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Paralegal of the Year

This year’s winner and runners-up are unique, passionate and
among the most skilled in the legal profession.

By Rachel Ng
September/October 2006 Issue


This year’s Paralegal of the Year winner and runners-up are paralegal pioneers who are passionate about their jobs, their profession and their communities. From taking the lead on electronic case filing to spearheading an investigation into a major medical fraud case to turning a personal experience into a successful immigration law career, these paralegals are true leaders in the paralegal field and beyond.


2006 Paralegal of the Year: Katherine Manns


In 2004, paralegal Katherine Manns was a one-woman technology help desk. Electronic Case Filing was being introduced in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, and the court had asked the law firm of Phillips Lytle to help introduce ECF to area attorneys. The firm picked Manns to oversee the transition process. As a result, Manns created firm-wide training and procedural policies for e-filing with the United States Federal Court system. However, she didn’t stop with educating members of her own firm. She also reached out and provided continuing legal education on ECF to other law firms in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.


“For many of us [paralegals], the first crisis call we placed was not to the court’s help desk, but to Katie,” said Margaret S. Dick, paralegal at Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel, in Buffalo. “One usually didn’t have to go any further.” 


It’s this dedication to technology, as well as her contributions to the profession, involvement in paralegal associations and passion for teaching that make Manns, a 20-year paralegal, stand out among her peers to win the honor of being named Legal Assistant Today’s 2006 Paralegal of the Year.


The Beta Days


Manns always knew she wanted a career in the legal field. In high school, she first considered becoming a court reporter. “Then, I figured out that you would have to keep that machine with you at all times while you were going through the training,” she said. “As a high school senior with the thought of college parties on the horizon, that was not very appealing.” 


Manns did some research and was enticed by the paralegal field. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y., which had an American Bar Association-approved program. Two years later, in June 1986, she graduated with an associate’s degree in legal assistance.


Shortly after, Manns landed a job as a temporary full-time legal assistant on a large document case at Phillips Lytle in its Buffalo, N.Y., office. She worked on the project for about a year before being approached by the firm’s environmental group for a permanent paralegal position.


In 1989, while still working at Phillips Lytle, Manns decided to obtain a bachelor’s degree. She enrolled in the legal studies program at the University of New York at Buffalo as a part-time student. During those courses, Manns’ love for technology was first ignited. “I really thought that was where the world was going, so I better just jump into it,” she said. “I took a few electives and was hooked.” In 1993, Manns graduated with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies and a minor in advanced microcomputer applications. 


The Go-To Techie


A few years after she graduated, Manns approached the firm to discuss her career options. “I was becoming frustrated with my position, and there was no room to get creative,” she said. The firm realized there was a need for someone well versed in both the legal and technology fields and created a litigation support manager position for Manns. In the past 10 years, she has put her education to good use in her dual role as para­legal and litigation support manager.


As a paralegal, Manns handles the daily case assignments for the energy and environmental practice group, including toxic tort and asbestos exposure cases, and various environmental matters involving air, water and regulatory issues. She works with a core group of seven attorneys.

As the litigation support manager, Manns provides specialized technical support for the firm and its clients. She manages, administers and trains attorneys and paralegals on LexisNexis’ Concordance, Opticon and TimeMap, as well as CT Summation and Verdict Systems’ Sanction. Manns manages and consults with the legal team on firm-wide case management solutions from inception to trial. She also performs technical data management activities, such as merging data into database applications, merging images into image viewing applications and converting data into various platforms.


In addition, Manns maintains relationships with software vendors and performs analysis on data received from vendors, co-counsel, opposing counsel and other parties as needed for use by litigation project teams. “I am the go-to person for any type of litigation support project,” said Manns, who works with more than 30 attorneys and the Information Technology department in her litigation support manager role.


Lisa L. Smith, a partner at Phillips Lytle, has worked with Manns since she joined the firm in 1993. In 2002, Smith tapped Manns to coordinate the firm’s relationship with a new client, one of the country’s largest corporations. Manns helped educate the firm’s attorneys and paralegals in client management, explained the client’s reporting requirements and trained the staff how to use new technology.


“I picked Katie for her ability to help coordinate litigation for large companies, and her ability to use technology to efficiently leverage work product from lawyers across our various offices who are working on the same client team,” Smith said.


In 2004, when Manns was chosen by the firm to oversee the district’s ECF transition process, she established lines of communication with the courts, coordinated with Phillips Lytle’s IT personnel to make sure the compliant technologies were available, established internal e-filing procedures and written guidelines, and spearheaded the extensive in-house training of the firm’s attorneys, paralegals and staff.


 “Katie took ownership of our electronic filing initiative,” said David J. McNamara, a partner at Phillips Lytle. “Katie’s efforts put our firm at the forefront of our local court’s conversion to electronic filing and those efforts were widely acknowledged and praised by court personnel and attorneys in our firm.”


Manns’ efforts to educate the rest of her legal community went above and beyond as well. “By volunteering to give [CLE] presentations on ECF to area paralegals, Katie helped all of us to shorten the learning curve and made the transition to ECF much smoother in each of our firms,” said Dick, who nominated Manns for the Paralegal of the Year award.


For Manns, technology has significantly improved the efficiency of her job. “It obviously has changed the world we live in, but with respect to our profession, it has been unbelievable,” she said. “We have the ability to become so much more efficient, not only for our employers and case loads, but on a sanity level as well.”


Association Dedication


In 1987, Manns joined the Western New York Paralegal Association, for which she served two terms as president and director. She also served as second vice president of membership, and chairwoman and member of the advisory committee. “I have worked with the nicest people and gradually have become more sure of myself as a person and professional,” Manns said.


Dick, a former WNYPA president, met Manns when Manns first joined the association. In the past 19 years, they have worked on various WNYPA projects together. “Although it’s certainly not uncommon for paralegals to demonstrate excellent organizational and leadership skills, Katie’s people skills make her the total package,” Dick said of Manns’ tenure as WNYPA president and director. “While other directors might not have agreed with her, Katie respected their opinions and worked to build consensus.”


In 2002, Manns received WNYPA’s Award for Outstanding Achievement. Currently, she is the chairwoman of the Chinese Auction Committee, which serves as a main source of funding for the WNYPA Scholarship program that began a year ago. The 2006 auction raised more than $4,500.


Volunteer Arbitrator


In addition to her professional association involvement, since 1988, Manns has been involved with the Western New York Better Business Bureau as a volunteer arbitrator. One of the senior partners in Phillips Lytle’s environmental group was involved with the bureau and knew Manns had an interest in becoming more involved in the legal field. “He hooked me up, and I have been involved ever since,” Manns said. To become an arbitrator, Manns took about eight hours of in-house arbitration training from WNYBBB, and then shadowed a mentor arbitrator on a case.


Manns specializes in commercial cases and gets assigned three to four cases a year. A typical case involves a person who has experienced problems with a service vendor (e.g., the building of a new fence or driveway) and wants the WNYBBB to intervene. Manns acts as a neutral representative who hears both sides of the argument. These hearings can take place at the WNYBBB office or at the place of work (i.e., the home where the fence or driveway was built) where she can conduct an inspection of the site. “The setting is informal so both sides feel comfortable presenting their case,” Manns said.


The participants have the option of having witnesses or attorneys present, although most don’t have attorneys. “It’s a cost-reduced genre so most handle the cases on their own,” she added. Manns runs the hearing, which is similar to a court hearing, minus the formality and court reporter. She then takes all the information provided and renders a decision within 20 days. To stay neutral, Manns has no formal contact with either party before or after the hearing.


“I like the feeling that I am helping people, those who want to try to get a problem resolved before becoming ‘sue happy,’” Manns said. “Even if I don’t always award a decision in favor of the customer, they took the time to try to resolve the matter themselves instead of starting a full-blown lawsuit. I know that is really our bread and butter, but I applaud those individuals for taking a different route and not clogging up the court system even more.”




In 1999, Manns joined Hilbert College as an adjunct professor in the paralegal studies department. “I teach the ‘Introduction to Paralegalism’ class in the evening session and have team taught the environmental law elective class with a partner from my office,” said Manns, who also serves on the college’s Paralegal Studies Advisory Council. “The intro class is probably my favorite because I enjoy the eagerness of the people in the curriculum.”   


In a joint statement included in Manns’ nomination letter, Roger E. Stone and Wendy B. Edson, chairman and assistant chairwoman of Hilbert’s paralegal studies department, wrote: “When meetings attended and classes taught are added up, the true measure of [Manns’] contribution is her career-long willingness to educate attorneys, fellow paralegals, students and the public about the paralegal profession. She is a role model of energetic dedication to her chosen profession.”


In addition to teaching at Hilbert College, Manns also is a frequent speaker on the paralegal circuit and has given seminars on many legal technology topics, including “Automation of Case Management Made Easy,” “Federal District Court Filing from A to Z” and “Computers and File Management.”


“Katie often speaks during informal gatherings, such as specialty section meetings, and has always made herself available as a lecturer for WNYPA on a variety of litigation-related topics,” Dick said.


A Winning Consensus


Dick, who has been a paralegal in Buffalo for more than 30 years, said Manns is a credit to the profession and the very definition of “paralegal.” “Katie’s professional demeanor and her assistance in the transition to ECF have made her one of the most well-known and highly respected paralegals in the Buffalo legal community,” Dick said.


The attorneys at Phillips Lytle could not agree more. “While Katie might have started out doing more traditional paralegal projects, she has constantly upgraded her skills and is one of our go-to people when we need litigation and technological support in large, document-intensive litigation,” Smith said. “She is also a consummate professional who has earned the respect of clients and colleagues.”


McNamara, whose working relationship with Manns spans almost 20 years, said, “Katie is an innovative and dedicated professional who quickly gains the respect of all with whom she comes in contact. She effortlessly balances an active caseload with administrative responsibilities and special projects, all with tremendous professionalism.”


With all of Manns’ professional commitments you would think there would be little time for anything else. But somehow, Manns does it all. She and her husband, Dan, just celebrated their 11-year anniversary. They have a daughter, Taylor, age 7, and a son, Jacob, age 5, and a third child on the way.


Manns, who is humble about being named Paralegal of the Year, credits her fellow paralegals and attorneys for keeping her motivated. “This is a teamwork-type profession,” she said. “You can’t stand alone and get things done. This award is something to be shared with all those around me at Phillips Lytle and the paralegals I work with and against everyday.”


Runner-up: Denise Cunningham


Hard work and dedication are what prompted attorney M. Lynne Osterholt to nominate Paralegal of the Year runner up, Denise Cunningham, for LAT’s prestigious award. Osterholt pointed to one recent case as an example of Cunningham’s perseverance. While the attorney-paralegal team was representing a client from another case, Cunningham found out that an employee performing surgery at a Louisville, Ky., physician’s office was not licensed. After consulting with her supervising attorney, Osterholt, who has a private practice, Cunningham called an investigator from the state attorney general’s office to express her concern.


“Together, we looked into the case and found that the young man who was posing as a surgeon was actually a convicted felon on probation for manslaughter in California,” Cunningham said.


Criminal charges and indictments were brought against the man and his supervising doctor. “Before we knew it, we had 114 clients [in civil cases] who were operated on by this felon,” Cunningham said. “We had quite a few attorneys and several large law firms opposing us, representing the doctor and his assistant.” Both defendants pled guilty to multiple felony counts in the Jefferson Circuit Court.


“The case required a tremendous amount of work,” Osterholt wrote in her nomination letter. “Denise worked weekends and holidays to get the voluminous amount of work out each day. After several years of hard work, the case had a very successful end.” The success was two-fold: criminal convictions for both defendants and settlement of the civil cases.


A Fit From the Start


Cunningham received her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Dayton in 1976. After graduating, she was hired as an interviewer and intake agent at Louisville Pretrial Services, an agency that classifies and gathers information about arrestees for the court before their initial appearances in arraignment court. “That job heightened my interest in the law,” Cunningham said.


In October 1977, Cunningham decided to pursue a legal studies degree in night school at the University of Louisville while working at the Louisville District Public Defender’s office as an investigator. Cunningham received her associate’s degree in paralegal studies in 1979. Around that time, she met Osterholt, who recently had graduated from law school and landed her first law-related job at the public defender’s office. Cunningham and Osterholt were assigned to work together on a pilot project that involved arraignment court. “I was amazed at the depth of her knowledge of the workings of the court and her efficiency,” Osterholt said. After working several months at the public defender’s office, Osterholt decided to venture out in private practice and asked Cunningham to join her. That was in March 1980 — more than 26 years later, Cunningham still is Osterholt’s only paralegal.


“During the years, Denise’s skills have continued to sharpen, and because of the hands-on work she performs, her people skills, as well as her legal knowledge, also have grown,” Osterholt said. The Louisville firm has an emphasis in criminal and family law. Cunningham’s duties include checking the daily schedule and preparing any paperwork for office conferences with clients. She also schedules appointments with clients, prepares any pleadings that need Osterholt’s signature, corresponds with clients and collects information needed at the courthouse in preparation for a case.


Cunningham works in all aspects of the practice, from initial interviews with clients and reviewing cases, to doing legal research and working in the courtroom, Osterholt said. In addition, Cunningham manages the office, paying bills and organizing the tax information for the firm’s accountant, among other things. “I count on her for virtually every aspect of my practice and know that whatever the task is to be dealt with, she will know how to accomplish it and will do it promptly and successfully,” Osterholt said.


Commitments Galore


In 1978, Cunningham met with seven other paralegals at a local library and founded the Louisville Association of Paralegals. Today, the association has approximately 200 members. Since the beginning, Cunningham has held several officer positions, including president of LAP and liaison to the Louisville Bar Association, where she also is a paralegal member. Currently, she is a director on the LAP board and co-editor of the association’s newsletter, Para*graphs. “I have made many friends over the years because of my involvement with LAP,” she said. Cunningham also is the chairwoman of the Executive Advisory Committee, a group of para­legals who have been working in the paralegal field for at least eight years and have served on the LAP Board for at least three years.


LAP President Linda Hillerich, RP, met Cunning­ham 15 years ago when she first joined LAP. “Denise has always been a devout supporter, worker and enthusiast of the association and the profession,” said Hillerich, a paralegal at Stoll Keenon Ogden in Louisville. “Denise can make you believe that you will succeed at any project. She continuously tells everyone what a great job they are doing and encourages members that any activity or event they are working on will be great.”


In 1989, Cunningham got involved with the Kentucky Paralegal Association, which is made up of five paralegal associations within the state. She recently concluded a two-year term as director of the board of directors. She also has served as treasurer and corresponding secretary. In 1991 and 1997, she co-chaired the association’s statewide conferences. Cunningham was awarded KPA’s statewide Founders Award in 2001. “[It’s] an honor I am quite proud of — the award hangs proudly in our office reception area,” she said. Most recently, she became a member of the American Alliance of Paralegals Inc. in 2003.


In addition to her commitments to LAP, KPA, LBA and the AAPI, Cunningham has served on the advisory board for Sullivan University’s legal studies department since 1992, and the University of Louisville’s Paralegal Studies Program for 10 years. She also is a volunteer for Catholic Charities in the Senior Services program.


A Love for Animals


Besides her job and association work, Cunningham’s other passion is animals. She is on the board of the Louisville Dog Run Association (the local dog park) and a chairwoman and member of Wonderful Animals Giving Support, a nonprofit, volunteer group promoting and sanctioning the use of animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy in local caregiving facilities. “My dog, Patch, an Old English Sheepdog rescued out of South Carolina, is a certified therapy dog,” Cunningham said.


Patch and Cunningham, who both were certified in November 2004, visit two nursing homes, two psychiatric hospitals and a domestic abuse center once a month. They also are involved with the summer reading incentive program at the Louisville Free Public Library and visit a homeless shelter when summoned. “Patch really brings joy to all she meets during the visits,” Cunningham said. In February, Patch won the 2006 Therapy Dog of the Year — Honoree award. “She was honored before 650 people at a formal dinner in one of our downtown hotels,” Cunningham said.


26 Years and Counting


After almost three decades working as a paralegal, Cunningham still finds her job interesting. “Many don’t look forward to their workday,” she said. “I do because I never know what the day might bring outside of court appearances and office conferences.” Of course, having a good boss helps. “Ms. Osterholt is a very well-respected attorney in the courtroom and in the legal community here in Louisville and surrounding counties, so that makes my job even better,” Cunningham said.


The feeling is mutual. “Denise is a fine paralegal and an exceptional human being,” Osterholt said. “She is the best.”


Runner-up: Patricia Dietz-Selke


LAT Paralegal of the Year runner-up Patricia Dietz-Selke knows firsthand the emotional and legal aspects of immigration. It all started on a day she still remembers vividly — Dec. 1, 1971. Eleven-year-old Patty had just set foot in the Pensacola Regional Airport in Florida for the first time, after spending more than 24 hours traveling from Germany. She and her family were in the United States to stay.


Ten years later, Dietz-Selke became the first member of her family to become a U.S. citizen. She said her own experience in immigration helps her empathize with her clients at Troutman Sanders in Atlanta, where she is a senior para­legal in the firm’s immigration practice group. “Because I have a personal experience and background related to the immigration field, I found that not only did I like it, I also had an aptitude for it,” she said.


A Professional Detour


When Dietz-Selke graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of West Florida, Pensacola, in 1982, she originally intended to pursue a career as a foreign-service officer at the state department. Unfortunately, her plan took a detour when she didn’t pass the placement test by one question and had to wait until the following year to retake the exam. Meanwhile, she continued with a retail job she held in college and ended up spending the next 12 years in the retail sales business. When she no longer was enjoying her job, she looked into a different career.


Dietz-Selke said she had an interest in the legal field, and determined with her skills she would be well-suited for the paralegal field. “My satisfaction with and success in the paralegal field stand as proof that I made a wise decision,” Dietz-Selke said.


In May 1993, Dietz-Selke completed a three-month program at the National Center for Paralegal Training in Atlanta. She graduated with honors and received the Lawyer’s Cooperative Award for Excellence in Legal Research.


One of Dietz-Selke’s first jobs after paralegal school was  at an immigration boutique firm, B. Farris, Esq. in Atlanta, which later became Farris & Hill. “I was hooked from then on,” she said. Dietz-Selke stayed with the firm for three years, and then in 1996, she took a position in the immigration law department at Troutman Sanders and has been there ever since.



A Decade Partnership


As the senior paralegal at Troutman Sanders, Dietz-Selke handles business immigration cases — nonimmigrant, immigrant, permanent resident, naturalization and U.S. citizenship matters — for the firm’s multinational corporate clients. The immigration practice group consists of senior partner Mark New­man, associate attorney Hon-Vinh Duong, four para­legals, a paralegal assistant and Newman’s executive assistant. Dietz-Selke has assisted her supervising attorney, Newman, with his immigration cases almost exclusively since September 1996. “She has a great deal of client contact, particularly with [human resources] managers and senior-level administrative professionals,” Newman said.


Dietz-Selke also reviews documents and assembles proofs in support of filings, and prepares detailed applications and petitions.


Newman said he nominated Dietz-Selke for the Paralegal of the Year award because of her superior ability to balance her workload, teaching and community involvement. He added that she consistently bills 1,700 to 1,800 hours every year in addition to 200 to 300 administrative hours and has earned a billing bonus for both years the firm’s bonus program has been instituted.


According to Newman, Dietz-Selke keeps up with law changes, thinks like a lawyer, plans ahead, anticipates issues and problems, and is extraordinarily productive. He also said she is a technology leader and expert for the practice group’s immigration case management, database and forms program. “Dietz-Selke ranks among the top achievers for the firm’s paralegals,” Newman added in his nomination letter. “She is the go-to paralegal for most legally complex cases.”


“I love being a paralegal,” Dietz-Selke said. “I am blessed to have a terrific boss, a wonderful group of fellow workers, a great law firm employer and a highly interesting practice and field of law.”


Association Contributions


Dietz-Selke became involved with the Georgia Paralegal Association when she applied for and was chosen to fill the pro bono director position shortly after she graduated from NCPT in 1993. “I felt it was an excellent position for me to become more active with the group and to get involved in the paralegal profession in a meaningful way,” she said.


In the following years, she also served as job referral director and vice president of continuing legal education. At her first National Federation of Paralegal Associations national conference, she received the NFPA Outstanding First-time Attendee Award. And in 1998, she received GAP’s annual Pro Bono Award.


The Teacher Is In


Dietz-Selke has been teaching the “Introduction to the Paralegal Profession” course at North Metro Technical College’s professional paralegal certificate program since 1996. In 2001, she started teaching an online paralegal ethics course for the American Institute for Paralegal Studies’ Advanced & Specialty Course division. And in 2003, she started teaching the “Fundamentals of Immigration Law” online course as an annual elective for AIPS’ Paralegal Certificate program.


Janice W. Hoover, director of curriculum at AIPS, first met Dietz-Selke at a local NFPA meeting and was immediately impressed with her. When AIPS began exploring the idea of offering immigration law as an elective, Hoover recommended Dietz-Selke for the job. “She was eager to get involved with online education and jumped right in,” Hoover said. “She developed all of the curriculum materials for the immigration law course, teaches the course and also teaches online CLE seminars in ethics for the Institute.”


Dietz-Selke also began teaching various courses at Kennesaw State University’s Paralegal Certificate program in 2004. Currently, she is developing an online immigration law seminar for KSU which will start in February 2007. “I love teaching and have the fortunate distinction of being the only paralegal to teach at these institutions, as well as the first paralegal to teach for AIPS’ Paralegal Certificate program,” she said.


Dietz-Selke also is involved in mentoring new paralegals. “Patty often receives phone calls from paralegal students and entry-level paralegals seeking guidance and counseling,” Newman said. “She advises them about paralegal program options and provides information on the paralegal profession.”


Dietz-Selke also has been a featured speaker at Estrin LegalEd’s Paralegal SuperConferences, where she has spoken about immigration law and paralegal ethics.


Volunteer Work


“When I made my career change into the paralegal field, I determined that I wanted to make a change in my personal life along with my work life and do some volunteer work in my community,” Dietz-Selke said.


In 1994, Dietz-Selke went through 30 hours of training and was sworn in as a court-appointed special advocate for the juvenile court of Cherokee County, Ga. For the next five years, she handled several cases advocating for abused and neglected children and assisted the program coordinator in training new CASAs. “Being a CASA has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences in my life,” she said.


In addition to volunteering as a CASA, Dietz-Selke also has volunteered at the YWCA’s battered women’s shelter and has been involved in a Troutman Sanders’ Habitat for Humanity community service project. “Patty exemplifies what it means to live life fully,” Hoover said.


Dietz-Selke said she puts so much energy in volunteer activities and her work because she truly enjoys the profession. “I have to really like what I do. That is part of my personality, and I tend to be an individual who puts her whole effort into something,” Dietz-Selke said. “I really found my home in the paralegal field.”

Rachel Ng is the former managing editor of LAT. She currently is the associate research editor at Bon Appetit magazine. She also freelance for several publications, including LAT and Fit Pregnancy.

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