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By: Karen George, FRP
No, this isn’t a real job posting, but don’t you wish it was? There’s a reason you don’t see this kind of ad for a paralegal. For all of you new paralegals out there of all ages, I’m going to attempt to explain the one thing you should probably know and that is why. I write this for those of you who graduated from high school and attended a paralegal program and also, for the career changers among us, who wish to enter the legal realm as a second or third career in life. This one’s for you. We’ll consider it a “friendly” professional reality check from me to you.
A paralegal is a professional position. By becoming a paralegal, you have stepped away from the subordinate positions in the work world and stepped into a new realm on the employment list. You are a professional and that means there’s a new and harder set of rules in the “game of employment” for both sides: the employee and the employer.
As a newly minted paralegal, you come to the interview table with certain expectations: an office, a better salary, some autonomy, to be treated with a little more respect in the office and in society, in your new capacity as a paralegal. Perhaps, you even expect to have your own assistant. Whatever your expectations, you have them because you are A PARALEGAL. You now hold a certificate or a degree, you have studied long and hard, and incurred loans to become and be able to call yourself A PARALEGAL.
The employer seeking a paralegal has certain expectations as well: that the paralegal dress in a professional manner, conduct himself professionally, not have to be micromanaged, and to not be directed in an assignment the same way his legal assistant or receptionist or file clerk is directed. The attorney expects the paralegal to come to have those abilities and knowledge that are instantaneously helpful to the attorney. In sum, he is seeking a partner, not exactly an equal partner, but a partner in the representation of the client.
Certainly a certain amount of office specific training is expected: how their computer system is set up, how they use certain programs which you are expected to already be experienced in using (part of the pre-employment process), how they handle certain elements of their practice but , essentially, that you can walk in and start working from the moment you enter the firm. After all, you have been provided an office, a better salary, some autonomy, you are treated and regarded differently, you may even have your own assistant.
So, all of the above having been laid out for you — you are a new paralegal. You hold in your hand your paralegal certificate, your Associates degree or Bachelors degree and you can’t understand why, “Oh why” you can’t get a job. You wonder why every single paralegal position you come across on planet earth requires, requests, and demands at least two years of paralegal experience. You wonder: “Did I make the wrong decision?”, “Why is it so hard?”, “Where can I get the experience?”, “I have been unemployed for __ years because no one will hire me without experience.” The list of frustrations and questions is endless. I, and other paralegals, try to answer these questions the best way we know how: we offer suggestions for internships (which are few and far between), tell you to volunteer, join paralegal groups/associations, get involved, get your face and name out in the legal community, any way you can (except as a newspaper headline!)
The bottom line is this: by becoming a paralegal you have stepped out of the regular job market. You are no longer looking for the “regular job” you may have previously held. You are now a professional and the playing field is different. You bring not only your education to the application table, but you must also bring proof that you can fill a very important role in the firm from the moment you enter it – and for the most important person in the office — the attorney. A paralegal is not hired to be “taught” how to be a paralegal. A paralegal is hired to fill a position that is intricate to the process. The position requires critical thinking based on experience, which is knowledge.
You work under the attorney and all of your work must be overseen by the attorney, but gone is the step-by-step-by-step-by-step instruction for each assignment. The professional realm demands more. Many of the things you will do as a paralegal aren’t even “assigned” by the attorney, but instead fall on your desk in the form of a pleading or letter and you must simply pick it up and know what must be done with it, i.e., draft a response and hand it to the attorney for review and finalizing…and usually without a prefabricated “form” to work from. You must be able to review files and make sure things are moving along as they should be or recognize and do what needs to be done so that it does move along as it should.
The attorney isn’t going to tell you “all the time” what needs to be done – that’s why he hires a paralegal who knows what to do, what should be done and most importantly, how it should be done – and then gets it done. You must know how to talk to clients, opposing counsel, opposing paralegals, witnesses, interview potential new clients to bring needed information to the attorney.
You must think for yourself, for the attorney and on behalf of the client’s matter. You must make suggestions and keep abreast of new case law to make the correct move and right suggestions when the need arises. You must not only know the ethics of being a paralegal, but keep an eye open for attorney ethics as well, so he doesn’t step over the ethical line inadvertently. You guide the attorney based on your knowledge. You must be current on all court rules and let the attorney know of any changes, so there are no issues with your filings. You must keep your own paralegal education up-to-date by attending CLE’s (continuing legal education) and being a part of your professional associations. You must know all that is happening outside your immediate office that could help or hurt your office. You are the alter ego, an extension, if you will, of the legal team that is the attorney and the fight for the client’s cause. Much is expected.
Therefore, based on all of the above, it is clear – or should be – why finding a paralegal position is more complicated, more time consuming, more demanding, and has higher expectations than any of the other “jobs” you have held or sought in the past. Is it a great field to work in? Yes. Absolutely. Can it be more difficult to find your way into than a “normal” job? Yes. Absolutely.
How does all of this help you, as the new paralegal? It explains why the employer is looking for at least 2 years experience and why it is so hard for you to get your foot (or even a toe) in the door. But what can you do about it? As I have said many, many times on the various paralegal forums to many, many other paralegals who asked these same questions – this is my advice:
1. Take any position you can in order to get your foot (or even a toe) into a law office. Don’t necessarily look for a paralegal position. Look for a file clerk, runner, receptionist and junior legal assistant position.
2. Get inside a law firm and observe, read the letters, peruse the files, listen to what is happening around the office, listen to the attorneys and paralegals, offer to drag the files to the court for a trial, take the documents to the printer for trial exhibits, drive witnesses to deposition and trial, to a hearing, make the coffee and make the copies (all the time reading what you are copying) and learning why so many copies are needed and who they are being given to.
3. Ask questions of everyone. I can tell you that your new best friend is the legal assistant. The legal assistant knows all the details, the courts, the judicial assistants, the bailiffs, the judges and how they like things, knows what is happening on a case, why that many copies needs to be made, why a check must accompany that paper, why that is important and about a trillion other details that you will need to know.
4. Always, always, always dress professionally and conduct yourself professionally. Don’t be a snob, but know that where you are today is the training you must go through for your future as A PARALEGAL and you will need all of those people you are working alongside today.
All of these things will give you the knowledge, the understanding and the EXPERIENCE you will need 2 years down the road to say – “Yes, I have 2 years experience in a law office: I have attended depositions, I have helped at trial, I am familiar with how many copies are needed for filing “x,” I know how to have trial exhibits made, I am familiar with this court, this judge, this JA, this bailiff, how this judge wants this or that or doesn’t want it, I have been in that courtroom and how it must be set up for trial, where the plugs are, where the plaintiff sits and the defense sits, where the witnesses sit outside the courtroom waiting to be called, what it is like to attend a deposition, examination under oath, where the papers are filed and how to pull a court file, how to research a file, how papers must be filed…” Am I making my point?
With two years experience you aren’t going to get the senior paralegal position. You will probably get a junior paralegal position or a legal assistant/paralegal position — the best position you could actually hope for, as this will give you the absolute best training and opportunity to transition to a senior paralegal position in the future.
Is it fair to get all the education, incur the education loans and hold a paper that identifies you as A PARALEGAL and have to settle for another, lesser position? Is it fair to expect an employer to hire A PARALEGAL who doesn’t really know what the position entails and has to be trained on each step to be taken? Would it be fair to get the job and not be able to do the job and have endless nights of cold sweats and fear that tomorrow you will arrive at the office only to be fired because you couldn’t do the job?
Being a paralegal is a professional position, and one that doesn’t likely match up with your pre-conceived notion of what “a job” was to you in the past. You have stepped out of the “job” market and you have stepped into the market of seeking “a professional position” and legal career. Just as attorneys do summer internships and doctors do internships before they become attorneys and doctors, you too must go through an internship because you are now among the professionals.
Welcome paralegals, one and all, to the Profession of Paralegalism.
Remember TPS members — we’re always here to provide help, support and guidance. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have a question or there is something we may be able to help you with. After all, this is “your” blog and “your” personal paralegal network!