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…