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Here at The Paralegal Society, we like to feature our members. We have launched a series entitled: “Sketches of Our Society,” which will provide you with an up close, personal and professional look at various paralegals, students, aspiring paralegals and other legal minds that make our society so great. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we do! Let the mingling begin…

Theresa A. Prater, RP

FEATURED PARALEGAL: Theresa A. Prater, RP
HAILS FROM: Arizona

PROFESSIONAL SKETCH

How long have you been a paralegal, what is your current title and what are your area(s) of practice?

I have been learning my career for more than 30 years.  Currently, I am the senior litigation paralegal for Jackson White, PC in Mesa, Arizona, handling commercial litigation, flirting occasionally with an appellate brief to the 9th Circuit.

Tell us about your educational background, i.e., did you attend “the school of learn or get fired” or a college? Also tell us about any paralegal associations you participate in, as well as any accolades or special honors you have received.

I earned a B.S. in Education from Northern Illinois University many years ago (did you actually think I’d tell you what year?). After moving to the Valley of the Sun, with nearly a decade of legal experience under my hat, I had to return to school in order to again use the title, paralegal which I’d had been using. Market conditions were tough, and in order to do the work I was accustomed to doing day-in-and day-out, a paralegal certificate was needed. Thus, I returned to school part time at Phoenix College.

What made you become a paralegal?

It was sheer luck – I answered an ad from a lawyer who needed someone to work on real estate matters, including investigating/cross-checking legal descriptions and such. Since I’d recently moved to Florida from Mississippi, where I had earned a real estate license, it was a perfect fit – I could read a legal description, knew how to do research (after all, I’d only been out of school a few years), and it was interesting work. From that point on, I was hooked on the thrill of the hunt, which is what litigation is, after all…finding the one key to unlock the door to win your case.

Did you face any challenges in trying to become a paralegal?  If so, how did you overcome that challenge, and what advice would you give to others facing that challenge now?

The biggest challenge was “letting go” of the title when we moved to Arizona 1991. I had been titled as a paralegal for years, was accustomed to doing in depth research, managing my time to get things accomplished and being thought of as a necessary cog in the wheel to move a case forward. Moving during a down-turn in the economy (at the tail end of the savings and loan scandals and the rise of Resolution Trust, tied to a collapse of the real estate market [de ja vue]), there were lawyers out of work, and unless you had a connection or a “formal” paralegal training, you could not land a decent position with a firm. For the first time in my career, I was considered a secretary, although I was managing one client’s litigation and contracts, as well as billing sufficient time every month to cover my salary, overhead and bringing in a profit for the firm. I was very disappointed when the firm would not create another paralegal position for me as I neared completion of my certificate, but was willing to keep me on as a hybrid “secretary/assistant”. Needless to say, I had not spent the money, time and effort to get a certificate to remain static.

Being a paralegal often comes with a lot of stress.  What’s your favorite way to handle the stress?

Reading a variety of magazines and using my Kindle for tons of historical fiction, biographies, light fiction and the classics (I’m on Gone With the Wind for the nine or tenth time). I also knit and love to watch TLC and the History channel, and some of the great foodie programs on the food channels.

What are your secrets for being successful?  In life?  At work?

Tenacity – plug away at something and eventually you’ll find your path or the answer to the puzzle – that smoking gun is there somewhere!

What particular task in the paralegal world is your least favorite?

Anything to do with learning new technology – my brain doesn’t work that way.  I hate getting a new program and having to fumble my way through.  My assistant has “helped” me with sending large files at least 10 times, yet I can’t get the steps right!

What particular task in the paralegal world is your favorite?

Digging out the dirt – finding the key documents, learning the story through the documents.  Working with the client to find the “right stuff” that makes the case work to the client’s advantage.

If one of your good friends had to decide whether to become a paralegal or some other professional, what advice would you give?  Why?

Follow your heart and your head…you’ve got to have special skills, I think, to be good in this profession, especially in this economy.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever done as a paralegal?

Served a deposition notice on a world-famous chef at his restaurant at Disney World.

What’s the proudest moment that you’ve had as a paralegal?

Helping a young plaintiff understand the workings of the judicial system is tied with finding the smoking gun that settled a “zero liability” case for limits on 3 commercial trucking policies.

What’s your craziest story stemming from your experience in the legal world?

7 year old plaintiff’s deposition.  He was injured on a slide at that age of three while on Christmas vacation in the Valley (after all this is Arizona, slides get hot even in the winter), and when asked in deposition by defense counsel “Why did go down the slide?” His answer “Because it was a playground and I was playing.” (said with a very straight face and very seriously). Even the court reporter could not stop laughing – the entire room (three defense attorneys, videographer, two or three other paralegals and my attorney) could just broke out in belly laughs. After all, the child was serious: he was taking his duty to tell the truth very seriously. Lesson learned by attorney: never ask a child a “stupid” question.

If you could do it all over again, what would you change, and why?  What wouldn’t you change, and why wouldn’t you change it?

I would change some of my job choices. There have been a couple of positions that I really wish I had not taken and where I struggled to remain a loyal employee despite being told the position was one thing, and it ended up being another altogether.  I would not change the fact that my work helps people.

If you were teaching a paralegal class in your area of practice, what would it be?  Why is it so important?

Civil procedure and trial practice – these areas are a vital part of the system that lawyers simply do not understand unless they have been practicing for years.  They do not  know how the process works – they know the theory and can apply the law to their case, but many  have trouble getting through the details of trial preparation – exhibits, working with the judge’s staff; getting the right vendor for the right exhibit and for other trial necessities; and of course, calming the client.  Paralegals are the lynchpin to getting a case through the trial process – they must handle the logistics of the entire show – and you can only learn those principles from someone who has done it themselves, and who can give clues and helpful hints on how to handle the pitfalls of preparing for and going to trial.

What things have you learned about yourself over the years as a paralegal?  How have you personally grown?

I have little sympathy for those who procrastinate and I could never practice criminal law. I can see through a lot of the bluffing and “upstaging” lawyers try to carry off, especially when dealing with legal staff whom they often treat as peons.

What does The Paralegal Society mean to you?  How have you, or how can you, benefit from being a member?  Please share your thoughts with us!

I enjoy the exchanges and trying to get some folks off their “my way or the highway” mentality. It’s always a thrill to read new posts on touchy subjects, e.g. disbarred attorneys as paralegals.

What major accomplishments and accolades would you ultimately like to see listed on your paralegal obituary when the time comes?   

Caring leader and teacher

What are your three top professional goals at this time?

Getting to retirement, getting to retirement, getting to retirement

PERSONAL SKETCH

What is the most difficult situation you’ve ever overcome (personal or paralegal)?

Losing my mother at the age of 16 pretty much formed my life as an adult. I’ve never had the true experience of having a mother to lean on and ask life questions of; to confide in and to cry with.

What makes you a unique person? 

Maybe the fact that I’ve gone through a lot in my life and can still smile.

What is the most unique life experience you’ve had to date?  Tell us about it.

I don’t think I’ve had it yet.

If your friends were to tell us about your worst quality(ies) what would it/they be?

Anal and a stickler for learning from the past. If it didn’t work the first, second and third times, what makes you think, without changing the parameters or something, it will work the fourth time? Retaining knowledge and minutia that no one else remembers.

If your friends were to tell us about your best quality(ies) what would it/they be?

Compassion, willing to teach, share and help.

What is your most life-defining moment to date?

My life was defined by the circumstances of my upbringing and the chronic illness of my mother, which made me an adult before I was ready. 

What is your most life-defining “paralegal moment” to date?

Taking on tasks some thought were only the territory of lawyers – e.g. analyzing the information and coming to the right conclusions.

What are a few unusual facts about you?

1.         I was a test subject for the polio vaccine in the mid-fifties

2.         When I was a child, I could converse in Polish, Italian and English.

If you could choose any meal for your “final supper” here on planet earth, what would you choose?  Is there a specific memory tied to your selection?

Fresh mahi-mahi grilled over an open fire, on the beach in Hawaii – watching the sun set

Very few people have never experienced a setback in life. What setback(s) or extenuating circumstance(s) have you dealt with in your life thus far and how did it/they make you stronger?  What did you learn from them? How has it changed you? 

I “grew up” very young. I had a pot full of responsibility at the age of 13 – ran a household until I went to college, then ran it from a distance until my dad remarried.  Maybe not a setback, but certainly a different experience than any of my friends. I was truly older than my years, and have always been a caretaker, looking for a solution to a problem, sometimes when one doesn’t exist. It also made me hate housekeeping!! (although I do like to cook and bake). 

Robert Fulghum wrote a book entitled “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.”  If you were six years old, but had the same knowledge that you have now, what would you do differently?

Move to Hawaii when I had the chance! (We see a theme developing here – how about you? Save me a lounge chair under the sun covered, beach-side tiki hut, Theresa!! I’m in…)

A special thanks to Theresa for stopping by TPS and sharing her interesting and insightful profile with us.

Are you interested in contributing a “Sketch” a/k/a profile piece to The Paralegal Society? Feel inclined to play a fun game of 20 questions with the grand prize of being featured via the TPS platform? If so, send an e-mail to our fearless leader, Jamie at: jamietheparalegal@yahoo.com with “TPS Sketch” in the subject line, and we’ll gladly send you our most fabulous questionnaire. We’d love to get to know more of our paralegal peers…so don’t be shy! Go send that e-mail!

We’ll see you Friday!