Zornes’ ‘Mid-life Crisis’ Is a Plus for the Legal World 10/28/16 10/29/16 3:27:04 PM
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Third-year Creighton law student Michelle Zornes networked recently at the Omaha Bar Association Fall Kickoff.
Zornes’ ‘Mid-life Crisis’ Is a Plus for the Legal World
By Dennis Friend
The Daily Record
Michelle Zornes is not a typical third-year law student. She’s a non-traditional student returning to school after a 20-year career as a paralegal. She’s laughingly described law school as her “mid-life crisis.”
She decided to go for a law degree while she was working as a paralegal in South Carolina, where she said she came into regular and close contact with the poor and marginalized. She was frustrated by the limits to which she could help.
“I became overwhelmingly passionate about fairness, and felt compelled to be a voice for the disenfranchised,” said Zornes, who will graduate from the Creighton University School of Law in May.
“So I did something about it. When my daughter went to college, I decided to go back to school, too. Now I’ve been blessed with opportunities to explore a variety of practice areas and embrace new endeavors with greater clarity, ambition and determination.”
Zornes’ career began in Southern California in the early 1990s where, as a 19-year-old wife and mother, she completed her paralegal certificate and went to work in a mid-sized insurance defense firm, ultimately overseeing a caseload of construction defect matters. The attorneys in the firm regularly went to trial, and Zornes said she found herself immersed in the work.
“I was knee-deep in voluminous discovery and trial preparation,” she said. “It was another kind of education I was glad to have.”
In 1991, Zornes and her family moved cross-country from Los Angeles to Columbia, S.C., to be closer to her retired father. Zornes went to work for a large firm overseeing the commercial real estate and business department.
“I flourished in transactional work, and was fortunate to gain experience in this practice area. I became a licensed title agent, and was the senior paralegal involved in many commercial closings.”
With the support and encouragement of the firm’s partners, Zornes said, she also began working for the firm’s United Way campaigns. Stemming from that involvement and in tandem with her full-time job, she started working as an on-call hospital volunteer with a nonprofit organization assisting survivors of sexual assault. She eventually joined the staff of another nonprofit organization that focused on assisting at-risk survivors of domestic violence.
Both her job and her community service hearkened back to her childhood. When Zornes was six years old, her parents divorced. Although she is now close to her career military father, he was absent for most of her upbringing. An immigrant to this country, her mother faced many barriers, not the least of which was communication.
“I served as my mother’s mediator and interpreter,” Zornes said. “And in those moments, I started to frame the idea of a legal career.”
In 2004, Zornes worked on the appeal of a woman convicted of murdering her child. Zornes said the woman was tried under a South Carolina law, “Hands of One, Hands of All,” and was tried with the abusive spouse as a co-defendant, presumed an accomplice.
Although it was the spouse who took the child’s life, the woman – who was herself viciously beaten – was also sentenced to life with no parole. After three years on appeal, Zornes said when the appellant defense team was successful in setting aside the woman’s life sentence and remanding the case for a new trial, she came to recognize her ability to greatly contribute to the legal field.
Applying to more than a dozen law schools, Zornes said she decided on Creighton after receiving “a warm reception” from the school’s admissions officers and faculty.
“I felt like I was welcomed into a family,” she said. “Creighton has an open-door policy and a genuine concern for student success. I feel like the mission here is to create lawyers who want to give back and to be a larger part of their communities. I am so grateful for being welcomed into Creighton, and feel very privileged for its support and education.”
Zornes earned a three-year scholarship. Her husband, a ConAgra employee, was also able to find work in the Omaha area.
Zornes admits that as a non-traditional student, and even with more than two decades of practical experience as a paralegal, law school has been challenging. An ‘A’-student as an undergrad, as well as in graduate school, she said she has encountered “the usual struggles” typically shared by law students. She specifically noted the demanding curriculum.
“Law school is unique, and its structure is like no other pedagogy. There is a single exam for the semester and your entire grade for that course hinges on that one grade. I’ve struggled with there being no checkpoints along the way to gauge my understanding,” Zornes said, but pointed out that Creighton has recently implemented mid-term examinations.
The faculty and other resources at Creighton have been able to help put her prior experience into perspective, she said, and have given her guidance to find a way to do what she really wants to do in the law, including pursuing the work she started as an advocate.
“I am focusing on becoming a transactional and real estate lawyer. I will also always have a place in my practice specifically advocating for women’s issues. I enjoy bringing people together who generally have a common goal and assisting them with particularizing their transactions. I couldn’t be more satisfied than when I am assisting clients and the community with growth, development and exchanges.”
“I am more inquisitive and have learned that there are no finite answers – they are what you make of it,” she said.
For more information regarding the Creighton University School of Law, please go to the school’s website at: law.creighton.edu.