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10 Hot Practice Areas
By Natasha Emmons
May/June 1999 Issue

It can be one or more of many factors:

  • Some hot practice areas deal with up-and-coming technology, or throw you into the fray of current events.
  • Some hot practice areas allow you to lend a hand in making the world a better place, which makes it a lot easier to drag yourself out of bed and into the office each morning.
  • Some areas are hot mainly because they pay well, and nothing makes you feel more smokin’ than driving an expensive little red sports car.
  • And some areas are hot because when you mention what you do at a cocktail party, you always draw a crowd.

The 10 paralegals we have profiled here may give you some new ideas about places your career could go, and what you’ll need to do to get there.

Agency Coordinator

Dept. of Social and Health Services for the State of Washington
Cindy Nabbefeld
Steilacoom, Wash.

She helps throw away the key on dangerous rapists. As the legal coordinator for the Special Commitment Center at Washington’s McNeil Island Correctional Center, Cindy Nabbefeld helps defend attacks on the state’s controversial Community Protection Act, which keeps those deemed as “sexually violent predators” behind bars indefinitely.

This unusual civil statute was adopted in 1990, and even though it has been upheld through constitutional challenges, it prompts a good number of lawsuits. The agency is named in numerous federal civil rights actions claiming various constitutional violations, and there are constant battles surrounding the interpretation of the conditions of confinement and mental health treatment.

This isn’t a job for the easily shaken. Every decision made by Nabbefeld and her department is bound to draw criticism. “There are so many interests to look after that sometimes we end up in no-win situations,” she said.

Nabbefeld is responsible for all legal activity in her agency. She works on the defense of claims under civil rights laws, but also with attorneys prosecuting and defending individual commitment actions. She tracks cases, develops plans to comply with federal mandates, analyzes legislation and monitors the status of bills, and helps write new rules for her agency.

The morning commute to work culminates in a 20-minute ferry ride to the medium security prison that houses the Commitment Center. Nabbefeld often works more than 40 hours a week, but when she must work nights or weekends, she tries to take her work home with her. “It is hard to plan and remain organized, as the to-do lists for the day change rapidly, and maybe not in the direction I would choose them to go,” she said. The “constant urgency” on many issues is Nabbefeld’s least-favorite part of the job. The constant challenge helps keep her enthusiasm high, though.

Nabbefeld earned her associate’s degree in paralegal studies in 1996, and has worked as a contract paralegal, then as a paralegal for a labor union with in-house counsel, before taking this job in February of 1998.

Even though Nabbefeld’s position is not a “typical” paralegal job, opportunities in this area are becoming more common. “These laws are cropping up in other states quite quickly and it is interesting to watch and learn from other programs and have them learn from ours,” Nabbefeld said.

Complex Litigation

Paine, Hamblin, Coffin, Brooke & Miller LLP
Darlene C. Klister
Spokane, Wash.

Complex litigation cases are often cutting edge — in more ways than one. If ever a person needed papercut insurance, it would be Darlene C. Klister. These extremely document-intensive cases have often put Klister in the middle of the latest media circus, such as the noise surrounding Fen-Phen, the diet pill responsible for fattening up case loads across the country.

As a complex litigation paralegal, Klister usually works in such areas as civil and tort litigation, utility law, product liability, Native American litigation and personal injury. Her cases are often class-action suits, involving multiple plaintiffs and defendants, cross-claims, counter-claims or third-party defendants. “The more complex, the better I like it,” Klister said.

Klister was the only paralegal on the defense side of six class-action suits filed in the aftermath of “Firestorm ’91,” a series of more than 90 fires that swept across eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana in October 1991. Power companies were sued by those who had lost property in those fires.

“I handle more of the factual aspects of a case than anything else,” Klister said. She designs and maintains computer databases and oversees document productions. And she often must go to off-site locations such as the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army Corps of Engineers to obtain documents. She must also attend court hearings at remote locations. She drafts pleadings, summarizes discovery documents and depositions, performs Internet research, attends depositions, and works with various experts. “In complex cases, many times you also have to just keep all the tasks in the air, help to keep everyone on track and moving forward,” she said.

Klister holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and philosophy, but she took paralegal classes while earning her degree. She has also taken scientific illustration and real estate classes. “That’s why I enjoy my profession — you can never learn everything in the legal field,” she said. Before earning her degree, Klister worked for about 10 years as an assistant to traders in the import-export arena. Her first paralegal jobs were in intellectual property in San Francisco. She has been with her current firm for nine years.

Complex litigation has become a big practice area lately because of the sheer number of class-action lawsuits that are filed, Klister said. These are always complex in nature with many issues and many documents.

“My favorite part of the job is working with the documents, the facts, putting the pieces together almost like a puzzle to come up with the big picture,” she said.

Entertainment Litigation

Fox Group
Patrick T. Gillham
Los Angeles, Calif.

Each sunny Southern California morning, Patrick T. Gillham can be found in his office above the Avenue of the Stars perusing Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. He needs to be “in the know” about anything that may relate to cases he is working on for Fox, which could range from something about “Something About Mary” to a practice that threatens “The Practice.”

Even though it’s exciting to work with such national treasures as Calista Flockhart and Bart Simpson, Gillham said his biggest thrill comes from receiving a positive settlement or verdict, and knowing that he contributed to the outcome. And his favorite part of the job is research, whether it be through online sources or getting on the horn with the studio executives.

Gillham’s list of duties is long. As an in-house litigation paralegal, he is responsible for contacting outside counsel to give and receive case updates, putting new claims and complaints into the database and contacting the appropriate people, and searching for possible conflicts. Some days he assists attorneys at Fox by pulling cases, helping with productions or filings, or running searches on people or companies. “I really do not have any set daily routine,” he said. The most interesting thing is “not knowing what the emergency of the day is going to be.”

Entertainment is the name of the game in Los Angeles, so Gillham managed to gain the experience he needed to land his position at Fox through work as an entertainment litigation paralegal in a Los Angeles firm. He started at the firm as an intern when he was earning his paralegal certificate in corporation/litigation from the University of California, Los Angeles Extension in 1996.

But even Tinseltown isn’t all glitter and glamour. The worst part of Gillham’s job is the data entry, “which seems to be very time consuming.” And the urgency of people in “the biz” can cause some stress because they often need answers to their questions immediately, he said.

Most entertainment paralegals earn a salary starting in the $30,000 to $40,000 area, but that can vary widely depending on the employer. And even though a lot of people in Hollywood may work odd hours, Gillham has a regular schedule of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and he rarely has to work overtime or weekends.

With the entertainment industry booming, Gillham has seen his department double in size in the short time he’s been with Fox. And with hits such as “Titanic,” “X Files” and “Fox Sports,” Gillham plans to stick around. “I believe Fox’s success will keep the job fresh and interesting.”

Environmental Law

Lewis, Longman & Walker P.A.
Francine Shay
West Palm Beach, Fla.

Is that sea turtle in jeopardy or isn’t it? As an environmental law paralegal working to overcome a challenge to her client’s plans to build an artificial reef, Francine Shay, CLA, found herself assembling a banker’s box full of information on these endangered, hard-shelled creatures.

“The challenge was to overcome the permit challengers’ emotional outlook that anything on the beach is harmful to the turtles,” Shay said.

Shay’s duties include public records review and indexing, drafting responses to environmental agency compliance notices, obtaining historical maps and aerial photos, attending various governmental meetings on environmental issues, and performing legal research. She also performs “typical litigation functions” for environmental matters, such as drafting motions, proposed orders, discovery requests and responses; interviewing potential witnesses; organizing and indexing documents and potential exhibits; and preparing for and assisting attorneys at depositions, administrative hearings and civil litigation trials.

Working on matters solo brings Shay job satisfaction, such as when she made applications for release of canal reservations from the regional water management district and state agencies, and applied to the county commissioners for amendments to the regional airport’s development order.

Shay said she enjoys working on high-profile matters, such as Palm Beach County’s bid to get a permit for a pier despite challenges from some local residents. “The pier was built, everyone is raving about it, and it was a thrill to visit it the first week it opened.”

Shay had no formal training in environmental law. She got her introduction at a two-day Florida Bar Association seminar, the Environmen-tal and Land Use Section’s Annual Update. Then she read several texts on environmental law and bought herself a dictionary of environmental and chemical terms. “I used that dictionary to look up every tenth word of testimony, such as ‘eutrophication’ and ‘benthic,’” she said.

Shay earned her bachelor’s degree, and then got her start as a legal secretary for a personal injury sole
practioner. When she interviewed for her current job, they were seeking a paralegal with litigation experience, but not necessarily in the environmental field.

As the population continues to grow, so will the need for environmental paralegals. Every structure that goes up in a formerly pristine area and every effort by the government to provide drinking water systems inevitably runs into opposition from various groups. “There are many factions with conflicting ideas on the best way to accomplish these goals: environmentalists, developers, agri-businesses, native tribes. This is certainly a ‘hot’ topic in Florida, and will remain one for years to come,” Shay said.

Intellectual Property

Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner L.L.P.
Patricia Gardner
Palo Alto, Calif.

A background in computers will take you a long way in many different fields. That has proven true for high-tech intellectual property legal assistant, and former computer technician, Patricia Gardner. “An ability to understand the product or item at issue will determine the level of involvement and substantive tasks that a paralegal can perform,” Gardner said.

Gardner spent more than 10 years as a computer operator and installer before earning her paralegal certificate. A friend told her about the opening at her first law firm, which was nine years ago.

Intellectual property litigation covers patents, trademarks and copyrights, which involves matters such as infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets. Ninety-five percent of the cases Gardner works on are tried in the U.S. district courts. Gardner’s duties include the management and direction of all phases of litigation and case management. Since these cases are so technical, they can be extremely document intensive. Discovery alone can uncover anywhere from 100,000 to millions of documents.

Average base salary for this kind of work in this part of the country is $40,000 to $50,000, but someone with a good technical background can make significantly more.

Media coverage of these cases can be interesting, Gardner said. “I’ve been involved in a few cases which have involved media attention. And in each case…I would never have recognized them by the representation in the media,” she said.

The most difficult part of the job is dealing with the personalities — attorneys, clients, experts, inventors and opposing counsel. One plus to all the human contact, however, is that sometimes you get to interact with famous or powerful people.

The rapid growth and evolution of technology and the Internet makes intellectual property a great opportunity now. “Many people think of computers or computer-related peripherals when they hear the term ‘intellectual property’ or ‘technology,’ but it really applies to so much more. Technology has expanded such that it truly affects all areas of our life — our health care, material goods, food, entertainment, cosmetics,” Gardner said. “And as anything expands, it creates a greater chance of conflict, a greater need for clarification, checks and balances.”

Legal Nurse Consultant

Wartnick, Chaber, Harowitz, Smith & Tigerman Law Firm
Marilyn Mason-Kish
San Francisco, Calif.

A San Francisco jury awarded lung-cancer victim Patricia Henley $51.5 million this February, finding that cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris Inc. was guilty of product defect, failure to warn, negligence, fraud, false promise, express warranty and conspiracy. Marilyn Mason-Kish was part of this amazing verdict.

When the need for legal test and medical knowledge cross, which they often do, attorneys are beginning to rely on legal nurse consultants (LNCs). Sometimes these paralegals work on a contract basis, but many firms are hiring them in-house. Mason-Kish has worked for her firm, which specializes in asbestos and tobacco litigation, since 1996.

Mason-Kish was a pioneer in this field. As a registered nurse, she had always had an interest in the legal aspects of medicine, so she sought out classes that focused on medical-legal issues. Her first title at a law firm, in 1986, was medical analyst.

She also got on-the-job training, especially when working with one medical malpractice defense attorney. He taught her the legal theory needed to work with medical issues in litigation. And she learns a lot through her contact with expert witnesses in the areas of finance, accident reconstruction and forensics.

Mason-Kish reviews medical records, prepares medical summaries, establishes and oversees maintenance of asbestos- and tobacco-related medical literature, summarizes medical bills, obtains research related to medical issues, assists with drafting legal documents, provides medical education to paralegals and attorneys, and attends depositions.

The best part of being an LNC is the autonomy, Mason-Kish said. In one case, her firm landed a $1 million settlement from an insurance carrier after her research showed that her client’s heart injury was probably caused by a car accident.

Mason-Kish holds a bachelor’s degree, a nursing diploma and is certified by the American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants as a legal nurse consultant. There are professional associations, texts, continued education offerings and LNC certificate programs available to help registered nurses explore this career option.

“I would like to become more instrumental in teaching other legal nurse consultants, paralegals and attorneys regarding medical issues in litigation, particularly as it relates to professional development, case strategy and the importance of LNCs in the legal realm,” Mason-Kish said.

Maritime Law

Carlsmith Ball Law Firm
Victorialei “Nohea” Nakaahiki
Honolulu, Hawaii

Mutinies happen. Ships go down. Making an infidel walk the plank is no longer an option, so now sailors call their lawyers. When they do, Nohea Nakaahiki is right in the middle of the backwash. As a maritime/admiralty paralegal, Nakaahiki works in one of the world’s oldest bodies of law — that of the high seas.

Maritime law rules the business of carrying passengers and cargo over water, but encompasses tort and worker’s compensation claims (Jones Act cases), passenger personal injury claims, wrongful death, vessel collision and shipping cases.

Nakaahiki’s duties include drafting discovery requests and responses, reviewing medical and personnel records, coordinating medical evaluations, tracking payments, preparing cases and assisting at trial. She deals with the U.S. Coast Guard, National Weather Service and others. “I am also afforded the opportunity to communicate with individuals from other countries and learn a little about their laws. It is all so fascinating,” she said.

Sometimes maritime law can involve more than just cruise ships and oil freighters. Nakaahiki found herself working on the case of a construction worker who claimed to have been injured while on the set of the Kevin Costner movie “Waterworld,” which was filmed off the shores of Hawaii.

Some cases can be emotional. Last year, Nakaahiki helped defend the owner of a fishing vessel which sank, against a wrongful death suit brought by the widow of the ship’s captain. “It was a sad case, but a very interesting one,” Nakaahiki said.

Maritime cases usually require an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. day. “We try to prep our cases way in advance so we don’t have to burn the midnight oil,” she said. “When I am asked by the litigation section to work on…non-maritime cases, which are often complex and document intensive, then my whole life gets turned upside down.”

Nakaahiki has been a litigation paralegal for 11 years, and has been in maritime law for the past six. Her background in personal injury law prompted her employer to ask her to work on Jones Act cases, and she worked her way into maritime law from there. She took it upon herself to read as much as she could about maritime law and ask her supervising attorneys questions. She earned her associate’s degree in paralegal studies, and holds the “registered paralegal” designation.

On the Hawaiian Islands, Nakaahiki is situated in the “Gateway to the Pacific,” but opportunities abound for maritime paralegals in other port areas, such as California and the Eastern Seaboard, and those areas may pay higher than the low-$40,000s-per-year salary that maritime paralegals in Hawaii earn. “As long as there is a need for commerce on or over water, maritime/admiralty law will continue to be a very hot area,” Nakaahiki said.

Misconduct Investigations

Western-Southern Life Insurance Co.
Carolyn Saenz
Cincinnati, Ohio

Imagine making a living unraveling the tangled “he said, she said” of modern sexual harassment allegations. As the senior in-house paralegal for a life-insurance company with branch offices throughout the United States, Carolyn Saenz is the first person on the scene when a finger is pointed. “Any investigations involve immediate handling, therefore I may go out of town at a moment’s notice,” Saenz said.

Once on the scene, Saenz must ferret the truth out of the players in the drama at hand, usually a sexual harassment allegation, or a claim of unfair discharge or racial discrimination. Like any good detective, she must cozy up to the people involved and get them talking. “I’ve become quite good at reading body language and listening to people. It’s amazing how many different versions of one story can be told,”
she said.

After examining the facts and the backgrounds of the players, Saenz recommends a course of action to the senior management. And she often acts as a witness for the company at trial.

Trademark work and unemployment compensation appeals also fall under Saenz’ authority. These cases usually require a good deal of legal research, and the unemployment claims can have Saenz gathering witnesses for the company and cross-examining claimants at hearings.

Paralegals are well suited for this job because they know how to conduct investigations, write reports and testify at trial, Saenz said.

Saenz holds a bachelor’s degree and has been a paralegal for 17 years. She began her career as a secretary to the general counsel at a shoe manufacturing company, where she was promoted through the ranks to manager of intellectual property and insurance claims before she landed her current position. Her ongoing training has included seminars and classes at a paralegal school, and on-the-job lessons from supervising attorneys.

Saenz said her favorite part of the job is out-of-town investigations. On slow days, she must face her biggest hurdle — convincing some of the lawyers she works with that she can do more complex work.

This practice area is especially hot now in the wake of two recent U.S. Supreme Court sexual harassment rulings stating that employers can be held responsible for the actions of supervisors within the company. Courts look favorably on employers who conduct prompt and thorough investigations of allegations, and a good paralegal could end up saving an employer’s backside.


Cooley Godward LLP
John M. Osborn
San Francisco, Calif.

Even generosity requires legal advice these days. So when people decide to give, John M. Osborn is the guy who helps make sure their philanthropic plans work out.

A career in probate and estate-planning law led Osborn into the non-profit organization arena. As part of his representation of clients, he sets up entities for philanthropy, including non-profit organizations. His favorite project to date was setting up an organization which provides means for discussing and preserving technology-based and new-media art. “I was there from the very beginning,” Osborn said.

A typical day for Osborn entails preparing estate plans, answering e-mail, drafting memos on options and structures of large generational wealth transfers, dealing with funding of trusts and partnerships (deeds, etc.), valuation issues, preparing gift tax returns and tax-related materials for accountants, and arranging for filings at the secretary of state’s office. He also spends time drafting correspondence, timekeeping, talking with clients, dealing with probate issues, updating department computer programs, and training other paralegals and clerks. He said he works a lot of overtime because, in addition to the added income, he is rewarded by getting the “juicier” projects.

With eight years of paralegal experience under his belt, Osborn said that paralegals in his field in San Francisco with his background earn between $50,000 and $75,000 per year. Osborn earned a paralegal certificate while working at his first job in a firm in Washington, D.C. He said he took the “usual” required trust and estate classes in paralegal school. “I was a natural because of my accounting and bookkeeping experience,” he said.

One good part of the job is that clients are usually appreciative. “Generally, people come to practitioners in my field because they want to, not because they are being sued or because of a conflict,” Osborn said. “Also, my non-profit work is abundantly satisfying. I get to see the results of my work immediately, and what I do ultimately makes a difference in people’s lives.”

With the baby-boomers reaching their retirement years, the demand for estate planning practitioners is increasing, Osborn said. Philanthropy and non-profit work is picking up because there are more people giving to charity and more non-profit groups than ever before, he said. H

Year 2000 and Contracts

Cisco Systems Inc.
Stefani Wilkins-Dawkins
San Jose, Calif.

This has been deemed “the biggest wave of litigation in American history,” and Stefani Wilkins-Dawkins is riding it as a Year 2000 legal specialist with a leading Internet company in California’s Silicon Valley. Wilkins-Dawkins even found herself shaking hands with President Clinton when he visited the area in February. And this kind of position pays off in other ways: The average salary for a specialist in this area is $70,000.

Wilkins-Dawkins leads Cisco System Inc.’s Year 2000 Legal Team, which responds to internal and external questions about the legalities surrounding computer programs that fail to work properly when the year reaches 2000. She works on the identification and solution of Year 2000 issues, some of which involve language in warranties and contracts. She also performs due diligence and monitors legislation and legal activity on Year 2000 cases. “Things move fast at Cisco, and I love the energy and the feeling that the only limits I have contributing to the team are the ones I inadvertently set,” Wilkins-Dawkins said.

This position requires experience in a variety of areas, including corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, and litigation, as well as a paralegal’s project-management skills. Wilkins-Dawkins gained the majority of her 12 years of experience as a paralegal in Silicon Valley law firms and corporations, where she had to learn about high-tech companies and what they do in order to work on cases and corporate matters.

The biggest problem Wilkins-Dawkins runs into is people who refuse to let her handle an issue and insist on speaking to an attorney. “It bothers me because it creates a disruption in our Y2K process and gets added to the corporate attorney’s already full plate,” she said. Other obstacles include language barriers and time-zone disparities.

Not only is this position challenging and stimulating, but, since it’s a corporate position, it’s also family-friendly. One night she was working late and one of the company vice presidents said to her, “You are doing a great job, but remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Go home.” So she did. “I can’t maintain that performance if I don’t take care of myself. I went home.”

Wilkins-Dawkins holds a bachelor’s degree in social science with a concentration in law. She attends at least 12 continuing legal education events each year. She also keeps abreast of changes as an instructor in a local college’s paralegal program. “Being proactive about learning the law and about technology have been the greatest empowerments for my achievements,” Wilkins-Dawkins said.

Membership in her local paralegal organization helped Wilkins-Dawkins form the network that led her to her current position, she said. And she just received a National Association of Legal Assistants Affiliates Awards for outstanding contribution to the field.

There’s more room in northern California for tech-savvy paralegals who can get comfortable with perks like company stock options (which can skyrocket in the technology sector) and regular “telecommuting” privileges. According to Wilkins-Dawkins, experts expect $1 trillion in Year 2000 litigation. “There will be a huge demand for paralegals and attorneys with Y2K work experience and knowledge of the Y2K legal issues,” she said.

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