.
What are the strengths of the job?
I love my boss, I enjoy the work that I do. I like knowing at the end of the day that I’ve helped someone, that’s my big thing. I’m from a small town, so I know a lot of our clients. Just knowing that I’ve helped them is a big thing for me. I enjoy doing research, I love to research the law. It’s not a huge part of what I do—since it’s just me and the attorney in the firm, I do a lot of things, and whenever I get to do research I enjoy it a lot. I don’t get to do it as much as I would like to.
As a paralegal you have to be prepared for whatever comes your way. I have people waiting at the door the first thing in the morning, and have to figure out what they want. While I’m doing that, the phone will ring, and my boss will need something, and somebody else will walk in. There are just a lot of things that go on, and you have to be able to multitask for sure. You kind of have to be ready for anything. Some days are kind of slow, but most days there’s always something, you just keep going. If a client needs something right away, then I have to drop everything and do that.
My attorney doesn’t ask more of me than forty hours a week, but sometimes I volunteer. If we have a trial we need to prep for or something like that, I’ll volunteer to work late, it’s not a big deal.
What other traits are important for paralegals to have?
You have to have a little bit of a backbone. You don’t want to be tough with clients, but you want to let them know, ‘hey, this is the deal.’ You can’t be afraid to speak up.
You have to love your job. If you don’t love it, if you don’t love the law that you’re doing, it’s going to be hard.
You need to be friendly, you need to be able to use the phone a lot. A lot of people don’t like talking on the phone, and I had trouble with that when I first started. I wasn’t very good at talking on the phone.
You kind of have to not be dependent on your attorney, and know what you’re doing every day. You have to be independent on your tasks without leaning on the attorney.
You have to be able to switch gears pretty quickly. If we need to file an emergency guardianship right away, everything else has to go on the back burner to get that accomplished.
Any tough situations you’ve faced as a paralegal?
When clients come in and they’re not very nice, I’m not very good at knowing how to calm them down. It gets a little frustrating. Dealing with difficult clients is probably my least favorite. Especially those who walk in and demand to see the attorney right away with no consideration about how busy we may be at the time. It gets frustrating, but just like everything else, you learn how to handle it. I never hesitate to ask my boss if I have a question or concern.
When you’re depending on other people to do their part of the job so that you can do yours, and they mess it up, you’re often the one who has to re-do something, and that can be irritating. One thing I like to urge paralegals is to always be nice to the circuit clerks, or any of the clerks you talk to over at the courthouse. Whether you might be a little unhappy with them or they are a little rude, always be nice to them, because they’re the ones that can get you what you need. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’ve been there—I was a docket clerk—basically anytime someone had an injury with the state, I would input that information and their claim into the computer, I was typing all day.
What’s most interesting or unique thing about the profession?
Since we’re in a rural community, we do a lot of land cases, people fighting over property and things like that. To me, it’s interesting to see what exactly they’re fighting over or what the issue may be. There’s a lot of work that we do with the assessor’s office and I like to see what the big deal is that causes those conflicts. There’s a lot of interesting things in the estate planning, civil litigation and land disputes.
Any other words of advice to aspiring paralegals?
Find a good firm with the law that you want—that’s how you get your experience. Keep your mind open and don’t just stick to one area of law because it’s what’s set in your mind, because you never know what you’re going to love. If I have learned anything, it’s that you must always be willing to learn something new. Law is ever changing and you have to stay informed and up to date.
Also, I recommend being more open minded while you are in school. I was so adamant that I would never do estate planning and I absolutely wanted to do family law. We practice both in this office, and my preference has flipped. I do not enjoy family law, but I really do like working with estate plans. It’s all about preference, of course, but I recommend keeping an open mind.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions, that is how you learn. I still ask questions and I’ve been here for 6 years.