Paralegal in the Spotlight
Ellen Sheffer, Pioneer for Paralegal Education
“A paralegal’s best asset is a willingness to continue learning.”
Interview by Loni Morganelli
Today I want to introduce you to Ellen Sheffer, one of our industry’s most influential paralegals. Working as a paralegal before the profession formally existed, Ellen has dedicated her life to enhancing the paralegal’s role and to educating not only herself but everyone she interacts with and those aspiring to follow in her step. She is a true pioneer of the paralegal profession developing educational standards and certification curriculum that has undoubtedly touched hundreds of paralegals across our great country.
Currently working as a freelance paralegal, Ellen has had quite a journey over the years. Graduating in 1977 from Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri with a double major in Spanish and Education, Ellen taught high school Spanish for a year before becoming interested in paralegal work. Once her interest peaked, she began paralegal classes at Meramec Community College in St. Louis. Her first experience working with an attorney came through a family neighbor, where she assisted in his law practice by interviewing clients and performing legal research. This connection was her stepping stone into life as a paralegal at a major law firm in St. Louis. There, she had the opportunity to assist in white collar criminal defense and large plaintiff personal injury cases. Growing in confidence, Ellen moved to Springfield, Missouri and found a paralegal job where “few attorneys hired paralegals.” It was there, in 1980, that she co-founded the Southwest Missouri Paralegal Association.
In 1987, Ellen moved to California and has worked tirelessly in the paralegal profession ever since. Upon her arrival, she developed a successful freelance business that she has maintained on and off for many years while taking on many other wonderful opportunities, including co-authoring the book Evidence Management for the Paralegal with esteemed paralegal, Stacey Hunt. “It was great fun writing all of the ancillary materials which accompany the textbook, such as the test bank and instructor’s manual.” Evidence Management for the Paralegal is currently used in paralegal programs throughout the United States.
Fostering her love for education, Ellen’s reach extends far and wide. Beginning at the grassroots level in her own community, she currently serves as an elected trustee for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. This position has given her valuable knowledge of public agencies, how they are governed, and mastered her ability to understand policy and the Education Code. “My work as a paralegal has definitely benefited me in my role as a trustee. My ability to read and understand policy and education code has helped me to grasp the intricacies of the policies we develop. I value my work as a trustee because it is important, honorable work. It has always been vital to me to give back to the community in which I live and help others.”
Ellen also serves on the board of Lifelong Learners of the Central Coast, an organization that develops and offers non-credit classes to adults. She writes a regular column for the San Luis County Bar Bulletin and was recognized as the first paralegal to ever do so! “I’ve served in various capacities in paralegal organizations in every city I’ve lived in.” This mastery of education administration and pioneering for the paralegal profession has successfully paved the way for Ellen to work with a number of educational institutions dedicated to paralegal education, at a foundational level and through continuing legal education. In fact, many of you may remember Ellen as the Conference Director and Instructor of Continuing Education classes for paralegals at Estrin LegalEd.
For those new to KNOW and to the industry itself, the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and KNOW, the Magazine for Paralegals were founded by Chere Estrin. The organization and emagazine helps paralegals gain valuable expertise, CLE, and access to fundamental career networking. Chere is also a co-founding member and President of the Organization for Legal Professionals (OLP) offering eDiscovery and Litigation Support certification exams along with a variety of in-demand specialty classes and certificate programs each month.
Continuing in the tradition of education, Ellen serves on the Advisory Board for Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California. “My work on this board is to help grow the program…to discuss new course offerings and to help students develop the skills they will need in the workplace. We also promote the program within the community and encourage employers to hire its graduates.”
In 1995, Ellen became the Director of the Paralegal Studies Program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. There she reached new heights in education administration. “My experience in designing courses and working with faculty combined with my paralegal experience helped the program achieve great success. I was the first instructor to teach a course entirely online.” As Director, Ellen had the opportunity to work with adult students who had chosen to change careers or take classes to improve their skill set. “I had so much respect for these hardworking dedicated students who worked all day and attended school at night in order to further their education. I learned more from them than I can express.”
On the national level, Ellen has served on the Certifying Board at NALA – the Association for Legal Assistants and Paralegals. There, she updated the Certified Paralegal exam and graded exams. At the same time, Ellen also served on the California Commission for Advanced Paralegal Specialization. “While on the Commission, we determined areas of specialization to develop and formulated various exams that would require paralegals to demonstrate expertise in particular practice areas.” Giving weight to the big question of whether paralegals should become certified and specialists, Ellen believes that “developing certification requirements will mean that educational outcomes must match the requirements. As paralegals, my hope is that we ‘own’ our profession by demonstrating a commitment to education in the field prior to entering the career and to continuing education while working. We must develop valuable and valued programs for educating those wishing to embark on a career as a paralegal.”
Having worked for a variety of law firms, educational institutions, and as a freelance paralegal, Ellen believes that the “best paralegals are those who have found an area of the law that truly interests them and then pursues education and work in that area.” Ellen says it is still easy to become a “broad” specialist, though, as she herself has worked across many fields, including litigation, personal injury, product liability and trusts and probate. “Because I became involved in the profession when it was so young, I was fortunate to work with attorneys who were willing to teach me about particular areas of law.” Over the years, Ellen has applied to and been accepted to law school many times, but each time has chosen to continue to grow as a paralegal instead of attending law school. “This is an important profession that serves the public well and I have chosen to remain a part of this dynamic field of work.”
Ellen’s advice is highly beneficial to both new paralegals entering the field and seasoned, career paralegals. She advises new paralegals to practice close attention to detail, work for good attorneys who will aid you in your continuing education, be a team player, and do plenty of networking. As for career paralegals and those seeking alternative paths in the field, Ellen encourages you to figure out what you love about the profession and network with paralegals and attorneys who practice in those areas; be brave and willing to take chances; keep your skills sharp; and continue to learn every day. “I was drawn to the profession because it provides an opportunity to solve problems. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of examining different solutions to determine the right way to achieve the best outcome. I am a collaborator by nature and believe that better results are achieved by developing the right team.”
Today, Ellen finds herself ready to strike out on her own again as a freelance paralegal. “I’ve reached a time in my life where I desire more flexibility and the opportunity to pursue other education-related interests, including spending more time in my work as an elected trustee with the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.” Next step? Another book, of course!