by Harold Weaver
It seems like we all had the same great idea at the same time.
“I’m going back to school to become a paralegal.”
Making the Transition from Journalism to Law
I spent more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and in early 2009 made the decision to leave the listing ship of journalism and start over in a paralegal career. I was inspired by colleagues who were considering the same direction and spent a couple of months researching the field before I was convinced it was a good fit. (Major props to Practical Paralegalism’s Lynne DeVenny for being among the first people — maybe THE first person — to give me encouragement and advice.)
It made sense: As a journalist, I already had many of the skills necessary to succeed as a paralegal (writing, researching, analyzing information) and had been using them for years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics
was still projecting serious job growth. And with a six-month paralegal certificate program, I could make the transition into a second career relatively quickly.
This last point was especially important, because my wife is also a journalist. Newspapers around the country have been cutting staff for more than two years and, in some cases, stopping their presses for good. With two-editor households becoming an endangered species, the last thing I wanted was to be in school and out of a job for an extended period. (For any media buffs interested in what happened at my newspaper, you can read one version of the facts here
Only Experienced Paralegals Need Apply
The problem in this plan that I didn’t anticipate was the nature of the job market in metro Atlanta. I officially started my job search in mid-October expecting to see fat job listings at law firms around town. What I found was fat job listings that called for loads of experience. It looked like a no-man’s-land for new paralegals. Every ad said the same thing: 3, 5, even 10 years of specialized experience required.
Some of the more amusing Craigslist postings were rather blunt: “IF YOU LACK THE NECESSARY QUALIFICATIONS, YOUR RESUME WILL IMMEDIATELY BE PUT IN THE TRASH!”
Did I miss this all-important point — that law firms had their choice of the best, brightest, and most experienced paralegals — when I was looking at job listings in early 2009? I honestly couldn’t recall. And with local paralegal programs seemingly flooding the market with wave after wave of graduates, the decision to voluntarily give up my news job suddenly seemed questionable. Also not boosting my confidence was the fact that friends who had graduated many months before I did were still struggling to find paying jobs.
After talking to a couple of legal recruiters, my mood really turned sour. One of them started off by saying, “I hate to sound so negative about your job prospects, but …” The other said she had paralegal candidates with 10 years of experience who were still out of work.
How could I – a total newbie — possibly stand a chance in that environment?
Fast forward past four months of being on unemployment and spending countless hours redoing my resume, writing and rewriting cover letters, networking, and volunteering 24 to 40 hours a week in an internship at the Georgia Legal Services Program
I’ve landed my first paralegal job
(In newspaper lingo, this is what we would call the buried news lead.)
How did I manage this feat?
You’ve read and heard this before: Who you know can mean the difference between a job and another week of staring at CareerBuilder, Monster, and Yahoo! HotJobs.
Building Relationships with Paralegal Instructors Key to Landing First Job
In my case, it was one particular instructor in my paralegal program — plus a dose of good fortune and good timing.
This instructor not only opened the door to my internship, but she also helped me get a paying job. I’m still not sure how much “recommending” she did in either case. I was in only one of her classes, so we didn’t have a long history together. I did well on her assignments and exams; perhaps she saw potential from my grades. One thing is certain: When she contacted her former students about a temporary job opportunity, I was ready, willing, and able to take advantage of it. And what I originally thought would be only one week of paying work has become permanent.
This brings me to a point that I can’t stress enough: If you’re a paralegal student, talk to your instructors. Don’t think that good grades are automatically going to turn into a job. Stay 15 minutes after class and try to strike up a conversation – and not just with one instructor, but all of them. I’m not the most gregarious person, but even I managed to walk up, introduce myself, and ask: “Do you know where I can get an internship?”
I do believe in the value of networking, but one of its drawbacks can be the shallow nature of trying to sell yourself to strangers. Consider this: You’re a working paralegal and a potential employer comes to you and asks if you know any paralegals looking for work. If you value your own reputation, you’re probably not going to recommend people whose skills you can’t vouch for if you’ve only met them at a networking event once or twice.
Your instructors, on the other hand, will know whether you reliably show up to class (on time, hopefully), how well you write, how much you participate, how intelligently you project yourself, and so on. That familiarity can work to your benefit when their contacts come looking for paralegal candidates.
I was No. 1 in my graduating class, but most employers, at least in Atlanta, don’t seem too concerned about grades. They want experience. And without experience, you have to know someone in the industry or, as in my case, know someone who knows someone.
If you’re struggling to find a paralegal position, keep doing all the things you’ve been told: Join your local paralegal group and try to attend the meetings or networking events. Make contact with any old friends, acquaintances, or colleagues who have even a remote connection to the legal industry. Set up a LinkedIn profile. Go down to your local courthouse with resumes in hand and try to find attorneys who need temporary help. (If this idea makes you nervous, you can just pretend that you’re one of those annoying survey takers at the mall: “Excuse me, sir, can I ask you a few questions?”)
Whatever your strategy, don’t ignore the tremendous resource standing at the front of your paralegal classrooms. Avail yourself of all the help, advice, and job contacts your instructors can provide.
In every way you can imagine, my new job is a case of starting over.
But it is a start.
Given the highly competitive state of the legal job market, I think that’s a major accomplishment.
I’m a big fan of Harold’s. He initially contacted me via Practical Paralegalism, asking for some career feedback, and we struck up an enjoyable email correspondence. But he’s been just as helpful to me as he says I’ve been to him – he used his journalism savvy to help me improve this blog’s search engine optimization. I think he’d be a tremendous asset to any employer and look forward to following his career.