Investigating the victims of an early 1990s South American plane crash for settlements didn't feel right to Mary Johnsrud.

"I don't think insurance defense is what I was set out to do," she said.

The young paralegal in 1998 left her position at a large Los Angeles law firm bound for the hometown she had left six years earlier. Here she would establish herself as a successful paralegal whose skills later would earn her the top award from the state's professional association.

Johnsrud, 35, a town of Campbell native, was a Logan High School student when she decided to pursue a degree as a paralegal with plans to continue on to law school. She moved across the country in 1992 after she enrolled in a paralegal education program at California's Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana.

"I just wanted to move to a bigger city," she said.

Johnsrud was offered a paralegal position at the Los Angeles firm doing insurance defense litigation and left college shy of graduation in 1996.

She moved back to La Crosse in 1998 - "I just missed Wisconsin," Johnsrud said - and was hired by a small law firm that closed the next year. La Crosse attorney Michael Devanie hired her in 1999.

Now she serves as a paralegal to Devanie, Keith Belzer and Todd Schroeder at their downtown La Crosse firm. Johnsrud spends her weeks absorbed with legal research, client communication, case monitoring, and helping investigations for local and federal criminal and civil cases.

"I love the legal field," she said. "I really like dealing with the clients."

The challenge of the job, Johnsrud said, comes with the responsibilities involved with working on cases where no two are the same.

Devanie praised her people skills and knowledge of federal civil litigation.

"She's really good to bounce ideas off of," he said. "She's pleasant to talk to, and she's smart."

Johnsrud joined the 300-member Paralegal Association of Wisconsin in 2000 to take advantage of its resources and networking opportunities. She has served on the board of directors and was elected as the organization's president for the 2009-10 term.

She recently was the recipient of the association's 2009 Paralegal of the Year award, an honor that recognizes outstanding paralegal work.

"I think I came to tears. I didn't expect it," she said. "I felt very humbled."

Johnsrud is an active member of the association who never hesitates to help other members, said past organization president Alayne Russom, one of several who nominated Johnsrud for the award.

"She is always finding ways to service our members better," Russom said. "I think Mary, in general, has a very helpful persona."

Off the job, Johnsrud, her husband, Luke, and their children, Cody, 12, and Bethany, 7, live on a farm in rural Mindoro. The family is raising an Arabian and two quarter horses as the kids ease into riding.

They also spend time camping twice monthly during the summer and with their two dogs - Jax, a shih tzu-poodle mix, and Buddy, a munsterlander.

Johnsrud believes her time to attend law school has passed, but hasn't ruled out the idea.

"It's something I would like to do, but who knows," she said.

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