Profile: Mary Jo Denman, Legal Assistant, Smith, Bassett, Purcell and Koenig in Atlanta, and 2004-2005 President-Elect of NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals

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As acting president of the legal association NALS, Mary Jo Denman sent an appeal to the association's members: Get Involved! She quoted Mark Twain in her appeal: "Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is the lightning that does the work." Then she asked the members, "Are you thunder or lightning?"

Thunder, she said, is loud and gets a lot of attention. But lightning? "That's where the action is, and that's where the work gets done," she wrote, urging NALS members to "Be lightning. Volunteer for a NALS committee or run for local or state office."

Ms. Denman is lightening. And when she takes over the reins of NALS this month from Mary Burns (see last week's profile), she hopes to encourage others to volunteer to expand NALS' mission to educate legal professionals and provide networking opportunities.

Ms. Denman, 56, joined NALS in the early 1970s when she was working as a legal secretary in San Antonio, TX.

"I was always interested in learning more, and I thought this was a way I could learn more about the legal field," she said. "That's basically why I joined in the beginning—was for educational purposes."

Education is still the top priority for NALS, which used to be an acronym for National Association of Legal Secretaries, but now stands alone as NALS because the group's members hold various positions in the legal profession, including paralegals. The association has three levels of certification for legal professionals and encourages its members to attend educational seminars in person or online and to take as many legal courses as possible.

Ms. Denman, who has been with Smith, Bassett, Purcell and Koenig since 1977, said she does both clerical and paralegal work at the law firm. She is one of two support staff for five attorneys and said she learned most of her paralegal skills through on-the-job training and NALS workshops.

"I wear many hats, as many of us do, especially in a small law firm," she said. "Sometimes some of my time is billable, some is not. I do a lot of administrative; I do a lot of secretarial; I do a lot of legal assistant work, so it keeps it interesting."

Ms. Denman's introduction to the legal field was serendipitous. She was a math major at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, but dropped out and got married. Her husband was in the service, and she was looking for a secretarial job in any kind of office. It just so happened she was hired by a law firm.

"That's how I began, and it was just so interesting I stuck with it," she said. The math studies helped her later in her career doing some of the firm's bookkeeping.

"I'm pretty good (with accounts)," she said. "It doesn't scare me. Let's put it that way."

Smith, Bassett, Purcell and Koenig is a general civil practice, and Ms. Denman said she does a lot of probate work, wills and estates, some corporate and business litigation, and contract work. One of the attorneys she supports is a solo practitioner.

Ms. Denman, who is originally from Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Atlanta in 1977 because of her husband's job, said she is looking forward to the NALS presidency and feels well prepared for the year ahead.

"I pretty well know what to expect. We have a system in place that we've had for a while now, where the president-elect spends the year before the presidency as chair of the Strategic Planning Committee," she said. "There's a cycle we kind of go through to where next year, we'll be working on all the things that our strategic planning committee came up with last year."

She said the Strategic Planning Committee looks years ahead and decides in which direction the organization should be going.

"The president-elect is very heavily involved in that planning. And so it's not like I have to come up with some new goals right now. It's an ongoing thing, and it's a committee. It's a work of many," she said.

When asked what the biggest priorities are for NALS, Ms. Denman pointed toward education, certification, and networking. Ms. Denman said she's never really considered joining another legal organization because when she started in the 1970s, NALS was the only one to choose.

"We were the only one; we were the original," she said. "We've been around since 1929, whereas like NALA, they were borne out of us."

NALA is the National Association of Legal Assistants, which was incorporated in 1975. NALS, which has about 5,000 members, still has legal secretaries as members, but is also open to legal assistants, paralegals, legal administrators, and law firm managers.

When asked what advice she would give to legal professionals entering the field today, Ms. Denman advised them not to be too choosy with their first jobs.

"I would tell them to take any job they can get," she said. "It's not beneath them to be a receptionist or a legal secretary because you learn an awful lot there. And if you're intelligent and hardworking and flexible, you will easily be able to move into more responsible positions."

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