Monday, February 9, 2009

Paralegal Profile: Wendy Fuller, RP

For some, the Berkshire area of Western Massachusetts is merely a beautiful vacation spot, a place to indulge in spa treatments in Lenox or delight in numerous outdoor activities. For Wendy S. Fuller, RP, the Berkshires are where her legal career has flourished, beginning directly out of high school and resulting in a commitment to her education and the profession that still allows her to spend time with her favorite person, her husband of twelve years.

Fuller has always been interested in law, and volunteering at a law firm during high school cemented her desire for a legal career, pushing out a brief flirtation with a career as an airline stewardess. However, Fuller said, "law school was not an option for me when I first graduated from high school." Instead, she began working full-time at Curtiss, Carey, Gates & Graves in Greenfield, Mass. in 1981. Her position as a paralegal gradually developed as she worked her way through college and sought more responsibility at work, and by the late 1980s, her paralegal responsibilities were firmly in place.

Originally attracted to law because of the opportunity to help people, Fuller never particularly cared about the title of "paralegal." She said, "I have always been more concerned with the content of my job. As long as I remain challenged and given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the success of the project I am working on and the firm in general, I am happy. It is the skills and education required to be a paralegal, and specifically the ability to obtain the PACE certification and satisfy the CLE requirements, that has afforded the opportunity to achieve my goals and work at a challenging and rewarding occupation/profession."

After obtaining her B.S. from Skidmore College University Without Walls, majoring in business and minoring in government, Fuller did consider attending law school. "My firm was very supportive of my desire to continue my education. In fact, the firm urged me to continue on to law school," she said. "I did take the LSAT, applied to law school, and was accepted, but decided not to make that commitment when I became engaged, which was the absolutely right choice for me."

In 1996, Fuller married and moved to Belchertown, Mass., a commute that, on a good day, would take at least an hour each way. She took a two-year break from CCG&G, but came back in 1998 with a new schedule that allowed her to telecommute two days per week, easing the commuting burden and allowing her to tend to her responsibilities outside the office.

"I had some fairly extensive knee surgery and would have had to be out of work for quite awhile. During that time, my firm was involved in a very difficult federal matter. With the benefit of technology and my home office, I was able to continue to work on the case and meet necessary deadlines," Fuller said. "It has also worked to my advantage because I am often able to adjust my days in the office so that my husband and I can take advantage of other opportunities. Certainly there are times when I work [seven days a week], but the flexibility has been mutually advantageous and because we each respect the other, neither side makes unreasonable requests of the other."

Meanwhile, CCG&G allowed Fuller to develop her position as her skills increased, increasing her responsibilities. Currently, Fuller works primarily in litigation, with a few commercial real estate projects thrown into the mix. She has also remained committed to her continuing education, and as part of her PACE certification achieved in 2000, has taken graduate-level courses to maintain that certification. In addition, Fuller holds a Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution Specialist certification from the American Institute for Paralegal Studies (AIPS), is working toward her Human Resource Specialist certification, and authored a seminar for AIPS on Federal discovery. "It was particularly rewarding to know that I had enough 'expertise' to accomplish that," she said.

While Fuller loves living in a small community and having a flexible schedule, she does see downsides in her current position. "Because I live in a small community, it has been very difficult and challenging to gain recognition as a paralegal. Honestly, I believe there are a lot of legal staff people that identify themselves as paralegals who, in fact, are not - neither in terms of education or skills," she said. "That is why I think PACE is so important. ...The Bar Association in this area does little, if anything, to recognize the distinction between paralegals and other legal staff members. Even in my office, other staff members cannot bring themselves to recognize the distinction. Nor do the attorneys do a great deal to recognize the distinction (other than assignment of responsibilities), which has, at times, been very disappointing."

While taking PACE was Fuller's decision, she was disappointed that her firm did not reward or acknowledge her success, nor have they acknowledged her Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution Specialist certificate or other professional recognitions. "Upon reflection, ...I have come to realize that I have taken those steps for personal growth, not necessarily professional growth," Fuller said. For her, the rewards of a small community and flexible schedule have outweighed the difficulties she has had earning recognition for her hard work in obtaining her Registered Paralegal status and completing the required CLE.

In 2005, Fuller's hard work resulted in national recognition when she received an award from NFPA for her pro bono work. "It was truly an 'added bonus' as the project that resulted in that award was something that I truly believed in and wanted to be involved in," Fuller said. "I never had thought of receiving an award for my efforts."

"My long-term goal is to be the best paralegal I can be and help to tutor the legal community in this area about paralegals and PACE," Fuller said. Her short-term career goals have shifted, however, as her firm entered a transition. The three senior partners are in the process of handing over the reins to the two younger partners, which has turned out to be more difficult than originally anticipated and impacted the staff morale. Fuller now finds herself at a crossroads, debating whether to continue to work through the transition and help the new partners establish themselves or to evaluate if the firm can still allow her to satisfy both her personal and professional goals, which are equally important to her.

Either way, Fuller will always think of Jack Curtiss, one of the partners, as a role model. While she continued her education and found her footing in the firm, she worked closely with him, and she describes him as "always very supportive of my efforts and willing to let me undertake as much responsibility as I thought I could handle[,] and sometimes find my own way through a project when it might just have been easier to do it himself."

Her parents are also her role models for their selflessness. "Everything they did while their children were growing up was for the family with never an inclination that they wished they could splurge on something “just for them.” I have only very fond memories of my childhood," Fuller said. "They are now at a very difficult stage of their lives where they require a great deal of attention, so it is nice to have those nice memories to look back on."

If Fuller had to do it all over again, Fuller would still become a paralegal. "If there was nothing else to be considered, I might have re-evaluated my decision not to go to law school. However, this is the best balance for me. My job can be very challenging and rewarding, but still allows me to devote an appropriate amount of time to other responsibilities," she said.

During the summer, Fuller and her husband are avid boaters. Their boat is anchored at Lake George, N.Y., where they spend most of their down time in the summer. "Actually, sometimes I work from Lake George also," Fuller admitted. "There is nothing like anchoring out overnight and waking in the morning to peaceful sunshine." They also enjoy camping, in both tents and RVs.

Summers are full of activity for Fuller and her husband, but the western Massachusetts winters are often long and cold, and Fuller and her husband are always looking for an activity to sustain them through those winters. Staying active is key for Fuller's husband, who has had significant back surgeries. On a whim, they tried bowling, which turned out to be the best therapy for his back. They now bowl three times per week at the second oldest candle pin bowling alley in North America. "We've met some great people, and come home every night with something to laugh about," Fuller said.

Fuller's personal and professional lives bring her a great deal of joy. She can't believe that she has reached middle age, most likely due to the enjoyment she receives from her life and from her husband. "I am ... most happily married to the world's greatest guy," she concluded.

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