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Heather A. Moreau, Senior Litigation Paralegal with Paul, Frank & Collins, PC, Burlington, VT

published October 16, 2006

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( 28 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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<<"When I was in the eighth grade, my middle school required that all students take a class called 'Deciding,'" she said. "Little did I know that the class would literally help 'decide' my future. I recall taking a skills and interests survey that revealed that I would be most happy and successful in the fields of law or journalism."

Moreau added that she liked to write and conduct research and had an interest in helping people. She said that by the time she graduated from high school in 1990, the paralegal profession was being touted by local colleges as one of the fastest-growing professions and seemed like a natural fit for her.

After finishing high school, Moreau attended Champlain College in Burlington and earned an associate's degree, with honors, in paralegal studies in 1992. While in college, she worked as a paralegal intern with the Vermont Office of Child Support. Moreau worked for both the Chittenden and Addison County offices and said that she "assisted with the legwork necessary to verify a child's paternity and then ascertain child support."

Shortly after graduation, she spent a year commuting almost 70 miles from her home in St. Albans to the state's capital, Montpelier, where she worked as an Occupancy Specialist for the Vermont State Housing Authority. She said that the job proved to be very beneficial to her when she began working as a paralegal at a law firm.

"I gained experience obtaining and verifying information related to applicants requesting low-income housing," she said. "These experiences [including her work as a paralegal intern] refined my ability to conduct thorough research and forced me to develop effective interviewing techniques, two skills I frequently use in my role as a traditional paralegal in a law firm"

In 1993, she joined Paul Frank as a litigation paralegal in its Burlington office. Moreau said the firm has a very employee-friendly environment.

"During my almost 13 years at [Paul Frank's] Vermont office, I've decided that my firm is one of the best places to work in Vermont," she said. "Others in my firm apparently agree, as over half of the firm's employees have been at the firm for over ten years."

Moreau said that in addition to the firm's reputation for producing top-quality legal work, it is known for "being very family-oriented, having a supportive management structure, and providing many intangible as well as tangible benefits."

Moreau works mainly on defense matters in the areas of complex litigation, medical malpractice, products liability, and insurance defense at the firm. She said she spends a considerable amount of time analyzing, evaluating, and managing factual documents; creating chronologies; working with experts; conducting witness interviews; and otherwise gathering and verifying factual data to support/disprove legal issues.

"At times, I'm asked to do projects that are a little out of the ordinary," she said. "Recently, one of the attorneys I work with mentioned that he would like me to attend an inspection of a factory in which an employee was injured. The interesting part arose when I learned that the inspection would take place at 3:00 a.m."

She said that on another occasion, when her firm was working on an alleged orphanage abuse case, she was asked to be a historian and gather facts on parenting techniques from the 1920s through the 1970s and to explore the orphanage, which had been closed for more than 30 years.

"Also, my medical cases have taken me from the high of touring the new birthing center to the low of viewing the basement-level eeriness of the autopsy room at a local hospital," she said. "Sometimes my days are nothing like I expect them to be."

Moreau said that what she enjoys most about being a paralegal is the variety it offers.

"What other field can you work in when one day you are studying the inner workings of a busy ER and on another day you are standing on top of a locomotive at a fuel distribution center, learning how fuel maintains its odor?" she asked. "When I was in high school, or possibly even earlier, I knew that I was easily bored. Paralegal work is like the weather; if you wait a few minutes, the case, or at least the assignment, changes."

She said that one of the highlights of her career was when her firm represented an order of sisters relating to allegations of abuse at an orphanage. The case involved more than 1,000 potential witnesses and half a century of documents, as well as sensitive issues.

"Working on this case was an experience like none other purely because of its size," Moreau said. "It gave me the opportunity to do everything from managing my first team of paralegals to assisting with drafting motions for summary judgment. The case took on a life of its own and was almost all I worked on for a few years."

She said another career highlight was when she was interviewed by Legal Assistant Today in 2003 for an article that focused on the computerized-document-management skills she had developed. When the issue was published, Moreau was featured on the cover.

Moreau assumed senior status as a litigation paralegal at her firm in 1998. She said that at Paul Frank, a senior paralegal is someone who possesses at least five years of paralegal experience and who has demonstrated advanced skills, as well as the ability to mentor other office paralegals.

"In this role, I have increasing responsibility over my own workload and the ability to delegate work to an extremely capable and dedicated team of other paralegals, support staff, and office assistants," she said. "With this process, both growth and teamwork is fostered."

Moreau also does a great deal of work for paralegal organizations. She has been a member of the Vermont Paralegal Organization (VPO) since 1993 and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations since 1994. In addition, she has been an associate member of the Vermont Bar Association since 2001.

"I believe membership in a paralegal organization is essential to becoming successful in the field," she said. "However, the adage 'You only get out of it what you put into it' is especially accurate on this topic."

Moreau worked on the VPO's continuing legal education committee from 1996 to 1999, and she served as the VPO's secretary from 1998 to 1999. From 1998 to 2001, she represented Vermont paralegals on national issues such as the VPO's liaison to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.

"From these professional opportunities, I was able to meet many diverse paralegals, cultivate professional contacts, take advantage of various training options, and develop leadership skills," she said.

However, Moreau was quick to point out that even if a paralegal decided to join a professional organization without taking a leadership role, he or she would still be kept abreast of local legal issues via the newsletter, be invited to continuing legal education seminars, and have the opportunity to network with other paralegals.

"Simply put, a member becomes part of a larger community with similar interests," she said. "And, undoubtedly, a group has more resources than an individual."

A strong advocate for education, Moreau earned a bachelor's degree in professional studies, with honors, from Champlain College in 2000 and plans to get her master's degree one day.

"My associate's degree in paralegal studies gave me basic yet focused skills I needed to break into the profession," she said. "My bachelor's degree in professional studies strengthened my writing skills and gave me the opportunity to explore personal areas of interest in more depth."

Moreau was involved in Champlain College's mentoring program for a year and has had various opportunities to be a guest speaker for its classes. In addition, she has been contacted by the college's career placement office with requests to have students job-shadow with her.

"I think students benefit from talking with paralegals, asking questions they may be reluctant to ask a college professor, and from witnessing what their career could be like after graduation," she said.

Moreau said that she believes one of the most important issues facing paralegals today is "paralegal growth without crossing the line into the unauthorized practice of law."

"Each day, paralegals are faced with the ethical dilemma of not providing advice, while contending with the inevitable growth ceiling," she said. "The bottom line is a paralegal can't practice law without a license. A paralegal has to be adequately trained, and a law firm needs to effectively monitor a paralegal's work so that line is not crossed."

Moreau said that time management is the biggest challenge of her job.

"At times, it seems that I'm checking email at 5:00 a.m., interviewing witnesses after a family dinner, or analyzing documents from home on a Saturday afternoon so that a long-term project doesn't fall further behind," she said. "On other days, thanks to the flexibility that my firm allows, I'm settling my daughter in at an overnight hockey camp in the middle of a weekday or taking advantage of some late-afternoon sun on a lake. Getting all of this to balance is both wonderful and taxing."

Moreau said that when she is not wearing her paralegal hat, she works on improving her golf score and relaxing with a great book with her husband and their teenage daughter on the family's sailboat. She added that she and her family are big hockey fans and cheer on the Montreal Canadiens, as well as play hockey themselves. Moreau said she also likes to travel.

"I'm constantly looking for places to escape the snow," she said. "And I love traveling to any place warmer than Vermont!"

Moreau offered the following advice for students who are preparing to become paralegals:

"Be resourceful," she said. "Ask questions when you don't understand an assignment, but expect direction and not all the answers. Be independent and confident. Ask yourself what leads or resources you have, or can get, that put you a little closer to what needs to be done."

published October 16, 2006

( 28 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.