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By: Jamie Collins
Alright, I really can’t help myself here. There are certain times when I feel so compelled to write on a particular topic that I simply cannot go one more day without sharing a little industry wisdom and a few pearls of personal opinion with our readers. The day has come, my friends. Today’s topic has been eating away at me for a good, long while. It’s something we all see posted on paralegal forums regularly, especially if you’re on LinkedIn – “I went to blah blah school and earned a blah, blah, paralegal certificate/degree and am absolutely shocked at the starting pay for paralegals.”
You got that, right. I remember being shocked, too, way back when I was a newbie answering a law firm’s phones for a whopping 9 bucks an hour with no legal experience. I hoped to one day grace the presence of those high-priced paralegals, whom I admired – those actually qualified to do the job. That was back before paralegal programs sprung up all across the nation. Back then, there was one bachelor’s program – literally one – and it was a few hours away from Indianapolis, a big city. The field wasn’t mainstream or popular. Not until Erin graced the big screen, big obstacles, a big smile… and an even bigger bonus check. Back then, firms were still trying to figure out who we were and what we did. (Heck, some still are today.)
I also remember thinking I was qualified to be a “Paralegal” long before I was, in fact, actually qualified to do the job. And by qualified I’m not talking about degrees or certifications earned, but rather, actual, practical, hands-on experience in legal processes, procedures, trial rules, and expertise in sprinting through the gauntlet like a legal warrior, minus the war paint, plus the heels. So today, I’m making my way up onto the TPS stage to write the truth as I know it regarding paralegal newbies, starting salaries, and what to expect.
For starters – The starting pay for paralegals sucks if you have no experience.
There – I said it. I could sugar coat it or use a friendlier term to describe the initial pay, but that is the reality – it sucks. Unless you happen to have a relative or personal connection, i.e, your father, mother, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, third cousin four times removed, or a close friend or family member working in the law; a person who can actually try to help you land a better package (or simply open a door to the firm for you), chances are your starting salary is going to suck. And this leads us to our second point – why is that?
WHY does the starting pay for paralegals suck?
Excellent question. It sucks because you will be paid based upon your legal experience, skills, knowledge, and local reputation – and starting out, you’re basically starting from the ground up. That is the reality. The degree or certificate you earned does not a “paralegal” make, although it’s a BIG step in the right direction. Put simply, until such time as you are actually qualified to sit in the chair and do all of the essential functions of the paralegal job – and there are a lot of them – you will be in training. Make that A LOT of training.
Countless hours will be spent learning a wide array of tasks: how to run a case, procedural knowledge, trial rules, standard procedures, how to prepare flawless pleadings, what to do, what not to do, software programs, how to manage unrealistic expectations, juggle multiple priorities and attorneys, vendor issues, working on claims/cases, reading files, and so much more. The first 1-3 years are basically spent learning the basics. (Yes, the basics. I know it sounds crazy that it would take an intelligent, competent person with a certificate/degree 1-2 years to learn the basics, but it’s true. And that’s just scratching the surface of what you’re expected to know.)
Welcome to the World of Nuances.
The nuances of law are darn near endless. Learning all of the how to’s, when, why, where, for whom, under what circumstance, and “except for” scenarios is a tall order, even under the best of trainers. While you may have learned a lot in paralegal school and attended an excellent program, ABA approved or otherwise, learning from exceptional instructors who truly cared about you as a student, the problem is that most firms/attorneys/paralegals are too busy to provide a newbie much by way of “formal” training. This leads us to a variety of issues newbies in today’s world face.
The Ten Foot Pole Epidemic.
Most firms will only hire newbies with 2+ years of actual, hands on, on the job, in-the legal-trenches experience. So let’s get this straight – firms won’t hire you (the newbie) to give you the experience you need in order to land a job, but you can’t get a job to gain the experience you need to have a career, so how in the heck do you get hired as a paralegal? That’s a great question! And a BIG problem.
I believe there are certain graduates in ANY college program (paralegal or otherwise) who will rise up as the stand outs – they will have a decent shot at landing their first legal gigs with absolutely no experience. You can chalk it up to an engaging personality, charisma, excellent work ethic, transferable work background or soft skills, to name a few. But for the others, it is a real battle of the masses. It is not fair. It is certainly not ideal. But that is the reality. If you find yourself in the latter group (and most of you will), do everything – literally, everything – you can do today to set yourself apart as a candidate. Make meaningful connections, earn stellar grades, self-educate online, read legal books, join local paralegal associations, attend networking luncheons, join online paralegal groups on LinkedIn, and make it your personal mission to interact with seasoned paralegals. Network like crazy.
The real deal on those paralegal salary figures.
I’m using the term “salary” loosely here because per changes made to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2004, paralegals cannot typically be paid on “salary” according to the revised regulations, with a few exceptions. But Paralegal programs like to tout those handsome salary numbers and the popularity of the profession to entice people to enroll in their paralegal programs. (The popularity of the profession is actually fairly new, with the shift occurring probably within the last 3-5 years). Let me be clear – I’m not saying these programs are bad or evil or that people should choose not to become paralegals or enroll in paralegal programs. (That said, do A LOT of due diligence when selecting your school.) And I’m also not saying you can’t earn a really fabulous salary as a paralegal, because you can – I do. It is a great career choice, one I’m definitely glad I made.
Showing these salary figures is smart marketing on the part of schools. I see why they do it. But I want you to see the full picture.
The problem is that many students and newbies (career changers included), don’t realize the “average” salary figures reflected on those reports (you know, the handsome ones that would really set you up mighty nice, pay the bills, put you into a new car, handbag and heels, lunch at that new café down the street, and a Starbucks concoction on the daily) are for working paralegals with at least 2-3 years of experience, spanning into the decades. Those handsome salary figures are NOT (like hardly ever) what a starting paralegal would make on the legal job market with no extensive, hands-on experience.
And this leads us to the big trade off – money versus training.
If you expect a firm to train you (because they will have to, if you’re new) you’re going to take a major downgrade in pay to essentially offset that training early on. But it could help you to line yourself up for far better money and opportunities down the road, allow you to establish tremendous career connections, and set yourself up for a flourishing paralegal career. You must earn your way into the higher priced seats of the paralegal stadium. They are not offered freely. They are reserved. It won’t be easy. But it can be done.
By getting your foot in the door, even in a lesser capacity or role, to work at great places, for great attorneys, alongside great paralegals, it will help to you build your personal brand as a paralegal/person and to set yourself up for future success. There is a trade off – and that trade off is: “We’ll train you, but we’re going to pay you less for a few years.” (The bigger money typically comes with job number two if you put in the time and effort at job number one.) So while you may have to kiss that new car, new handbag and tall, black iced tea goodbye – it’s just for now, not forever – at least if you do it right.
So why bother?
Because Being a Paralegal is Awesome!
I know today’s post may seem a bit heavy and tilted toward the negative aspects of walking the paralegal path as a newbie in this fabulous profession, but it is the reality. I also want you to know that I absolutely LOVE what I do as a litigation/trial paralegal; most of the paralegals I know feel the same way. It is an incredibly satisfying, interesting, rewarding and gratifying career path.
Besides, if you know of the adversity, potential issues and hardships you will face, you can prepare for them, deal with them, bob-and-weave with the best of ’em, and work diligently to create a brilliant plan and prosperous career for your future. So don’t give up. Enroll in a reputable paralegal program. Don’t check your common sense at the door. Learn all you can, right here, right now. Follow legal blogs. Subscribe to paralegal magazines like KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals (the one I write a regular column for) and Paralegal Today. Join the local paralegal association. Be cognizant of the issues – and do everything you can to work your way through them, past them or around them. Give it all you’ve got.
Make your way into the profession with both eyes wide open and your heart on the goal, if you feel it is the right career choice for you. I’ll be sure to save you a seat in the high priced seats of the paralegal stadium, if you’re willing to put in the work it will take to get there.
(Row 3B. I’ll be the one sipping a tall black iced tea, wearing a killer new pair of high heels, and a smile. I earned it.)
Here’s to wishing the best to all of the newbies out there! Godspeed and good luck.
Have a comment or opinion on today’s topic? We’re sure you do! Share it below. We’re all ears…
Adrian C. James said:
Great post! I knew going in that the salary was going to be lower than what I would earn in my previous profession, but I was lucky in that I found an entry-level position that paid better than most I had come across, and that I have a second hustle (so to speak) as a freelance production editor/proofreader to take care of all the incidentals not covered by my salary.
However, keeping my eye on the prize, I am already looking to add skills to make myself attractive to my next employer should I decide to change firms at some point.
Jamie Collins said:
It’s great you were able to find an entry-level position, Adrian! I love to hear success stories. You are building your future in this career path one day at a time.
I’ve noticed from your FB posts that you do a lot of editing in your “spare” time. (Spare time…now that’s a funny concept for all of us.) I think you and I should chat — it seems we have a lot to potentially offer one another, professionally.
Bob Davidson said:
Excellent article, Jamie. You call the article “negative”; I call it realistic and level headed. Not to mention that so many paralegal skills rely on prerecessionary Bureau of Labor Statistics data to support their high paralegal salary represenations.
Also important to note that while paralegal can pay extremely well, very few paralegals actually are paid that money. IMO most paralegals are paid average wages or worse – I know I was paid substantially below average for my market for paralegals with my experience.
Finally, IMO it’s important to consider that it’s hard to better one’s self, even with experience. It’s suprising how little paralegal experience is worth, at least in my market.
Bob Davidson said:
Uhh, that should read paralegal “schools.” Not “skills.” My bad. :$
Jamie Collins said:
Thanks for your comment, Bob. It’s always great to hear your thoughts.
So agreeing with Bob. Where I live and work – despite my RP certification, the money just isn’t there. I make below poverty level, but I work with an awesome attorney. I could move to the “big city” and make substantially more but that is not in the cards right now. I just hate to tell all the paralegal students that the salaries are over-inflated. I actually had one that thought that starting pay was $75K in our area. I hated to burst her bubble.
Mike Snyder said:
I know this post is a few years old, but I just have to jump in with my 2 cents. I think it helps to seek out some type of specialized knowledge or skill within whatever area of law you end up pursuing. In my case, I’m a corporate paralegal with about 17 years experience in the field. I would say that my career really didn’t go anywhere until I obtained additional certification as a Certified Equity Professional. In addition to the fancy new professional title, I also have a credential that tells a specific story. I’m an ACP in Business and Corporate Law, which means I have a general knowledge of all things corporate, but I’m also the equity compensation expert wherever I go. It really helps when it comes to differentiating yourself from the dozens of other applicants who likely are vying for the same position you are.
Jamie Collins said:
Please forward all reprint requests to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll send you our simple criteria — we’re happy to share!
Upward and onward, TPS paralegals! Make it a great one.
“Be authentic. Be inspiring. Be fearless.” – JLC
Pam Shropshire said:
Another important point is that where you work (the region where you live) and for whom you work (size of law firm) are going to be huge factors in what your salary will be. This goes for any job, not just for paralegals. If, like me, you live in a small town, you shouldn’t expect to earn the same as a paralegal in Dallas or Chicago, regardless of your skills, knowledge and experience. If you want the big bucks, be prepared to move to a large metro area.
mary beth said:
Not only where and for whom, but the area of law makes a huge difference as well.
Great article, as always, Jamie Collins.
Jamie Collins said:
That is an excellent point, Pam. Very on point for this discussion. I’m glad you stopped by to share this important point with our readers.
I simply had to stop talking/writing on this one. (I could go all day — y’all know I LOVE me some words and this is a topic we see ALL the time, although it’s never really formally covered. Ahem, did I mention that I managed to write a second spin-off article while writing this post? The words were flying onto the screen.)
neal huffman said:
Many professions which require both training and an educational platform (specialized, like paralegal programs) start fresh graduates out with a very modest salary. The difference is the uniqueness. The electives you mention to set you apart within the field.
In the paralegal profession, with tenure, tenacity, and perseverance, one can really grow and continually take one’s career to the next level. This does not always hold true for other professions where modest increases over time slowly and inadequately raise the career progression.
In legal, you can go far. Hot areas currently are e-discovery, data research, and slash professions, e.g. nurse/paralegal.
One of your top 10 articles Jamie.
Jamie Collins said:
Thanks so much, Neal. I appreciate the kind words.
You raise a great point regarding the “in demand” specialties. Definitely something to consider when selecting electives…and even webinars and CLEs.
This is a great great article, Jamie! And I agree with Pam and Neal. When I was changing careers, I knew I would start at the bottom. However, I knew starting salaries varies from city to city. What I did was figure out where I would want to work and if I want to work in the private or public sector.
I chose to go into the public sector knowing that I would not be paid the big bucks – especially in my field, which is IP and cybercrime. The public sector is where I feel I belong and I am thoroughly fortunate to find my first job in the city I love.
And while I still considered myself a newbie – I know my time will come when I will earn the salary I deserve and have my place at the stadium with you, Jamie! With me, it would be fierce pointy-toed leather oxford shoes with a venti iced vanilla chai (with soy).
Jamie Collins said:
It’s always great to hear from you, Taye! I’ve really enjoyed watching your career journey over the past few years. I’m so happy you landed the ideal job for you. I know it’s not been an easy road, as the road was long, but you did it.
Newbies – if you want to network with someone doing ALL the right things to move his career along – it’s Taye Akinola. Everyone meet Taye — Taye meet everyone. 🙂
Linda Beal said:
A great post, Jamie and the comments are really on point. I think everyone, no matter the profession, has to pay their dues. School is great and a piece of paper will help open doors, but there is no substitute for actually working in a law office. Most of the paralegals I know started off as staff assistants or legal secretaries, anything to get a foot in the firm. The other thing I’ve learned is that there isn’t enough money in the world to make me work for an attorney who behaves badly toward their staff!
I love being a paralegal. The work is challenging and interesting and I learn something new everyday. I’m happy with the firm and the attorneys I work for. I am a respected and valued member of the team. That combination is worth it’s weight in gold!
Jamie Collins said:
Thanks, Linda. Paying your dues is right! That is true in every field, but I think even more so in the specialized, fast paced, stressful field that is “law.”
I can relate to everything you said about being a paralegal. It’s great you found your ideal spot. I wish you all the best in the future.
Jerry Woods said:
This article nailed it for me. I recently received my ABA certificate and now I’m looking for a career as an intellectual property paralegal. I am also a musician, so I would like to work in the entertainment law profession one day. But getting into this area is a huge challenge since everyone wants only experienced paralegals.
As for the pay, fortunately, different instructors warned the students throughout the program that the pay COULD be poor at first. But they also told us that there is a lot of room for growth in the profession. Thankfully, they wanted us to go into this with our eyes open.
Jamie Collins said:
I’m so happy to hear that, Jerry. I’ll give your LinkedIn profile a gander and let you know if I have any suggestions that may help you in that regard.
I agree there is definitely room for growth. It’s great you think you know what you want to do. But get your foot in the door in any firm/specialty you can. You need to clock 2 years. Then you’ll be in a better position to begin to steer your career in the direction you want it to go. That said, your passion could open the exact door you’re looking for. Just be open to every opportunity. Do everything you can to line yourself up for the ONE opportunity you need to make a go of it.
I wish you all the best in your job search! We’re here if you need anything.
Great article Jamie! An easy read. I do have one thing to add on this topic for prospective paralegals. I am a legal secretary with a paralegal associate degree (well almost, I’ll be finished soon). I’ve been a legal secretary for over 25 yrs. With that being said, another way in the door of a law firm is via being a legal secretary, then crossing over when you get the opportunity. Most importantly, and you mentioned this, it is all about “who you know” and not necessarily “what you know or the educational credentials you have acquired”. Once I finish school, I will push to promote a new genre of this combo profession as a “one stop job” paraprofessional….something along those lines where I can receive a different compensation when I switch on my paralegal duties, provide the client with excellent services for a nominal, nonparalegal rate (newbies salaries are low but their rates can start at $300ph), and turn them off to resume other responsibilites. As you know, most corporate attys/firms are writing off paralegal time because of the closely related admin tasks they are new performing, as opposed to legal research and filings. My mission, personally, is to revamp this role and this is how I am going about doing it. 🙂
Jamie Collins said:
Thank you kindly, Robin. You’re doing all the right things. I’m pretty sure we can go ahead and chalk one up on the success board in your name. 🙂
Great comment. Thanks for taking the time to share it with our readers!
James Robinson said:
How well I remember thinking that $12 an hour was beneath my dignity. After all, I had just graduated Magna Cum Laude from an ABA Certified College, but I swallowed my pride, and took the job. Now nearly four years and a couple raises later, I realize that I was most likely an overpaid newbie.
Yes, it’s terribly disappointing when a newly minted “paralegal” realizes the average wage posted by dear old Uncle Sam, is a load of horse crap.
I completely agree with Jamie’s assessment of 1-3 years before you can even begin to claim that you have any experience.
Continued education and certifications are the lifeblood of a paralegal. And don’t think that your supervising attorney doesn’t notice. When I achieved my designation as a Certified Paralegal, my attorney jumped my billing fee from $75 and hour, to $95 and hour.
Hmm, sounds like it may be time for another raise.
Jamie Collins said:
I always find your comments on point, entertaining, and candid, James. Your first line made me chuckle…I’m not gonna lie. Thanks for sharing your insight with us. (Don’t be a stranger.)
Chris Bedel said:
Great post, Jamie, and I agree with Bob — very realistic. And you are spot-on with your comments on networking, joining groups and associations, and enrolling in reputable paralegal programs. My main gripe has always been the proprietary schools that claim “you can become a high-salaried paralegal professional in just three months!” Ugh! I have met many of these students who have difficulty speaking in complete sentences. These schools do a disservice to their students and the profession as a whole.
Jamie Collins said:
I hear you on the 3 month programs, Chris! It’s crazy. That and completely unrealistic.
I’ve spent the past several months training a fabulous intern (a really sharp guy) and it’s really putting into perspective just HOW LONG it takes to properly and adequately train someone. It’s a tall order. Worth it. But whew, it’s a lot of work. Time and work. (Good thing I really enjoy training people! It’s a win-win investment.)
Mary L said:
Excellent article Jamie. Going back many years, we have to understand that when the paralegal industry first came to be, you got a certificate only if you worked as a legal assistant for a number of years. Now, most law firms, require a four year degree! Amazing how far the industry has come, not to mention the salary increases over the years. I love the diversity and the continued education is a bonus! It is the best career move I ever made.
Jamie Collins said:
Thanks, Mary! Good point regarding the educational component and growth. It will be fun seeing where the profession takes us, prior to me retiring under a beach cabana.
Mike Giardina said:
As usual, Jamie, you are spot on. You made one parenthetical point, that I think it’s necessary to expound on. (“The bigger money typically comes with job number two if you put in the time and effort at job number one.”). This is key.
We no longer live, and haven’t since before the 1990’s when the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that paralegal was going to be the fasted growing career field, in a one-job-for-life economy.
You first job doesn’t pay well, but it gets you experience and more importantly the opportunity to work with and get to know attorneys who will serve as a reference when you look for job no. 2. I started in litigation in 1995, in Washington, D.C. with a “salary” of $19,000 a year, plus overtime. It was a large IP litigation firm, and the OT and OT benefits ($15 dinner per diem if you worked after 7PM or more than four hours on a weekend day) made it manageable.
Do that first job. Sure you won’t have the lifestyle for a while, but learn everything you can, know questions, and find a few trusted attorneys who will mentor you, and eventually go to bat for you when you job-hop. More importantly, figure out what it is about the culture of the first place you work that you like and what you hate, so you can find a better fit down the road. Also, decided what you like about particular practice area (sometimes that means you’ll work four or five different places before you discover the “dream job.”)
I recommend putting in at least a full year at your first (and second) jobs to show that you aren’t a flake who will jump ship at the nearest sight of land, and definitely stay at each through a full review process. Finally, when you have the opportunity to work at a place that you have enough experience to know you will thrive in, negotiate your way into the job. While often changing jobs will increase your salary faster than staying at the same place, you can choose to negotiate yourself a lower level salary, with an offer to prove yourself, provided you will have a review and potential for a raise of bonus after six months, rather than waiting a full year.
Bob Davidson said:
Excellent comment regarding the antediluvian BLS paralegal stats. My second job indeed paid better than my first job.
Jamie Collins said:
I appreciate your kind words, Mike.
I think the points you elaborated on in your comment are so important, I’d actually like to invite you to expand them into a future post for TPS. You interested? Send me an email at: email@example.com, and I’ll send you our simple writing criteria.
Thanks for stopping by TPS!
Very realistic explanation of getting started and the start up costs and trade off for salary and paralegal education and actual law office experience. Transferring positions from executive administrative assistant to legal secretary ( I had my bachelors, ABA Paralegal Certificate, but no law office experience) was a definite decrease in salary but one I was willing to take to get started. After getting started I earned the respect and trust in my position that resulted in more difficult assignments, bigger projects, and endorsement from my employer in pursuing NALA Certification. I have held a paralegal/legal assistant position for over five years and will say that it is not the salary that keeps me in my position, but really enjoying what it is I get to do everyday and the things I am constantly learning.
Jamie Collins said:
It’s always great to hear a success story, Lorie! Thanks for sharing it with us.
Sebastian A. said:
Very nice article, I enjoyed reading it. It’s also good to note that the practice area also affects the starting rate. I personally started out in litigation and the rate was very low; however, when I moved into corporate and starting conversing with other corporate paralegals, I noticed the gap difference. I think there is also a correlation with the undergraduate degree and the paralegal role — more litigation paralegals major in literature, sciences, etc., whereas more corporate paralegal tend to focus on business administration, accounting, etc.
Thanks for sharing your informative article.
Jamie Collins said:
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Sebastian. That’s an interesting observation regarding college majors. Another interesting point to take into consideration if you’re a newbie. Every little bit of information helps when making big decisions.
Thanks for stopping by TPS and taking the time to leave a comment! I hope to see you “around.”
Once again, if you want realistic salary figures, go to payscale.com
Don’t believe the govt.
And no, big cities don’t pay more, necessarily. While San Antonio is considered a big city, it is still a small legal market.
It’s sad that someone can earn more at a call center than as a paralegal.
Jennifer Lerma said:
While I agree with everything you wrote in your article, I do have one question that several other paralegal friends and I have been discussing of late and that is of reaching the salary or pay “ceiling” at a young age, compared to other professions. I graduated with a 4 year degree in paralegal studies from an ABA approved program in 1995 and started out making peanuts but my salary increased over my first 5 years with knowledge and experience. I am currently in my 3rd job and have been here for almost 13 years. I work for a large firm with 135+ lawyers and 4 offices. My yearly raises are very small (cost of living or less) and my yearly bonus has not changed in several years, implying that I have capped out. My concern is that I am 41 years old, have another 25 years in my career but it seems that I have reached the ceiling of compensation, except for small yearly cost of living raises. What are your thoughts on this? Do other paralegals with 20+ years experience still get nice size (greater than 3%) yearly raises or do you find raises to be small, if existent at all?
Angie Fitzpatrick said:
Jennifer, I’m right there with you. I have discovered that having too much experience is almost as detrimental to a paralegal career as not having any, especially when seeking new employment. Like you, I graduated in 1995 from an ABA-Accredited university with a BS in Paralegal studies and two specialty certificates (in Litigation and Corporations). Then, in 1996, I passed the CLA/CP exam, making me a certified paralegal – the 26th in the entire State of CA. So, that’s the background. Here’s the rub:
I started working as a file clerk in a boutique firm for very little money in 1994, yes before I graduated paralegal school. I was going to be ready for that high-paying paralegal job once my degree was completed by already working in a law firm and “having my foot in the door” of the legal community. My graduation coincided with that small firm’s paralegal quitting, leaving the office for me along with its unfinished work, messy files and unanswered correspondence and discovery. Oh yeah, and no practical training. I worked my butt off, asked a lot of questions and figured out what my role was in this new position I inherited. But… the money didn’t come, so I switched jobs. To make a potentially very long story a little shorter, let’s just say that I went through several paralegal jobs – law firms and in-house – until I landed at a large, national firm, where I spent five years and earned the designation of case manager, along with a nice paycheck, which of course included a whole lot of OT, because I worked A LOT – late nights, weekends, holidays, vacations… you get the idea. I also met my husband there. He was a case manager at another office of the same firm and we frequently covered each other’s vacations. But, I digress.
I’m getting closer to my point(s)…
I ended up quitting my job, which I loved despite the long hours, due to the actions and demeanor of one of the firm’s partners and the inaction of the administrative staff. (I was actually told that “it’s not against the law to be an a-hole.” Maybe not, but I wasn’t going to put up with it.) Anyway, nine years later I sometimes still regret my decision. But back to my point, I now work for a public university system, where I’ve been for the last six and a half years. I can’t say I’m unhappy – the people are great, the work is definitely doable, I go home on time every day, and hey – no billables! There are many benefits to working where I do, but pay is definitely not one of them. Because of CA’s financial problems over the last several years, I did not get a raise (none, zero, zilch) for the first six years of my employment and there are no such things as bonuses. Finally, last year there was a raise, and I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but split over the last six years, it wouldn’t cover the rise in the cost of living. To put it bluntly, my kids and I could not afford to live in CA if it were up to me to support us. So, lately I’ve been thinking that I might need to change jobs again if I ever hope to retire. But it turns out that’s easier said than done. Having 20 years of experience, I have found that potential employers disregard my resume because either they don’t want to pay someone what a 20-year paralegal makes or they calculate how old I must be after working as a paralegal for 20 years (even though I’m only 45) and figure I am not as eager and energetic as someone they could hire with half the experience, half the age, and for half the money. So that’s that.
My husband, on the other hand, took a different path that left him in almost the same predicament. I say almost, because he makes good money. I should add too, for new paralegals, that no matter how many advancements we have made with regard to women’s equal rights, I found that men still get paid better than women. My husband and I held the exact same jobs at different offices of the same firm, yet he made considerably more than I did – even then. Back to the present though, the firm we worked for imploded a few years ago and my husband was picked up by another great, national law firm. And like I said before, he makes good money and makes it possible for us to live where we live, but he is topped out. Even though he still does great work and bills a sufficient amount of hours, his raises and bonuses have become minimal. He’s a really good guy and always says that it’s better than nothing and definitely beats not having a job. And he’s right. But since I started this “comment” claiming to be responding to Jennifer’s post, there it was. Jennifer, if you tuned out long ago, just read the last few sentences.
My apologies for the length of my comment/novel, but as Jamie said (and by the way, Jamie – fantastic article!) the words just kept coming.
P.S. If anyone is wondering what happened with my CLA designation, of which I was so proud… I let it lapse a few years ago. I kept paying for the NALA membership and completing my 50 hours of CLE every five years, a requirement for maintaining the certification, but I have not found one employer in the last 20 years that cared in the least about it, so I let it go.
Jen F. said:
Angie, it is interesting that you posted about your CLA designation at the end. To firms in my area, it means NOTHING. I was proud of it for awhile, but dropped mine as well when I discovered it is essentially meaningless.
Paralegals here are legal secretaries, administrative assistants, concierge service providers, coffee retrievers, et cetera. That was a huge shock to one of our new employees. This person cannot get over the fact that they have to cover phone duty for lunch every few Fridays. They were appalled that “as the new kid” they were expected to do anything but learn their job and do the tasks they did for assignments in paralegal school. Said person was also bemoaning the salary offered.
We do anything and everything here. The attorneys are constantly getting on us for all of the “non-billable” tasks we do in a day, but there is no other staff to do those things- set up for depositions, make travel arrangements, review bills, write cover letters, type the mediation agreements, and the list goes on.
A lot of paralegal programs are doing their students a huge disservice in not covering that “reality check” that sometimes you have to pay your dues. I know. It’s not the part we want to hear at that “Go get ’em” commencement speech. But for a newbie to come into my office and tell me, after ten years of experience, that I have more experience so I should be the one watching the phones so he can learn my job is a little ballsy to me. There is a lot of entitlement being taught. Truth be told, that degree or certificate might open a few doors but it’s not going to get you far without a “can do” and “will do” attitude.
Sharon Willier said:
Excellent article, and absolutely on the mark. I was a mid-life career changer with a bachelor’s degree who returned to college for a paralegal certificate from an ABA-approved program. Prior to enrolling, I called on two law firms that had posted job openings and requested an “informational interview” with the hiring attorneys. I wanted to learn what it would take to become a paralegal and what qualifications the attorneys looked for in their paralegal candidates. Following mid-terms, I applied for an entry-level, evening position with a local law firm, just for the experience and the ability to put law firm experience on my resume. It was my good fortune to receive an employment offer from the very same law firm following graduation. After nearly five years, I left that firm for a more challenging position (and a big jump in pay – hooray!). Like you, Jamie, I love the work. It’s been 8 years, and I haven’t looked back.
Nancy Merritt said:
Greetings & well said. A question – When talking about pay, are we ignoring the elephant in the room, the thing maybe more important than pay: the future of our profession? The writing is on the wall here in the Northeast – the traditional law firm model and traditional roles/jobs in law firms are changing. Firms can’t sustain themselves with business as usual anymore. Paralegals are seen as not profitable and as performing tasks that can be inl arge part accomplished by software. Firms here are investing in technology, not paralegal or their salaries
Renee Givens said:
Hi Nancy – I think that depends on what area of law you work in. I can see litigation paralegals having a lot of their tasks taken over by technology where there is a lot of doc review, summarizing and organization. However, I have been a commercial real estate paralegal for over 25 years and I do admit that technology has made things easier over the years. However, there will always be title reports and surveys to be reviewed and closing documents to be prepared along with many other things that I do not see being taken over by technology.
Jen F. said:
Nancy, that’s an interesting point. Everyone is doing more with less these days. And the technology is mindblowing. That “up and coming” profession we found ourselves clamoring to be a part of is being slowly phased out as quickly as it came in.
Lesley Neff said:
Jamie, this is excellent, and quite frankly, it is not all that unique to the legal arena and paralegal jobs. ALL college graduates need to understand this. Very few fields of study start with salaries that do not “suck”…great, appropriate word choice. It is the reality, but sadly, today, many have very unrealistic expectations. I plan to share this with my students. Thank you!
I am actually regretting my decision to become a paralegal because the job prospects just are not there!!!! I cannot afford to take a pay cut in order to “get my foot in the door” because I am a single mother and have too many obligations to make less than I am now as a veterinary technician. I’m seriously thinking about just getting my license in what I’m already doing!!! I can make just as much, if not more, with a license!!!! Plus I am really good at what I do!!! When I made the decision to go to paralegal school I was bartending and was out of the veterinary field for a couple years, I then went back into the field and fell back in love with it! I also cannot move to take a lower paying paralegal position.
Jenifer Bersch said:
Jamie – Your article is very well written and a true reality check to those breaking into the profession. I agree that it’s a fabulous career choice with many opportunities, but it takes time to gain the experience to become successful. For those of you who are having trouble acquiring the experience you need to land a Paralegal job, please consider other options. Many Paralegals started out as Legal Assistants and if you have the educational requirements (or are working on the educational requirements), many firms will consider a Legal Assistant when a Paralegal position becomes available (and many employers know the value of a well-trained, high functioning Legal Assistant). Good luck!
Melena Johnson said:
I totally agree with your article. I worked my way up the same as you. I graduated from ODU. I now have over 20 years experience in the legal field. I concentrated in personal injury/medical malpractice and tort law for many years, but I have also worked in just about every other aspect of the law. I am now working as the sole paralegal for the County in which I live (administration law).
During my career I have yet to make over 36k. I chalk this up to the area I live and the firms in which I have worked. So I wish to point out to many of the paralegal potentials that location is also key. Be willing to move to an area where the pay is more rewarding. If you are from a small town, be willing to accept that the pay rate is not going to be through the roof like it is in a big area, even with the experience you bring to the table. This is despite what any pay rate list posted regarding potential salaries might say! Negotiate your worth. Just don’t roll over and take whatever they offer the first time. That is also key to getting more money. Know your self worth before you go to the interview.
I love my job. I love my boss and where I work. I am close to my children and their schools and that was what made the salary here work for me. Yes I still have days where I think I am very underpaid. There are also days when I think my talent is not utilized. I think with my experience I can honestly say that you will never be in a firm where these are not constant battles. Heck, I am still referred to by one of the attorney’s I work with as “secretary” from time to time. That isn’t a knock on a secretary, but it is offending when you have earned your title as I have. I carry my title with pride even though it is still not recognized by many attorneys.
This brings me to my second point. Some attorneys still do not recognize a difference in title of Paralegals, Legal Assistants, Secretaries and Receptionist. To them we are all the same and it is merely a title preference. One would think this would not be a problem in this day and time, but I still find it in the small area which I work. Only a hand full of attorneys in this area recognize the Paralegal. I am battling that right now. Most of the work that I feel I am capable of doing is handed off to the Assistant County Attorney. Either my boss does not think I’m capable of the work, or he is trying to utilize the Assistant County Attorney’s time. The verdict is still out on that one and in the meantime, I am stuck with so called Paralegal work, but mostly my duties range from receptionist to secretarial at best. So be aware that this might be an issue with the attorney and not with the Paralegal field. These old school attorneys will need to be schooled on what we as Paralegals are capable of. That takes time and LOTS of patients. So please do not be discouraged, but go forth and make the Paralegal field a bigger and better place!
Ann Pearson said:
Great article, Jamie! I agree wholeheartedly with you. I also think it’s the supply/demand problem that law school graduates are seeing: there are too many schools putting out too many graduates for what is available out there. Even in a major metropolitan city like Atlanta, at any given time there might be 10 positions available for the 300+ local graduates. I’d suggest to new paralegal graduates to think outside the box. I meet “paralegals” every day who have not ever worked in a paralegal role in a law firm, but they have very rewarding careers that came out of their paralegal education.
Debbi Lowe said:
That was an awesome article Jamie! Well done! I totally agree with Mike from his Oct. 16th post. You have to get your foot in the door in any capacity possible. If you are new graduate from a paralegal school or college, you have to humble yourself and being willing to pay your dues! In the 1990’s, I was like many newbie paralegals with a 4 year degree and thought I knew everything. I quickly learned that I knew absolutely NOTHING when it came to paralegal work and what it took to become successful at this profession. I actually thought that I wouldn’t even look at a job that didn’t pay at least $30,000 a year to match my brand new college degree. Reality set in quickly and I accepted a position at a large law firm as a case clerk at $8.00 an hour! I had to humble myself and my expectations for a crazy high salary in order to learn and grow in this profession. If you are new to the paralegal world, you got to be willing to go to those CLEs, even if it means paying for them yourself. Attorneys & Paralegal staff are many times too busy to hold your hand and train you on everything. Learn as much as you can in the area of law that you are working in. Ask questions, network, keep up with technology and the local and federal rules in your area of law. You’ve got to take the lead in succeeding in your career. No one else can do that for you regardless of what career path you take.
Troy Boyle said:
Here’s another wrinkle, though I know I’m late to the party. If you LOSE your position, for whatever reason, you will not find a firm willing to pay what you made at your last job. Virtually all new hires at any firm start out at low pay, somewhere in the 20s. And if you previously made a lot more than that, they won’t hire you at all. This has been my experience.
I’m a Corporate Paralegal with 10+ years experience. I was laid off by Mitsubishi due to the crashing economy. They eliminated my position and opted for a la carte legal services, rather than support a full-time employee. I was making 60k at the time.
I’ve been looking for work ever since. Over two years now. What do they tell me? You’re overqualified (translation: we can’t afford you). It doesn’t matter that I’ve said I’m willing to work for a salary in the 20s. The fact of my previous employment has meant that I don’t get to work again as a paralegal.
On the upside, I finish my JD in one year. Then look out.
Bob Davidson said:
I second these comments. I had more than eleven years of paralegal experience in multiple specialties when I lost my job. I was 55. I had worked steadily as a paralegal during that period. I was UNDERPAID by $8K minimum according to market. The attorney acknowledged that while dismissing me.
Although I immediately saw the writing on the wall during my dismissal meeting, I tried for a year before giving up my efforts. It did not help that I was terminated on the bleeding edge of the recession. I will not say categorically that being male in a female-dominated vocation hindered me, but I will say being older and getting older every day did not further my interests.
Do not move to the mountains of NC!
The cost of living is high and the salaries suck!
I’m very late to this post, but found it to be a realistic and level-headed description of starting out in almost any line of work.
The most refreshing / surprising part might be that firms are willing to take on newbie Paralegals for a “training period” no matter the pay – so many industries expect seem to expect “5 years experience out of the gate”.
If you have time, I have two questions:
1) Is the paralegal profession a good fit for someone with no prior experience in the legal field but who immensely enjoyed her law electives (Constitutional Law, etc) while an undergrad?
Those courses primarily focused on research and writing. The finals consisted of combing through rulings / opinions in order to find precedent for given rulings and then defending our assertions. It was honestly the most fun I had my senior year (which actually spanned several years – I was also a Mom and working full time).
2) Would this be a sufficient start?: http://ocpe.gmu.edu/programs/paralegal/paralegal_cert_online.php
This article is amazing, I loved everything you had to say. I start my paralegal studies in December. This answered a lot of my questions about the pay afterword. I’m excited, and will claim one of those seats when the time is right!
Kimda Nguon said:
Thanks Jaime for your great informative article. The information you mentioned has a great impact of me. I plan to become a paralegal for my future career occupation. I had taken some online courses, but I failed miserably due to technical difficulties with my computer. So next year I’m planning to go to a University to a better study. Online courses doesn’t work great for me. It might be because I’m more of a hands on learner. I can recall I got many A on my assignments and great response from my instructors. Since I failed, it’s not going to intimidate me to become a paralegal. I know I have potential and I’m a confidant person. I appreciate that you gave me some pointers and a clearer image on the reality of a Paralegal industry. This is what I pictured myself in the future working at a Law firm. I’m aware of the objectives and description tasks of a Paralegal duties. It suits in my interest so perfectly all of the tasks are the things i love to do on a Daily base. For example Researching; writing memos or even associating with clients. Since I a social person I get along with anyone I encounter. Now I just can’t wait o jump start to this career Thank you so much Jaime for your article. Wish me luck so I can mention you with your permission of course. You gave me some exceptional advice to remember about the legal field. I’ll be glad to say I comprehend the skills from your article!
In Time said:
I finished the online certificate program from UC Berkeley in May 2015. It is not an ABA program. I started applying for jobs immediately, had a couple of interviews and landed a job as a Legal Assistant within 90 days of finishing my last class.
I had essentially no training and day one of work was as if I’d been working in a law office for a year. Within my first month, our secretary quit so I’m doing the duties of both positions for the same pay. I’m learning everything in my own. I ask my boss questions and search online for anything I can’t figure out on my own.
The pay at my first job sucks but it could be worse! My month’s pay only covers my rent in Orange County, CA. If my mom wasn’t helping me financially, I would probably have at least two roommates. I’m waiting for the chance to increase my pay. This was a career change for me so I remember the days of making more than $16/hr. I haven’t worked a full year in the legal field, but I already feel I’m capable of earning more money and long for the benefits which I don’t have right now. I’ve served a few people, answer the phone, I draft pleadings, I work on discovery, answer calls from court clerks, I’ve done a couple of trial preparations, know or courier services phone number as if they were my own, and I did my first intake of a clienta month ago. I’m doing everything and more than I learned to become a paralegal but never imagined I’d be working for less than $30,000/yr doing twice the amount of work as my previous career. After looking at some of the job postings, I know that I could be making less money. I’ve seen jobs posted for $10/hr. That might not be too bad in some areas but for South California, that’s no different in pay from the pay of someone working at Wal-Mart or McDonalds as a cashier.
Amazing insight and article. I can highly relate to you and have the same interest in IP since it is the most prosperous but also ignites my interest in protecting ideas and inventions and kind of channels the law in conjunction with creative and artistic aspects.
You are not kidding about the experience part and the pay these law firms are offering is terrible. I have seen as low as $12 an hour. After taxes, what are we left with? 8$? I live on the border of NYC so whether I am staying in my home state of NJ or COMMUTING to the city (which costs thousands annually, approximately $3,600), it is a lose lose situation and isn’t going to financially support the cost of living. Not to mention, minimum wage has gone up in NY to $15 for certain positions, so where do they even get those low ball numbers from?! I think half of them are hurting and should just do the paralegal work themselves, why even bother hiring one it is a huge insult to the talent out there and for those who enjoy the law and would love to make a profession but maybe can’t afford law school so it is a viable option.
To add to that sector of it, half of the qualifications state minimum Associates degree, while most looking for paralegal work have a Bachelor’s degree and a certification on top of paying to take the NALA test and be officially certified so right there are three programs geared toward really shaping a paralegals knowledge and skills. Most people in this field are forced into quick learning and are no dumbies to excel in the area of law so why they want experience over education makes little sense. This is a field that demands the integration of both and one should commensurate the other. I have even seen some that state HS diploma, like what?! You would rather higher a high school student to work in your law firm than a recent college graduate who could potentially grow your firm so you can increase your caseload and make more money!!! It all comes down to greed and pay. They just don’t want to pay, so those attorneys should just do the work themselves because quite frankly it is a slap in the face.
I have a BS, a certification and I still can’t find something worth the pay for the all demands of the position and the amount of work that goes into it. I am only part time and no benefits so I am continuing my education and getting my Master’s in Jurisprudence in hopes this will place me in a stronger category as I get the experience they demand on the side and through an IP internship that no one has time for lol. Unreal!!!
I wish everyone who fully enjoyed this article lots of luck in this field and I pray something gives for the legal assistants out there!
Sarah J. said:
I seriously need some advice. I actively starting looking for a paralegal position about a month ago. I just had an interview with a law firm in Tucson, Arizona. I have a bachelor’s degree, a computer networking certificate, and an ABA approved certificate from a very thorough, competitive, and demanding program. I graduated with honors from the ABA program. This is a mid – life career change for me. I have over 10 years customer service, sales and marketing skills as well. The boutique law firm that specializes in IP offered me a training salary of $10.00 per hour for 3 months and then $12.00 an hour with NO benefits for a year. Is this par for the course for this field in this area? Just like In Time mentioned above I can go down the street and apply for a job at a fast food restaurant or coffee shop that only requires a high school diploma for the same amount of income. Will I have significant wage increases after 2 – 3 years? There must be substantial raises in order for me to even get to $20.00 an hour!
It’s nice to know this now. I like the warning. I am young but I want this career so bad.
Rose Smith said:
My first paralegal job 10+years ago was all about experience and not money. It worked out that my gaining that experience paid off in the long run. Experience is what sells you and not a certificate, attorney’s need assistants that they don’t have to babysit, quite frankly, they don’t have the time or patience, most of the attorney’s I’ve worked for require someone that catches on quickly to their methods of practice because each one is different. Having thick skin is also necessary especially if your attorney (boss) accepts court appointed cases. The job is very rewarding and it comes with many challenges, I wouldn’t trade me profession for a thing.
When I graduated in 2005. The economy was rough and finding a decent paying paralegal job was so hard most of my graduating class, including all of the top graduates, never worked as paralegals. I was extremely lucky to be called by a temp service responding to my resume on Monster.com for an interview at GE. I worked as a temp for most of the next 5 years. Eventually I earned a great job for a university. I absolutely loved my job for several years. However, our office recently imploded and I am finding it very hard to find another position even though I had absolutely nothing to do with the issues. Luckily, I have been able to ride out the implosion and things seem to be getting better. However, I am realizing that I need to increase my networking and other career building activities. In my position I don’t manage cases for trial. It is more like being in house for a large firm. I work with outside counsel on cases, review contracts, manage patent portfolios, review real estate leases, draft easements, take on special projects such as revising ADA compliance, and do a lot of work with public records. None of which really seem to translate well on my resume. Any tips?
I must add my two cents. I have been in the legal game for over twenty years and it seems it has gotten very bad for hard working paralegals. I started when attorneys appreciated dedication, loyalty and hard work. Now days, most attorneys especially personal injury attorneys are looking for cheapest experienced paralegal they can hire. I wear SEVEN hats, yes SEVEN, receptionist, in-taker, case manager, litigation paralegal, office manager, personal assistant and housekeeper. The stress has become unbearable! To add more insult the attorney thinks I am overpaid at 15$ per hour which I am 5$ or more underpaid and no benefits. The other issue I must share is that many experienced paralegals are getting booted out. I know several paralegals that have left due to salary caps. The industry has changed a lot, I suggest to anyone thinking about being a paralegal do not unless you’re going with a corporate legal department and that’s a maybe.
Bob Davidson said:
I second your comments about choosing paralegal as a career. At one time discouraged people mightily because of attorney disrespect and lack of appreciation, together with stress and long, unpaid hours. Now I discourage them for more practical reasons: the vocation is shrinking and they may not find jobs. Also, unfortunately, some paralegal groups are pushing for licensing and regulation of paralegals; two ideas that, I am sure, would further chill paralegal hiring – an inappropriate effort at a time when paralegal organizations should push for more paralegal hiring.
I pursued an ABA post-bacc at a technical college, did an unpaid internship with a nonprofit law firm for about ten weeks, and scored a job as an Intellectual Property Litigation Paralegal two months before the certificate program was finished.
Now, fewer than two and a half years later, I have a nice private office with a commanding view of Lake Michigan. I literally earn more than the average U.S. attorney. I bought my dream house (also lakeview) five months after I got the job. By the time I retire I’ll be a millionaire three times over.
This isn’t metro downtown, either — it’s a small town in the midwest.
My hours are long, to be sure (48 hours a week on average), but loving your job kills the stress and makes it go by fast. As does ridiculous overtime pay.
I was lucky, to be sure, but I know for a fact that it helped to have a 4.0 GPA and two school org presidencies on my resume. Having mad computer skillz didn’t hurt either.
Your future will be better if you work hard for it.
You must work for government.
Nope. I work for a firm. And it’s tiny — only a dozen people. My own team consists of only two very good attorneys and myself.
You’ve got to specialize if you want to score the good jobs. IP and Corporate Law are where the money is. I chose courses so that I could advertise myself as a Litigation Paralegal, then scored an even more specialized position in IP Lit.
Just got my W-2s a couple of weeks ago. I started in the second quarter of 2014. In both 2015 and 2016 I pulled in five figures each in bonuses and profit sharing. My overtime earnings just hit that mark for the first time as well. All of that is on top of my rather decent base pay. I expect the money will level off to some extent soon, but the effect my annual pay raises have on my daily overtime pay creates a crazy curve that practically guarantees solid upward mobility until I retire.
Hope I don’t sound crass. I probably do, give “fu’s” likely response to my earlier post below. I certainly don’t talk about money this way in real life. The only reason I’m doing it here is to make sure everyone understands that there really *are* good paralegal jobs out there. You just have to make yourself stand out from the crowd.
That was dumb.
It’s kind of dumb to just say “That was dumb,” without making clear what you’re talking about, or even who it is you’re talking to.
I love being an assistant to lawyers at my firm. I have no paralegal schooling or any related degrees. I just started working as a file clerk and work my way up. It was hell the first few years because “basic” paralegal training was not basic at all for me. But after the 3rd year, everything was easier and the pay kept going up.
Although i finished my LOSP recently, i decided not to take the bar exam because i love what i do now. I pretty much do what the lawyers do except endure the stress of having to litigate in court.
My 7 years of experience as an assistant will keep my pay high. If i become a lawyer, i will get a much lower salary as a “new” atty and forced to endure all the stress of court appearances.
I dont work long hours and i take all my vacations, etc.
My advice? Do your best to make the lawyers love going on cases you worked up for them and they will always have your back. Lawyers hate getting yelled at by judges for failure to follow statutory deadlines and being unprepared for hearings.
Luck of finding a “suitable” firm for me may have played a role in my good fortune. But i’ve heard way better stories at other firms in CA, so its not just me.
i love this job! Its so easy!
I completely agree, 10 years in and a Paralegal coordinator I often receive salary demands for entry level case assistants that want more money than I make. We don’t even call them, no matter how good your GPA is, you will not start just south of 6 figures! The other things to take into account is compensation is more than a number on your check, it includes perks (free coffee, gym membership, casual clothes, free breakfast Fridays, health insurance, profit sharing, good dental,, flexible hours, PTO etc.) You may not be making 60k, but you get to go to your children’s sports, or see your parents for long weekends. Keep your mind open and your chin up, it is a great job!
Bob Davidson said:
I disagree with counting perqs as part of compensation. I worked for a shareholder who tried to con us into believing that sophistry in lieu of the below-market comp she paid us.
Everyone in the firm receives perqs. Unfortunately, perqs are not fungible for money; in other words, in terms of compensation casual Fridays, free coffee and free gym benefits (if one is lucky enough to take time away from billing to work out) do not replace cash money. In terms of compensation, cash money, and particularly base pay, is what matters.
Finally, Christel, you and I both know it, but any entry level legal assistant who expects pay just south of six figures is barking up the wrong tree. In these times, they are luck to be paid $12-$15/hr. if they can be hired at all.
Buck Eschaton said:
Let’s not kid ourselves, paralegal pay is very low. Extremely low. I guess pay for the bottom 95% of everybody is very low. I really feel bad for the young starting out. Starting out at maybe $30K and trying to pay back enormous school loans, pay for housing and healthcare and hopefully they don’t need to buy a good car and save for retirement. The best you can possibly hope for is probably $85K if you give yourself totally over to long hours and constant work/stress and somehow finagle yourself in with someone who will pay you something approaching a reasonable salary.
Brad Lavin said:
Hello, my name is Brad Lavin, and I found your article inspiring at the least.I just started my journey on the Paralegal Train. You have alot of great tips, and I thank you for that..If I make the journey ill be part of the Graduating Class of 2019..Have a Great Day.
Sean G said:
Thanks for posting article. I was actually looking into the paralegal profession as a mid-life career-changing position, being that I have a BA degree in the social sciences. This article has convinced me that doing so would be a HUGE mistake! I don’t need to spend $5K on a paralegal program to make 10 bucks an hour! Also, it hadn’t occurred to me that the paralegal profession is dominated by women. Bad move, Jack. Thanks for the heads-up.
The last five commenters on here (including ourselves) are named Bob, Buck, Brad, Sean and Ben. The profession isn’t as dominated by women as it’s made out to be. Besides, the female majority means that men tend to do *better* in the profession, because of HR diversity efforts. And why do you have a problem with a profession dominated by women, anyway? Women are awesome.
It’s not all $10 an hour. As a somewhat experienced IP Lit Paralegal, I make more than a great many lawyers.
Bob Davidson said:
Guys are catching up, but women still dominate the paralegal vocation. Much of it is tradition; the rest is many lawyers like to boss women. These same types fear that male legal assistants will stand up to them and their antics. Also many lawyers, including one of my ex-bosses, like women’s personalities. As far as diversity goes, “diversity” does not mean men; it means women and minorities.
Finally, IP paralegals indeed make money, but they are not the entirety of the paralegal vocation. Just look at craigslist – at least where I live paralegals might earn at best, $20/hr. Most jobs are for less.
I wrote an article for The Paralegal Society on why there are more women paralegals. You may find the article to be of interest.
Thank you for this excellent post! I’m currently in a paralegal program and just happened to find your blog while doing a research project for school. I love that you are realistic about what to expect and honestly, what excited me the most was what you said about how much you love being a paralegal and the personal benefits you get from it (rewarding, satisfying, interesting, etc.). More than the money, I am thrilled to be preparing for a career that although will be challenging and probably stressful, will also be personally rewarding. And will eventually pay off. Thanks again! I am loving your blog.
Precious Mosley said:
I’m one of the newbies you were referring to (career change).. I really appreciated your honesty, motivation, and overall you becoming successful in the legal field. Yes, the pay does suck! 😂😂 But… I’d rather start low in a new field, no experience, no certificates/degrees (student loans) than to put in 12 years as a medical assistant and still making less than $30,000 annually. Mind u, Sallie Mae/Navient has to get paid 6 months after you’ve completed your program. Now that really sucks.. What made me decide to do a career change was when I received an email for an administrative position $35-45,000 annually, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought to myself “what are you doing? There are office jobs paying more than you’re making and you’re doing physical laber for 12 yrs and still living paycheck to paycheck…” A few weeks later I quit, and was offered a job as a legal assistant today at a law firm (collections) I will definitely work my way up and enjoy life in a few years with my heels and my new bag(s)… 😘
Again, Thank you for the motivation and inspiration..
I’m a part time paralegal student at a non-ABA certified school. (Already have my bachelor’s.) I was considering getting an unsubsidized loan and switching to being a full time student at an ABA university, but now I’m reconsidering that.
The schools I am considering are offering internships. Would that count for experience, or is it not worth it? (I am currently paying for my education with a gift, so it’s not cutting into my living expenses.)
I did a full year post-bacc at an ABA school and it was the right decision. It’s the gold standard.
Pick your classes carefully from the beginning. If you max a topic out, you can legitimately declare yourself a specialist and advertise yourself as one when responding to job postings. I took every litigation class my school had to offer, and so from the moment I started the second semester I wasn’t just a paralegal — I was a Litigation Paralegal. Now I run the Lit department at an IP firm. 🙂
Definitely take an internship, work hard in it and be friendly and helpful to everyone you work with, so that they give you a good reference later.
Participate in orgs, too. Be an officer — go for President if you can. Often those positions are just there for the taking, and don’t typically require a ton of work.
Get a 4.0.
And put it all on your resume, with your name at the top in inch-tall lettering. Do whatever you can to make yourself stand out and look like a pro.
Start applying to every job you can find as soon as you finish your first semester. For better earnings, focus the most on firms that are oriented towards business — IP, corporate, antitrust, etc. Less so family law, personal injury and especially criminal law. Keep this in mind when choosing your classes, too.
If your experience is like mine, though, you won’t get a lot of responses even with an excellent resume if you don’t have much experience, so it’s essential to apply anywhere and everywhere. (Except criminal. Seriously, don’t bother.)
If you score a low-end position, take it and build up as much goodwill with your employer as possible. Just two years of experience working anywhere will dramatically increase your job prospects.
Mileta Timmons said:
This was an excellent article! I obtained my A.A.S. in 2013 and I have had problems getting in the field every since. I now know why. My expectations may have been set to high coming in due to the hourly pay that was quoted to me by the school I attended. I am hopeful because I have had some interviews recently and I now have a different attitude in how I am approaching the pay expectations. This article gives me some hope that I will get to the higher end of the spectrum of the paralegal field. Thanks for setting the record straight for some of us “newbies”!
Interesting article and good advice. I would not suggest going into this field with expectations in 2017 and beyond unless this is truly your passion. For me, I have made six figures as a paralegal and started from the ground up in 1986. For example, a 16 year old file clerk, a 19 year old legal secretary, at 21 year old “junior” paralegal, moonlighting in word processing (now called “document services”), 10 years as a mid-level paralegal and then 10 years as a senior paralegal. Now, I have a government position that is nearly impossible to obtain by most standards. For me it’s all about moving onward and upward but still putting in the right amount of tenure. The problem though is that once you hit the ‘ceiling” getting better jobs are few and far between. For example, my federal paralegal position required me to beat out 200 applicants…. many of who were attorneys! Remember also that big firms only care about billable hours and how in favor you stay with the rainmakers or partners. Once you lose those billables or get a bad reputation it’s pretty much over or you have to take whatever crumbs are available on Craigslist or with small offices where paralegals leave ever six months. It’s not a pretty picture. I have found that staying on top requires not only the best skills but the attitude that is necessary for customer service. In this case, the attorneys are your customers. Would you get coffee, walk their dog, park their car, clean out a dusty case room, do all their work while they are at 4 hour lunches? If you answer “no” then chances are, unless you’re sleeping or related to the big boss, that you’ll be ripe for the chopping block when layoffs come around. Also, as far as education, I have an undergraduate degree in English that took me 17 years part-time to finish while working and paying it off (I don’t believe in student loans beyond a year or two at most). An undergraduate degree is essential to get into a large firm in most cases. English is a great degree for this field. If you’re interested in IP a B.S. will help you stand out. Many paralegals chose law school when they get disgusted but not getting further than the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s in salary. However, that can really backfire with six figure debt and fewer job prospects. Plus, I would NEVER work on “salary” in a law firm. Kiss your vacations and early dismissals goodbye! Salary = death in big city law firms. You’re best to stay on a 40 hour week and pick up the OT when it’s available. If you’re in need of extra dough get a part-time gig. It’s a much better life. Of course, if you went to Yale, are in the “club” and make 475k a year and vacation in the Hamptons that does not apply to you! Good luck to the paralegals out there just starting out… it’s a different world so chose and tread wisely!
Thanks for your perspective, David. I have a high-end position myself, though not quite as far down the road as yours. I’ve been trying to nail down the exact nature of the relationship between paralegals and attorneys for a while now but have come up blank — it’s very different from most other professions. Your “attorneys as customers” viewpoint does seem to come closer than any other analogy I’ve seen, and it’s a useful one.
Tanya Moore said:
Thank you all for your comments. I finished an ABA approved program in September 2012, but I didn’t have any luck finding a job. I finally got a 4 month internship in 2013, after attending a yearly paralegal meeting in New Brunswick, NJ and standing up and stating my need for experience. I got a job as a file clerk at a collections firm for 9 months in 2015/2016. I was working as a sub teacher and in customer service at a grocery store before the full time job, and I was a programmer in prior life. I’m now a receptionist/admin. asst. trying to steer myself back towards transactional work, as I want to use my mind! Any tips for me? Oh I am in my late 50’s, so I also wonder how that plays into employer’s minds.
What course did you do to get into being a paralegal? Is a legal assistant course a good start or not?