I met Julie Koppelman when I served on the Board of Directors for the Red River Valley Paralegal Association (RRVPA) located in Fargo, North Dakota. She is a pleasure to work with and an asset to any team. She is currently employed as a Paralegal in the Estate Administration and Estate Planning section of Ohnstad Twichell, PC.
She is an active member of RRVPA, and has held the position of Treasurer since 2004. Julie is always willing to assist the Board with community events and educational seminars.
PRTW: In the United States, there are many avenues for becoming a paralegal. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a paralegal?
JK: I was a senior in college, majoring in accounting when I received a telephone call to interview for an internship at a local law firm. I did not have any education in the legal profession, I was not sure what to expect. I began an internship in the estate administration department 4 months before I graduated and was hired full time just after graduation. I was fortunate that my tax and accounting backgrounds were a great pairing with estate administration and estate planning. While I wish I would have elected to take courses in a paralegal program at a different local college, I was able to learn along the way from the great attorneys and paralegals at the firm.
PRTW: Why did you choose the paralegal profession?
JK: I thought that I would give the paralegal profession a test run during my internship. 13 years later, I cannot imagine myself working in any other field.
PRTW: Tell us about someone who has influenced your decision to become a paralegal.
JK: Even though the paralegal profession was outside what I thought I would be using my accounting degree for, my advisor in college really encouraged me to keep an open mind and embrace the new challenge. I am forever grateful for this opportunity.
PRTW: In the United States, paralegals have a variety of career options to specialize in, from patent law to elder law to technology law to criminal law. Why did you choose Estate Planning and Administration?
JK: This was the specialty I was initially trained in and I immediately knew that it was the right area for me. My primary focus is estate administration and I enjoy working with families and helping them through the estate process after a loved one has passed away. I enjoy the challenge of putting the puzzle pieces together when families do not know what all the decedent owned.
PRTW: What other specialties have you worked in?
JK: I also work in real estate and corporate law. They are a great pairing with estate planning and estate administration as many people own real estate and businesses so one must be well-versed in many different areas of law.
PRTW: What advice would you give someone interested in choosing the paralegal profession?
JK: My advice would be to keep an open mind as to all areas of law and take as many classes as you can in those other areas you may not necessarily be interested in. Many firms specialize in many areas so it is always a benefit to have a general knowledge of various areas of law.
PRTW: What do you think will change in the paralegal profession in the United States the next five years?
JK: While technology continues to be an important part of our profession, I feel that client contact will still be a very important role for a paralegal. Email and telephone conferences seem to be replacing client meetings. Paralegals will need to find a way to navigate the changes in technology and how it affects our files and client relationships.
PRTW: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
JK: My advice would be to keep an open mind as to where my college education could lead me. I started college as a math education major and transitioned to accounting after my first semester. I always expected that I would be auditing or preparing taxes, so I didn’t consider taking classes in other areas, such as paralegal studies.
PRTW: What might someone be surprised to know about you?
JK: I graduated with a major in accounting and a minor in office administration. I have no college education in the paralegal profession.
PRTW: In the United States, paralegals can be employed in different sectors, such as private or public sectors. What sector are you currently employed in?
JK: I am employed in the private sector at Ohnstad Twichell, P.C. The firm was established in 1939 and has 21 attorneys and 10 paralegals.
PRTW: Do you believe paralegals employed in each of these sectors possess different skill sets? If so, what are they?
JK: While paralegals have a common skill set including organization, people skills, problem solving and communication, to name a few, I believe that each paralegal has to fine tune their skills based upon their area of law and also what sector they are employed in.
PRTW: What do you find most challenging about being a paralegal?
JK: A challenge seems to be managing client expectations through the process. It is important to show clients that as a paralegal, I can bring value to their file yet I cannot replace the attorney.
PRTW: How do continue to do your best work in light of these challenges?
JK: I always do my best to keep an open line of communication with our clients.
PRTW: What was your educational path?
JK: I graduated from Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota - majored in accounting and minored in office administration.
PRTW: How do you deal with stressful situations?
JK: I always try to handle a stressful situation as it happens and not delay it so that I can give the other files I am working on the attention they deserve. Even when clients become emotional or attorneys become stressed, I try to stay calm and do what I can to move the situation along to a resolution.
PRTW: What skills should a paralegal learn today?
JK: It is important for paralegals to remember that technology cannot do our job for us. We must be a problem solver, use common sense and have great people skills.
PRTW: What do you find most rewarding about being a paralegal?
JK: Having been with the firm since 2002, I have been able to work with some clients for many years. I find it rewarding when the client sees paralegals as a valuable part of their legal team and comes to respect and trust us. I have formed great relationships with many clients and believe paralegals are a key part of a successful attorney/client relationship.
PRTW: Are you a mentor to someone in the paralegal profession?
JK: RRVPA has just started a mentor program in the past year and I look forward to becoming more involved in that program.
PRTW: If you weren't a paralegal, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?
JK: I love volunteering and being a part of the organizations my children are involved in. I would love to be able to give more time to our school PTO and our daughter’s dance team, but I always see myself working as a paralegal in some capacity.
PRTW: What is a “typical day” like in your shoes?
JK: What I enjoy most about the paralegal profession is that every day brings something new. No matter how hard I try to plan my day, it always changes. I spend my days drafting pleadings for probate files, collecting and analyzing asset information, working on estate tax returns, communicating with clients, discussing the status of a file with the supervising attorney, researching real estate records, reviewing estate files to determine what remains to close the estate and handling any miscellaneous tasks that the attorney may have. Every day brings a new challenge, which I love.
PRTW: Does Fargo, North Dakota, or Ohnstad Twichell require continuing legal education for paralegals?
JK: Although my employer does not require continuing legal education, they encourage and support us to participate in CLE. Each year we attend the Minnesota Probate and Trust Law Section Conference and have many other opportunities through the year as well.
PRTW: Who inspires you?
JK: My children inspire me to be the best working mom I can be. While being a mom is always a priority, I want them to see that I can enjoy my career as well and still have time for them and their activities.
PRTW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
JK: The best piece of advice I was given was to not just look to an attorney for the answer but to arrive at a proposed solution to a problem. The attorneys are always open to discuss concerns with files but they expect and appreciate when the paralegal not only comes to them with a problem but also with a proposed solution or two to that problem.
Julie can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.