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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.
“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.”