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Step Up Your Game – Breaking into Today’s Paralegal Profession

Step Up Your Game – Breaking into Today’s Paralegal Profession

by Christina L. Koch, ACP

Layoffs and the down economy seem to be affecting every occupation these days, and the legal profession is no exception. The number of paralegal jobs available has decreased, while the number of qualified applicants has increased. Today’s job market is highly competitive, as are the paralegals applying for each open position.

Being a paralegal is a demanding, highly skilled and stressful job, and one in which you must perform to a level where you will stand out from the masses. As the economy has turned, so have the expectations in the legal arena. Some firms are cutting jobs in order to deal with the financial pressures of the recession. Others have used the economy as a chance to “clean house” and ensure that their paralegal staff is the very best in the market. The paralegal profession has exploded, and it simply takes more than a paralegal degree or certificate and a desire to work in the legal field to break into this profession.

Ten years ago, when the economy was in an upswing and attorneys had really started to understand the value of paralegals, experience and a desire to work in the field may have allowed you to get your foot in the door. A paralegal certificate was a plus, but not necessarily a requirement. During those years, our biggest challenge as paralegals was getting the job title, individual work appreciation and recognition for the profession that was so deserved. Many firms were still calling paralegals “legal secretaries”, even if the job responsibilities had moved beyond clerical and into “substantive legal work”.

As time passed, firms began to realize the true economic and service value of paralegals, and it became much more apparent there really exists a significant difference between a “legal secretary” and a “paralegal”. Once you earned and were awarded the “paralegal” title, it became a matter of salary and job duty negotiation. Those with the best education, experience and credentials essentially could write their own ticket regarding which job they would choose for themselves.

The employment climate has changed with time and the economy, and with that the paralegal profession has not only evolved, it has a developed a life of its own. Some firms have even replaced associate attorneys with paralegals to keep overhead down and billable hours up, largely due to the efforts of NALA and other associations in recognizing and promoting the need, in full agreement and cooperation with Supreme Court rulings, for the ability and necessity to bill for paralegal hours as legal fees.

This was not only a huge accomplishment for the paralegal profession; it increased the recognition of paralegal work in law firms and corporations across the country. Not only was the quality of our work valuable, but now it was recognized as a valuable contribution to firm revenue as well. This offered additional value to the profession and increased not only the need for paralegals, but the number of people who chose to enter the profession. Though all of this is progress, the job market has tightened considerably.

In order to even break into the paralegal business these days, experience and education are almost a must. It is the same double-edged sword we have dealt with for years. You need the experience to get the job, but you need the job to get the experience. Additionally, a new obstacle has appeared in that many graduates expect to be able to find a paralegal job immediately upon graduation. Many of these new graduates are frustrated with having completed their education successfully, whether it is a paralegal certificate, or an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in paralegal studies or law, and yet are not able to find that first paralegal job.

Unfortunately for recent graduates, this is no longer an entry level profession. If you want a paralegal position, you may have to be willing to start somewhere else, such as a clerk, receptionist or legal secretary. You should be prepared to accept one of these types of jobs, although not the ideal that you may have envisioned in school, as necessary to provide you with valuable experience and business contacts. You also must be aware that in competing for the limited number of paralegal jobs, you will have to develop and be able to show that “something extra” you can bring to the table. Remember when you interview, employers are searching for what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.

As the competition has become fierce for every paralegal opening, networking also has become essential. What sets one paralegal apart from the pack might be experience, education, certification, or even his or her former associates. Active paralegal association membership, seminar attendance, networking, and participating in professional list serves and social networking websites have all become valuable tools of the job search.

Experienced paralegals also take advantage of every opportunity to participate in educating other paralegals, writing for legal publications or books, teaching seminars or classes at paralegal schools, and mentoring younger paralegals. You will find these are wonderful additions to a basic résumé and will give you a nice icebreaker for the interview process.

Employers are impressed with people who go above and beyond in their careers, as they believe these are the same people that will go above and beyond for their business. Volunteerism and community service have become another excellent way to further your business contacts. You never know if your next job might come from any of these sources. There is a level of pride in being involved in this profession and in being not just a paralegal, but an outstanding paralegal. Today’s firms expect more of paralegals as the job has transitioned from a trade into a profession.

It is nearly impossible to be overqualified as a paralegal these days. Each opportunity to become a better paralegal should be grasped and cherished, whether that opportunity presents itself as education, experience, networking, certification or advanced certifications.

Do not limit your education to only legal issues. Learn as much as you can as often as you can. You never know when a seminar or a single class can offer you that crucial step up in an interview. Learn to think outside the box and to find your experience where the opportunity presents.

Grasp the opportunity to get involved with the court system, either as a clerk, runner, or participant in the juvenile court. Participate in organizations such as the Domestic Violence Coalition, Project Innocence, CASA, or Legal Aid. Not only are these very worthwhile charities, they will teach you compassion for your future clients and provide valuable networking opportunities.

Offer to work as an intern or summer runner in a law firm while you are in school or even after graduation. The firm may be so impressed with your work they ask you to stay with them in a more permanent capacity. Register with the paralegal temporary agencies as this is a great opportunity to be able to try different types of paralegal work and get some valuable legal experience without coloring your resume with a spotty job history.

Be open to moving into new areas of the law or even moving to a different city for the right position. Take pride in your career and in the paralegal profession and work toward your goals. The professional paralegal is always moving forward and desires the profession, as a whole, to move forward as well. Embrace the competition that has developed within the profession and use it to become a better paralegal. Enjoy the intellectual challenges that come with being a paralegal. Finally, take time to enjoy your job and/or your studies, and cultivate your career-building activities into your ultimate career position.

2 Responses to Step Up Your Game – Breaking into Today’s Paralegal Profession

  1. Great article. I will keep all of these fine points in mind.

    Luving this blog overall. Chuck full of useful infomation. Thanks!!!

    -Samantha (Brooklyn, NYC)

Contact Info:

Lynne J. DeVenny, N.C. State Bar Certified Paralegal

Owner & Virtual Paralegal, DeVenny Paralegal Services

Email: lynne.devenny[at]gmail.com

Telephone: 336-582-0003

Inquiries are welcome, with free quotes available.

Meet Lynne:

Lynne DeVenny is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal with over 27 years of experience working on complex litigation cases, including medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation, and Social Security disability.

Disclosure: I am not a lawyer and cannot provide legal representation or legal advice.

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