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Tina M. Keller, ACP, serves as a litigation paralegal for Sacramento County District Attorney's Office Consumer and Environmental Protection Division (CEPD). She joined the office in 2004.
Before working for the CEPD, Ms. Keller served as a paralegal for civil law firms and was an office administrator at two firms. She specialized in litigation, but also worked in social security law, banking law, domestic law, and small claims resolutions. Ms. Keller owned her own paralegal business in the 90s.
She is an active member of NALA. Ms. Keller joined NALA in the mid-1990s while serving as an officer for the ILA in Indiana. She also had the privilege of membership with the APA when she lived near Phoenix for a few years. Ms. Keller currently serves on the board of directors for the Commission for Advanced California Paralegal Specialization, Inc.
She was born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana. Ms. Keller received her general AA and earned her degree in Paralegal Studies from St. Petersburg College in Florida. She also received her CLA in 1996 and her CLAS (now ACP) in 1998.
When asked about her family, Ms. Keller said, "I've been married for 36 years. The youngest grandchild is 12 years old. He keeps me young and makes me old all in the same moment. My family is the most important part of my life."
When she isn't working, she enjoys photography, cooking, gardening, yoga and playing the guitar. Ms. Keller also loves mystery books, movies, and adventure stories. She has a passion for Mexican food and to this day misses El Charro Café in Tucson.
Mr. Keller's Successful Career
How long has Ms. Keller worked for the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office? Why did she decide to specialize as a litigation paralegal? Ms. Keller noted:
"I celebrated my 10 year anniversary with the DA's office in March this year. I have been assigned to CEPD the entire time I've worked at the DA's office. Initially I was hired for and assigned to one case for the first 8 years (The MTBE case against the oil companies). Once that case was finally over, I was permitted to remain in the unit as the paralegal for both environmental and consumer cases. I was hired because of my background with hazardous materials, large civil litigation, and computer skills. All were necessary for the MTBE case. Before moving to California, and accepting this current position, I worked in civil law firms as a paralegal and at two firms as the office administrator. I specialized in litigation, but also worked in domestic law, social security law, banking law and small claims resolutions. In the mid to late 1990s I owned my own paralegal business."
How long has Ms. Keller been a paralegal? She acknowledged:
"I have been a paralegal since 1987. I worked as a paralegal for a former City Attorney in Clearwater, Florida while completing my degree in paralegal studies. Bob Walker hired me knowing that I was still learning, and he was one of the best bosses I ever had. He was a gruff man, with little patience for mistakes, and a great person. He was former military, and remained in the National Guard during the years I worked for him. He would be gone for stretches of time, leaving me to keep up the docketing and caseload, and to rely on his partner during his absence. I learned more from Bob Walker than anyone before or since. I worked with Bob until it was time for my family to move back to Indiana the end of 1989."
Why did she decide to become a paralegal? Ms. Keller asserted:
"I was in the process of earning a degree as an industrial engineer. I did well in the computer classes, and fine in the sciences. It was Engineering Calculus that made me rethink my career choice. I went to the guidance counselors' office and was given a computerized test matching my abilities, skills and personality with career choices. A few different options popped up at the end of the testing. Something in the legal field was the main theme. I read the description for paralegal, as I had never heard of such a thing (1986). The description matched everything I was good at, and listed job duties that sounded fun to me. I changed my degree path the next week, with all of my general credits transferring toward the Paralegal Studies Degree. All I had to take were the actual paralegal related courses at that point. I graduated a year later than originally anticipated because of the change, but it was well worth it to me."
What advice would Ms. Keller give to someone who's brand-new to her position? She stated:
"In order of importance, I would say to listen, ask questions and admit your mistakes. I can't say enough for really listening, and grasping the directions rather than listening to talk. Once the assignment has been given, if you don't understand what you are being assigned, say so. Ask questions until you fully understand the project, but not as a means of looking clever or making conversation with the attorneys. They know the difference. Finally, everyone makes mistakes. It is better to say you made a mistake, and move forward to resolve it, than to hope it goes away. A case can be lost or won based on how we handle our mistakes."
What does Ms. Keller think are the keys to becoming a successful paralegal? "There are many things, and everyone is different. For me, I believe the most important things have been (1) to maintain a good sense of humor; (2) not to expect much in the way praise or credit and that way any that you receive will be even more appreciated; (3) to never assume on court rules (remember they change); (4) organization; (5) attention to detail; (6) listening and finally, (7) to avoid procrastination."
What does she think makes the difference between a good paralegal and a great paralegal? Ms. Keller admitted:
"A good paralegal does as instructed, and is always prompt, efficient and accurate. A good paralegal is detail oriented, and takes pride in his/her work. A good paralegal takes full credit and responsibility for her/his own work - for better or worse. A great paralegal is all of the above, and more. A great paralegal isn't afraid to ask 'why' on a project, knowing that understanding the project or assignment makes it easier to remain on task and prepare a work product that is exactly what the attorney is expecting. A great paralegal takes the initiative and plans ahead instead of simply waiting for an assignment."
What's one of the things that Ms. Keller finds most challenging about her job? She explained:
"I work in the environmental and consumer division of the District Attorney's Office. The most challenging thing is also one of the best things. No two cases are the same. Even the same types of cases have very different spins. Some defendants want to comply with the law, and didn't understand they weren't doing so. Some defendants are certain they are smarter than anyone and count on being able to get around the system, which usually doesn't work out for them. And on occasion, they run. They leave the state and sometimes the country. One even ran in to the woods as the officers with the warrant arrived at his job site. When the defendants choose to run, I'm glad I'm the paralegal and not the investigator or officer who chases them down."
What would Ms. Keller say is the most important thing she learned as a paralegal? "That everything is subject to change. Make no assumptions."
What is the difference between her and other paralegals doing the same thing that she does? Ms. Keller said:
"What works for me may work not for someone else. Also, there is the fact that I'm in a type of position that is not common for our profession, so most paralegals are not doing the same thing I do. I work not only with my unit, but with the similar units in other DA offices around the state. We often join together in cases when there is a common perpetrator involved. It saves resources and time to work as a large team, and it stops the illegal actions statewide rather than only in one county. I am happy to see the other counties relying more on paralegals in their own offices. It's good to see our profession expand in this area."
What is the best part of Ms. Keller's job? She replied:
"The people I work with every day in my unit. We are a good team. I also enjoy the people we work with on joint prosecutions in the other DA offices. I am able to interact with attorneys all over the state, and more paralegals as well in the past few years. We have phone conferences with several DA offices on the line, and discuss and split the workloads on major cases. I like knowing that I'm helping in some small way to make this planet just a little cleaner for the next generation. I like knowing that the elderly and other easy 'marks' in our community are safe and that we are protecting them from scams and rip-offs."
What's her favorite part of her day as a paralegal? Ms. Keller said:
"It depends on the day and where I'm working at the time. Overall, I enjoy the early morning time because I'm the first of my team to arrive in the office. I get so much accomplished by the time the attorneys arrive, and then I'm ready for a break in time for our morning status checks. It's a very relaxing time to chat about what everyone's doing and to make sure we are all up to speed on all the cases that are open. Since my hours are different, I'm also the first to leave, which is a nice part of the day as well. I also enjoy finding out a case is over. Marking a case off the to-do list is always fun."
What is Ms. Keller known for professionally? She revealed:
"Computer skills. I maintain a large database system for all of our larger cases. I can find any document, any time it's needed, very quickly. It's what I do. I code the data as it arrives, and I build spread sheets that prove the violations in an easy to read and understand manner. I asked one of my attorneys this question, and she added that this is only part of what I'm known for professionally. I take care of my team. I keep all docketing reminders not only on their calendars, but mine. I send reminders. Due dates are not missed. I work ahead and draft up documents for the attorneys to have a starting point, and pull the documents I'm pretty sure they will want to rely on as exhibits."
What does she think about the paralegal field in California today? What would Ms. Keller change about her field? "I think there is a need for paralegals in this state, and in the DA's offices. I don't believe we are always utilized to the full extent of our skills. In our office, and some private sector firms as well, I have seen the title handed out as a reward to a secretary or office assistant. I believe this need to change. No one is handed the title 'attorney' as a reward. I don't believe it is a different situation, and it is bad for our profession."
If she were not in this profession, what would she most probably be doing? "I would like to believe I would own a photography studio, or an organic herb shop, or maybe run a little café. In reality, I would probably work as a bookkeeper in some office somewhere. I worked both retail sales and as a bookkeeper during college."
Where does Ms. Keller see herself in five years' time? "It was my intention when I accepted this position to make this my last position. My goal is to retire from DA's office and the paralegal profession at the same time."
What motivates her to be a paralegal every day? "I like what I do. I want to make a difference, and I think this career allows that opportunity."
Mentoring Paralegals, Volunteer Activities and People Who Inspire Ms. Keller
Does Ms. Keller consider herself a mentor? "I guess so. I never really thought about it that way. I was part of a mentoring program in Indiana in the 1990s. The paralegal program at St Mary's of the Woods would send out students in their first year to various firms for mentoring, and I inherited a few of those talented young paralegals. I've taught banking law, and I answer questions asked by newbies as needed."
Is she involved in any volunteer activities? "I donate both money and clothes to a few local charities. Time is something that is limited. I do volunteer and assist as needed on my grandson's baseball teams. I also volunteer at his middle school. I usually end up volunteering by accident when I open my mouth with ideas at meetings. I volunteer more than I intend to do so, but I don't go out and actively volunteer."
Who inspires Ms. Keller? She stated:
"I shouldn't use names for fear of offending someone not named. Darlena Gentry, CP was the office manager and as such my supervisor at one of the first firms I worked for in the early 1990s. She became one of my dearest friends, and is still there for me. Deb Smith ACP talked me in to joining NALA. Pat Elliott, ACP was there for me during some very difficult times professionally and personally. Susan DeMeres was one of my professors and my advisor in college. She was the head of the paralegal program at the time. I believe she is a judge now, or maybe even retired. Many of the attorneys I've worked for and with have inspired me to give just a little more, and try something new and different in our handling of cases. My current co-workers inspire me every day in ways I can't begin to explain. My husband and family are supportive and I couldn't do what I do if they didn't believe in me and inspire me every day."
Winning Awards, Being Featured in Vicki Voisin's the Paralegal Mentor Blog and Ms. Keller's Goals
When asked about her accolades and awards she has won throughout her career, Ms. Keller responded:
"I've received awards from various paralegal associations over the years. I have plaques in a box somewhere in the attic over my garage. I don't mean to belittle them, as they mean a great deal to me. The people who honored me with the awards mean even more to me. I just don't like to display them or list them, because they are personal. I will discuss my favorite award. It was presented to me by my youngest grandson when he was 5 years old. The award was for being the best and funniest grandma, and it is framed and in my office to this day."
Ms. Keller was featured on Vicki Voisin’s The Paralegal Mentor blog. How does it feel to be recognized for her work? “I was honored when Vicki asked to feature me in The Paralegal Mentor Blog. I first met Vicki in 1996 at a NALA conference, and my respect for her was immediate, and continues to grow, as does my fondness of her. She’s been an influence in my career.”
She has accomplished a lot in her career. What's next for her? Ms. Keller said:
"This is what I'm meant to do, and what my career prepared me to do. I want to continue to assist with protecting our environment and community until I retire in ten to fifteen years. At that time, I do have some options. I'm not really free to speak about a couple of them, but retirement will be a new beginning rather than an end. I plan on staying in the legal community. I also really want the opportunity to do more with my photography. And the most important part of all is to see the youngest grandson grown and on his own, and to help my husband cuddle and spoil a few great-grandchildren."
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