Are you aware of the power a paralegal mentor can have for someone’s paralegal career? In this interview with Ashley Stasiewich, a former paralegal turned full-time paralegal instructor at MacEwan University in Canada, you’ll gain insight into the importance of mentorship and the impact paralegal mentors can have on aspiring paralegals.
Ashley is a Sessional Instructor for the Paralegal Studies and Office Assistant Programs at MacEwan University, and she has over 16 years of experience in the legal industry. She teaches legal courses at MacEwan such as Legal Information and Management Procedures, Legal Drafting, Legal Documents 1 and 2, Technology for Paralegals, Legal Research, Business Communication, and the Paralegal Studies Capstone Program.
She was previously supervising graduates of the Paralegal Studies and Office Assistant program during their practicums as an office manager at Morrow Law, but she much prefers her current role working in higher education because it allows her to make a greater impact in educating future legal professionals.
Ashley’s a member and paralegal mentor, as you heard, of the Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals and an associate member of the Edmonton Law Office Managers Association.
She’s currently writing a textbook with criminal lawyer, Paul Moreau, and it’s titled Criminal Law and Procedure for Alberta Legal Professionals expected to be published with Edmund Publishing in 2024. She has two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree in education.
Ashley’s dedication to supporting future legal professionals shines through her teaching and mentorship. Read on to learn more about paralegal mentorship and how you can make an impact on someone’s paralegal career.
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A Paralegal Letter
I reached out to interview Ashley because of a letter I received from a paralegal named Rena who has experienced the power of paralegal mentorship through Ashley.
This is what she wrote:
I’ve been an avid listener of your podcast and attended a Lunch Learn a long time ago when you were based out of New York. I’m located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And I recall how you had an international attendee at one of your live events.
Fast forward to today. I have since (proudly) enjoyed the podcast interview that you had with Heidi Semkovich of the Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals. The reason why I’m reaching out to you today is that I would like to nominate another rockstar paralegal. Her name is Ashley Stasiewich.
She’s a rockstar paralegal in my eyes because, like Heidi, Ashley leads by example. I’m extremely proud to have both Heidi and Ashley as my mentors. And I believe they both have so much to offer by way of sage wisdom to all those paralegals out there.
I’m nominating Ashley to be interviewed on your podcast because Ashley has the characteristics and drive as a rockstar paralegal that I strive for.
Ashley is not only an instructor at MacEwan University’s Paralegal Studies program, but she has been and still is in the legal industry for approximately 17 years, and is one of the most kind, humorous, knowledgeable, hardworking, supportive paralegals I know. I can speak to this because my journey with Ashley started out as a mentorship through the Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals.
Eventually, through unseen events in my life, our paths would end up crossing outside of Microsoft Office meetings, where Ashley would also be the instructor in some of my classes.
Honestly, I would not have it any other way. And like Heidi, Ashley definitely sets the bar when it comes to being an exceptional example of what it is to be a paralegal professional.
When I received that email from Rena, I knew I had to reach out to Ashley. It really shows who Ashley is, at least in the eyes of those she’s affecting on a daily basis.
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The Support of Paralegal Associations
I have to say that in the last few years, I have heard so many great things about the Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals (AAPP) and what they are doing for the paralegal profession, and Ashley’s a paralegal mentor there.
And I see other paralegal association websites that say the benefits of joining their job boards, their monthly meetings, and maybe they mention a mentorship, but I have never had any interactions from paralegals at other associations who speak so highly about what their association is doing as the AAPP members do.
So, first I want to thank you for being a mentor there. But, can you tell me, is there a reason why you think the AAPP is such a strong organization that you have your members out there speaking so highly?
A. I think the mentorship program in general is just so effective because it sets you up for success in the industry.
The way I approach my teaching in my classes, I design my classes and my instructional approach around what Ashley, what baby Ashley would have wanted to know when she first entered the industry, and what I found that I lacked. And so I think that when you consider the way I’ve designed my courses and that lovely letter from Rena I feel like that’s kind of been effective in the classroom.
Now, when you relate this to the AAPP, they’re asking volunteer senior paralegals or those in the industry to volunteer their time to meet with individuals who are new or interested in becoming a paralegal or just a legal professional in Alberta and share honest truths about what it’s really like. It’s effective because you have someone in the industry who’s knowledgeable about whatever area of law you want to work in, but it also gives you that network connection that most of us lack when we get into the workforce.
My background is primarily working in criminal law, and I typically work in a very small firm, and your lawyer is always off at court. So it doesn’t really leave a whole lot of room to have a mentor. And so when the AAPP created this mentorship program, I knew for sure, this is exactly what I want to do, what I want to volunteer my time for because it gives me that opportunity to provide the mentorship that I lacked at the beginning of the industry.
And so I think that’s really effective. I really enjoyed it. Because I can get to know so many other individuals like Rena and other aspiring professionals, and I can share resources and advice and tips and tricks and things I wished I knew. So they don’t have to make the same mistakes that I made, you know, three or four times.
Why did you decide to give up working in law firms and teach full-time? Because we all know it probably wasn’t because you were going to be getting a bigger salary.
Well, actually, fun fact, I still work very part-time for Paul Moreau at Moreau Law. So, I balance both working full-time for MacEwan and also very remote and part-time for Paul. I’ll give you a bit of a long-winded story, but I think it’s important to discuss. In 2020, when the world kind of shut down here in Alberta, the courthouses shut down with that.
And when the courthouses shut down, I was a full-time office manager at the time. We had to do what many industries and employers had to do. We had to lay off some staff. And I went up to Paul and I said, no, we’re going to lay me off because I want to keep our assistants employed for as long as possible.
So I’ll take the hit. And so we did that. He wasn’t very happy about it, but it was the best decision that I could have made. But laid off, I kind of looked around and thought, all right, well, what am I going to do next? And I had always wanted to teach. In fact, while I was supervising many of the students were in the practicums for the program that I teach now.
At one point, I contacted the practicum coordinator, whatever their title was, and I said, “Look, y’all are doing it wrong. You’re missing some things here in this program, and you’re not setting these students up for success.”
I think of that time I had a student show up with a binder full of paper precedents. Thinking I’m prepared. I’m ready to go. I just kind of looked at her and laughed. I was like, what are you planning to do with those? I get the intent, but wow, this is not the Stone Age, my friend.
So I called up this coordinator and I said, “I’m more than willing to teach this. Can I come and talk to your classes? Is there anything I can do to get more involved so that these students have the relevant skills in the workplace?”
This person kind of paused and thought about it. He responded, “Well, you’re not a lawyer. You could never teach these courses.” I responded, “Oh, no. Alright.” So I just thought that it was never going to be a thing for me.
Well, fast forward to COVID, which I mentioned earlier, and the layoff and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. Well, MacEwan University has a posting for a sessional instructor to teach, Legal 116: Legal Computing and Procedures. And I thought, you know what, why not? I’ll just throw my hat in the ring. Let’s see what happens.
I applied and I got the job, and I just kind of fell into it. I threw everything I had into teaching that one course. And then the next semester I got another course. And the next semester I got another course and another course. This semester alone, I now teach six classes.
It has been four years now that I’ve been working with MU. And, I can now proudly say that that person I spoke with who said I would never get this job because I’m not a lawyer.
Well, I have her job now. So yeah, I just kind of fell into this, but I mean, I love teaching. I love the supervisor, I love the mentorship, and I felt like I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to do to make a difference in the profession and industry.
Now, I do still keep my foot in the door, by working for Paul, though it’s very part-time. And it’s primarily just to stay on top of the changes in the court’s processes. I’m sure you experienced this too, Ann.
But even throughout COVID, the changes have been astronomical. And trying to stay on top of the shifts in court filing procedures and all the different filing processes and different forms and everything here has been a lot. And it’s really hard to do that when you remove yourself from the industry entirely.
So I do try to balance both.
Q. You also mentioned that you were hoping to get a doctorate degree. And it’s on a topic that I find very interesting since I have a business that provides paralegal training after they get their paralegal certificate. Can you tell us a little bit about that topic and where you’re at with that?
Yes, I keep applying. They haven’t accepted me yet, but I do have my sights on obtaining a doctoral degree in education, and I would like to study the pedagogical approaches to the legal education of non-lawyers, particularly paralegals. And what I’ve noticed through my studies and through my literature review is that there’s no research in Canada, there’s a little bit in the States, but none in Canada about the effect of legal education on non-lawyers.
There are a lot of studies on the legal education of legal studies students, which is more the sociological perspective of law – the law the way it is. And there’s also a ton of research on the legal education of lawyers. Reasonably so. But there’s really nothing about the legal education of paralegals. The approach is really different because paralegals need to have a knowledge of procedural law, and a little bit of sustainable law, and they also need to have technical skills.
Not just clerical. We’re not back in the day where we can all reasonably assume that paralegals are doing more than just a basic receptionist role, right? We need to have technical skills, and we need to have our legal knowledge, and we need to have a combination of both. And no one’s really studying the effective approaches.
I am in the process of getting approval for a study in January. I have a flipped class where it’s a legal technology course and I’ve given the students a number of licenses to legal technologies and I have them pick their groups and I flipped the class entirely where the students get to present the material. to me.
Now, I don’t give them any. There’s no lecturing and I don’t give them any content. I give them a structure and I say I want you to learn everything you know about this topic and you’re going to pretend that I’m the managing partner of the law firm and I want you to tell me why I want to use this legal technology, how I would use this, in what instances would it be helpful for our firm.
That’s the first step in my pursuits for doctoral studies because you need to have some research under your belt before you get accepted. But I have applied several times. I’ve applied again.
I’m hopeful this year I’m the lucky winner, but I’m definitely getting started on expanding that body of research now before I get accepted into one of those programs.
But I’m hopeful that once I start doing these studies, we’ll see the difference in instructional methods to future paralegals and legal assistants than that of lawyers or legal studies majors.
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I’m considering this body of research because if universities do not have research to rely upon, they’re going to continue with this structure of lawyers instructing paralegals. Now, on one hand, it’s important that lawyers have an involvement in education because in most cases, the paralegals and legal assistants will be working for the lawyers, but that’s not always the case, right?
There are a lot of legal tasks. that paralegals particularly will conduct without the supervision of the lawyer. And one big example is real estate lawyers. Real estate assistants will do 99 percent of the work, and the lawyer will show up to the meeting with the client and say, “Yes, this is the document. Let’s read it together.”
This often is the first time both parties have seen the document. So it’s particularly interesting that right now I am the only non-lawyer faculty on staff teaching in this particular program. But I’m a bit of a unicorn, if you will, because I have such a lengthy experience and I also have my undergraduate degree in education and a master’s degree in education.
So they really can’t say no to me.
Q. Well, besides not saying no, right, you didn’t give up. If there’s somebody reading who maybe has been a paralegal for many years and thinks, I might want to start out doing something like that part-time at a local school, what advice would you have for them other than don’t give up? If they want to do some teaching at their local paralegal school, are there any tips that you could give on how to do it?
Yeah, academia is kind of a beast. So be prepared for it. Although it does have some similarities to law. Not a huge transition, but in universities, particularly, more so than colleges, your education will be supreme.
My desire to obtain a doctoral degree is not just intrinsic, but there also is an intrinsic factor that would be more of a fast track to perhaps a faculty role at some point. Those jobs though, like full-time faculty jobs, there’s like a 1 percent chance of getting them, so it’s very difficult.
Adjunct roles, or like, sessional roles, that’s what I hold, those are more common, and those are more likely for industry experts to… Come in and teach a class. I would always just look at the career postings. If you have an undergraduate degree or a master’s degree, you’ll definitely have a leg up.
If you have aspirations to teach at a university or a college, I would highly recommend seeking out a master’s program if you already have an undergraduate degree because that will matter. Some colleges in Alberta have a number of industry professionals, many of whom are members of the AAPP who are teaching in programs.
And the education component, the credentials, that is not as important as their work experience. I would definitely look out for and find the institution that works best for you.
Also, consider your alignment with the program. Do you actually enjoy the program? I wouldn’t pick a college where they have a program that you just simply don’t believe in. I know that can be hard to say, and I have kind of a privileged role to say it, but I have interviewed with other institutions that offered me significantly less money, and they have a significantly less intensive program, and I considered it, but at the end of the day, you have to think about what your why is.
My why is to support future legal professionals. Working for an institution that isn’t particularly supportive of future legal professionals, and is just supportive of making a ton of money wouldn’t be the right fit for me.
There’s the curriculum and approaches to evaluate. Of course, just like we approach our roles as paralegals, and we do everything we can to make ourselves indispensable, and we work hard and we go above and beyond, the same thing applies in academia as well.
I volunteer for as much as I can, and I help out as many colleagues as I can. My students always comment, “Ashley, do you live here? Do you go home?” It’s no different than any other industry or any other role in that context.
It’s like you’ll excel as a paralegal because you were driven and focused and you enjoyed what you’re doing.
You’re going to have those same characteristics when you go into teaching.
The personality trait that draws someone into a paralegal role. It just leads to success in so many other industries and academia is one of them. And I laugh because this year, since I’ve been teaching at MacEwan for four years, and I teach so many classes, I’ve seen a lot of my students grow as individuals and see their personalities develop and their perspectives on the workforce.
It’s fascinating because I was commenting to a student yesterday, “I feel like I have like an army of little mini Ashleys roaming around,” and that makes me so happy because they’re so independent and focused and driven.
They don’t hesitate to tell me if I have a typo on my slides or if there’s an error in my assignment outline, and I just love it so much because they keep me on my toes and really hold me to the standard that I expect of them. It is so much fun.
I just know they’re going to be so successful when they hit the workforce because that’s exactly what we’re looking for in paralegals, right? We need that attention to detail, we need that work ethic, we need that level of care, the quality of work, and it’s really cool to see.
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Do you have any success stories? You’ve been there four years and you probably have some people who have gone on and graduated since you started. Do you have any inspiration for other up and coming students who might be struggling in their program right now?
As far as success stories, because I handle the practicum placements for my students, I can tell you that maybe one or two students do not get a job at the end of their practicum. I have like a 99% success rate of someone getting employed. It makes me so happy.
There are other ways of measuring success too. I try to have an open-door policy. I don’t have my own office. It’s a shared office with other instructors, but I like to ensure that students feel comfortable coming to talk to me. Whether they’re having concerns about the program, or if they have any questions about what life is like as a paralegal.
This industry is not for everyone. I would rather a student who’s in their first year of university come and have that conversation with me about, what it is really like.
Questions like: Is it really true that in the first few years, your work-life balance is affected? Yes, the answer is yes.
If that’s not something that you want, or that’s something in your career, if that’s not something that you seek, this might be something you don’t want to consider.
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In contrast, I also have a lot of conversations with students about what area of law they want to work in. A lot of students come and talk to me because they’re interested in criminal law because that’s my background. And when we have conversations about what it’s like to work with criminal lawyers, what it’s like to work on criminal files, etc.
Sometimes their decision was swayed. The last thing that I want to do is have a student attend a paralegal program and finish and pay tuition for two years (which is so expensive) in a program where they just aren’t happy or don’t fit with their future careers. I really try to spend a lot of time talking to students and encouraging them to come and talk to me about these things.
It’s a get that real-life kind of honest feedback on what it’s like. And I also encourage them to talk to other individuals as well, using that mentorship program in the AAPP, which I talk about in class. I also encourage them to talk to their other professors or instructors, the lawyers, who can give them a perspective as well.
I also do a number of assignments where they’re encouraged to contact a paralegal in the industry to ask them questions directly.
At the end of the first year, students will get a variety of different perspectives on what the industry is like because I just simply don’t want them to waste their time.
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The Importance of Paralegal Internships
Ann I love that. I think if every paralegal program put in those two key things, it would change the trajectory of so many lives. Paralegals struggle for years to find a job.
They can’t get a job. They don’t have experience. A 99 percent success rate means only a couple of your students don’t get a job. To me, that says every paralegal program out there should have a mandatory practicum (internship).
If that were the case, if you would know going through your paralegal program that you have a 99 percent chance of getting a job after graduation, that would be so worth it.
Ashley The city of Ontario is the only province right now that has regulations. Paralegals in Canada, hopefully, more soon, but their law society just released a competency framework in February of this year stating that there needs to be a minimum number.
I don’t think it’s 200 hours. I think it’s 150, which honestly should be more, but of an unpaid internship or a practicum component for all of their regulated paralegals. It’s mandatory. The practicum in our program is 200 hours and it is mandatory as well. And it’s so helpful. The students who do not complete practicums have alternative assessments.
They’re nowhere near as successful, but usually, those are the students who didn’t really want to be a paralegal anyway. They didn’t want to finish their program.
So if you are in a paralegal program and you’re thinking, this might not be for me, but you are interested in law, they’re not limited still. There is the other component of studying like legal studies. Maybe you want to spend more time looking into a particular component of law and why the law is the way it is.
Maybe you want to be involved more in a different area that’s not just paralegal. You know, that level of that knowledge, the foundation that you’re receiving, it can really be applied across so many different careers too. No education is a loss.
Ashley 150 hours – 200 hours is a lot. I get it. Especially these days. Money is tight. It’s a sacrifice. But if you listen to those numbers, would you be willing to do 150 hours at an unpaid internship, gain valuable knowledge and experience, and know that you had close to a 99% chance that you’re going to get a job upon graduation?
That would be worth it. One of the reasons why I’m most successful in placing students with a firm is that I spend a lot of time getting to know the practicum hosts. I will reach out to the firms and speak with their HR managers. I’ll use my connections to really get to know what these individual firms are looking for.
It changes depending on the size of the firm and area of law. These larger firms with multiple locations have a completely different perspective on what they want from a student versus a smaller boutique firm.
I have a relatively small cohort. This year alone, I think I’m placing 50 students in a practicum. I get to be really picky. I call these practicum hosts starting in January, and I say, “Look, they’re working for free for 200 hours.”
I would suggest because of the high cost of living and tuition and the fact that you’re getting free work for five straight weeks, why don’t you pay for their parking?
Why don’t you help them by purchasing a bus pass? Can you at least give them an honorarium or pay them an hourly wage? Those firms that make an effort to support their, students through those five weeks, recognize that many of my students have full-time jobs and have to take a leave of absence from their jobs, or they have to quit their jobs entirely to actually complete this internship.
I spend a lot of time finding the right firm for them so that they receive some level of compensation. If I can swing it, I really try. It’s not always successful, but I really try.
Ann That’s great. I know why Rena sent that letter in.
The further we get into this interview, the more impressed I am because I do hear some of the horror stories. And for those out there looking at an unpaid internship. In the States, it’s not a lot of law firms. Don’t do that because of the labor and employment restrictions on having workers unpaid.
But that’s because the restrictions are you have to actually be showing them skills. Don’t just go run out and find your first unpaid internship and think that that’s going to be good. I have seen, and most of the time it’s solo practitioners, take advantage of that.
I think it is important that you’re overseeing it and you’re so hands-on to make sure that they’re actually getting that knowledge and experience.
Ashley Yes, and that is a huge problem. It requires planning. There are two angles to this. The first one is, as someone who’s hosted students before, I would get a call from a university or college saying, “Hey, can you host this student next week?” And at that point, with that late notice, I would have nothing to give them, right?
There are some times in the year that are slower than others, and I would end up providing that student just closing files and scanning, digitizing, that kind of stuff. Boring stuff, but I had like three days to prepare, and two of those were a holiday. There’s that angle, and that’s just an unfortunate situation for anyone, for so many different individuals.
On the other hand, in my program in particular, I’ve set up the program where I start planning in advance. I meet with the hosts and I meet with the students and I get an idea of what their work experience has been like, what their skills are, and what their interests are. I match the student to the firm.
They don’t have to go out and find their own practicum. Because you’re right. Students will look to whatever firm they can find. And if they say yes, they’re like, yes, I’m so excited. Why wouldn’t they be excited? Someone said yes they want to host them for a practicum. That’s amazing. But they don’t know the ins and outs of the industry, like you and I do.
If I have a meeting with a firm and I get a bad vibe like they’re just going to stick them in a receptionist role for five weeks. I just don’t put them on my list. I also follow up. There’s a contract that the host needs to sign with me that states that they’re going to meet certain learning outcomes.
I send weekly emails to the host following up as well. One might call me a micromanager in that aspect, but I want to make sure that my students are getting an excellent learning opportunity. Because it is unpaid, right? At the end of the day, I can ask, I can beg and plead and say, please provide them with, a reimbursement for the parking cost, which will be like $300.
We know you can afford it. I know you’re not going to pay it, but at the very least, please give them a good education. Give them the learning that we’re all expecting. Please don’t have them sitting at the photocopier scanning all day. Is that part of the role? Absolutely, but it doesn’t need to be part of the role for the entire five weeks.
You’re managing all of that while you’re teaching six, seven, eight course?! How many courses are you teaching?
I teach six this semester, five next semester, and I teach at least one in the spring. I might be teaching two. I won’t know until about the month before.
Ann I love the level of detail that you’re putting into it.
If anybody listening is in a paralegal program and you’re thinking about having an internship. In the states or practicum up there, I think that’s the key to success that you’re seeing in your graduates.
Ashley Partly. Yes. And then the benefit that I get from speaking to the industry directly.
I have the opportunity to bring their feedback into the classes that I teach. I can’t change the program as a whole, even a course title. I don’t have any authority over that. That’s above my pay grade. But what I can do is take the knowledge that I gained from these conversations with the HR managers and the office managers and other paralegals and say we need to have more knowledge in particular legal technologies.
I ask them to give me some examples and if I can find an education license, then I’ll incorporate it in my class. I think it’s that direct link between me and the industry and having those conversations. I tell them I really want to hear from you, and that I recognize the boundaries that I have, the barriers I have with my role in academia, but also how can we work together so that I am providing you with skilled future paralegals.
But at the same time, recognize that I can’t change the entire program, right? And I think that too. So it’s not just a combination of the internship, getting students out in the workforce and getting that industry experience, but also my approach to education and incorporating that feedback, I think makes a big difference as well.
Ann Yeah, I agree. I had a phone call a few weeks ago from a paralegal program director at one of the colleges here in the states. Their feedback from HR and law firm managers was we need more paralegals. We need them to have better attention to detail, less mistakes and better communication skills.
They reached out to me to see if I could help them get these skills because I happen to have courses, and 60-minute trainings on those particular topics. I guess some of them are doing it, but I love what you’re doing at your school.
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I want to circle back on mentorship for paralegals out there who already feel like, “I’m short on time. I work long hours. I have a family.” If they could find just 30 minutes in a week to be a mentor for a new paralegal, what does that involve?
What does your mentorship, the volunteering you’re doing through the AAPP, look like and what does that involve?
The AAPP makes it easy for you to volunteer for this. They have an online portal and you can pick your availability and a few hours that work for you. The mentee can go onto the website to view the different mentors. You post your picture, your biography, and the area of law. The mentee can go and find one of the days that works for them and they’ll reach out to you directly and say, “Are you still available at this time?”
All my mentorship meetings have just been online, through Microsoft Teams. That works best for me. The expectation is an hour, but in some cases, I don’t have a full hour, and I meet for half an hour. I can enjoy my cup of coffee and have a great start to the day by talking to someone else who’s interested in working in the same area that I’ve worked in for so long.
Thinking about how many hours in a day are wasted that you do just listen to social media you could even, connect your phone to your Bluetooth in your car and connect with someone on the phone while you’re commuting. There are so many opportunities to really get to know someone and expand that network.
For me, I find it is intrinsic. I really enjoy giving back, but recognize the impact that you can have as a paralegal mentor. You’re helping them in what area of law they’re looking to go in because they don’t really have anyone to lean on and it’s nice to have someone else that they can just talk to. Someone who’s gone through the same things that you’ve gone through, and maybe one day they might have a precedent that you need, right?
You call them up, “Hey, have you done this order?” “Yes, actually, let me send this over, right?” You can establish those connections because you’ll be successful in the workforce as well. Just try to use a little pocket of time. We’re all busy, but it’s definitely worth it.
Find your confident voice as a new paralegal.
Ann I couldn’t agree more. I would say if you don’t realize the impact that you might have, go back and start this blog again and see the letter Rena has written about Ashley.
You have had such an impact on this paralegal that she took the time to write this lengthy email to speak so highly of you. Even if she’s the only person you’ve ever impacted through that. That’s huge. I want to say thank you, Ashley, because I think, I hope that this is going to be an inspiration for other paralegals to go out there and be mentors, volunteer for your local paralegal association to be a paralegal mentor, and have that kind of impact on just one paralegal.
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