Monday, February 2, 2009

Paralegal Profile: Elisabeth Hiser

In Kansas, paralegal Elisabeth Hiser originally went to college to become a high school math teacher. However, once she took Calculus II, her mind changed quickly. Instead, she embarked on a career as a paralegal, starting with a receptionist position at a small law firm consisting of just two partners right after her high school graduation in 1998. The idea of a legal career that did not involve a J.D. was not even on her radar, but she found herself developing a career as a paralegal shortly after she was hired.

"About two months into the job, one legal secretary quit, and a few days later, the other was fired," Hiser said. "I was the only employee left[, and] I had to learn quickly." Hiser rose to the challenge.

The two partners took about a month to hire a new, trained legal assistant, who helped Hiser tremendously and gave her a lot of on-the-job training. While the new assistant worked for one attorney, Hiser worked for the other. The office focused on domestic law and criminal law, and at the time, she enjoyed it. But things went downhill in the firm quickly, and Hiser knew she had to leave. Quietly, Hiser began searching for a new position. After three months of steady hunting and numerous interviews, in March 2000, Hiser began at her present position, working for Alan Joseph, a solo practitioner specializing in real estate in Wichita, Kansas. "It was the best career decision I've ever made," she said.

Hiser currently loves working in law, but ironically was not even interested in a career as a paralegal until she started the receptionist job in 1998. "I really didn't have any huge expectations when I first entered this field," she said. She did not know that there was even a degree for paralegals, and she thought that they were, essentially, glorified legal secretaries.

"Boy was I wrong," she said. "I was really surprised to learn what... a paralegal can do and how far they can advance in their careers. I thought I would do this for a few years or so, get bored with it, and move on to something else. Not anymore. I can honestly see myself in this profession for the rest of my life." Hiser said that the more she did, the more she learned, which resulted in her interest in becoming a career paralegal.

Hiser holds two Associates degrees. She received an Associates of Science, General Studies from Butler County Community College, a large community college located in El Dorado, Kansas, and more recently, she earned an Associates of Science in Legal Assistant from Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. She received her second Associates in 2001, which is when she considers herself as technically becoming a paralegal.

Over the last eight years, Hiser has watched her job grow into a career. She is the only employee in her office, and Joseph employs a bookkeeper that works in another office about one hour away. As the only employee, she has been able to take on more responsibility and learn every aspect of her job. "With each passing year, I get handed more responsibility in my job and more freedom to take control of things," she said. "There are certain things that I could handle now with my eyes closed that five years ago, I would have needed step-by-step directions."

Learning on the job and in her classes, Hiser has become confident as a paralegal and is able to complete her assignments with aplomb. "When I first started taking paralegal classes, I was ...quite overwhelmed. There was so much to learn and remember. I was very nervous because my memory is horrible," she said. "But I've learned that nobody remembers everything. I am constantly looking at old files or documents to remember how I did something. The key is knowing where to look. ...It doesn't matter how much you know or how smart you are. It's knowing how to use what you do know and knowing that it's [okay] to ask for help." This, she said, is what her job has taught her, a valuable lesson for anyone new to the paralegal field.

With her confidence comes a desire to further advance in her career as a paralegal with the title of Certified Legal Assistant or Registered Paralegal, and to further her education by obtaining a bachelor's degree. "My ultimate goal is to take one of the paralegal certification tests, and pass, of course," Hiser said. "I have my degree, but I would really love to be able to add that CLA or RP title to the end of my name." Hiser also plans to get her Microsoft Word certification within the next few years, and she wants to go back to school to earn her bachelor's degree in business.

"I love being a paralegal," Hiser said. She would become a paralegal if she had to do it over again -- "Of course!!" -- and she loves the profession itself. "The law is changing every day. I am constantly learning new things and meeting new people."

Hiser recently finished her most memorable project, closing a very large real estate transaction. In smaller assignments, Hiser prefers to handle all the details, but in this transaction, she knew that it would be impossible to do everything herself. "I had to delegate tasks, which is very hard for me," she said. "I'm usually the one being told what needs to be done. I've never been a good leader. This project taught me that it's [okay] that I can't do it all. It's okay to say, 'Yes, please do this,' when someone asks if they can help." While it was a large obstacle for her to overcome, Hiser is glad she did, because she also learned that it is okay to tell people what needs to be done and not worry about what they think of her when she is in charge, something that often is difficult for new paralegals. She learned leadership and delegation skills, which will certainly help her in the future.

In the meantime, Hiser has been busy building her satisfying personal life and a wonderful family, which keep her very busy. At 28, she has been married to her husband for over five years, and they have two children, a daughter who just turned four, and a son who is 17 months old. "They keep me on my toes and keep me laughing," she said. Spending time with her husband and children is her favorite way to spend time outside of work, she said.

Hiser has recently taken up loom knitting. Often, loom knitting is relaxing for those who enjoy it. She has also found that loom knitting has another, bonus benefit. "I find [loom knitting] also works great as a weight loss tool," Hiser said. "By keeping my hands busy in the evening, it keeps me out of the kitchen."

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