I met Svetlana Peshkoff through the National Capital Area Paralegal Association (NCAPA). Svetlana Peshkoff is a paralegal with Shaw Bransford & Roth , P.C. located in Washington, DC, and has been an active member of NCAPA since 2012. She is also a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA).
PRTW: In the United States, there are many avenues for becoming a paralegal. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a paralegal?
SP: After my return to the States from Kazakhstan, where I worked for Tengizchevroil, a joint venture between Chevron and the state oil company, I started working as an Executive Assistant for an international shipping company based in Seattle, Washington. I dealt with contracts and translated many of them, as well as interpreting business negotiations during teleconferences. This is where my love for contracts and the law came from. The shipping company worked with several cities in the Russian Far East and South Korea, but it was at that point in 1998, when the ruble crashed. The company folded, and wanted to retain me by offering me a position within their parent company. The alternative was “retraining”, i.e., offering to have a degree paid for as a severance package. My choices were either a lateral position or a two-year degree leading to a career change. This is what led me to my specialization as a paralegal – I earned my ABA-approved Associate’s Degree in Technical Arts in Paralegal Studies from Edmonds Community College, in Washington State (which, curiously enough, was in the same town as NFPA’s former headquarters!)
After graduation, I worked as a paralegal in downtown Seattle for a collections/bankruptcy firm specializing in commercial bankruptcy. Under attorney supervision, I had to locate debtors, and attempt to negotiating settlements. I researched the legal names of the companies under which they were listed, as well as the “doing business as” (d/b/a), and track any other companies in default they were associated with as well. This helped me develop communication skills, and negotiating skills, and I also developed pride in my work and a sense of confidence. I tried to hear out their point of view as to why they were in that situation, and I learned that when you made the effort to let the debtor know you sincerely want to help, but that you need to understand how a business had gone off track, the owners are more willing to work with you in finding a resolution. I would help people figure out how to get out of their predicament and rectify the situation. In turn, they obtained a sense of pride because for many of these small business owners, their business was the product of their life savings and daily hard work; they welcomed the offer of helping them find a way to deal with their debt.
After Seattle, I moved back to northern California, because I missed my family. The economy was tanking and my dreams of working for Pets.com imploded. I accepted a position in Sacramento, CA, with a large law firm as a legal secretary. I didn’t realize at the time that one needed more than a two-year degree to work as a paralegal at a large law firm, so I took upon myself to work full-time, raise my son as a single divorcee, and took courses towards my Bachelor’s degree.
PRTW: Tell us about someone who has influenced your decision to become a paralegal.
SP: Bruce Weiner, one of my paralegal professors in school, was most influential. As a matter of fact, I believe he was quoted in the Paralegal Reporter just last year, and I was stunned to see his name, for he was an admirable and highly professional educator and attorney. He was the epitome of a professional esquire, and I credit him for inspiring me to continue my studies and pursuing the paralegal profession.
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. What is your specialty?
SP: I cannot say that I have one specialization, as I have worked in family law, bankruptcy law, and commercial litigation, but currently, I work for a firm specializing in federal employee defense.
PRTW: If you can choose any specialty, what would you choose?
SP: I am very interested in environmental law, even in this current political atmosphere.
PRTW: What advice would you give someone interested in choosing the paralegal profession?
SP: In general, become as legal tech savvy as possible; in your particular job make a point of keeping up with your due diligence. Never assume that each matter, no matter how similar they may be are to be approached exactly the same. Focus on the details and specifics of each matter.
PRTW: What do you think will change in the paralegal profession in the United States the next five years? What is the best way for a paralegal to prepare for these changes? With this mind, what changes will you make to continue being a successful paralegal?
SP: Technology will keep evolving, and in particular, discovery applications and electronic research. Some basic skills will remain in demand – reviewing documents to ensure that the proper language is being used in your attorney’s pleadings - in addition to the basic legal writing skills you should acquire; and double check the spelling of names, pronouns, and spelling of words. Most importantly, remember that when writing, get the most information across with the least number of words.
PRTW: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
SP: Earn a four-year degree as early as possible, no matter how difficult the circumstances; and never stop at a two-year degree.
PRTW: What might someone be surprised to know about you?
SP: I happen to be Chilean, so I speak Spanish, in addition to Russian. I loved studying Japanese. I sing in the church choir; and I’ve recently become a certified Zumba instructor. In my spare time, I volunteer for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as their Hispanic Liaison, and I also volunteer for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway.
PRTW: In the United States, paralegals can be employed in different sectors, such as private or public sectors. Do you believe paralegals employed in each of these sectors possess different skillsets?
SP: Yes and no. Working in the public sector you come across much bureaucracy, and my experience has been that you must have a greater level of patience working for the government, and you must have a tenacious character.
PRTW: What do you find most challenging about being a paralegal?
SP: The greatest challenge for me is how to gently explain to attorneys why they need to let paralegals review their documents before sending them out the door. Another challenge for a paralegal is time management, a skill that develops with time.
PRTW: How do you continue to do your best work in light of these challenges?
SP: I continue to make myself indispensable by foreseeing a potential challenge, addressing that problem in advance, i.e., finding a solution for it before the attorney identifies the problem; and no less important, following through with tasks colleagues may not want to do.
PRTW: Please name a highlight in your career.
SP: My highlight of my career was when the toughest boss I have ever worked for, said, "Thank you, I believe you found a mistake, (according to the associate she spoke with). I understand we had to refile based on your find." I was very happy to be recognized for having an eye for detail.
PRTW: What is the best book you have ever read & why?
SP: The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett; it tracks a number of families via several generations and starts around 1911. It’s full of romance, political upheaval, and intrigue; and the novels span over several generations, wars and continents. This series is perfect for both sexes to read. Basically, it starts with Lords and Ladies and ends with the Vietnam War.
PRTW: Have you ever been published?
SP: Yes. I have been published several times in OnPoint, NCAPA’s quarterly members-only publication.
- CLE Spotlight: Time Management and Organization Skills (March 2015).
- 2014 Winter Social (March 2014).
- Paralegal Roundtable Kicks Off Paralegal Week (November 2014).
- Bringing Lawyers and Technology Together (June 2014).
PRTW: What is one law in your specialty that people would be interested to hear about? Why are you interested in it?
SP: As a paralegal specializing in Administrative Law, I found the role of a paralegal to be more nuanced and intriguing. In many federal agencies, as it was explained to me, you don’t technically have to be a lawyer to represent a party in federal administrative proceedings. For example, USDA may hire lawyers NOT in a lawyer capacity, but to fill an HR rep position. This is why the USDA has, at times, used HR people to represent it in administrative hearings – but, again, it should be noted that they usually have law degrees and previously practiced law. This is also the case with the FBI, where paralegals are permitted to actually prepare and submit a substantive pleading, for it is not prohibited.
PRTW: How do you deal with stressful situations?
SP: I take a deep breath and slow myself down. I focus on what I am working on (the document, problem, or project on hand). I refocus on the items I need to complete. I ground myself. If I let myself get caught up in the anxiety of the moment, I cannot focus. I repeat in my head what needs to be done, then I approach the situation with a calmer demeanor and complete the task at hand, making sure I don’t overlook any details or make any mistakes.
PRTW: Do you possess any certifications?
SP: I was a Commissioned Notary Public in California while I lived there, and now I am Commissioned in Washington, DC. I recommend anyone working as a paralegal to become a Notary Public, as it is quite useful to have in this profession.
PRTW: What do you find most rewarding about being a paralegal?
SP: I love the challenge of getting things done, especially if the deadline is a moving target. I love the pressure prior to a submission and the feeling of success after the fact.
PRTW: What role does mentorship play in your career, both as a mentor and a mentee?
SP: I have offered advice to other paralegals who are just starting out, however, as I don’t have an actual mentee, so this is not on a regular basis. It helps to hear their concerns, assuage their fears, and mentoring gives the mentee a sense of confidence in their abilities to meet new challenges.
PRTW: If you could change one thing about the paralegal profession what would it be, and why?
SP: I would make taking the Registered Paralegal (RP) exam a requirement in all states. Like with any para-profession, the licensing of a paralegal would help delineate paralegal duties more clearly, and would separate the administrative duties from the paraprofessional duties. The reason I would do so is that when a paralegal applies to a job, he or she would know exactly what is expected in addition to the job description. Additionally, the employer would be compelled to pay the licensed professional what they are truly worth.
PRTW: What legal blogs do you read?
SP: I read this one, PRTW! I read the Paralegal Reporter, a magazine. I also read the weekly NFPA newsletter; OnPoint, NCAPA’s digital magazine; The Sidebar, NCAPA’s online newsletter; and the various articles posted on LinkedIn by the different organizations I belong to.
PRTW: What legal podcasts do you listen to?
SP: I listen to The Paralegal Voice via the Legal Talk Network and a pseudo-legal podcast, Serial.
PRTW: If you weren't a paralegal, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?
SP: I would be doing research in the field of carbon sequestration, or studying geomorphological changes in various parts of the USA.
PRTW: What is a “typical day” like in your shoes?
SP: I come in and check my email right away. I scan for key names, and immediately look for important dates, items for the docket and deadlines. I address the most pressing matters right away. Repeat: I always check deadlines. ALWAYS. I take care of most matters in the first half of the day, because come 3 p.m., all the emergency requests start pouring in.
PRTW: What resources does the United States, Washington, DC, or your employer provide to you in order to do your job
SP: I can access various resources via the NFPA website as well as NCAPA’s website. The local universities, such as George Washington University and Georgetown University, have well-regarded paralegal programs. They maintain interesting websites with practical information and plenty of resources for paralegal professionals. Also, my firm does pay for my NCAPA membership and values my earned CLE credits.
PRTW: Who inspires you?
SP: Angela M. King. She is the current President-Elect of NCAPA, and the hardest working individual I know. I just don't understand how she does it all!
PRTW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
SP: If in doubt, never be afraid to ask questions.
PRTW: Pro bono work is an integral part of the legal profession. Do you feel that paralegals can contribute to pro bono work? What are some of the benefits for paralegals to perform pro bono/volunteer activities? Have you participated in any pro bono activities?
SP: Pro bono work gives a paralegal invaluable experience. This benefits both you and your client. You will have an opportunity to gain new skills and experience which you may be unable to do at your current job. Giving more of yourself to clients who otherwise would have nowhere else to turn will also give you a sense of pride and accomplishment – not to mention that it’ll look good on your resume.
Svetlana can be reached via LinkedIn or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or