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A Legal MVP
Bank of America’s Theresa (Terry) Irvin, CLA, proves to be indispensable.
By Lincoln Brunner

January/February 2002 Issue

If you don’t work with a Terry Irvin, you have probably met one. Don’t know her? Yes you do — the type of person who seems to be able to juggle 12 balls, three flaming torches and a chainsaw without breaking a sweat, all the while smiling and asking if you need any help with what you are doing.

Yes, that one. Her efficiency, enthusiasm and capacity for learning on the fly are enough to make you sick — and also goin’-to-Disneyland happy that she is on your team.

Irvin’s bosses certainly are, anyway.

Being the Gatekeeper
Irvin works on the 29th floor of the Plaza Building adjacent the Bank of America corporate center in downtown Charlotte, N.C. From that vantage point, she and her supervising attorneys, Algie Sims and Sarah Linn, can survey the numerous housing projects they have helped create as part of the bank’s Community Development Banking Group.

The Linn-Irvin-Sims team handles the legal aspects of the bank’s affordable housing development, focusing primarily on low- and moderate-income projects. While the bank makes loans to other developers (Sims’ area of expertise), it also makes equity investments (Linn’s arena), often taking the role of developer itself in many projects.

In its equity activity, the bank invests in projects as a limited partner, forms alliances with various nonprofit groups in the community, helps set up the legal entities responsible for the developments, and works on tax credit deals, many times with outside counsel.

With all that activity comes a dog’s breakfast of regulatory compliance, corporate certification and other legal issues, all of which in turn requires documentation and a keen eye toward organization. It’s in this role of information gatekeeper that Irvin’s superiors find her especially valuable.

“In our environment, we have hundreds of developments and projects, all held by separate legal entities, all of which have to be reported to our corporate secretary’s office and to the regulators,” said Linn, assistant general counsel at the bank and a six-year veteran of the department. “[Terry] manages that entire process and does it [extremely well].

“I’m amazed at how much she gets done in a day,” Linn added. “The things that are annoying, that you don’t want to do, Terry goes ahead and does, which is just fascinating to me.”

Getting Her Start
A self-described glutton for the new, Irvin graduated with an associate’s degree from the Lincoln School of Commerce, Neb., in 1987 and quickly made her way to Charlotte, where she worked as a paralegal at a small law firm. There, she spent 12 years learning the ins and outs of the real estate business and was “exposed to a lot of different areas,” she said.

“I can’t say I specialized in one particular area,” she said. “I primarily worked in real estate, both commercial and residential, and collection litigation. That was fun.

“The most challenging thing was keeping up with everything, managing the time and managing the tasks that needed to be done,” Irvin explained. “They covered a lot of different areas, working with different deadlines and timelines. I did like that. I liked being challenged.”

Irvin said her experience with the law firm, while quite different from her current setting, helped in many ways to prepare her for what lay ahead, especially when it came to knowing the common minutiae of real estate transactions — a body of knowledge that comes in handy these days when she is helping explain a deal to one of the bank’s customers or business partners.

“I had a large background in real estate, I knew the process from start to finish,” Irvin said. “The background I gained at the law firm in real estate was a nice mix coming into this position, because I knew how the proceedings went for a loan closing, both residential and commercial. I knew the basic documents of a loan and the loan process itself, things of that nature, so I didn’t have to learn all that.”

Making the Switch
So why did she move from a nice job in a cozy office where she had 12 years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to a 40-story beacon of corporate America where she is one of two dozen paralegals on staff? One word cinched it for Irvin: challenge.

One gets the impression from talking with her that she is one of the rare people who takes great satisfaction from the here-and-now while always thinking about bigger things tomorrow — ambition without strife, a healthy dissatisfaction with the ho-hum without dwelling on the negative.

Active in state and local paralegal associations from the get-go (she is the president of the North Carolina Paralegal Association), Irvin had the chance early on in her career to talk with colleagues working at law firms and corporations and in other functions. She noticed that many legal assistants working in corporate settings enjoyed the change from their former law firm trappings.

“That piqued my interest there,” Irvin said. “That was [the motivation] — to go over to the corporate side and see what it was like there.”

The Value of a Good Legal Assistant
Certain key people are glad she did. Irvin’s real estate acumen and ability to hit the ground running when she took her current position about two years ago have not gone unnoticed by her attorneys.

“I’ve been in the legal department of the bank for about 21 years,” said Sims, a veteran attorney with the kindly drawl and ready laugh of a true Southern gentleman. “She is, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever had. For the first time in all these years, I’ve been able to literally not worry about some things because she’s been involved with them. That’s given me a degree of independence I’ve never had before.”

A good example is a recent loan sale. As Sims recalled, one of the representations made to the purchaser had to do with whether there was any prepayment fee on the loans and what type of fee that might be.

Sims and Irvin sat down and reviewed samples of documents for loans and categorized the types of fees. Once Sims saw that Irvin understood the pertinent fees and had the different types nailed down, she went through hundreds of promissory notes and reviewed the prepayment provisions and was able to categorize them. Sims went back and spot-checked her work, and the project moved forward.

“The biggest value she has to me is, once she understands a legal situation, she’s able to field calls and collect the right information and sort through it,” Sims said. “That frees me up a lot to do other things.”

That freedom to cut a reliable paralegal loose on a project is invaluable to attorneys such as Sims and Linn, whose jobs are to move forward with the major legal aspects of the bank’s numerous real estate transactions. If the department’s immediate objective is to, say, close a certain transaction, “someone’s major focus has to be on the documentation of the transaction,” Sims said.

In other words, if an issue arises over a cross-default provision, to name a common example, the attorney can instruct the paralegal to take 15 minutes or a half hour and find the provision in a set of papers and report back to the attorney. While it’s something that needs to be done, the attorneys working on the deal simply have no time to do it themselves.

But if a legal assistant such as Irvin can do it, “that’s a huge help to me,” Sims said.

‘She Does a Lot of Research’
Sims suggested one way paralegals really can improve themselves and set themselves apart is by keeping their research skills sharp.

In fact, Irvin’s ability to fish through a sea of documents or hop on LexisNexis in a pinch — “She does a lot of research,” Linn said — has, as much as any other quality, earned Irvin the respect and gratitude of her supervising attorneys.

“The older lawyers become, the less likely they are to know the latest research techniques,” Sims said.

“A lot of lawyers don’t have those capabilities. If an issue comes up on a loan transaction, and that issue involves a special statute in our state, a good paralegal can get to that statute and find it quicker than I ever could. That’s a big help to me.”

Asking Irvin how she is able to grind through all that material without betraying a sense of its tediousness may be akin to asking Olympic sprinter Marion Jones how she can run so fast or jump so far. She just does it. Perhaps Irvin’s own, personal explaination of what keeps her job interesting for her is a clue.

“The enjoyable thing is, I’m still not focused on [just] one particular task in one particular area,” Irvin said. “It’s challenging. I’m learning things as I go. It’s not mundane.”

Ask, and You Shall Receive
Perhaps one trait that helps Irvin stay ahead of the curve instead of letting the waves crash over her is her willingness to question everything.

“I think one thing Terry does a very good job of — and it’s a sign of maturity, in my opinion — is … she doesn’t try to go off and work on something without understanding it fully,” Sims said. “She’s very good about understanding terminology. She’s not afraid to ask, ‘What does this mean?’”

In some 25 years in the legal profession, Sims said he has witnessed a tendency among lawyers to give their paralegals short shrift when it comes to explaining matters to them and sending them off to their tasks without properly preparing them to do it.

“The best thing paralegals can do is force the lawyer to explain what they’re to do,” Sims said. “Don’t be afraid to come back to the lawyer and ask, ‘Why am I doing it this way?’

“It comes down to a good working relationship,” he said. “We definitely have that.”

Linn and Sims agree that Irvin’s basic intelligence itself is a great asset in their office, whether it shows up in explaining various matters to clients or grilling her bosses for answers until she has a satisfactory grasp on the issue.

“Fortunately, Terry’s very smart and is able to figure things out in spite of us,” Linn said of herself and of Sims with a self-deprecating laugh. “Neither one of us is any good at explaining things. We mean well.

“She is particularly good at what she does because when we have something new, she will persist until she really does understand it — not just the concept we’re working on, but how it ties in with everything else,” Linn explained.

One item that has helped Irvin build that sterling rapport with her supervising attorneys is a habit of doing her homework before she approaches them in the middle of their day with an update or question on a project, a practice that especially has endeared her to Linn.

“One thing that makes her so good to work with is that she will just come into my office and say, ‘This is what we need to talk about,’” Linn said. “She will take that opening 30 seconds to redefine for me what the context is, where we left it, what the open issue was. When she does that, it focuses me. I’m not struggling to figure out where we are and why we’re talking about it. That is enormously helpful.”

Knowing Her Role
Sims said one of his prize paralegal’s valuable attributes is that she knows her role within the department well. While he believes she has the talent to become an attorney herself — “I’ve told her three or four times, ‘Terry, you should go to law school,’” Sims said — he likes her ability to stay focused on what she does best instead of, say, trying to dispense legal advice to the bank’s clients.

Irvin said the job of a paralegal seemed to fit nicely with her interests and ambitions, even back in high school. When she began looking at what she might want to do in life, she wasn’t sure about the huge commitment of law school, and yet she wanted more responsibility than a secretarial or office administration position might offer. Feeding her interest in the law with a position between those two choices led her to the legal assistant route.

“That’s what attracted me to it, that right-in-the-middle aspect of it,” she said.

Association Work
And as if working her day job isn’t enough, Irvin also stays active in local and national paralegal groups.
She joined the North Carolina Paralegal Association (NCPA) immediately after beginning her career and also is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants and the Metrolina Paralegal Association.

“I credit that [involvement with NCPA] with my success, as well,” Irvin said. “It’s really benefited me greatly. It was a friend of mine I had met through the association that contacted me about this current position.”

As with her work at Bank of America, Irvin has risen to a position of leadership in the NCPA, taking over as president last year.

Asked about her hobbies outside of work, Irvin said “it’s mainly NCPA right now. Ask my husband. He’ll say it is.

“I’ve served in officer positions before,” she said. “[The work of] president takes a lot more time than any other office. It’s been a lot of work getting that under control. I’ve enjoyed that, too.”

And no matter how much work it’s been, somehow you know she really has enjoyed the challenge.

Lincoln Brunner is a writer and editor living in northern Illinois. A former newspaper reporter, he writes on a wide variety of business-related topics. Brunner can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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