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Above and Beyond
Rookie of the Year sets high goals for herself and achieves them.
By Rachel Campbell
November/December 2003 Table of Contents


Legal Assistant Today’s annual Paralegal of the Year contest has honored the success of experienced paralegals since 1998. While seasoned paralegals are invaluable to the legal field, it’s also important to acknowledge the contributions made by legal assistants new to the field. This year’s new Rookie of the Year contest offered an opportunity to highlight exemplary paralegals with only one to three years of paralegal experience under the supervision of an attorney.

In the spring of 2003, the editors of LAT called for nominations for paralegals meeting the contest requirements. Nominees were required to have between one and three years experience as a paralegal or legal assistant under the supervision of an attorney; hold a bachelor’s degree, and if the bachelor’s degree was not in paralegal studies, also hold a paralegal certificate or currently be enrolled in a paralegal certificate program; and self-nominations were not accepted.

The winner was chosen by the LAT Editorial Advisory Board and received a $500 cash prize, as well as an award plaque and a complimentary one-year subscription to LAT.



Humility is a rare virtue, but one that Legal Assistant Today’s Rookie of the Year, Jennifer Swails, exudes.

You will not hear her expound on the many leadership roles she has held in both her firm and her local paralegal association in just three short years as a paralegal. She will not boast about how she was hired immediately after graduating from her paralegal program by a firm that rarely hires a legal assistant without work experience. What you will hear Swails say is the people around her are responsible for providing her with the strength and courage to fully recognize her goals as a paralegal, both in the office and outside of it.

“I didn’t do this by myself. I am the work of so many people who cared about me and brought me up,” Swails said.

Strong Start

As an undergraduate studying political science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Swails was on track to enter law school after graduating in 1998, but decided a career as a paralegal was better suited to her professional interests. “I wanted to interact with lawyers and I wanted to deal with legal research, which I can do as a paralegal,” she said.

To prepare for becoming a legal assistant, Swails entered the paralegal program at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., where she created a structured plan for her future. During one class, Swails was given the résumé of her professor, who had a long list of accomplishments as a paralegal. Swails knew she wanted to follow this professor’s example and formed a five-year plan to keep focused on her goals.

With the help of an e-mentoring program offered through Meredith College and the Raleigh-Wake Paralegal Association (RWPA), Swails’ e-mentor told her about a position available at Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell and Jernigan in Raleigh.

“I have no idea why they hired me,” she said. “They took a leap of faith. I am very lucky to start my paralegal career at such an established law firm.”

According to Marisa Campbell, director of the paralegal program at Meredith College, landing that job was quite a feat. “Jennifer’s law firm rarely hires new paralegals. They typically hire paralegals with a bachelor’s degree, a paralegal certificate from an American Bar Association-approved paralegal program, and several years of working experience.”

John Madden, partner at Smith Anderson who has worked with Swails on a number of cases, said the firm decided to hire Swails through a recommendation from an attorney she worked with while attending Meredith College. The firm had a position open in the medical malpractice group and found a fit with Swails, he said. “When we interviewed her, we felt she had the skills and personality to fit in with our firm.”

Starting at a large and busy law firm was a valuable learning experience, Swails said. “At first, it was very intense. It was more than I expected … this firm utilizes paralegals. They have high expectations and I learned a lot really fast. This is not a glorified secretary position,” she said.

From the start at Smith Anderson, Swails was thrown into the thick of things. She assists lawyers with everything from submitting the first draft of discovery to following through to the end of a trial. “My first trial was the most memorable. I had probably every possible emotion. I was scared to death, nervous, tired. I learned a lot during that trial,” she said.

Through it all, Swails, who is now working in the immigration group at Smith Anderson, remains positive and aggressive, said Madden. “She is extremely enthusiastic and energetic. She is always taking the initiative in projects and taking on more responsibility,” he said.

Campbell, who has proudly followed Swails’ success agreed that Swails is conscientious and works hard. “She thinks of the firms’ clients as her clients and is aware of the impact her work has on each client’s case,” she said.

For Swails, working with the attorneys at Smith Anderson is her favorite part of the job. “The attorneys I work with are phenomenal. I have a great relationship with them and they teach me so much. I get to learn something new all the time,” she said.

Paralegal Liaison

On top of her usual job duties, Swails accepted the position as paralegal liaison for the firm after a paralegal suggested she would be good in the position. In this role, Swails organizes monthly paralegal meetings and acts as the go-between for paralegals and attorneys. “I am an anonymous voice to the lawyers about paralegals’ concerns,” she said.

As office liaison, Swails has met each of the 17 paralegals at Smith Anderson and said she finds a great resource in their professional experience, ranging from three to 22 years.

“I can’t speak for everyone at the firm, but with the people I have spoken to, everybody enjoys working with her,” Madden said. “As the paralegal liaison, she is open and a good conduit of information. That is really important. You need someone who is a good communicator in that position.”

In taking on this active role within her firm, Swails gained better exposure to everyone in the office and they are quick to praise her work. “We at Smith Anderson are very proud that Jennifer Swails is part of our paralegal team. She is a dedicated, committed and hardworking paralegal and she clearly takes her profession very seriously. Jennifer is among the first to volunteer for projects of importance to our law firm, and she always takes pride in what she does,” said Stephen Parascandola, attorney at Smith Anderson, and one of several people who nominated Swails for the Rookie award.

Local Impact

Swails’ concern for paralegal issues also garners her much respect at the RWPA, her local association. Stephanie Gillespie, president of the RWPA, met Swails through a mutual friend and noticed how quickly Swails became active in the organization after joining. “From day one she made
an effort to introduce herself to people and volunteer,” Gillespie said. Gillespie also said Swails is dedicated and enthusiastic. “She is so excited and interested in her profession, that it’s contagious,” she said.

More than anything, the association is a way for Swails to take on valuable leadership roles to further the plight of paralegal rights in North Carolina. Since 2001, Swails has been on the board of the RWPA. She started as second vice president (2001 to 2002) and is currently a parliamentarian. In 2004, she will take over as president of the association — fulfilling part of her five-year plan, although she achieved the goal in only three years. “I guess the board members really helped steer me in that direction. I was encouraged by current and past presidents,” she said.

As president, Swails said she wants to build the mentoring program, which she said was invaluable during her education at Meredith College. She also said she hopes to increase the membership at RWPA in an effort to continue providing a wealth of support and information to members.

For Swails, the RWPA provides a valuable network of paralegals and a chance to become involved in more than just paralegal issues. RWPA also offers a lot of things to members, including community service like civil duties and Habitat for Humanity,” she said.

Last year, Swails participated in Habitat for Humanity with Gillespie and two other paralegals. “We had the most hilarious time. We are all very girlie and for us to be out there sweating and with hammers was funny, but it was good, hard work. The best part was a Brownie troop came out and gave us water and snacks and, of course, brownies. They were so excited because one of their friends was going to be living in the house. That was so important to me,” she said.

Legislative Leadership

Swails also continues to work toward helping the Paralegal Professional Act pass through the North Carolina legislature. “Jennifer is a strong advocate for improving paralegal certifications and specializations, having worked with the North Carolina Bar leadership on these issues in the past,” Parascandola said.

Swails has been a delegate for the Alliance for Paralegal Standards for more than two years. The issue is one she is deeply dedicated to seeing come to fruition. The act is designed to identify the paralegal profession and create a regulatory voice for paralegals in North Carolina. Swails said she is interested in seeing how the legislative process works and she ultimately hopes to see the act come into existence, although she knows it will take a while before that happens.

Causes Close to Her Heart

With so much time spent on work and associations, it seems Swails would not have time for anything else. However, she is actively involved in her church, arranges monthly get-togethers with her friends, and is active in supporting breast cancer research. Last year, Swails participated in several runs, including the Susan G. Komen Triangle Race for the Cure. This year, she participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, a 40-mile walk in New York.

“The issue is very important to me. A very close friend of mine lost her mom to breast cancer,” Swails said.

With so many accomplishments achieved in three years as a paralegal, Swails said she has more goals to attain and shows no signs of slowing down. She is also a member of NALA and the North Carolina Paralegal Association. Swails said she would like to be involved in a national organization in a leadership role, and will continue to be involved with the RWPA.

Setting an Example

Colleagues say Swails sets a great example for paralegals entering the profession. “I think that [rookie paralegals] can learn the importance of jumping into the profession with both feet. When Jennifer started working with Smith Anderson, she had all of the pressures of taking on a new job at a fairly sophisticated level, but still made the time to get involved in the local paralegal association,” Campbell said. “She consistently demonstrated her willingness to learn and grow in her job and also contribute to the paralegal profession. I believe her clear commitments to both led to her quickly gaining leadership positions in her firm as well as the RWPA.”

Madden agreed. “The thing they [new paralegals] can learn from Jennifer is to be enthusiastic about your job and get involved. Don’t sit back and wait for someone to tell you to do something. Come to a lawyer continuously and offer help, so the lawyer has an opportunity to see your interest and skill. Some people will do what you tell them to do and others will take the initiative; Jennifer is part of the latter group,” he said.

The humble person that she is, Swails said she was shocked at the news of being named Rookie of the Year and she intends to live up to the award. “It’s beyond anything I could think of,” she said. “It makes me want to work harder.”


Contest sponsored by Case&Point by Corporate Legal Solutions.


Rising Stars

While all the nominees for this new award were outstanding, several impressed our judges and deserve Honorable Mentions.


Raeann Bromark

Paralegal — 2 1/2 years
Employer: Wake, See, Dimes & Bryniczka, Westport, Conn.
Education: Associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies from Norwalk Community College; Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mount Ida College.
What sets her apart: She is always offering to help all attorneys and paralegals at her firm, and is also Bar Association Liaison for her paralegal association, a recently appointed NFPA Pro Bono Co-Coordinator, and a volunteer on numerous community and bar-related projects.


Jennifer McKinney-Taylor

Paralegal — 2 years
Employer: The Cincinnati Insurance Company, Fairfield, Ohio
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies from College of Mount St. Joseph.
What sets her apart: She is the first and only paralegal in an in-house insurance defense litigation department; she was nominated by both of her supervising attorneys for her outstanding client service and her incredible paralegal skills.


Erica L. Anderson

Paralegal — 1 year
Employer: Cozen O’Connor, Seattle
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Western Washington University; paralegal certificate from University of Washington.
What sets her apart: Hired with no paralegal experience, she works for three attorneys, one of whom nominated her for her constant initiative and positive attitude in the worst of situations; she also co-chaired her firm’s most successful United Way drive and was recognized as an “Outstanding Volunteer” by her local United Way.



Rachel Campbell is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, and is a former associate editor of LAT and Law Office Computing. Campbell graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in print journalism.


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