A Conversation with Gabrielle Crisp, Winner of the Springfield, Missouri 2017 Paralegal of the Year Award

Gabrielle Crisp stumbled upon the legal field by accident three years ago and fell in love with the fast-paced environment she found in the law firm that hired her. Gabrielle supports a small, one-man firm, so she’s used to taking on more responsibility than might be customary in a larger firm with several paralegals on the payroll. Even though she has only worked in the field for a short time, she was honored with the 2017 Paralegal of the Year award from the Springfield Area Legal Support Professionals Group.

How did you get started in the field?

When I became a paralegal, I had no experience whatsoever in the legal field. I had a lot of experience as a personal assistant—experience with calendaring and corresponding with various types of people. It was actually a friend-of-a-friend connection that led me to end up working for the attorney I work for now. We had a mutual friend who introduced us. Once we met each other, we realized that we actually had gone to high school together, so it was a small-world connection.

I’ve been interested in the legal field for a while—I watched my grandmother, who was poor by American standards, for sure, struggle with things that were unfair, legally, that happened to her. I remember, when I was in high school, wishing that I had a way to help her. In that way, I was interested in the justice side of the law. I certainly didn’t pursue it—I didn’t think about being a lawyer, I didn’t even think about being a paralegal before the opportunity presented itself to me. I feel like it’s a unique situation, because I came into it without having any idea of what I was doing.

I remember the very first thing about trying to wrap my head around being a paralegal. When I saw my first pleading, I wondered, “what’s up with all the parentheses?” You know, the header has closed parentheses down the center of the document. I thought, “That’s so funny—why don’t they just do a line?” And you know, some people do, they’ve updated it for computer processing and made it a little more current. But I just remember thinking that was funny.

I was very blessed that I got a month of training with the paralegal before me. In my office, it’s just me and one attorney, it’s a small firm.

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Was there anything you wish you would have known about the field before getting started in your career?

I can’t think of anything I wish I would have known about the field, because I didn’t know anything going in. But I’ve really enjoyed the education classes that I’ve taken through NALS (Association for Legal Professionals). I did both the legal training course and took my exam for being a paralegal. I ended up with two different certifications from them.

I got the ALP (Accredited Legal Professional) beginner level credential and then went ahead and took the test for the next certification- CLP (Certified Legal Professional). Spending the time studying and listening to speakers for that has been crazy helpful, insightful and eye opening to other perspectives. You know, being in a single person firm, I don’t have other people to bounce things off of, I don’t have other perspectives, so the classes have been hugely helpful.

For example, each state has their own family law association. Every year they have a family law conference, and I’ve been going to that for the past three years. I even went when I was on maternity leave. I still went because it’s just so helpful. It’s not really for paralegals per say, but it’s still helpful.

What else has helped you succeed at your job?

One thing that has been really helpful—when I was still learning, my attorney would take me to court for routine hearings. He also has let me sit in on some trials. Understanding not just the paperwork that I do or working with the client, when you get to seeing the whole process—why you do what you do and how it affects the whole process—what the judge says when they see some of the things that you produced—that was very helpful, very eye-opening.

I don’t know if it’s common for attorneys to do this with paralegals, but if I ever switch jobs and move to a different county, I would ask my attorney if I could accompany them to court so I could get a good feel for the system. If I ever get a new job or go someplace else, I would definitely ask that, because of the difference it made for me.

What’s interesting about your day-to-day work?

Even though it’s the same type of work that you do every day, its different almost every day. Here’s one of the things I really like about it– there’s always something new to learn. There’s an infinite amount of learning to do, because you can always go a little bit deeper, get a little better, get a little more understanding about what you’re doing and learn how to make it better. That’s one of things I love the most about what I do. It’s never dull.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it can get a little overwhelming at times. Probably what I like least is having to tell people I can’t help them. it’s really hard as a paralegal to not offer legal advice—it’s an absolute no-no to give any legal advice as a paralegal. People call and they’re so desperate for help right away, and I can’t help them, and that’s really hard.

What are the more challenging aspects of the job?

The things about the job that are harder or less enjoyable for me are probably personality things. For me, the aspect of discovery is a little bit overwhelming. It’s more challenging for me. But for the girl who trained me, it was one of the most enjoyable things that she did. That’s just a personality difference, I think.

The girl who replaced me while I was on maternity leave, the most questions she had were about the discovery process— deadlines, objections, filling out the questions correctly, trying to convey to the client who has no idea what things are, and you only have thirty days to do it. It can be overwhelming for the client, but it’s kind of part of the process. It can be hard for me that it’s very overwhelming for the client, because it’s difficult to see people who are already in a hard situation become overwhelmed.

Are there certain personality traits that make a good paralegal?

I wear many hats in my job. I function as a receptionist, paralegal, office manager—everything but the attorney. My attorney does a lot of the financial stuff, but I’m in charge of getting supplies ordered, contacting repair people when there’s an issue. I feel like my situation is unique in that regard, but multi-tasking is important.

Having good people skills is important. My attorney really appreciates that because people have left positive reviews and specifically mentioned me. Having a kind and understanding nature is important, because anytime you need an attorney, it’s usually because something bad has happened or is about to happen. Trying to remember that and having a kindness towards people in general is important. They are usually coming to you in their worst moment, and they’re not the best version of themselves. Allow things to brush off you—water off a duck’s back. Being able to listen and being able to know when it’s time to say, “okay I have to get going and start working on this other thing” is critical.

People skills are very, very important for paralegals. Calendaring skills are incredibly important. There are very few paralegals in family law who aren’t responsible for their attorney’s calendar. That is an absolute huge thing.

My boss often says, “Just about every mistake we make is fixable except for calendars.” If we miss a date, if we miss a deadline, you can’t fix that. You have to be perfect on the calendar. He says, “If anything wakes you up at night, it should be wondering if you got the calendar right.” Believe it or not, that has woken me up at night and I have wondered if I missed something on the calendar. That is a huge, huge thing. Learning to be organized, setting reminders, keeping tracks of things is a huge part of that. I’d say having an organized, type A personality is helpful in the paralegal field.

What is the stress level of the job?

I do think the paralegal field is more stressful than other fields. In one point in my early twenties, I’d had as many jobs as I was old—I’ve done a lot. This is by far the most challenging job—which is why I like it so much. It’s a lot of responsibility. You’re never just working on one thing, sometimes we’ll have a case load of thirty-forty clients at once. They’re not all going to trial on the same day, but it’s so much to balance. The job I had previously as a personal assistant, I was balancing a lot, and I thought that was insane. But this is more. The consequences to messing up in the paralegal field is the big deal. It’s not because there’s more to do, it’s because the consequences of not being accurate are more severe.

Has anything about the profession changed in the few years since you’ve been in the field?

The law is always changing. The supreme court has passed a few things that have affected family court—same sex marriage, specifically. It’ll take some time, but it will eventually start to make a difference in how we practice law. It’s kind of a slow process. For example, when I first started three years ago, everyone was still paper filing and e-filing had just started. Now the whole state is all e-filing. That has had some positive and negative impacts, especially in the smaller towns, as it was overwhelming for them. Just this last week I filed something for an office on the day they started e-filing, and they didn’t know what happened to it. It has changed, but I think it’s slow to feel the effect. The changes aren’t huge, it happens in such an incremental way that it doesn’t feel like a sudden change.

Is there anything that would be helpful for aspiring paralegals to know about when preparing to get started in the field?

I would say there’s a pretty big learning curve. It took me six months or more before I really felt like I wasn’t drowning. It took that long for me to feel like, okay, I actually have a good grasp of what I’m doing and how to do it well. I would say to aspiring paralegals, be patient with yourself—my boss wrote me a note, and I have it on my computer, he wrote it within the first few weeks after I started and I still have it where I can see it. He said, “go slow and be accurate.”

It’s really easy to just get overwhelmed and just kind of back up, take a deep breath, and be patient with yourself. Had I known about the NALS organization and taken those legal training courses in the beginning or even had a book to read prior to starting, since I was coming into it without any real experience, that would have been very helpful just to have an idea about the different aspects of law.

I didn’t know that you wore so many hats as a paralegal. I didn’t know that it wasn’t just doing research for an attorney. It’s not at all what you see on TV. I hardly do any research. If I do any research, it’s on my own and I’m just looking up local court rules. I work in a really tiny, one-man band, it’s not at all a big city firm, so I wear all the different hats of mail service, letter writing, drafting pleadings, keeping up with the calendar, and ordering supplies. I think it’s important to be patient with yourself.

I think it’s important to find somebody else in your field and in your town that you can reach out to and can call on with questions. I found one paralegal in one of the very first cases I worked, she was actually on the opposing council’s side. But she has been so amazingly helpful, she is a veteran of the field. I would call her every now and again and with questions and ask “what do I do with this?” and she would absolutely help me. Just having one person at least that I could call on for help and wouldn’t make me feel foolish was important.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

I’m part of the Springfield Area Legal Association, which is the local chapter of NALS, and I was extremely honored to earn the Paralegal of the Year award this year in my chapter. That was such a huge honor, my boss was the one who nominated me. I have just been floored and honored to be recognized with that award after only three years in the field.