Rookie of the Year finds a passion in leadership
Sponsored by Robert Half Legal
Community volunteer, association president, mother of two, dedicated paralegal — Debra Clarke juggles many responsibilities and excels at all of them. Clarke’s blend of intelligence, work ethic, passion and raw talent combine to create what others describe as “the WOW factor.”
Twenty-two years after receiving a Bachelor of Science in business administration from West Liberty State College in West Liberty, W.Va., Clarke embarked on a second career as a paralegal. Seasoned by life experience and inspired by an inner passion, Clarke has pursued her new career with gusto, winning the admiration and respect of supervisors, colleagues, professors and others, and earning her LAT’s 2008 Rookie of the Year award. “For me [a paralegal career] is a great fit,” Clarke said. “I truly feel passionate about what I do and that makes all the difference.”
The Seeds of Success
The seeds for Clarke’s paralegal career were planted 26 years ago when she graduated from college and found work as a promotions and public relations coordinator for Premier Cruise Lines in Cape Canaveral, Fla. When PCL partnered with Walt Disney World to become its official cruise line, Clarke worked on inaugural events for two ships. “This experience helped me develop organization[al] skills and event planning abilities, which would serve me well in my future,” Clarke said. She also gained a keen attention to detail and the ability to interface with multiple levels of management.
After four years with PCL, Clarke joined the March of Dimes as division director for Brevard and OkeechobeeCounties in Florida. In this position, Clarke developed and implemented various events, coordinated community outreach programs, oversaw the division budget, supervised volunteers and employees, and led a board of directors.
Clarke resigned from her March of Dimes position in 1990 after she married Dr. Thomas Clarke and gained a step-daughter, Brittany. In 1993, Clarke gave birth to a son, Brenden, and spent the next 13 years caring for her family. “I wanted to be involved in their lives and upbringing,” she said.
During this time, Clarke put her event planning and public relations skills to work as a volunteer at her son’s school and as a member of the foundation board of a local hospital. As a board member, she chaired sponsorships for a fundraiser that benefited Brevard Hospice, eventually becoming chairwoman of the event. Her efforts raised record levels of charitable giving.
When her step-daughter graduated from high school, Clarke decided to return to the workforce. “I’ve had an interest in the law as far back as I can remember,” she said. Since her son still was young and her husband worked in a demanding profession, Clarke decided that law school was not for her. However, the paralegal profession seemed like a great option.
In 2003, Clarke enrolled in the Brevard Community College paralegal program in Melbourne, Fla. She pursued her studies with enthusiasm and garnered praise from her professors. “[Clarke] is an extremely rare combination of superb ability and compelling desire to succeed,” wrote Louis Jiannine, a professor of paralegal studies at BCC and one of Clarke’s instructors, in his nomination of her for Rookie of the Year. “[Clarke] demonstrated the ability to read, understand, discuss, analyze and effectively argue from any legal concept, regardless of its complexity. She possessed unerring logic, impeccable verbal skills and a relentless desire to know more.”
Not only did Clarke pursue her paralegal studies with passion, she sought other ways to jumpstart her career and make herself more competitive in the marketplace. “I had to be realistic. It was my encore career and I had no work experience in the field,” Clarke said. “I researched the profession’s movement for certification and realized that certification would help me even the playing field.”
Within a year of graduation, Clarke obtained two paralegal certifications: the National Association of Legal Assistants’ Certified Paralegal and the Paralegal Association of Florida’s Florida Certified Paralegal. In March 2008, after the Florida Supreme Court established a voluntary registered paralegal program, Clarke became a Florida Registered Paralegal.
Clarke’s initiative in pursuing multiple certifications made a positive impression on employers. “[Clarke] is the first paralegal I have ever met who obtained both her CP and FCP prior to becoming employed as a paralegal,” said Deborah Dye, a senior paralegal who works with Clarke at Roberts & Culmer in Rockledge, Fla. “She successfully completed these certifications without the benefit of any legal experience — quite an impressive accomplishment.”
Scarlett Davidson, an attorney with Roberts & Culmer, agreed. “Her accreditations are impressive,” wrote Davidson in her Rookie of the Year nomination of Clarke. “From the start of her paralegal career, [Clarke] has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to her profession. And while she looks good on paper, it is when you meet her in person that you discover her true worth.”
A Rare Passion
Clarke’s passion helped her when she was looking for her first paralegal job in 2006. When she applied for a legal assistant position she found through the Brevard Paralegal Association job bank, her interviewer, Charles Roberts, a partner at Roberts & Culmer, remembered Clarke from a seminar for paralegals at which he was a program speaker. “She stood out because of her obvious interest, her willingness to participate in the presentation and her intelligent questions after the presentation,” wrote Roberts in his nomination of her for Rookie of the Year. “I recall thinking ‘this is a real up-and-comer.’ She just had that passion for her chosen profession as a paralegal.”
Roberts hired Clarke as a paralegal in his firm to assist in the firm’s personal injury practice. She opened files, requested medical records, calendared statutes of limitations, drafted client correspondence, created pleading menus and summarized medical records. Within eight months, Clarke was assigned her own case to assist on and took it “from cradle to grave.”
Clarke’s dedication and enthusiasm on the job confirmed Roberts’ earlier impressions. “I was right about that passion I observed. As a paralegal, [Clarke] is extraordinary,” Roberts said. “[She] has a desire to do the job right every time — no exceptions. She applies critical thinking to the task at hand, so I am often blessed with her insight to sharpen my own. She makes a great team with any lawyer she works with and for any client with whom she works.”
Dye agrees that Clarke has an extraordinary passion for her paralegal career. “What makes [Clarke] outstanding is her colossal drive,” she said. “I have never seen that before and I have done this [for 20 years]. [She] is enthusiastic, runs with every project, never shirks her responsibility, is the first to volunteer and always does the job right.”
Diving Into the Deep End
Like many small, busy practices, Roberts & Culmer didn’t have the time or resources to perform extensive on-the-job training, so when Clarke joined the firm, she had to either sink or swim.
Not only did Clarke swim, she “dove headlong into the deep end,” Davidson remarked. “While she has been a paralegal only a short time, she draws on all of her experiences in the profession thus far, in addition to her life experiences, making her a valuable member of a team of highly successful paralegals.”
Clarke attributes her success, in part, to her inquisitive nature. “As a rookie paralegal, you are constantly challenged. If I do not know something, I ask,” she said. “If it is an area I would like to know more about, I research it.”
Shortly after Clarke was hired, attorney Joseph Culmer joined the firm, bringing with him a thriving criminal and family law practice. Over the next several months, Clarke put in extra time and effort to learn the substantive and procedural aspects of both criminal and family law. Her coworkers observed that she often was the first one in the office and the last to leave. Shortly after volunteering to transition from personal injury to criminal and family law cases, Clarke was able to draft motions and proposed orders, Culmer recalled. “[Clarke] was willing to step forward and learn a completely new field of law, despite the fact that she was still in the process of learning the legal system as a whole,” Culmer said.
Clarke’s current responsibilities include drafting motions, orders and correspondence; dealing with clients; and reviewing medical records. She loves the challenges of criminal defense work. “I am learning how to look at the elements in a statute and sift through evidence to find inconsistencies that would not support the charges. Criminal law is fast becoming my favorite,” Clarke said.
Thinking Outside the Box
While Clarke was in paralegal school, Roma Molinaro, a family law paralegal, invited her to join the Brevard Paralegal Association. Clarke put her background in publicity to work as BPA’s publicity chair. She quickly worked her way up the ranks, serving in the positions of correspondence secretary and director-at-large. In April, BPA elected Clarke as its president, the only second-year paralegal to ever hold that office.
“Brevard County is the biggest county in the State of Florida, so this is no small accomplishment,” Dye said. “[Clarke] has brought new ideas and executed some very exciting changes within the organization.”
Clarke created a BPA Paralegal of the Year Award to recognize outstanding paralegals within the association. “My mentors are very valuable to me so I thought, why not create an award within the BPA in which members can recognize someone who made a difference in their career?,” she explained. The first BPA Paralegal of the Year Award was given at the association’s awards banquet on Oct. 9.
Seeking a way to raise money for the BPA scholarship program, Clarke forged a partnership with a local florist in which BPA provides free newsletter advertising to the florist in exchange for a floral arrangement to be raffled off each month to raise scholarship funds.
One of the most significant programs Clarke initiated as BPA president is the Brevard County Courthouse Paralegal Badging Program. The program, if approved, will provide Florida registered paralegals who are members of BPA with a badge that will allow them to bypass security (and the long lines) to gain entrance to the courthouse. “I first conceived of the program when I saw paralegals waiting in line [for security clearance] at the courthouse, schlepping boxes, files and exhibits,” Clarke said. “It was awkward for them.”
With BPA’s support, Clarke prepared a detailed proposal outlining the reasons for the badge program and solicited letters from local attorneys supporting the program. She presented her proposal to the Brevard County Bar Association in September.
Clarke’s creative problem-solving abilities extend beyond BPA to her job efforts. “[Clarke] is able to think outside the box to assist her attorney in preparation of strategies, argument and trial,” Culmer said.
Dye agrees. “[Clarke] is always taking things to the next level,” she noted. For example, in a recent trial, “[She] prepared a timeline on a paper about three feet wide and 14 feet long. It takes up an entire wall and she did it on her own.”
A Formula for Success
Clarke believes that certain qualities have helped her become a successful paralegal. “I try to be organized, pay attention to detail, multi-task and interface well with others,” she said. She also advocates being well-prepared, even if that means honing skills or gaining knowledge through your own efforts in your free time. “It’s important to be proactive with knowledge,” she said.
Clarke places great value on the power of networking and credits much of her success to the people who have mentored her over the past two years, especially Molinaro and Dye. “[They] embody a certain ‘sprezzatura,’” she stated, noting that the term, coined by Castiglione in “The Book of the Courtier,” describes the art of making a difficult task look easy and effortless. “[They] are why I strive to go above and beyond the requirements of my position — you learn by example,” Clarke said.
Having accomplished a great deal in the short time she has served as a paralegal, Clarke is thankful for her experience. “It is an honor and a privilege to be selected as LAT’s 2008 Rookie of the Year,” she said. “I am blessed with a beautiful and loving family, a paralegal career I am passionate about and the opportunity to work with talented individuals. I am most grateful.”
Sally A. Kane, J.D., is a freelance writer specializing in legal and career topics. She has over a decade of experience in the legal industry as a paralegal and an attorney. For more information, visit her legal careers Web site at http://legalcareers.about.com.