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Profile: Jan Ezell, paralegal, Alston & Bird in Atlanta

( 44 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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<<Corporate paralegal Jan Ezell has been with Alston & Bird for 20 years, and she has witnessed major changes in the firm. When she started with the firm, there were about 150 attorneys. Now there are more than 700 in the Atlanta-headquartered firm.

Ezell, 44, has done some litigation work, but she prefers corporate law.

"Our firm really does a little bit of everything, but I definitely prefer the corporate side," she said. "I think it gives paralegals a lot more opportunity to have a lot more responsibility. I don't do the same thing the lawyers do. I don't get involved in the negotiation of documents, but it can be pretty heady stuff."

A political science major at Auburn University in Alabama, Ezell worked in law firms part time throughout college. That experience and a few law classes convinced her she wanted a legal career. She started as a legal secretary and considered going to law school.

Originally from San Antonio, TX, Ezell moved to Atlanta shortly after college and worked as a secretary for Alston & Bird. After about a year, she was promoted to corporate paralegal, learning the craft on the job. She enjoys the sophisticated business of her job and has taken corporate accounting classes at night, subsidized by the firm.

"Even after doing it for 20 years, I do feel I'm still challenged," she said. "And I think it's just because laws change. Obviously, there's been a lot of change with respect to public companies, with the Sarbanes-Oxley [Act], so things are always changing."

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is the 2002 corporate governance law. Many companies have asked for extensions this year to comply with provisions of the Act that kicked in this year. The changing laws are a challenge for Ezell.

"I suppose it could be intimidating, but I think it's good to have the challenge and to grow professionally," said Ezell.

If you're interested in becoming a corporate paralegal, Ezell recommends taking some financial courses.

"It would probably be helpful to have some business background, accounting courses, or whatever because you do work with financial statements," she said. "We work closely with the big accounting firms, which are involved when we do SEC filings and then sometimes involved when we do mergers and acquisitions."

In 2003, Alston & Bird was ranked third in Fortune's list "The 100 Best Companies to Work For"—the first law firm ever to make the top five. In 2004, it moved up to number two. The firm's ranking slipped to 36 in 2005.

Ezell credited the casual atmosphere, company perks, and amenities with the firm's success. The firm has a day care center, partial tuition reimbursement, and approachable bosses.

"We're casual," she said. "There're no more suits and pantyhose around here and hasn't been for several years. It's not a real formal place. You call everybody, even the managing partner, by their first names. But we represent very sophisticated clients."

The firm, which has approximately 100 paralegals, has monthly lunches, quarterly get-togethers, CLE meetings, and weekend trips for the entire company. This year, the company is going to Charleston, SC, for the weekend.

The firm provides Certified Legal Education meetings and training, but does not require CLE certification. Ezell said her lack of a paralegal certificate has not been a problem, but could be in other firms and many corporations. But Alston & Bird is so big, it feels like a corporation.

"It's become more like working for a corporation than a law firm, and that just happens, I think, when you get to be this big," she said.

Ezell has taken advantage of the firm's tuition reimbursement.

"If you take classes that relate to what you do, the firm reimburses you for half of the tuition and supplies, etc.," she said. "I took two accounting courses and a corporate finance course at Georgia State University a couple of years ago. It was really enjoyable."

Working full time and studying two nights a week was a bit overwhelming, Ezell said.

"I just really didn't have a life outside work and school," she said.

But the courses paid off, especially given that she had a liberal arts education, with little finance background.

"We do general corporate work, mergers and acquisitions—either seller side or buyer side—some securities work, initial public offerings, secondary offerings," she said. "I was thinking about law school and have thought about it over the years, but at this point, I'm not going to pursue it."

Auburn University


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