Twin Cities Paralegal Grad Builds New Beginning after Earning Degree
By Will Erstad on 05/08/2014
Frederich Nietzsche really was on to something when he wrote: “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
Twin Cities-based paralegal student, Jennifer Smith Van Nest, is a great example of that—a difficult divorce and legal battle for custody of her daughter could have broken her spirit; instead she used it as fuel in her pursuit of a paralegal associate degree.
“If someone throws a brick at you, you can either let it hurt you or you can take that brick and make something out of it,” Smith Van Nest says. “I never want me or my family to feel vulnerable to the legal process again.”
Legal battle sparks change
Smith Van Nest didn’t pursue college after high school—she married and spent her time as a stay-at-home mom. Her domestic and professional life changed drastically in 2006 when she and her then-husband divorced and began the process of negotiating custody rights. The hours spent in law offices dealing with the divorce and custody most likely weren’t the most pleasant in her life, but they did help plant the seed for a career change.
“I saw how important it was to have a good legal support team aside from just the attorney—having good paralegals makes a huge difference for clients,” Smith Van Nest says.
The up-close look Smith Van Nest had at the profession had her thinking that her people skills and organizational ability would be a good fit for the roll. The seed of interest was planted but she didn’t enroll in a paralegal program immediately—she spent a few years working in event promotions and also coordinating hair and makeup for weddings while adapting to her new life as a single mom. She eventually took on another role in 2011 as an office manager for her new husband’s custom cabinetry business.
It was then that Smith Van Nest decided the time was right to begin her education—she just needed to find a program that would be flexible enough to accommodate her work schedule and responsibilities as her daughter’s youth soccer coach. The online courses the paralegal program at Rasmussen College offered fit the bill perfectly and she enrolled in 2012.
Competitive nature helps build foundation
Smith Van Nest’s soccer-mom demeanor veils a feisty competitive personality. The duties of paralegal work are a fantastic channel for that competitive energy—when preparing a legal interpretation you have to research and support your claims, so her desire to ‘win’ comes in handy.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to back up my position,” Smith Van Nest says. “When I was little my parents would tell me I needed to be a lawyer because I would argue way too well.”
Smith Van Nest says one instructor at Rasmussen College, William Neiman, was a ‘rock star’ and knew exactly how to use her competitive nature to bring out the best in her academically.
“He would make the weekly writing assignments into a competition where he’d pick his favorite,” Smith Van Nest says. “That just really worked for me and my personality.”
The tactic worked well for both instructor and student—Neiman noticed the good work she had done and recommended that she apply for an internship at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office where he also works. Smith Van Nest obliged and soon after interviewing had an internship to give her yet another close look at the life of a paralegal.
Smith Van Nest says the mentorship provided by Julie Fling, a senior paralegal during her internship, was invaluable and she helped expose her to areas of law she otherwise wouldn’t have pursued. Smith Van Nest received more than just experience and advice during her internship; after completing her internship Fling wrote her a strong letter of recommendation.
“I was lucky that Julie Fling and William Neiman really took an interest in my work—it’s made all the difference for me,” Smith Van Nest says.
Building her future
Smith Van Nest certainly didn’t have to worry about her paralegal skills growing rusty after graduation—she earned an associate degree in March 2014 and she secured a paralegal position at Johnson Law Offices within a matter of days.
Her new employer will require a new focus moving from family law to personal injury law. Smith Van Nest says she had a tendency to turn hypothetical situations in her homework assignments into hypothetical family law situations, much to the amusement of her instructors. The focus on personal injury law is a departure from what first caught her interest in the legal field, but Smith Van Nest is still firmly focused on her family and setting the bar for her daughter.
“I think going to school has set a really good example for [my daughter],” Smith Van Nest says. “It shows that she can do anything and it’s never too late.”
Her professional ambition may not be fully satisfied—Smith Van Nest says she might eventually earn a law degree—but, in the meantime, she plans to continue building experience as a paralegal and devoting her newly earned free time to raising her family.
Prove them wrong
If you’re the type to never give up on an argument and are willing to do the digging to prove that you’re right, the legal field is perfect for you. The best part—you don’t need to spend seven years working your way to a law degree, a paralegal associate degree can help you quickly enter the legal profession.