Interview by Eric Quitugua
Jessica Anderson is an associate of Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson, or ONDA, in Dallas, where she represents clients in divorce, modification, enforcement, and child custody matters. The Texas A&M gradwas previously a paralegal for the firm before making the switch to becoming an attorney. In law school, Anderson was vice president of the Family Law Student Association, preparing and organizing CLEs on family law.
How was the preparation for the Texas Bar Exam last year?
It was time consuming. Having said that, I only wanted to take the bar exam once, so I was motivated to put in the required time and effort.
How does it feel to be done with it and ready to get to work?
It feels great to be done with law school and the bar exam. I feel like I am going straight from one challenge to the next. While I am done with final exams and bar preparation, I am confronted with new challenges daily as I settle into my new role as an associate attorney at ONDA.
Has it sunk in yet—being able to say “Jessica Anderson, associate of ONDA”?
Yes and no. Generally, when I am in the office working with the same great attorneys and paralegals I have for years, it seems as though nothing has changed. However, when I am preparing for or participating in a hearing or deposition in a way I never have before, it hits me that I am an associate at ONDA with new and different responsibilities.
Where did your interest in law come from?
My interest in law began when I took several undergraduate courses in criminal justice. I was intrigued by the way the law resolves conflicts in our society and how the individual rights given in the U.S. Constitutionmanifest through our legal system. As I began to work in law, I was able to see first hand how the legal system works and how it can affect the daily lives of litigants.
Do you have attorneys in your family?
No, not that I am aware of.
What drew you to family law?
I did not pursue family law specifically from the beginning. I happened to get a paralegal position in a family law firm as my first legal job. However, I have continued with family law because it is unlike any other kind of law in that it is very personal to the client and it can flow into many other areas of law depending on the case and issues involved. In family law, no day is ever the same and I enjoy the variety of tasks and challenges involved in a family law career.
What was your game plan for becoming a lawyer?
My plan was to find a job in the legal field to determine if I was passionate enough about the law to spend the time and money pursuing law school. I discovered that I did have a passion for the law, and the more I worked in family law, the more I wanted to help our clients by doing “lawyer-like” work. That is when I knew I needed to pursue my law degree.
Tell me about the Family Law Student Association at Texas A&M—what kind of work did you do with the association?
The Family Law Student Association is a group of students who have an interest in pursuing a family law career after law school. As vice president, I assisted the president and other board members in organizing presentation and CLE seminars on current family law topics. For example, in conjunction with the family law clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law, the Family Law Student Association organized a CLE for local attorneys on the topic of same-sex marriage and the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decisionin Obergefell v. Hodges.
What did the association do for your education?
The Family Law Student Association allowed me to keep up with the changes in family law and to work closely with my classmates who had the same interest in family law as I did. The Family Law Student Association also introduced me to the law school family law clinic where I was able to represent clients in family law cases under the supervision of a clinic attorney.
How did you become a paralegal for ONDA and for how long?
I had been working as a family law paralegal for just a short time when I first interviewed for a paralegal position at ONDA in 2012. At that time, a good friend of mine had been hired as a paralegal at ONDA and recommended that ONDA hire me as well. When I was hired as a paralegal at ONDA in 2012, I was assigned to work for associateattorney Ryan Kirkhamand partnerWill Reppeto. Mr. Kirkham and Mr. Reppeto are both talented lawyers, and they embraced their role as my mentors and teachers immediately. Mr. Kirkham and Mr. Reppeto were instrumental in the development of my legal skills and were always there to answer my questions and encourage me. I worked for both attorneys until I began law school in 2015. During law school, I continued to work at ONDA during school breaks and on Fridays during the school year.
What sorts of tasks did you handle in that role?
As a paralegal at ONDA, I was tasked with many duties including being the organizer of information and a liaison between our attorneys, our clients, and opposing counsels. I was responsible for helping to ensure my assigned attorneys met their deadlines and that they had the proper materials for hearings, trials, and depositions. I also drafted pleadings, discovery, letters, etc. and handled organizing and filing documents with the court. On occasion, I accompanied ONDA attorneys in court to assist with managing exhibits during contested hearings.
What did you learn as a paralegal and how did that prepare you to become a lawyer?
As a paralegal, I learned the typical process of a family law case and the specific steps involved in working a case from beginning to end. I became familiar with the Texas Rules of Civil Procedureand the Texas Family Code. However, I would say there is a difference in what I learned as a family law paralegal elsewhere and what I learned as a family law paralegal at ONDA. During my time as an ONDA paralegal, I was privileged to be present during various meetings with the lawyers of ONDA who are highly skilled and who approach family law cases with a diligence that is unmatched. The attorneys at ONDA put deliberate thought into every decision that is made in their cases. Observing the skilled litigators of ONDA discuss case planning and strategy was especially influential on me.
Were you already planning to stay with ONDA?
Yes, ONDA allowed me to continue working at the firm during law school so I did maintain my connection to the firm in hopes that ONDA would hire me after law school. Therefore, I was thrilled when ONDA offered me a position as an associate attorney as I entered my third year of law school.
Now that you are an attorney, do you already have a slate of cases you’re working on? What’s an example of one?
I have already been assigned to work on several cases alongside several of ONDA’s attorneys, and I am taking an active role in managing these cases. An example of one would be a divorce case that involves both complex child related issues and a high value martial estate.
What’s it like to be able to help people in this new capacity?
It is amazing to see how much more I can help our clients with a law license. I am really enjoying being able to take a bigger role by being the client’s voice in the courtroom. I am also enjoying tackling bigger projects that can truly affect the outcome of a client’s case. As a paralegal, I might know the answer to a client’s question but if they called for legal advice, I was unable to give an answer. As a lawyer, it is freeing and very fulfilling to be able to give legal advice to our clients.
Do you recommend an aspiring attorney to take a similar path as you?
Yes. I am thankful that I had the experience of a paralegal before I became an attorney because I was able to approach law school truly knowing what my day-to-day life as a family law attorney would be like. Law school is an expensive investment, both financially and emotionally, and I felt I knew enough to make that investment without regret. Additionally, my paralegal experience allowed me to approach law school with a basic understanding of civil litigation and put me ahead in subjects like civil procedure and legal writing.
What’s next for you?
Building my law practice at ONDA. I am currently working on learning everything I can from the attorneys at ONDA and further developing my legal skills.