Tips on how to make a proper search for top jobs in leading Law Firms
by Ursula Furi-Perry
Finding top paralegal positions is much like finding any other-networking, thorough research, and persistence pay off in the job search. ''Our firm posts on major job websites, as well as specialized legal sites,'' said Bethany Phillips, Human Resources Manager at one of Chicago's busiest and most well-known firms. Networking with current paralegals and legal assistants at top firms may also help jobseekers get their feet in the doors.
Above all, get to know the firm before applying. ''Research the firms out there and decide which one is the best fit,'' advised Sheila Grant, former legal assistant at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, a top law firm in Boston. ''Although they all might seem similar, the cultures in some are different, and it is important…to work in a culture you enjoy.'' Simply browsing the firm's website or researching the type of work attorneys do can provide jobseekers with an edge. ''Firms tend to have many structural, operational, and value-based differences,'' said Bill Sparks, National Director of Human Resources at Greenberg Traurig, a renowned firm with more than 22 offices nationwide. ''It's always refreshing to come across an applicant who had taken the time to research the firm.''
Besides familiarity with the firm, human resource professionals at top firms look for a blend of experience, education, and skills. ''We tend to favor senior paralegals with well-rounded work experience,'' said Mr. Sparks, ''although we may hire an enthusiastic, but less experienced candidate who will grow and progress at our firm.'' ''Some of our practice groups shy away from candidates with no experience,'' Ms. Phillips stated, ''while others [are not adverse] to hiring candidates freshly out of college.'' Where a candidate's experience comes from usually doesn't matter. ''I wouldn't turn away an applicant just because he or she had only worked at small firms in the past,'' Ms. Phillips said.
Ms. Phillips and Mr. Sparks both stressed the importance of education: preference is often given to candidates with a bachelor's degree and additional paralegal training or certification. ''Skills, particularly good writing and organizational skills, are also tremendously important,'' Ms. Phillips said. Some top firms may require writing samples in addition to resumes, cover letters, and references.
Human resources professionals also consider a potential hire's personality, making sure he or she fits into the work environment. ''That fit is almost as important as the skills the candidate possesses,'' Mr. Sparks said.
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Once hired, paralegals and legal assistants can expect a more specialized environment than at smaller firms. ''While in small firms, [legal staff] may handle multiple areas, larger firms are more concentrated,'' Mr. Sparks said. ''My job [at a larger firm] was much more focused,'' said Ms. Grant, who recently switched over to a small firm. ''I worked in the corporate department, so I cut stock certificates, helped incorporate companies and filed documents like qualifications.''
In addition to a more clear-cut job definition, top firms often employ an internal structure or corporate ladder for their legal staff. ''There are designated secretaries, legal assistants, and designated paralegals,'' Ms. Grant explained. Legal staff may have several levels of supervision at larger firms, and may even have subordinates to help them with clerical tasks. ''Paralegals are sometimes paired with legal secretaries,'' Ms. Phillips explained. ''Professional legal staff at larger firms are often exposed to more and perform less clerical, more professional-level work.''
''Paralegals and legal assistants who are just starting out may want to begin at a small firm,'' recommended Mr. Sparks. ''Doing so will allow them to gain experience and mature; to find their focus and interests within the legal field.'' At larger firms, paralegals can expect to be challenged. ''It can be intense,'' Ms. Grant said. ''In most [top] firms, the standard is perfection for every document you produce, as well as for dealing with clients. [That can be] quite demanding, but there is also a camaraderie with the people you work with, who are going through the exact same thing you are. You usually don't get [that] at a smaller firm [if] you are the only legal assistant.''
With the right mix of education, skills, experience, and personality, experts agree that landing a job at a top firm shouldn't be much tougher than getting hired by a small firm. ''Getting a job at a top firm isn't necessarily harder,'' Mr. Sparks said. ''In fact, at larger law firms, paralegals are a mainstay of everyday duties. At any one time, large firms may have more openings for legal staff than other places.'' A key difference may be the factors that larger firms consider when looking at applicants, such as experience in a specific area of the law or familiarity with specific professional tasks. ''[Larger firms may] have a more focused criteria on which they are basing the decision to hire,'' said Ms. Grant. ''They may look for more things in candidates than smaller firms.''