Student spotlight: Paralegal certificate launches award-winning legal career

Sheniece Smith’s path to becoming associate general counsel for Children’s Hospital of Orange County was unconventional, to say the least. But as is often the case, those with the most life experience bring the very best to their careers.

Her passion for the law is deep rooted. Smith first became interested in the profession in sixth grade when she participated in a mock trial. But seeing as she was raised by a single mom who earned what Smith describes as a lower-middle income, Smith had to work hard and make sacrifices for all her educational and professional achievements.

After graduating from Cal State Dominguez Hills, she worked in the grocery industry before returning to law, earning her paralegal certificate from UC Irvine Extension in 2008.

“I was drawn to UCI's program because it's ABA [American Bar Assn.] approved, it's the oldest program in Southern California, and it has an excellent reputation in the legal community,” Smith said.

She describes the UCI Extension paralegal program as "enlightening" and said it supplied her with the skills to work in any setting supporting an attorney. “The program not only provides the necessary instruction, but also gives students confidence in their work.”

The program was Smith's launch pad for landing a job as a contracts administrator at Warner Bros., drafting agreements for the international sale of TV shows and movies. And UCI Extension’s distance learning component gave her the time flexibility she needed to gain her qualification and keep working at the same time.

After earning her certificate, Smith got a job closer to home as a full-time paralegal in the new legal department at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Colleagues at the hospital encouraged Smith to continue her education at law school. And she did just that, graduating cum laude from the University of La Verne College of Law in 2012.

Looking back over her formal education, Smith described the paralegal program at UCI Extension as extremely practical. “Unlike law school, the paralegal program was direct, guided learning of the skills necessary to thrive in a law office.

“My legal writing class really gave me the training I needed to impress my chief legal officer at CHOC and excel in my career. I apply the skills I learned in my contracts class daily as we process over 2,000 contracts each year.”

Smith also thinks the paralegal program provided a great foundation for law school. “It helped me put everything in context because I had been exposed to a lot of legal information during the paralegal program and I learned the practical side of the content. Then law school gave me the theoretical side of the content.”

In addition to her job as associate general counsel at the hospital, Smith established the Family Legal Assistance at CHOC Children’s Clinic, which offers patients free legal services for conservatorships, guardianships and wills.

The program helped nearly 100 families in its first year of operation. “The best part about my employer," Smith said, "is that CHOC gives me permission to think creatively about how my department can use its skills to enhance the corporation.”

She also volunteers at the Public Law Center and sits on the board of directors and is secretary of the Veterans Legal Institute. As if that’s not enough, in 2013, Smith founded H.O.P.E. Through Affordable Legal Services, which provides pro-bono and low-cost aid to those who cannot afford full attorney fees.

The community is starting to recognize her contributions. Smith received the Wiley W. Manuel award from the State Bar of California in 2014 for her volunteer legal services to the poor and disadvantaged, improving the law and the legal system and increasing access to justice. On Aug. 27, she received the 2015 Business Person of the Year award from the Black Chamber of Commerce of Orange County at its annual awards ceremony.

Smith said the best part of her job is being a fixer. “I love solving problems for corporations and for people. It is incredible how understanding legal language and legal procedure, and interpreting that for people, can change their lives,” she said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of creating a better solution to a problem or making a problem go away.”

Summing up her professional life so far, Smith said, “All in all, I love the profession. There are long, tough days. But when your work is dedicated to enhancing the disposition of others, there's always a reward on the horizon.”

Julia Clerk, Tribune Content Solutions

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