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Profile: De Dishman, paralegal, Schroeder Law Offices, Portland, OR, and NFPA Secretary and Director of Operations in Western water fight

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De Dishman is an accidental paralegal. The Secretary and Director of Operations for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations had worked as a title officer for an insurance company for 10 years when one of her clients asked if she would work for him as a paralegal. The client was a debt-collection and foreclosure attorney. Ms. Dishman accepted the job and discovered a career she loved.

Her work as a title officer was relevant to the paralegal profession. She was an expert in researching property-the chain of title, whether all loans on the property had been paid off. After researching a property, she would write reports for the company's attorneys advising if an individual needed to be served and if there were liens and encumbrances attached to the property. The skills were useful to her paralegal career, and the rest she learned on the job.

Unlike many paralegals today, Ms. Dishman, 48, learned all her paralegal skills on the job.

"When I started out in this field, there really wasn't the opportunity for paralegal education that there is now," she said. "I have friends that came up the same way that are about the same age, and we kind of feel like we've pioneered the profession so that there are paralegal programs and those opportunities now."

Schroeder Law Offices is a small firm that specializes in water rights. Ms. Dishman joined the firm in 2003 because she was interested in learning about environmental law and water in particular. Ms. Dishman, who has been a paralegal for 18 years, also specializes in commercial litigation, real estate, creditor's rights, and construction law.

"I usually change jobs every four or five years to learn a new area of law," she said. "I pick out the area of law that I want to learn and kind of have an idea of what law firm I want to work with and which attorneys."

She says working for four attorneys at Schroeder is much less stressful than working in a large firm. She joined Schroeder from Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, which has about 150 attorneys, and prior to that she worked for Stoel Rives, which is one of the biggest firms in the Northwestern United States.

"I actually enjoy both, but I'm really enjoying this because it's a little less stress filled not working for 30 people in one day," she said.

Ms. Dishman has been active in the Oregon Paralegal Association throughout her career, serving on the organization's board of directors and as a delegate to the NFPA conventions. She is also a board member of the Portland, OR, chapter of Women in Construction.

She said water law is something she considered for a long time and felt it would be a good fit with her construction background.

"It was something new I wanted to learn," she said. "In some ways it ties in with the construction because, aside from water rights, you also have to learn about water storage, well construction…it's just a whole new area, and there's a lot going on with water. When you're a rancher or Indian tribe, there's never enough water."

Most of her clients are ranchers, and she is now working on water-rights cases in Oregon and Nevada.

"We primarily represent ranchers, and we also represent irrigation districts or water-control districts and help them to form a district," she said. "You know people have been fighting over water for a hundred years. And in some areas, say Nevada, you have different seasons of irrigation, and so people want to make sure that they get their water when they're supposed to."

Ms. Dishman, a car buff who owns and has restored three 1967 Camaros, advises new paralegals looking for work to get a foot into a firm any way they can—even if it means starting as an assistant.

"Usually if they're hired without the paralegal certificate, they start out and they're a receptionist or a project assistant for four or five years and then move up the ladder," she said. "It doesn't hurt getting their foot in the door by not being a paralegal and to look at different ways to get their foot in the door, like being a project assistant at a large firm. You learn an awful lot, and they're usually willing to move you into a paralegal position after you've been there a couple years."

And people with paralegal certificates but no on-the-job experience may want to take a secretarial job, she said.

"It's been my experience that larger law firms don't necessarily hire paralegals straight out of school," she said. "They usually want somebody with a little experience under their belt. So that way if you can get your foot in the door and get that experience, it's usually the best way to do it."

And if you want to learn a new area of law, take some classes through NFPA and look for new jobs in that area. Ms. Dishman researched attorneys for whom she'd like to work months in advance of submitting her resume to particular firms. She would meet attorneys at professional seminars and networking events through the NFPA and the Oregon Paralegal Association.

"And then I would determine from the presenters which attorney I would most likely want to go to work for," she said. "And then when an opportunity would present itself, I would submit my resume. But it wouldn't be like I'd decide today that I am going to do this tomorrow. I did my research over the course of a year to a year and a half."

Although she loves rebuilding her Camaros with her husband, Ms. Dishman said she never considered a career restoring cars.

"I have one that I've had since I was 16, and I have two others that we've purchased over the years," she said. "It's really hard, and if you keep it as a hobby it's fun, but if you do it as a career, it's not so fun anymore. We just keep them and enjoy them."

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