Recorded at NALA’s 2019 Conference and Expo in July, host Carl Morrison provides a unique look at the Conference by sitting down both with a seasoned veteran and a first time attendee, Melissa Hamilton and Sherron Brightharp. Sherron shares her motivation for coming to this year’s conference and describes her favorite parts of the experience. Carl also talks to Melissa about her many years of attendance, how her involvement in NALA shaped her career, and her tips for paralegals hoping to attend in the future.
Melissa Hamilton is vice president of NALA and a paralegal at North Dakota’s Office of the Attorney General.
Sherron Brightharp is the in-house paralegal to the general counsel for the Charleston County School District.
The Paralegal Voice
NALA Annual 2019 First-Timer Experience with Sherron Brightharp and NALA VP Melissa Hamilton
Intro: Hello listeners. The episode you’re about to hear was recorded from the 2019 NALA Conference & Expo in Scottsdale, Arizona and it features host Carl Morrison asking first-time attendees about their experiences at this important conference for paralegals. We hope you enjoy. We will be returning to our regularly formatted program next month; and now, onto the show.
Carl Morrison: Hello and welcome to The Paralegal Voice, recorded on location from the 2019 NALA Conference & Expo in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is Carl Morrison. I’m the host of the Paralegal Voice.
Of course our show, we couldn’t do it without our awesome sponsors and we are being sponsored by NALA. NALA has been our very first sponsor to the show, CourtFiling.net, awesome, awesome, Legalinc and ServeNow. So truly, sponsors, thank you so much for your generous support.
So, today this morning, it’s day three, right?
Melissa Hamilton: Day three. Day three of four.
Carl Morrison: So I am still going what?
Melissa Hamilton: I know.
Carl Morrison: Day three of our conference and I have two amazing, amazing guests with me. One of which I’ve met before several years ago. One I met at this conference, just the other day, and I have with me Melissa Hamilton, ACP. She’s vice president of NALA.
Melissa Hamilton: Yes.
Carl Morrison: Yay.
Melissa Hamilton: Yay.
Carl Morrison: And Sherron Brightharp. Sherron, remind me where you’re from?
Sherron Brightharp: I am from Charleston, South Carolina.
Carl Morrison: That’s right, Charleston. I love South Carolina. She’s a corporate paralegal and a first-timer to the NALA Conference.
Melissa Hamilton: We love first-timers. Yay.
Sherron Brightharp: Yay.
Carl Morrison: So guys, thank you. Welcome to the show, glad you’re with us.
Sherron Brightharp: Thank you.
Melissa Hamilton: Glad to be here.
Carl Morrison: So before we get into our show which I’m talking about the national conferences and kind of first-timer impressions, so I have someone that courses in leadership but you were a first-timer.
Melissa Hamilton: I was a first-timer.
Carl Morrison: We all have to be first-timers.
Melissa Hamilton: 13 years ago I went to my first NALA Conference.
Carl Morrison: So we’re going to talk about that with Melissa and then we’re going to talk a little bit with Sherron about her first-timer impression. So we’re going to start with Melissa first.
Melissa Hamilton: Oh yay, I am on the hot seat.
Carl Morrison: You are on the hot seat. Tell us a little bit about your background first, so where do you work, what do you do?
Melissa Hamilton: I am a paralegal in the Civil Litigation Division for the North Dakota Office of Attorney General. I have about 26 years of employment with the State of North Dakota in the Work Comp field, Human Services, Child Support and Department of Transportation. I also worked for the court system in the Self Help Center. I’m helping self-represented litigants, represent themselves in court, but unfortunately, due to budget cuts they eliminated my position.
Carl Morrison: Oh my gosh.
Melissa Hamilton: Yeah, so it’s a need that I think that we need to – it needs to be explored but — so when they eliminated that that’s how I ended up with this Civil Lit Division but have a Bachelor of Science degree in Paralegal Studies from Morehead State University. It’s there an ABA-approved program, closest one to North Dakota. And I have my CP and my ACP in Contracts Management, Contracts Administration and Family Law Divorce and Settlement I believe is what it is off the top of my head, I haven’t used in a while so I am a bad person to say on that, but I do have to — I’m currently working on a real estate ACP too, so in my spare time.
Carl Morrison: In other words, listeners, paralegals are overachievers.
Melissa Hamilton: Yes, we are. We like to have many irons in the fire.
Carl Morrison: Amen to that.
Melissa Hamilton: Yes.
Carl Morrison: Most we’re going to have to do a show on the self-help need and because I think that would be a fantastic show, definitely.
Melissa Hamilton: Yes, it would be, yeah.
Carl Morrison: Sherron, you are next in the hot seat, so tell us a little bit about your background, where you’re from?
Sherron Brightharp: I am from Charleston, South Carolina. I am a member of the Charleston Area Legal Assistance. I’ve been a member for about a year-and-a-half. I am the in-house paralegal to the General Counsel for the Charleston County School District. I’ve been with the School District for a little over 13 years, in this current position October will be 11 years.
I’ve got my Associates degree from Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina in Paralegal Studies.
Carl Morrison: Fantastic, fantastic. I’m going to start with you, Sherron, your first step on the question, and as a first-timer to National Paralegal Conference (NALA), what prompted you to even register to even come? Did someone say, hey, you need to go or what was a hook to have you travel truly across the country and attend the seminars?
Sherron Brightharp: Yes. So with me recently becoming involved with my local paralegal association, at every monthly meeting, there’s a report from our national liaison to NALA. She talks frequently about the upcoming conference, makes reports or provides us information, and based on her feedback I actually went online, looked it up because I’m interested in sitting for my CP exam.
I saw that many of the classes that were being offered relate directly to the sections or portions of the exam and I felt that this would be the perfect opportunity for me to get the information needed in order to study and pass the exam.
Carl Morrison: I will tell you I am a huge proponent of certifications.
Sherron Brightharp: Yes.
Carl Morrison: I am taking the CP this year as well, that’s the last of my — what I call the piece that I am collecting, but great for you, congratulations for taking that step because it’s voluntary, we will have to have it.
Sherron Brightharp: Thank you. Yeah, you will have to do it.
Carl Morrison: No, not at all. So a couple of days ago like I said, they were now day three of it, it was your first day of the conference and tell the listeners your overall impressions when you came in, what were your thoughts, were you just like, oh, my gosh, what is this?
Sherron Brightharp: It was overwhelming in a good way because of the app I knew that you guys were searching us out asking us to speak up if we were first-time attendees, when there was a post on the app you got input and feedback from paralegals from across the country welcoming you.
Coming across the country there was a little bit of anxiety on the plane, wondering what would happen, but because of these very cute pink first-timer everyone from wherever they are comes up and says hello whether it’s the elevator in the hallway, the restroom, it’s also welcoming. It’s been a fabulous experience.
Coming in, before the conference started, I actually went down to have lunch and someone said, oh you’re a first-timer, come sit with me I am as well from North Dakota and so she and I have been running into each other, having drinks, having lunch, so it’s been great.
Carl Morrison: Fantastic. I love to hear that when first-timers because we were all first-timers, and you wear that first-timer ribbon on your name badge and you’re nervous even if you know someone that may be at the conference, but you’re still a first-timer, you’re like I don’t know what to expect, and it’s nice to hear when someone — we have people come up and recognize you are first-timer and make you feel welcomed because that’s really what it should be about, it’s welcoming you in and so that’s fantastic to hear that.
Sherron Brightharp: Absolutely.
Carl Morrison: You haven’t been left to the walls by yourself.
Sherron Brightharp: Not at all.
Melissa Hamilton: It makes me feel good too. It makes me feel wonderful.
Carl Morrison: So you’ve been attending sessions, you haven’t been a lazy pool or the lazy river of the pool, you’ve been learning for the past couple of days and what’s your favorite session so far. I know we still have the rest of this last day but what’s your favorite session and why?
Sherron Brightharp: I think my favorite session was the opening session with the keynote speaker. He was fabulous, inspiring, motivating the entire group. I saw ladies with tears in their eyes during his speech. It just kind of reminded us or me personally why I’m in this field to help to understand.
That I believe so far has been the best, and of course, like I said because I’m studying for the CP, all of the individual classes have given me information that I would not otherwise have access to.
Carl Morrison: And I met Sherron first day, right?
Sherron Brightharp: Yes.
Carl Morrison: And you and I just kind of clicked right off the bat and I think we even connected on the app because of being corporate paralegals.
Sherron Brightharp: Yes.
Carl Morrison: And the mix and mingle the other night I thought was fantastic.
Sherron Brightharp: It was.
Carl Morrison: Getting to meet other.
Melissa Hamilton: Heard a lot of good feedback on it. People are pretty excited about it, they want to keep it going.
Carl Morrison: Yeah so —
Melissa Hamilton: So we should look at.
Carl Morrison: Yeah, absolutely. So it was just a great experience and me as an — I’m not quite an old-timer but I’m not a first-timer anymore but —
Melissa Hamilton: You are not an old-timer either, I mean you’re just Carl.
Carl Morrison: I’m just Carl. But getting to meet first-timers and seeing the excitement that you’re having and having such a positive experience it’s great to see in here. So if there are any listeners that have never attended any National Legal Conference or Paralegal Conference, NALA Conference, what advice would you give to them about attending for the first time, from a first-timer’s perspective, of course?
Sherron Brightharp: I would absolutely say to do it, that’s the short and skinny of it. It has been amazing. I’ve still got the rest of today to go, but the information that I have received I know will help me not only in my CP exam but back at work, there is information that I would not have otherwise had access to, so certainly do it.
Carl Morrison: Fantastic.
Sherron Brightharp: Like Nike says.
Carl Morrison: Love it, love it, love it. All right, we’re going to switch over to Melissa now.
Melissa Hamilton: Oh, I am back on the hot seat.
Carl Morrison: So, you are not an old-timer either, I am not going to call you an old-timer.
Melissa Hamilton: No, that’s right. I am seasoned.
Carl Morrison: You’re perfect. I love that.
Melissa Hamilton: There you go. I think you get that from Vicki Voisin.
Carl Morrison: Right.
Melissa Hamilton: She is wise.
Carl Morrison: So when did you attend your first NALA Conference, what was your experience for the first one?
Melissa Hamilton: My first NALA Conference was 13 years ago in Tampa and I was just like Sherron. Did I get that right?
Sherron Brightharp: Sherron.
Melissa Hamilton: Sherron — I always —
Sherron Brightharp: It’s okay.
Melissa Hamilton: I always kind of mingle names, I am known for that, but I was my — I was a first-timer and it was my local association that had recommended I’d come and I did not have my CP. I had my bachelor’s degree and I probably should have sat for the test right out of school because I probably would’ve gotten a job a lot easier.
So I’m like I finally decided I wanted to get my seat, my certification so I came to conference and I did the whole review course just like you’re doing and a year later, I met Kelly LaGrave right off the bat and came in, everybody was welcoming. I mean the President on down everybody treated you the same, they love their first-timers. People were warm and welcoming, didn’t matter if you were like an officer or a first-timer or somebody in between everybody was kind, they made sure you knew where you are going if they saw you wandering around lost, and a year later I had my certification; so yeah.
Carl Morrison: I love it, love it, love it, love it. So when you attend what do you look for in attending NALA Conference or any legal conference that you go to, what gets you to attend?
Melissa Hamilton: Obviously what the topics are, things that are fresh, we’ve got the technology, you look for things that would apply to your job like the corporate paralegals.
Carl Morrison: Right.
Melissa Hamilton: I would love that one as at the DOT, because I kind of was their in-house counsel when I was at the Department of Transportation. So you look for things that apply to your job, and hopefully that if — like a big conference like this they have a lot of different topics, but even if you go in and there’s no topics, if you look at your local association maybe they don’t have something that you don’t practice in. Go, you might learn something, you might open yourself up to a new area, and in my case, you might end up getting — I never wanted to work in litigation to begin with, but I had always gone to NALA Conferences, litigation was the last thing I wanted to do.
But unfortunately, I really do like it, I really love it, I took to it pretty good and I really do enjoy it, but I never wanted to do it, because I thought it was the worst area of law to work in, but going to my NALA Conferences through the years built up those skills in litigation. Even though I never worked in litigation, at least I had some information to help me springboard in and at least have a base of where to go when I did finally move into where I am at now.
Carl Morrison: Right. When, I guess that was two years ago, it was Orlando when I went to the NALA Conference there in Orlando, that was when I was transitioning into corporate paralegal position. And of course I got the schedule and was looking at all this stuff that would apply, because for 20 plus years I had been in civil litigation insurance defense, and so my whole world was litigation, but from the defense side, not the corporate side, and I was being groomed to do other areas of law and I was looking for all those respective sessions that would apply; contracts, employment and they had it. And I was like — I was able to go to my general counsel and go hey, would you pay for me to go there?
Melissa Hamilton: And that’s the thing, if you can find the hook for your employer, because I have actually got — I work for the State of North Dakota and as being a NALA member I get that $80 gift certificate and so they add that add-on technology and they let me take the extra day, because I showed them that there is technology here that I can learn and they paid for me to stay another day, but I had to show and I had to make the case that this applies and it’s relevant to what I am doing.
Carl Morrison: Exactly right. We were also doing some other projects that work just recently, and I told my general counsel, I am like, okay, I know there is a couple of vendors that are in this area, I am going to get information and bring it back so we can look at it, digest it.
Melissa Hamilton: And that’s the other thing too, the vendors I found here, right? The day before I left I had to serve out a complicated summons and complaint with a number of defendants in different states and I used a vendor that I had found at a conference that nobody else knew about, and I had information that a lot of my co-workers because they don’t go to conferences didn’t have.
Carl Morrison: Right, right. So you have been attending the sessions and there has been some fun networking events of course during the conference, what’s been your favorite Melissa so far?
Melissa Hamilton: My favorite, again, I like The Judge, The Judge was awesome. I loved the Annual Meeting where we had the past presidents there, because you can see the legacy of the leaders, they all were there.
The panel discussion I thought was really interesting, because we heard from members on what they are looking for or what do they want to see from their association.
And of course Vicki Voisin was up there and I love listening to Vicki speak. She has got so much wisdom. And Greta, she is explaining what we are doing with NALA, I feel like we are really moving forward and jumping around and getting some things done. And then having Nancy there just explain the CP exam, because there has been a little — we switched over and people have still questions and concerns and people aren’t clear with that, so to provide information to our members so that they are clear on what we are doing and how we are doing it that helps too. Keeping those lines of communication open.
Carl Morrison: So this is my last substantive question before I get to my fun question.
Sherron Brightharp: We are taking the CP exam again.
Carl Morrison: Oh my gosh, can you imagine if there is an oral exam? Kill me now.
Melissa Hamilton: I took it back in the day when it was still the two days and you took it when they told you and it was paper and pencil, like I literally had a piece of paper and pencil and I hand wrote my essay.
Carl Morrison: That was when my mom took it back in ’86.
Melissa Hamilton: And it was blizzard in North Dakota and I walked out that day and it was like 40 below and I didn’t have a coat on and I didn’t even feel the cold, because my brain was done.
Carl Morrison: So as a seasoned paralegal, you have gone to many conferences, what are some of the tips and tricks that you would give to a first timer before they come to the conference?
Melissa Hamilton: We didn’t have the app when I was a first timer, that was back in the day before really anybody ever had cellphones, but I would say now with it, do the apps, get on the app, do the connections. I mean there was a lot of information, people were out there a couple of weeks beforehand once they launched it, people were using it, they were asking questions, ask questions before you go.
I always want people to feel that there is no stupid question, ask a question. I mean you will get an answer. Hopefully somebody can point you in the right direction to get you where you need to be. Talk to people, talk to people.
At the airport, I remember one time I was on a conference and we flew into an airport and one of the Board of Directors was in the Memphis Airport and we ended up being on the same flight into Louisiana. Say hi, start a network, talk to people, talk to them in the restroom, talk to them in the check-in line. What are you doing? If you see somebody that’s by themselves, hey, you want to come to supper with us. We grab people, but I think everybody should — nobody should be a stranger at NALA Conference.
Carl Morrison: It’s so funny you said that, because that made me think about Orlando two years ago and flying in and getting on the shuttle to go to the hotel, and there was actually a couple of attendees and one of them had I think a, either it was an affiliate tag, luggage tag, or it was a tag that said paralegal on it, and I just was like hey, are you going —
Melissa Hamilton: Are you going to the conference?
Carl Morrison: Are you going to the conference NALA? And we struck up a conversation at 20 minute shuttle ride and it’s not —
Melissa Hamilton: I have met some great people, like friends in other states, it’s contacts for you, like if you are at work and you need somebody to help you out in another state, you build a network across the United States and it’s that face to face that you know, you can get a feel for people that they tell you this is a good service or this is a good way to go, you can trust somebody and you get to know people. It’s all about the networking, it really is.
Carl Morrison: It is. I always tell students, network, network, network, and how you do it is going to a National Conference, becoming a member of an association, get on a Facebook group page.
Melissa Hamilton: Right, it’s the networking, it really is. I think honestly, it took me over a year to find a job after I got done with college and it’s because I didn’t join my local association and I didn’t network. A lot of your jobs are posted through in word-of-mouth and you need to network, get yourself out there.
Carl Morrison: That’s been how I have had my jobs, as in my profession as a paralegal is because of my network. I have never had to apply per se cold, just because I networked. I had a paralegal friend that said we are hiring or this firm needs someone, I think you would be fantastic for it, you should apply for it. And so —
Melissa Hamilton: It’s all about the networking.
Carl Morrison: It’s all about the networking.
Melissa Hamilton: Yes, it is.
Carl Morrison: Okay, so my fun questions.
Melissa Hamilton: Yay.
Carl Morrison: So I am going to start — I am going to kick it back over to Sherron.
Sherron Brightharp: Okay.
Carl Morrison: If you had a superpower, if you could be a super person, superwoman, what would it be and why? What power would you want?
Sherron Brightharp: I would want the power to help, but it’s not going to be in one specific category, so I am not going to limit myself to healing or finances, I just want to help in the broadest terms of the word. And so if someone has an illness, if there is a financial need, if there is an emotional, I just want to help people.
And the funny thing is I have got a 10-year old and he says, would you rather do this or do that, and so we have this question all the — we play this game all the time on the way to school and so I am always being asked one or the other, but for this question my answer is I am not going to limit myself to one or the other, I just want to help in the way that’s needed.
Carl Morrison: You can’t see me listeners, but I am bawling right now, because that is the most — I did the whole heart sign to Sherron right now, because I love you, oh my gosh. Yeah, I got a bottle, put you in the pocket, take you home, you were amazing.
Sherron Brightharp: Thank you.
Carl Morrison: All right Melissa, here is your fun question. If you were stranded on a desert island, what is the one thing you would want to have with you on the island?
Melissa Hamilton: Well, it depends, is it like the Survivor island where there is no one or is it the Naked and Afraid and you get one little tool to bring with you? It’s like is it — do I have to like have something to keep me alive or do I need to have something that’s just for fun? I went round and round and round, I am like well, I could take a flint, I could take my iPhone so I can see my kids, because now I am the cool kid and I finally upgraded to the iPhone. I am an Apple person now.
But then I thought about it and I have this little pouch that I travel with, and in it I have like — my family makes fun of me, because I have like eyeglass repair kit in it, and I have a stain stick, I have Advil, I have Imodium, I have Band Aids, I have a little of everything.
Carl Morrison: A paralegal.
Melissa Hamilton: And you know what, they make fun of me, but I have saved more than one person. I went to my niece’s graduation and she ripped her dress, guess who sewed it up with her sewing kit from one of the paralegal affiliated associations? So I would probably take that, if nothing else, at least I have myself covered on a few bases. So that’s what I would bring.
Carl Morrison: I mean you can at least sew together leaves to make a new outfit.
Melissa Hamilton: Well, yeah, I could probably take my little needles and my knock it together and a flint, I could be — I would survive.
Carl Morrison You would survive easily.
Melissa Hamilton: Yes.
Carl Morrison: Well, it looks like we have reached the end of our program. I want to say a huge thank you to my guest Melissa Hamilton and Sherron Brightharp, you guys, this has been fantastic and I think this has really helped maybe people that have never attended paralegal conference to A, come, because what’s it been, fun, excited —
Melissa Hamilton: Absolutely. And learning and meeting new friends and it really is every year conferences. About me, I started running out of steam and June kind of I dragged, but then I started getting ready for the conference and then coming back after the conference I am like woo-hoo, I am all ready to go.
Carl Morrison: Right.
Melissa Hamilton: It’s like my recharge. I actually get recharged every year spending a week with like-minded paralegals, we are all excited about what we do, we love what we do, we want to help people. It’s how I recharge my buttons really.
Carl Morrison: Well, and I will add this, I know I am saying I am closing the show, but I am going to add on top of that, for me, it’s like seeing family, it’s a family reunion, because I have met a couple of people; Donna, Barbara at the Tulsa Conference for the very first time, that was four or five years ago and we have remained very good friends since then and seeing them this weekend has been — it’s like a family reunion.
Melissa Hamilton: It’s like a family reunion and really nobody should be a stranger at a conference.
Carl Morrison: No, absolutely not. So thank you guys, definitely for joining us.
Melissa Hamilton: All right, thank you.
Sherron Brightharp: Thank you.
Carl Morrison: If our listeners have any questions for either one of you guys, contact information that you would like to share. So I will start with Melissa.
Melissa Hamilton: Sure. My contact information is on the website. It’s [email protected]. Shoot me an email, I am more than happy to answer questions. If I don’t know the answer, I will find somebody who does.
Sherron Brightharp: And I am available at my work email, which is [email protected].
Carl Morrison: It’s a lot.
Sherron Brightharp: It is.
Carl Morrison: So thank you guys very much. That’s all the time we have for this episode of The Paralegal Voice, brought to you by the generous support of NALA, CourtFiling.net, Legalinc and ServeNow. Thank you once again sponsors and also thank you to our listeners for tuning in.
If you like what you heard, please rate and review us in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.
I am Carl Morrison, host of The Paralegal Voice, and if you have any questions, of course please send them to me at [email protected].
Until next time, thank you for listening.
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