A Conversation with Rose M. Turzak, Esq., a Long-Time Pittsburgh-Based Paralegal Turned Attorney

Rose Turzak never met a challenge she couldn’t overcome. She got her start in the years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, during a time when few thought she was college bound because of her dyslexia. She soon proved any doubters wrong by graduating and quickly earning a reputation throughout the Ohio court system as a hard-working paralegal with a knack for investigating. But she didn’t stop there. Turzak went on to work her way through law school and became a lawyer in criminal and family law (licensed in both Ohio and Pennsylvania). Rose’s story offers a lesson in determination and stands as a fine example of how a paralegal education may be the perfect jumping-off point to becoming an attorney.

How did you start you career as a paralegal?

Actually, it was a little backwards, down the road, around the corner. I happen to be profoundly dyslexic, so when I was in high school, they refused to let me take any college preparatory courses. So, they put me in a vocational food services.

When I graduated high school, I went to a community college. I was taking business courses because I figured I better learn how to run a business if I’m going to run my own restaurant someday. I was taking a business law class, which was required, and Dr. Elizabeth Boyer, who happened to be a lawyer herself but was also an historical novelist, called me in to her office, and I was thinking, ‘Oh crap!’ Instead, she said I had an obligation to be a lawyer.

I said I could never be a lawyer because I’m not that smart and she said, ‘Yes, you are, but you need a four-year degree.’ So, I got a two-year degree from community college in business, graduated magna cum laude.

At that point, they helped me find a smaller college, which was Dyke College in Cleveland (now Myers University). They had one of the first ABA-approved paralegal programs, which made it convenient because if I ever wanted to go to law school, I had that four years under my belt. Because you have to have any four-year degree before you can go to law school or they don’t even look at you.

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So, would you say at the beginning, with the encouragement from your professor, that you knew you were going to be a lawyer?

No, I didn’t! I never thought for a minute that I had the brains and the smarts, let alone the money to go to law school. When I went to Dyke College, it taught strictly business. One of my professors there happened to be politically connected and happened to take a liking to me because I was stubborn because I worked all day and went to school all night. That’s the way it worked; you had to work to go to school—you got to do what you got to do!

He got me a job at the Clerk of Courts in Cleveland. There I learned how all dockets were maintained because at that time they were all hand-written. So, the funny part about it was that I ended up being Bob Cratchit! I sat on a stool, and I would pull those big books down and take the pleading or the judge’s order and transcribe it into a docket. That’s what I did.

From there I went to interacting with the judges. One of the judges, Judge McGovern, was one of my professors, and he also kept encouraging me to go to law school. I graduated from Dyke College in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and paralegal education, and I went and looked for a law firm. But many had collapsed when the Savings and Loans collapse. And I’m thinking, I have to feed myself! Well, I had made a lot of connections in the courthouse and with small law firms, and I knew they needed people at the time. Because it was pre-electronic filings, they needed someone who knew the workings of the courthouse to get papers filed, to look things up, to figure out things.

So, that’s what I did. I actually worked for myself. At the time, the paralegal was a brand-new field, and people didn’t know particularly what to do with them. It was often the administrative assistant or the legal secretary who did basically the same thing. That’s why the field has always been predominantly women because it transformed from secretary to administrative assistant to a paralegal.

So, I basically put pieces of the puzzle together and figured things out and did investigative work.

And you did that for how many years?

Ten years. Somewhere at the end of those ten years, with the encouragement of one of my attorneys, who kept telling me, ‘You’re better than some of the attorneys I have working for me,’ I went to graduate school on a scholarship and majored in urban affairs. I didn’t finish that degree; instead, I went to law school at Akron University.

Were you content in your role as a paralegal, or were you always looking for something else?

Actually, I would have been content doing what I was doing, probably for the rest of my life, without thinking twice about it. However, there were two people who were instrumental who kept saying that I was better than some of the attorneys I was working for. One was a judge and the other was my great-uncle Charlie who told me when I was little as a pint, ‘There are only two places for you to be with your gift of the palabra: either on stage or in the courtroom, and you’re too damn short for the stage!’

I can see how a paralegal who has not been challenged by their attorney, who is not given the respect and the encouragement of the attorney that they’re working for or recognition for what they know, I can see them getting very frustrated. A lot of people also use the paralegal as the jumping off point to go to law school because they have to feed themselves!

I’m interested when you talk about the paralegal who isn’t getting respect or recognition from their attorneys. Do you feel that attorneys respect paralegals?

I do now. It’s very accepted now. Every state has a bar association that has a paralegal section and the ABA has a paralegal section It is now acceptable, and you can make an awful lot of money just being a paralegal. I don’t want to say just being a paralegal. I want to say being the paralegal versus the attorney.

What are the perks of being a paralegal?

It ain’t your butt on the line! Plain and simple! [When I was a paralegal], I could go to the attorney and give them the options—here’s what I think we should do—and I would say, ‘I’m done and have a nice day!’

When you transitioned from a paralegal to an attorney, as a woman did you feel like you had to be all that much better than them? Did you feel you had to work all that much harder?

I felt more resentment from women as a female attorney. But that’s because I came from it from a different perspective. Even though I just graduated law school, I had been in [the legal system] for a while and everyone knew me.

I was fighting more the challenge of being dyslexic than anything else. Major law firms looked me square in the eye and said, ‘We’re never going to hire you, so don’t bother to apply.’ The day I finished my bar exam was the day before the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into play.

Did you think of yourself as a trailblazer at the time?

No, I thought of myself as an idiot! What rational human being would do that?

What words of advice would you give to someone going in the paralegal field?

Go to a bona fide college, check out the program, contact your Bar Association and see if you can shadow somebody for a day to get an idea of what field you want to go into. The idea of a general practitioner as a paralegal is slim.

So, do you choose to focus in a certain area of law in paralegal school?

No, it generally doesn’t work that way. You have to study everything from civil litigation to criminal; they may let you go off on and study other things.

Would you say your focus will depend on where you land your first job?

Not necessarily. If you have a degree in economics and a minor in paralegal studies, for example, you could parlay that into working for a nice law firm that needs paralegals with this knowledge. But you need a paralegal education. It’s no different from a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. You’ve got to remember that you are directly underneath a lawyer who’s relying on you. You’ve got to know your meats and potatoes, you’ve got to know the fundamentals, and you’ve got to have a good ethical grounding.

With that said, what traits do you feel a successful paralegal should have?

A strong ethical core—and I’m not just talking about the standard ethics course that says you’re not allowed to sleep with your clients and put their money in your pocket! I’m talking more of understanding right and wrong. It is not situational ethics! You can have someone in business get away with that, but this is the law, and the law is a very demanding mistress.

You have to have a sense of curiosity and an incredible sense of detail. And an incredible sense of right and wrong.

Would you say your focus will depend on where you land your first job?

Hours! The demand of hours! Much like a doctor or a nurse, you might have set hours, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get them! There are many times that I worked 24 hours straight.