Stephanie Elliott-Park is a paralegal with Gray, Layton, Kersh, Solomon, Furr & Smith in Gastonia, N.C. She has been working in the field for 14 years and is a member of NALA, the Paralegal Division of the N.C. Bar Association and the Metrolina Paralegal Association. Elliott-Park is also first vice president of the N.C. Paralegal Association.
CPN: What drew you into the career?
Elliott-Park: I was actually in the nursing program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when I answered a job ad for part-time work in an intellectual property law firm. I realized pretty quickly that I liked the atmosphere of the law firm and I enjoyed the work.
CPN: When you talk with other paralegals, what are the main concerns or issues they face on a daily basis?
Elliott-Park: In the current economy, I think we are all worried about the financial health of our attorneys/firms and how that trickles down to provide us with job security. You can be the best, most hardworking and efficient paralegal, but if there isn’t work or well-paying clients, you aren’t going to last long no matter where you are. We’re in a crucial time in the legal community, where change now is going to affect us for many years to come. Change is the only constant in life and that applies to us, too.
We also face the challenge of certification and having what we do recognized fully as a legitimate profession. Paralegals have been around for a long time, but certification has brought the desire by many to be recognized as legal professionals, not just secretaries or assistants. The legal community has done a great job of this, and many judges, lawyers and other legal professionals have long understood our contributions, but the “outside world” has a ways to go.
CPN: If you could name one thing that would most benefit the paralegal profession, what would it be?
Elliott-Park: I think the most important thing to individual paralegals is participation in paralegal organizations, and this in turn helps the entire profession. A meeting of the minds can be a powerful asset to any group, and our strength as a profession comes with involvement, activism and a commitment to excellence. These are all goals of any paralegal organization, national, state or local.
CPN: If you could snap your fingers and create the perfect CLE, what would it be and why?
Elliott-Park: I have experience planning CLE for paralegals, since that is my job as first vice president of NCPA. Paralegals want to feel like they (or their firms) got their money’s worth out of CLE. Who wants to sit in a hotel ballroom all day and listen to a dry speaker and eat crummy food? The perfect CLE engages you, gives you knowledge you didn’t already have and maybe wouldn’t have found elsewhere, and gives you a chance to meet new and interesting people.
In a perfect world where money is not an issue, a full day or two worth of CLE outside of the office is a nice break from an otherwise stressful (at times) and busy work environment. Unfortunately because most firms have had to tighten the purse strings, many paralegals aren’t able to attend those types of CLE opportunities.
CPN: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Elliott-Park: I wanted to be a nurse and I was in my second year of a nursing program. When clinicals started, I was faced with starting my rotation at the hospital where my father had died just a little over a year earlier. I wasn’t able to do it, but I got some valuable advice from the dean of nursing. She said, “You have this need to take care of people, and it’s admirable, but you don’t have to be a nurse to do it. Take your passion for order, love and justice and do something else with it.” I did and I have never looked back.
CPN: Knowing what you know now, if you weren’t a paralegal, what else would you want to do?
Elliott-Park: I would like to be a writer. I have stories going in my mind at all times, and pages and pages of ones started but not finished saved on my computer. I enjoy having my life full of work, family and friends. However, I daydream about being alone somewhere comfortable and putting my life story to paper. I may get there one day.
CPN: What do you wish you knew when you were getting started in the profession that you know now?
Elliott-Park: I wish I had understood earlier about the importance of networking. There are people I worked with very early in my career that could benefit me to still be in touch with, but at the time I was young and still in school and I wasn’t looking too far down the road. It didn’t take me long to understand how important networking would be for me. It led to my first “big” paralegal job, and I use it professionally and personally every day.
CPN: What is the best thing about your job?
Elliott-Park: The best part of my job is the satisfaction that it brings. I truly enjoy what I do. There are days that are stressful, but I really thrive on the stress and high adrenaline. There is no greater natural high than to meet a deadline at the final hour and win for your client. It is not always easy, and it’s not always fun and exciting. They come to us because something traumatic has happened to them and they need someone to guide them through.
The biggest part of my job is to be the middle person between the client and my attorney. I listen, I counsel at times (sometimes to both the client and attorney) and I move things along. I feel fulfilled when I know we have done everything humanly possible to better their circumstances, and I can go home and take care of business because I know I put 100 percent of myself into my work.
CPN: And what part of your job could you do without?
Elliott-Park: I could do without difficult clients. They make the process much harder than it needs to be, and most of the time, they came to us to help them. Nothing frustrates me more than someone who doesn’t want to answer discovery requests or attend necessary meetings, hearings, depositions, or – even worse – who can afford to pay their costs, but won’t. I have to bite my tongue many times to keep from saying “This is voluntary and you came to us; we didn’t come looking for you!”
CPN: What one thing, either personally or professionally, are you most proud of?
Elliott-Park: I am most proud of being a mother. There is no greater job for me than raising my son to be a productive and engaged member of society. He loves me unconditionally, is my most favorite companion and the person whom I work hard for. I want him to be proud of my accomplishments one day and understand that I did it all for him.