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2007 Paralegal Rookie of the Year: Stacy Wagner
Growing up in rural
It’s no surprise then that this same strong work ethic has led Wagner to be chosen as LAT’s 2007 Rookie of the Year. Working up to 60 hours per week while juggling a full-time paralegal course load in college, she was driven by her goals of earning her degree and a good job. “My parents would always tell me I could be whatever I wanted if I just put my heart into it,” said Wagner, who is now a paralegal at Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Road to Success
After graduating from high school in 2000, Wagner
Since high school, Wagner had been interested in working in the legal field, but her aversion to public speaking kept her away from a career as a lawyer. She originally hoped to be a legal investigator, but as she studied criminal justice she realized that she lacked a passion for the hands-on investigations of crime scenes. “After reading many different court cases during my criminal justice classes, I started to get very interested in the court side of the law,” she said.
Because she lived in a rural community and
lacked exposure to the legal field, Wagner felt her career options
were limited until she learned about the paralegal profession after
taking an online quiz to find the perfect job. She immediately began
researching bachelor’s degree paralegal programs in
Jason Hayes, an adjunct professor at
Wagner continued to manage a full schedule of two classes with a 40- to 60-hour-per-week position as a data entry specialist for a subcontractor of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). She admits that her life was confined to school and work, but when her motivation waned and she thought about skipping a class or giving up altogether, she remembered her parents’ example. “I was dedicated to getting my degree, as I would be the first one in my extended family to ever complete college,” she explained.
She reached this milestone in May 2006 as a
magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor of arts in paralegal
Finding a Niche
Although she graduated in 2006, Wagner already had
been working as a paralegal for Legal Aid of Nebraska’s
While she was finishing her final two courses to earn her bachelor’s degree, Wagner responded to a paralegal job listing that Legal Aid posted in the classified section of a local newspaper. Within a week of submitting her application, Wagner interviewed with the director, the paralegal supervisor and the executive director of the organization.
“Stacy was such an exceptional candidate that the decision was made to hire her knowing that she would receive her [bachelor of arts] the following spring,” said Lori Wilson, a senior attorney who has worked at Legal Aid of Nebraska for 15 years, and one of Wagner’s two nominators for the Rookie of the Year award. “Her previous boss [from her data entry job] described the work she did as top-notch and what you would expect from someone who was already a paralegal.”
The former paralegal in Wagner’s position, Crystal Childers, who now works as a staff assistant for the State of Nebraska Department of Administrative Services Employee Relations Division, helped train Wagner for her new job. Although Childers worked with Wagner for only a short time at Legal Aid, she noticed that Wagner not only was personable but also demonstrated her abilities as a good listener through constant eye contact. “This is a valuable skill for a Legal Aid paralegal,” Childers said. “To the disadvantaged who are seeking legal help, it often seems like the only people who listen to them are the attorneys and staff at Legal Aid. It is a huge gift that Stacy uses to assist the clients.”
Wagner started out in the position by drafting basic pleadings and entering bankruptcy claims. “I learned the basic procedures and information in the classroom, but I feel like I was definitely able to relate everything I learned better once I was in the job setting,” Wagner said. “I felt like the documents I drafted at school made much more sense here at my job, once there was an actual face and history I could put with them.”
Currently, Wagner works for nine attorneys with another paralegal, a secretary and a law clerk; the cases vary and include juvenile law, family law, bankruptcy and consumer law, Social Security law, and housing law. Her daily tasks include drafting and filing bankruptcy claims as well as drafting Social Security memos, subpoenas, divorce pleadings, and general family or juvenile law pleadings. Wagner also completes emergency intake forms over the phone or in person when a client has an urgent domestic abuse or housing situation. “I am interested in every new case that we get because each case is so different,” she said. “It’s nice to have a variety so you’re not drafting the same procedures.”
Wagner also participates in team meetings for
Another part of her job involves visits to children for whom the Legal Aid office acts as a guardian ad litem. During these visits, Wagner assesses the living environments to ensure that the children are in the most beneficial situation, whether it’s in a foster home or in their parents’ care. She visits each child once every six months, but sees about two to three children per week.
“The attorneys in this office rely on her observations when making recommendations to the court regarding the children that they are guardian ad litem for,” said Heather Bernt, Wagner’s paralegal colleague at Legal Aid and her other nominator for the Rookie award. This is just one of the many ways that Wagner has taken the initiative to become involved with clients, Bernt said, an initiative that flows over to help colleagues as well. For example, when the new bankruptcy laws went into effect, Wagner helped implement a new stystem to track bankruptcy cases in the office.
In just two years with Legal Aid of Nebraska, Wagner
seems to have found her true calling. In Social Security disability
Bernt said that Wagner’s success in the area of Social Security is impressive because she had limited prior knowledge of the subject, and added that Wagner’s reviews of these cases have been influential in providing a quick resolution to clients’ issues. “This is vital to our clients who are low income and often have no means by which to live while they wait up to 18 months for a hearing date.”
Wagner’s organizational abilities and
willingness to ask questions to complete assignments effectively
would ensure her success at any law firm, Bernt said, and
Wagner credits Wilson and the other lawyers at Legal Aid who have served as mentors, guiding her through her first job as a paralegal. “The various attorneys here at work have inspired me to do better,” she said. “They are always helping me out with questions I have or showing me different ways to do things. I think that the biggest way that they inspire me is just by believing in me and in what I am capable of.”
Wagner is well respected not only by her colleagues at Legal Aid but also by community members who interact with her, such as case workers and Social Security Disability office staff, as well as Legal Aid clients. “With our clients, handholding is sometimes what they need when they call instead of legal advice, which of course, we cannot give,” Bernt explained. Wagner’s compassion for Legal Aid’s low-income clientele is evident by her patience in speaking on the phone as long as necessary to ease their concerns about affidavits for divorce or custody cases, or to answer their questions about Social Security or disability paperwork.
“Her true caring about the individual shines
“In my career, I feel motivated by knowing I helped someone,” Wagner said. “Even if it is a small gesture like helping someone fill out the papers to get her driver’s license, it still feels like the days when we get the big wins, like when someone is awarded his Social Security after many years of appealing his decision.”
Going Above and Beyond
As Wagner spends more time in the workforce, she is becoming increasingly adjusted to her role as a paralegal. “I’m incorporating everything I have been learning, and I’m able to think on my toes more when new projects come along,” she said. “Every day at my job I learn something new, which is what I love.”
She shares this newfound knowledge with an intern in the office, by serving as his mentor and answering his career questions, instructing him on how to file paralegal pleadings, and offering feedback on his work. “He’s going through school [to be a paralegal], and I realize that they don’t show you everything in the classroom,” she said.
Wagner also spends time serving on the
Recruitment and Retention Task Force for Legal Aid’s strategic
planning committee, and teaches her co-workers from other offices to
file bankruptcy proceedings electronically. In addition, she
recently helped motivate her colleagues to participate in an annual
food drive through the Food Bank of
Bernt also collaborates with Wagner in running Legal Aid’s Pro Se Dissolution Clinic, in which they instruct clients on how to file for divorce independently. The two paralegals assumed leadership of the clinic in May 2007 in an effort to allow the previous organizer, an attorney, to spend more time in the courtroom. Under the supervision of an attorney, they hold two-part courses scheduled around the number of participants, which usually is about five clients. During the first course, the participants learn to file divorce paperwork, and in the second course, offered 60 days later, they are educated about filing a divorce decree for a final hearing.
During the period that they have been in charge of the clinic, Wagner and Bernt have served more clients than the attorney who previously oversaw the program. “This is something we can do without technically giving legal advice,” Wagner said.
To further her paralegal education, Wagner takes
the initiative to find and attend local paralegal conferences. In
September, she traveled to
Since 2006, Wagner has been a member of the Lincoln Legal Professionals Association, an association affiliated with the Nebraska Legal Professionals Association. She attends monthly lunches to become more knowledgeable about pertinent legal topics, such as the proposed new guardian ad litem rules, and also served on the planning committee for one of the group’s social events — a Lincoln Saltdogs minor league baseball game. “She is an active participant in our general meetings and shows great interest in the educational activities,” said Childers, who is secretary of LLPA.
Wagner has even found time away from her job to
donate blood every eight weeks, sell
“I find it very refreshing to work with someone who is as bright and efficient as she is,” Bernt said. She believes that Wagner’s success is owed to her organizational skills, effectiveness in meeting deadlines, adeptness for learning and eagerness to tackle new projects.
As for being chosen as LAT’s Rookie of the Year, Wagner said, “I feel both ecstatic and honored that my colleagues feel like I deserve this award. I am hoping to benefit society as a paralegal, even if I have to do it one person or family at a time.”
Allyson T. Collins is a science writer for a research institute in Los Angeles. She has written articles on travel, health and legal issues for various publications.
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