Johnston combines education, legal experience as new chair of WSCC paralegal program

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HANCEVILLE – Emily Niezer Johnston has come full circle in her new role as department chair for the Paralegal/Legal Assistant program at Wallace State Community College. The Cullman native earned a degree in secondary education before going on to earn her law degree and practicing in a few firms, including her own. Now she’s filling the position left by the retiring June Brooks and following in the professional footsteps of both her parents. 

Johnston is the daughter of Kay Niezer Hayes and the late Charlie Niezer. Her mother taught second grade at East Elementary and her dad was a prosecutor in the county’s district attorney’s office. Johnston said her dad wasn’t very sure of the idea when she decided to go to law school, since he knew how stressful a career in law could be. “But, of course, once I was there he was so proud of me,” Johnston said. “He was thrilled.” 

Johnston found her niche in law school while directing trial competitions between students. “It was always a challenge,” she said. “You had to be thinking on your feet.” 

After graduating from Cumberland School of Law, Johnston’s career took her to firms in Birmingham where she specialized in worker’s compensation cases for insurance company clients. But she missed arguing cases in front of juries and took a job with the district attorney’s office in Lee County. As her family grew, Johnston came home to Cullman and began working for Knight and Griffith and then opened her own practice after that firm dissolved. Then the opportunity to put both of her degrees to work came in the form of leading the Paralegal/Legal Assistant courses at Wallace State. 

“I was tickled to death to be hired as part of the full-time faculty here,” Johnston said. 

There was a learning curve, she admits, to becoming familiar with some of the technology used in the education process these days. “Education has changed by leaps and bounds since I finished my secondary education degree,” she said. By the end of that first semester on campus, Johnston was well versed in the technology and has transitioned the program to a hybrid format. 

“My hope is that is going to open up so many opportunities to students,” Johnston said, by providing them with the hybrid option that lets students work on their studies at their convenience and only come to campus a limited number of times. 

Providing that hybrid option was one of Johnston’s goals coming in to the program. Other goals are to build relationships between students and local attorneys and other legal professionals. The Paralegal Club holds weekly meetings where local attorneys, paralegals and others in the community from whom students can learn are invited to speak. 

“Dawn Owens from The Link came to talk about what she does in the community,” Johnston said. Learning the services that an organization like The Link provides is invaluable to any attorney or law office, Johnston said, in order to help their clients. “I would have clients who might have needed 10 of her services,” she said. “We’re connecting students with opportunities to get involved and to know what we have here in case a client, or anyone, needs them.” 

The Paralegal/Legal Assistant program also offers internships with local attorneys. “Students basically get to dip their toe in the water to see if they want to go into a particular area of law,” Johnston said. A student may come in to the program thinking they want to work in a particular area of law, but find out later that specialty might not be for them. The internships help the students find their niche. 

During the two-year, associate degree program, the students are introduced to all aspects of law: domestic relations; real estate; trusts, wills and estates; criminal procedure, civil procedure, etc. They then have two semesters of legal research and writing, learning the formula of the legal language. “Terminology is key, so we really focus a lot on that,” Johnston said. 

Johnston said the students have access to wonderful resources during their training. “We have a computer lab with Lexus Nexus, which is awesome,” Johnston said. Access to legal libraries and dictionaries is at their fingertips with apps on their computers or phones. “I was joking with them because I used to have carry around all these thick books and dictionaries and now it’s an app.” 

For those interested in a career as a paralegal or legal assistant, Johnston said job prospects are good. “It’s a growing market,” she said. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 8 percent growth in employment for paralegals and legal assistants through 2024.  The median annual salary for paralegals and legal assistants nationwide in 2015 was $48,810. 

And while a majority of graduates will find work in law offices, there are other opportunities with government agencies, real estate offices, banks, and more. “When people hear paralegal they think they’re going to work for an attorney and most of them do, but don’t shut the door to other opportunities, especially if there’s other things you might enjoy.”

For more information about the Paralegal/Legal Assistant program at Wallace State, contact Johnston at 256-352-7877 or Visit and visit the Paralegal page under the Academic Division listing. Registration for Fall 2016 is underway through Aug. 23. Classes start on Aug. 17.