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CALS Alum Crystal Cornett and Paralegals Connect

Posted by Eric H. Happe

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Oct 29, 2019, 10:00:00 AM

Crystal-Cornett-0035-720x576As of this writing, Paralegals Connect on Facebook has 10,375 members and is growing. Under the guidance of paralegal and group founder, Crystal Cornett, and a small group of dedicated site administrators, Paralegals Connect has grown rapidly since its founding in 2013.

Center for Advanced Legal Studies has a special fondness for Crystal and has enjoyed watching her group’s development over the years. Recently, Crystal has added several companion groups that are also doing very well. Virtual / Freelance Paralegals Connect now has over two thousand members, as does the associated Paralegals Connect Employment Board. There are also groups dedicated to LSAT prep and student study groups.

I recently interviewed Crystal to learn more about her and her paralegal career path, and what led to the development and growth of Paralegals Connect. I think you will find her story quite compelling and motivating.

Crystal, can you tell me a little about yourself? Family, hobbies, interests? Of course. I remarried in 2015 and we have a blended family with three kids; a 10-year-old daughter, sons that are 12 and 16, and three dogs. I absolutely love to travel, photography, and I really enjoy SCUBA diving. I have over 100+ logged dives. I also love to ride bicycles. I rode in the MS150 in 2017 and plan on doing it again someday.

It sounds like you like to keep busy! Were you working in another industry before becoming a paralegal? For several years before becoming a paralegal I worked as an accounting clerk performing accounts receivable and payable, invoicing, etc. for a few different companies.

When did you first know you had an interest in the law? In 2003 I had a son as a single mother. I knew the minute he was born that I would need a better job to be able to support us both. After he was born, while looking through the newspaper searching for employment, I noticed that the salary range for paralegals was a lot higher than the accounting positions I was applying for, so it sounded like a win-win.

Ah, yes. Newspapers! Those were the days! When and how did you first become a paralegal? I have been in the legal industry for 15 years now. My very first position was as a legal receptionist/accounting clerk for a solo-practitioner at a family law firm in 2004. My past accounting experience was added value and helped me secure the position.  While there, I prepared annual accounting reports for guardianships as well as took care of the firm’s accounting needs. I also started learning paralegal duties as I tried to help as much as I could.

We see that a lot with our students. Many times, they find themselves in a supporting role in a law firm without having the benefit of paralegal training. In fact, many of our students are already working in a law firm when they enroll. Did you attend a training or educational program for paralegal studies? Two years after starting my first legal position, the paralegal at that firm was let go. I really wanted her position and felt that I could perform her duties.  However, I was told that the firm needed a more experienced and trained paralegal. I was very disappointed. So, almost immediately after I was declined her position, I decided to get a paralegal certificate from the University of Houston. Two short months later, in 2006, I graduated at the top of my class and earned my first paralegal certificate. As soon as the attorney learned that I had graduated with a paralegal certificate, I was promoted to paralegal at my first firm.  Shortly thereafter, a teacher from University of Houston referred me to a wonderful downtown law firm practicing health law and I was hired as the firm’s paralegal. I was with them for 6 years and learned so much. 

In 2008 I wanted to venture into becoming a freelance paralegal so I could work from home and spend more time with my family. However, the University of Houston paralegal certificate program I had attended was a quick two-month program and I didn’t feel that I had learned all the skills and knowledge I needed to be successful. I decided to become a student at Center for Advanced Legal Studies (“CALS”). After graduating from CALS in 2010 with my Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies, I felt I had the education and qualifications to work wherever I wanted. Immediately after graduating, my downtown firm offered me a pretty large salary increase to stay there, so I decided not to freelance after all.

Yes, you were a fantastic student! We don’t designate valedictorians, but if we did you would have been ours. You had perfect grades in a really demanding program, was an Honor Graduate, and was inducted into Lambda Epsilon Chi (LEX). What was your favorite subject? The skills that I have learned from CALS still help me every day in my career as a paralegal. I thought it was silly to learn how to shake someone’s hand with a firm handshake in Interviewing and Investigation, but I still think of those moments in class every time I am introduced to someone new, or as I greet a new client at my firm. 

I thought speech class was such an unnerving experience, but it has helped me a lot throughout my career, when interviewing, or when giving a graduating commencement speech. The legal research class, including how to use the blue book and how to properly write citations, has helped me tremendously with litigation practice at my firm. I really enjoyed all my classes. It was a great experience.

That’s very interesting. Developing good communication skills is vital to becoming a successful paralegal. Did you have any favorite instructors? Most of the instructors at CALS were very impressive and they were all attorneys. I think that anything taught by Mr. Thomas Swanson or Mrs. Ziemnicki at CALS was my favorite subject. I see them both as such wonderful and thorough teachers who have taught me the most. I can still hear Mrs. Z today stressing about widow/orphan control, and I think of her every time I see other’s botched legal work. (laughs) I believe that almost ten years after I graduated, both teachers are still instructing at CALS!  

Yes, they are indeed. Mr. Swanson is our Academic Dean and has been teaching at CALS since 1987. Mrs. Ziemnicki teaches a lot of classes online now, including Legal Research and Writing, and she loves the online environment. After taking more classes and subjects, in what areas have you been able to apply what you learned and the skills you gained? In the past 15 years I have been employed by four firms. I have worked in family law, guardianships, elder law, health law, social security, heavy litigation in intellectual property and bankruptcy, and in real estate law.  

So, on both the litigation and transactional sides? That’s fantastic! What do you like most about being a paralegal? It’s called practicing law because the laws and technology are always changing, so lawyers are always ‘practicing’, and to a certain extent so are paralegals. I enjoy learning new things every day. If there is anything I don’t know, I enjoy researching it until I can figure it out. It becomes a personal challenge for me. 

Is there anything you really don’t like about being a paralegal? Any special challenges? I think the things I like least about being a paralegal is a tie between working with difficult attorneys and the stress of having so many deadlines.  However, if you cannot handle these two things, being a paralegal may not be for you. Sometime throughout your legal career you encounter or work with difficult attorneys, and probably miss one of those crucial deadlines. It takes a special kind of person to be reliable and tough-skinned, who can multi-task, handle working under pressure, deal with stress, remain professional, and be self-sufficient in different working environments. It’s challenging but also very rewarding. 

It can be a challenging profession indeed, but that is also what makes it so worthwhile. What do you think makes you a valuable paralegal to the attorneys in your office and your firm? I think what makes me a valuable paralegal is that I can work independently, and I do not need reminders or micro-managing. I know what is due and I know it’s deadline. I try to do as much as I can until I absolutely need to ask for additional instructions or directions. I enjoy a challenge, learning new things, and working under pressure and to deadlines. I also do whatever it takes to get the job done. If I am needed until 2 AM to prepare for a case, I will be there and wake up first thing in the morning to help with preparing for court. I have never once in my career said that any job was beneath me, or that I do not get paid to do that task. I think it is this level of dedication that has helped me the most thus far in my profession. 

You are so right about that. Attorneys appreciate those traits and knowing they can rely on you. The best ‘ability’ is ‘availability’, right? You become very valuable to them and they won’t want to lose you. How important are interpersonal or ‘soft skills’ for paralegals? Interpersonal or ‘soft skills’ for paralegals are definitely employable skills. You must be able to speak to and treat people, including attorneys, clients, coworkers, other legal staff, court staff, etc. in a professional manner in order to be taken seriously in this profession. Communicating professionally and working together as a team are valuable skills that every paralegal will need to know in order to have a successful career. Always stay extremely professional, especially when dealing with attorneys where there is a conflict of personalities. There may be times during your paralegal career where you may work with attorneys who are less than professional in the way they speak or treat you. Attorneys deal with a lot of stress and most of the time have very heavy caseloads.  Always be respectful and sensitive to your firm’s clients who are coming to you for assistance. 

Crystal-Cornett-0106-640x648That is great advice. It is sometimes difficult to convey this in a classroom setting, but it is a lesson quickly learned once working in the field. How important are computer or technical skills? Can these skills be learned? Computer skills and technical skills are a definite MUST for a paralegal. I believe that any skill can be learned it you put your mind to it, and if you apply yourself and remain determined. I once applied to a position where I needed to type over 75 words per minute. At that time, I could not type that fast. In one weekend I sat and practiced a typing test and learned to pick up my typing speed to exceed 75 words per minute. If you are personally lacking in any skill, do all that you can to learn that task and make it a strength. I have learned a lot from watching YouTube videos, including learning advanced Microsoft Office skills, which are another must for paralegals. Watch as many tutorials regarding advanced Microsoft Word and Excel skills as you can including creating a mail merge, creating table of contents, table of authorities, red lining, track changes, formatting, inserting page numbers, learning about the rulers and tab markers, reveal codes, etc., because those are the skills that you will need on a daily basis. The better you are at these skills, the easier your job will be and the more time you will have to learn new things in your career.  

It looks like you are ready to teach our Computers and the Law course! When can you start? What advice would you give someone who has an interest in the law and wants to become a paralegal? You can be very successful in this career if you take the time to apply yourself, act and speak professionally, and are willing to accept advice. You will most likely need to start at or near the bottom in any firm and work your way up. You will need to be willing to learn new things daily and research answers on your own. You will get out of your paralegal career exactly what YOU put into it.  You can choose to be a paralegal that merely answers the phone and files, or you can continue to study, learn, be dedicated, and push your paralegal career to the limits. A paralegal can do almost anything an attorney can do except for a few tasks such as representing a client in court, undertaking representation, setting legal fees, or giving legal advice. Therefore, you can study the law, perform legal research, draft and edit legal documents, meet with clients, prepare for depositions, hearings and trials, and perform most other tasks that are often performed by attorneys. It is also always a good idea to attend CLE’s (Continuing Legal Education) in the area of law in which you specialize. Always try to leave after meeting people by making some contacts and with a good reference, as those are the people that your future employers will likely be contacting.  I have been in the legal profession for 15 years and I can say that I am proud that I was able to take care of myself and my kids during the times that I was a single mom. I did it all with only a paralegal certificate, associate degree, dedication, and the willingness to learn. 

I began this article referencing a certain Facebook group; you may know it, called Paralegals Connect. How did you get the idea and how did it come into existence? Six years ago, in 2013, I created Paralegals Connect. My goal was to create a community of paralegals worldwide to connect with, learn and grow from. Since then, we have created five groups which are all dedicated to providing valuable information and support to succeed in the legal industry. 

We’ve been watching it grow and expand. What are some of the ways Paralegals Connect helps working or future paralegals? Our five Paralegals Connect groups are designed to assist you in every stage in your legal career. Our groups benefit those deciding to become paralegals, those in paralegal school who need study support, those searching for employment, and those seeking virtual or freelance information. Support for experienced paralegals includes study groups designed to help further their legal careers by preparing to take a paralegal certification exam or the LSAT exam. Currently our groups have approximately 14,000+ combined active members worldwide. I believe we have become the largest paralegal networking group in existence! (beams)  

Our groups were created for paralegals, future paralegals, and future attorneys to interact with others, provide valuable information to succeed in the legal industry, rant and rave about the legal profession, share networking tips and ideas, share and collaborate about how to become a freelance/virtual paralegal, to job search assistance, and assistance in finding paralegals for your firm.  

Paralegals Connect Banner sm

I am a member of Paralegals Connect too! If someone wants to join Paralegals Connect, what should they do? The easiest way is to visit www.ParalegalsConnect.com which contains all the information about Paralegals Connect. You can also sign up to receive our quarterly newsletter at http://www.ParalegalsConnect.com/Newsletter.html. You can join our Facebook groups at: 

Paralegals Connect
https://www.facebook.com/groups/ParalegalsConnect

 Paralegals Connect: Study Group
https://www.facebook.com/groups/ParalegalsConnectStudyGroup

 Virtual/Freelance Paralegals Connect
https://www.facebook.com/groups/Virtual.FreelanceParalegalsConnect

 Paralegals Connect Employment Board
https://www.facebook.com/groups/PCEmploymentBoard

 LSAT Connect
https://www.facebook.com/groups/LSATConnect

That is fantastic, Crystal. We wish you much continued success in your career and with Paralegals Connect. You recently became a member of CALS’ Paralegal Program Advisory Committee. What do you enjoy about being a member of the PAC? In 2017, I was honored to be asked to join CALS’ Program Advisory Committee. I enjoy meeting with the other professionals in the PAC to help with the CALS curriculum and establishing performance standards. I think I am helpful in this position since I am a past student of CALS and have firsthand knowledge of the curriculum, and because I know what skills I was lacking while working in the paralegal industry. I also hear from other paralegals in Paralegals Connect to understand what is needed in a paralegal school. 

We are very happy you decided to join our Program Advisory Committee. What’s on the horizon for you and your career? Once my kids are a little older, I would like to start a freelance paralegal business that I have been dreaming about for years. Hopefully, I can then work in many different areas of law from the comfort of different beach chairs around the world in between my scuba dives. (laughs) 

In the meantime, my household depends on a steady income and health insurance. For the past five years, I have been working at a law firm in the Galleria focusing on real estate law and working with homeowners’ associations; namely enforcing deed restrictions for communities. I really enjoy this position and the attorneys I work with, and I’m learning something new every day. I hope to stay and grow with this firm for many years to come.

Thank you so much Crystal for your time and willingness to share details about yourself and your journey toward becoming such a valuable member of and leader in the legal community. I’m certain many current and aspiring paralegals will appreciate your advice and encouragement. 

We wish you much continued success in your paralegal career and with Paralegals Connect. We look forward to seeing you at our next Program Advisory Committee meeting in December. 

eric

Eric H. Happe is Director of Distance Education at Center for Advanced Legal Studies in Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of the Paralegal Certificate program and worked as a paralegal for six years before returning to Center for Advanced Legal Studies in various administrative capacities. Eric managed the development of online paralegal programs at CALS and works closely with faculty and staff to provide students with quality paralegal education and training opportunities both on campus and online. Please feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn

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