Law firms offer a variety of career options for nonlawyers as well as for practicing attorneys. These positions utilize the talents of graduates from trade schools, colleges, and business schools, as well as law schools. While these jobs may not offer the upward mobility and variety often found in large corporations, they satisfy the needs of many individuals interested in working in a comfortable, professional, and intellectually challenging environment. Moreover, the salaries and benefits for nonlegal positions are often very competitive.
One of the most well-known nonlegal positions in law firms is that of a paralegal. Paralegals are often the unsung heros in law firms, laboring almost always behind the scenes, doing much of the dirty work, taking little of the credit. And paralegals usually make a fraction of the salary an attorney demands. But paralegal positions offer recent college graduates an immediate entry into a law firm, often as a precursor to graduate or law school. Paralegal positions also provide trade and paralegal school graduates with a stable and challenging career path.
THE DEFINITION OF A PARALEGAL
You'll discover that different firms define the term paralegal differently. In some firms, paralegals are given huge amounts of responsibility, while in others, they are simply glorified clerks. The American Bar Association has come up with a generic description of a paralegal, which is a good place to begin our overview of the profession:
Persons who, although not members of the legal profession, are qualified through education, training or work experience, are employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency, or other entity in a capacity or function which involves the performance, under the direction and supervision of an attorney, of specifically-delegated substantive legal work, which work, for the most part, requires a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts, such that, absent that legal assistant, the attorney would perform the task.
So why would you choose to work as a paralegal when you could become an attorney with only three additional years of training? While many paralegals eventually attend law school, others find that the work is challenging and intellectually stimulating, without requiring the long hours, regular overtime, and dedication required of associates. Some paralegals intend to go to law school and ultimately decide that they are not willing or able to make the commitment to the job required of an associate. Others work in a firm for a few years and determine that law firm life does not suit them after all.
WHY FIRMS HIRE PARALEGALS
Firms hire paralegals to assist attorneys on cases, usually at a billing rate much lower than that of associates. Paralegals tend to perform much of the repetitious and less intellectual work for which clients will pay less than associate rates. The work can be challenging, but it can also become mundane and routine after a while. Paralegals also work in areas of the law that tend to be repetitive and administrative in nature, such as bankruptcy, estate planning, collections, and immigration, just to mention a few.
Paralegals are routinely hired to staff large cases, often litigation-related matters. When large amounts of manpower are needed to sort, review, organize, stamp, and index important documents, the paralegals are called in. It's not unusual in large litigation cases for a firm to engage twenty or more paralegals at a time, just for one case.
Despite what many aspiring paralegals and recent college graduates think, paralegals aren't typically hired to perform legal research. Some more experienced paralegals routinely research issues, but that's not the norm. When considering a career as a paralegal, remember that a hierarchy exists in law firms. Paralegals fall at the bottom of that pyramid, below the partners and associates. Whatever assignments the attorneys choose not to perform fall into the laps of the paralegal staff. Rest assured that the heady, intellectual work is usually devoured by the attorneys whenever possible, especially if clients are willing to pay higher rates to get the work done. And don't think that just because you attended Brown University that you will be allowed to perform legal research or that you know how to do it. Law firms don't work like that, and many Ivy-educated paralegals have been humbled after spending weeks indexing and filing documents.
PARALEGAL SCHOOLS AND TRAINING
Paralegal degrees, certificates, and courses are regularly offered by community colleges, technical schools, colleges, universities, and paralegal schools, which exclusively cater to the paralegal profession. Today some of the best colleges and universities offer paralegal degrees either as part of their regular curriculum or as an adjunct program.
Many colleges offer evening programs that can be completed in about a year and intensive summer day programs. Make sure that the program you choose is accredited by the American Bar Association. The curriculum varies among schools, but a typical paralegal program might include study in the following areas in addition to elective courses in specific areas of interest and outside internships:
Admission requirements vary among schools. Community colleges may require only a high school diploma for admission. Some paralegal schools require a college degree for admission. At Georgetown University's Paralegal Program, for example, a minimum 2.5 college grade point average is required for admission. And some schools require students to pass a basic accounting exam prior to enrollment.
PARALEGAL ASSOCIATIONS AND ORGANIZATIONS
There are numerous associations and organizations associated with the paralegal profession that provide educational programs, professional recognition, and certification for its members, as well as employment assistance. Contact the local bar association in your area or local colleges and universities for information on what is available in your area. The following are some national paralegal organizations:
American Association for Paralegal Education (AAFPE) Post Office Box 40244 Overland Park, KS 66204 913-381-4458
Publishes the Journal for Paralegal Education annually. Contact for information on local chapters.
Legal Assistant Management Association
Post Office Box 40129
Overland Park, KS 66204
Promotes the professional standing of legal assistant managers.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
104 Wilmot Road, Suite 201
Publishes a quarterly newsletter, National Paralegal Reporter.
National Paralegal Association (NPA) Post Office Box 406 Solebury, PA 18963 215-297-8333
Publishes a newsletter and offers publications through its paralegal bookstore.
WHAT FIRMS LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING PARALEGALS
What's the best avenue to take to become a paralegal? And how do law firms view paralegal training and experience? The answers to these questions vary tremendously among law firms. Some firms require a paralegal degree or certificate, while others require only a college degree. I recommend that you review the classified section of your local Sunday newspaper to get a feel for the paralegal market in your area. Contact local employment agencies that specialize in placing paralegals in law firms for information. Contact firms in your area, and ask them what requirements they typically like to see for their paralegal positions.
In large metropolitan areas such as New York, Washington, or Chicago, where there is always an abundant need for paralegal talent, often only a four-year college degree is needed to become a paralegal. In smaller, less transient markets, where overall less hiring takes place, you'll find that specific training may be needed. The larger markets usually require at least a 3.0 grade point average for paralegal positions, and often the more prestigious firms prefer to hire from the top undergraduate schools.
Firms always look for strong organizational skills, especially in litigation paralegal candidates. Attention to detail and the ability to narrowly focus on even the most mundane task are traits needed by all paralegals in any market.
You May Need a Specific Type of Experience
For some paralegal positions, firms look for specific types of experience, even at the entry level. For example, one firm that did a lot of medical malpractice work decided to hire an experienced nurse for a newly created litigation paralegal position. They found that it was too difficult for someone to work in this area without strong medical knowledge.
In firms with strong bankruptcy or immigration practices in which para-legals are given a lot of responsibility early on, previous related work experience is often mandatory. Often you'll find several paralegals working in these areas with different levels of experience. When a more senior paralegal leaves, the others move up the ladder, and someone is trained on the bottom rung by the more experienced paralegals. And some firms find that government agency experience is helpful for some paralegal positions in areas such as trade, antitrust, or telecommunications.
In the technical areas of law such as patent and intellectual property, very specific training and experience are needed. You may find that entry-level positions in these areas are difficult to locate, technical undergraduate degrees may be necessary, and engineering, biotech, or computer-related work experience is also useful. These positions also tend to pay better than the nontechnical paralegal positions.
OTHER AVENUES YOU CAN TAKE TO BECOME A PARALEGAL
There are many other avenues to becoming a paralegal besides specific schooling. You have a lot of options.
Promotion from Within
There are numerous accounts of employees who were promoted to paralegal positions after working as receptionists, secretaries, couriers, accounting clerks, and so on. Promotion from within is a common occurrence in law firms, and many individuals have worked their way into paralegal positions without the benefit of a college degree or paralegal certificate. Working your way into a paralegal position via this route takes time, sometimes several years, but if you set your sights on the right horizon and are willing to pay your dues long enough, you can achieve this goal.
How do you get promoted without having the required credentials or educational background in the current age of layoffs and downsizing? It is possible if you follow certain rules:
Work as a Temporary First
Another avenue often taken in today's legal job market is to work as a temporary paralegal in a law firm first. Many firms hire temporary paralegals on a regular basis, especially to staff large cases and to make sure a candidate works out before making the commitment to hire as a regular full-time employee. In many cities, there are personnel agencies that specialize only in placing paralegals in law firms. Review your Sunday newspaper, call local law firms, or thumb through the yellow pages to research this market in your area. This is an excellent vehicle to test the waters, both from your perspective and from the law firm's.
Working temporarily as a paralegal is becoming a popular entry into a law firm, as firms are becoming more hesitant to add regular full-time employees to their pared-down staffs. Temporary firms report that they are receiving increasingly more requests for seasoned and entry-level paralegals from law firms. But the use of temporaries is not a one-sided affair. Many experienced paralegals are discovering that they can work as a temporary or contract paralegal, working only when it suits them, making a good hourly wage, but avoiding the career burnout ultimately experienced by many in the profession.
The Rotten Truth about Being a Paralegal
Paralegal positions in law firms offer many opportunities, but they can also be a dead-end track for ambitious professionals who want to progress down a primrose path. You should be aware of the limitations of the profession before your set your sights on becoming a professional paralegal.
YOU'LL EVENTUALLY "HIT THE WALL"
Many people who work in law firms fail to realize that the legal hierarchy is always black and white: You either have a law degree or you don't, and you're limited, no matter how smart or ambitious you are, by that fact. The law places limits on the tasks you or anyone else can perform in a law firm, based on the legal training you possess and whether you've passed a bar exam. That distinction never disappears. Your career path and your salary will always be limited by these factors. I'll use a marathon runner's term for this phenomenon-you'll eventually "hit the Wall."
Salary and Billing Rate Limitations
Ambitious paralegals who decide to remain in the profession for the long haul often become frustrated by the salary ceiling they ultimately encounter and by the limitations placed on them simply because they're not lawyers. Billing rates are often tied to salary, and there is a divergence where paralegal rates become so high that they become associate rates. This is often the place where associates take over paralegal work. While there are some exceptions, it simply does not make sense for paralegals to bill at higher rates and make more money than associates when associates possess much more training and education. The same line of thought applies to the paralegal learning curve. The "topping out" effect troubles many ambitious paralegals, but the economics of the legal market make it unlikely to disappear. Under-stand where that learning curve peaks out in your area of practice, and make sure you can learn to live with it if you plan to remain in the paralegal profession long term.
PARALEGAL MANAGERS AND SUPERVISORS
Big firms with large paralegal staffs often hire managers to supervise this group of paraprofessionals. Paralegal managers or supervisors are not typically found in small firms and are often located in large litigation firms where large numbers of paralegals are routinely needed to staff complex, document-sensitive cases.
It's usually difficult to become a paralegal manager without strong legal administrative experience or previous paralegal work experience. Sometimes an experienced paralegal will be asked to take on this administrative position. Occasionally, personnel or recruiting directors will have this responsibility added to their roster of duties. The paralegal manager is usually responsible for hiring, supervising, and firing the paralegal staff in addition to overseeing the paralegals' work on specific cases. This position has frequently come under the ax in recent times as firms continue to downsize and eliminate layers of management, like the rest of corporate America. Therefore, the long-term future for these positions as well as their availability for budding administrators may become more uncertain in the future.