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By: Anonymous Paralegal (Guest Blogger)

Welcome back TPS readers! Today, we’ve got one question for you: Are senior paralegals becoming an obsolete breed in today’s legal world? Read this anonymous paralegal’s story and let us know your thoughts. 

When the economy turned south in the 4th quarter of 2008, I was working at a small boutique firm as a senior litigation paralegal.  The title was well earned after more than 25 years in litigation covering personal injury, construction defect, catastrophic injury, aviation and securities law.  I had worked for small to mid-sized firms my entire career, with a stint in a corporate legal department for a good portion of the prior ten years.  As the economy turned, insurance carriers started to review legal billing more closely, delayed settlements and over-all stalled as much as they could in all litigation matters – subrogation, construction, personal injury, legal malpractice.  Because insurance companies make most of their money on the investments they make (yes, they are some of the biggest investors in the stock markets around the world), as the market started to tank, they started tightening their purse strings.

The Legal Environment Changed

Working in any firm that depends on insurance companies paying settlements creates uncertainty for legal professionals in a down-turning economy.  However, there was more “bad” news in the Sun Belt where construction had been a booming industry for a decade. Homes, office buildings, shopping centers, big-box stores had fueled the economy for many years:  suddenly commercial parcels and entire subdivisions – already graded and with utilities installed – were fenced with no equipment, no activity.  Title companies started laying off staff since there were no loans being processed; banks tightened lending requirements; law firms, especially large ones, started releasing staff, then attorneys, as no one was purchasing large parcels or putting together strategic deals requiring a law firm’s assistance.  Litigation even starred to dry up – very unusual in a down economy.  Only bankruptcy practices seemed unaffected.

It was a snowball running down the mountain that never sees snow – the first to go in the law firms were the most expensive of staff members: the “senior” paralegal.  People making descent wages because of their years of experience, those who knew how to do the job at hand and who helped the junior staff (and often the new associates) were let go first – meaning the senior paralegals.  When I was “laid off for downsizing” the other paralegal, who was also let go was just a couple of years my junior, but with about as long a career in law as I had.  We were two of the highest paid staff members and also were using our benefits – insurance and vacation time; we were mentoring the newly hired junior paralegals, assisting the new legal assistants and taking on tasks not in our loose job descriptions.  However, we were found despensible – we were also the oldest of the staff members.

The Dilemma

Thereafter, I discovered that being well educated, striving to provide the best assistance possible to lawyers and clients, and knowing how to take a case from beginning to end was not enough to find a job.  Head hunters were telling me to change careers – go get a master’s degree and teach at a junior college (um, that takes money – no job, no income, living on savings – sorry, not a good picture); seek employment in the retail industry (um, people are getting laid off left and right and the stores are starting to lay off staff – what’s wrong with that picture?); seek an “executive assistant” position – they get paid more than legal professionals (um, that may be true on the east and west coast, maybe Atlanta and Chicago, not so much in the Sun Belt).

In the first six months after being laid off, I sent out more than 300 resume, retained an outplacement company for assistance (they did a great job on a new resume, but not much else); called and/or emailed every attorney I knew in the metro area; sent out faxes to firm administrator offering myself as a contract/temp employee.  I got zero, nil, nada: nothing during that time frame other than: “Thank you for applying, we have filled the position with someone more suitable to our needs” (read between the lines – lawyer); or “We have been overwhelmed with responses, please be patient while we sort through the resumes” and then nothing.  Often there was no response – not an email, thank you letter – nothing.  Attempt to contact an office manager or HR department: fruitless, they weren’t taking calls.

The state started reporting record numbers of people being laid off from all areas of the economy – government was cutting personnel just as fast as the private sector: by mid- 2009, the metro area ranked in the top five or six for unemployment.  Unemployment compensation in my state is less than $250 a week for someone who makes over $30,000 per year, from which they take state and federal taxes (go figure), so that you end up with less than $220 per week.  If your spouse is employed, or your own a home and other assets, you can’t get food stamps, can’t qualify for state healthcare; yet state and federal legislatures were saying there were plenty of jobs and that people didn’t want to find jobs because they got used to living on unemployment (really?).   Unfortunately those folks had jobs, were mostly pretty well off, and had no clue what was really happening to their constituents.

I found a temporary consulting position in the fall of 2009 – 20 hours a week for $500 – to help an attorney find new office space, set it up and hire a secretary/legal assistant.  That lasted about 8 weeks, during which time I also did some litigation work for him.  During the process, I discovered that I could not possibly work for the attorney full time – just not my type of person (he recently was suspended from practice, so I guess I had an inkling).  Again, there was a dry period, until a temp agency came up with an assignment lasting about 8 weeks.  Things started to look up and there came an offer from an attorney I’d known for a long time – he needed a paralegal now that he was out on his own after leaving his partners – was I interested in part-time moving up to full time in a couple of months?  Of course!!

Well, be careful what you wish for – the “part time” was getting ready for trial, which took about a week.  He didn’t want assistance at trial, so wouldn’t need help during the five day trial (split over two weeks).  Lo and behold, there was nothing doing with “moving up to full time” – he simply wanted trial prep assistance: and it took him two months to pay me!

The Hunt

Once again, I was on the hunt, and started sending out faxes to sole practitioners offering contract work for trial or case work.  I was selective in whom I contacted – I went after the well-known solos – those guys who have a reputation of taking only the best cases.  This time I was lucky to get involved in a huge case that needed a lot of work to prepare for expert and defendant doctor depositions.  Unfortunately, it lasted only about six months, but it was work. 

During all this time, I continued to search for a full time position.  I lost count of how many resumes I sent out; but I did keep track of how few interviews I had.  During 2009 through mid-2011, I had seven interviews, and was twice the “second” in line for the position.  Reasons given for not getting the job – too experienced – “we want someone we can train” (then why advertise for a paralegal with 15 years plus experience?); “we can’t afford you” (did you ask me how much I’d be willing to take in salary?); “we decided that an attorney fit our needs better” (gee, why did you advertise for a paralegal?).  In a conversation with a head hunter, I found out that for every paralegal position being advertised, either online, in the papers or on company websites, there were 350-400 applicants, split between attorneys, paralegals, paralegal wanna’ be’s, and people just searching for any job.  It was a miracle that I got any interviews.

In 2011, I obtained what was intended to be a two year contract/temp assignment through a legal placement firm.  I happily drove into work every day, and was giddy to have an income after spending most of our savings and all of the inheritance my dad had left me just to keep our home and vehicles.  The firm knew that I wanted a full time position, and even told me when I left early one day for an interview to let them know if an offer was made, as they would want to consider offering me a full time position, probably.  Then, two weeks before Christmas, the case I was up-to-my eyeballs in went into mothballs as the client decided he wanted to explore settlement options with the two international corporations involved in his claims.  OOPS!!! Suddenly, no job, no income and back to square one.

The Problem

Did I mention that the following week, the firm advertised for a paralegal with 5 – 7 years of experience?  No, well, that’s the story of a senior paralegal: firms want you for your ability to hit-the-ground running on a case, yet don’t want to keep you on their payroll due to how much they know they should be paying for your experience.  Also, if you apply for a position that may need knowledge outside your immediate comfort zone, e.g. intellectual property litigation, most firms are not willing to look at you because you do not meet their “specific” requirement of “some experience with intellectual property”.

Is Location the Issue?

It is hard to explain to some of my peers in other parts of the country exactly what the job market is like in the Sun Belt.  I’ve seen lots of job postings for New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Philly, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle and other areas of the county.  But it’s not easy to simply pick up and leave:  I have a house (with an up-side down mortgage); a husband whose business is here, so that moving would require starting over for him; extended family and friends here where we’ve lived for over two decades; and my husband’s health which does not allow us to live in the colder climes. 

Is Age the Issue?

Additionally, some of the problem for senior paralegals at this time is too much experience and being “too old”, although no one can come out and say that directly without getting sued for age discrimination.  I’ve had several people tell me my resume is intimidating; they’ve ask why I never went to law school (never wanted to!); told me to “dumb down” my resume (please help me with that one – I have no idea how to do that!); and to simply give up and find another type of work.  Sure, that’s the easy solution, but folks look at your resume and know the minute the market turns, you’ll be out looking for the work you love to do.

The Lost Paralegals

From the outset of my lack of work, I have taught on-and-off for a local paralegal program.  It has been hard to tell those interested in the profession that there is little out there for them – no one wants to take on the newbies, nor the elders of our profession.  I teach what I know, but warn my students to be prepared for a hard row-to-ho when looking for a job.

In the past week I’ve had four interviews, two of which have gone south due to the fact I was too experienced; the other two are still pending.  I spend my days on the phone, searching job boards, firm and corporate web sites, governmental job banks, and I continue to hope and pray that I will still have my home and my sanity in the next six months. 

Perhaps some of you are thinking “well perhaps this paralegal isn’t personable, doesn’t interview well, has lost her touch or isn’t the total package.” Think again!  I can assure you that’s absolutely not the case. Disturbingly, this appears to be a growing trend for senior paralegals all across the country. This certainly isn’t the first story we’ve heard on this particular topic.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share after reading this post? Have you had a similar experience? Do you think it’s a matter of cost, age or location? Do you have any words of advice to offer? Please feel free to leave a comment, TPS readers! We’d love to hear from you.