Andrea Wagner, Author, How to Land Your First Paralegal Job

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<<As the author of How to Land Your First Paralegal Job, Andrea Wagner is the perfect person to offer advice in this week's LawCrossing Legal Staff Profile. Ironically enough, Andrea no longer works as a legal staff member; she is a Human Resources professional at the Anti-Defamation league in Los Angeles, California. But then again, she is also the author of the book Where Do I Go From Here, which is designed to help legal staff professionals transition out of their jobs and into new careers. LawCrossing was fortunate to speak with Andrea about her varied career and get some amazing career advice for our readers.

Q: Can you talk a little about your career path? Where did you get started in terms of goals and training?

A: I started out as a teacher. After my BA from UC Berkeley, I went on to get a Masters in Theatre, and initially taught Drama. Then I got my paralegal certificate at the University of West Los Angeles, and went on to work as a paralegal for a while and eventually began working as a placement counselor for University of West Los Angeles, placing paralegal students and alumni into law firms. In the mid 1980's, when the economy was booming for law firms, I worked for one of the first paralegal placement agencies in Los Angeles, which was quite successful. When the recession of the late 80's - early 90's hit and law firms stopped using recruiting firms, I continued working on career placement with a non-profit. Now I work in Human Resources with the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles. I taught at various paralegal schools for 10 years, and was one of the charter members of the CACPS, the Commission for Advanced CA Paralegal Specialization. We started through the California Alliance of Paralegal Association; our mission was to test experienced paralegals so they can get advanced specialization and certification. This was an advanced certified legal assistant examination; a paralegal would need around three years of experience and to have successfully passed the CLA (certified legal assistant) examinations sponsored by NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) to become certified.

Q: How did the book come about?

A: After working in paralegal placement, a colleague of mine formed a publishing company. The book started out as a handbook for the University of West LA to help entry-level jobseekers find work. The first edition of the book was published in 1992, and right now I am working on the 4th edition, which is being published by Prentice Hall's text book section, Aspen Books.

This is really the easiest to read and understand book; it gets right to the point and uses the right blend of humor and sarcasm to get the point across. It doesn't read like a text book, but is actually fun. I have updated it every two or three years. The latest edition contains extensive lists of internet sites and resources updated to reflect changes in the market. The information in the text changes less because, how to write a good resume, when to send thank you notes or what to put in a cover letter is fairly standard. How to do a job search does not change much. The book further provides information about how a law firm is set up and how a corporate legal division works. It also touches on paralegal education and how to choose a proper school. I believe that these methods are applicable to most job searches, so this book can be used for other job searches, as well. The content of a paralegal search is different, but the general techniques apply to all entry-level searches.

Q: So where does the search start?

A: Trying to decipher what type of law you want to practice is a good starting point. For example, litigation is stressful and might routinely require all-nighters and overtime, while something like probate has a slower pace -- there isn't much of a rush when your client is dead! Start out by checking out Martindale Hubble, or another law firm search source. If you went to college, try to find an attorney who went to that college. Write an alum and ask for information, look in newspapers and job boards, and send out 4-5 resumes a week, call next week, or e-mail to make sure your resume was received. E-mail is fine, but nothing works like a phone call to make a connection.

Q: What sort of qualifications do most paralegals have?

A: Large law firms tend to hire individuals with bachelors degrees and ABA-approved certificates, but they also hire new college graduates who want to work in a law firm to see if they want to go to law school or graduate school. If a firm is looking for a career paralegal, they tend to go with those who have a paralegal certificate. A person can get an AS degree in paralegal studies right after high school, or if you have a bachelor's degree and are serious about being a career paralegal, it might be a good idea to enroll in a paralegal certification program. Some firms will pay for the right person to get the certification while they work.

Q: What other reflections do you have on the Paralegal Profession?

A: The ABA defines a paralegal in terms of what paralegals cannot do. A paralegal is always required to be supervised by an attorney; so a paralegal, despite having legal knowledge, cannot practice law. The ABA says a paralegal cannot give legal advice, cannot hire clients or make an agreement, cannot sign legal documents, and cannot represent a client in court. This puts the paralegal in the support position at all times.

Q: What are some of the things that paralegals or other non-attorney legal professionals do in the legal field?

A: Well one could be a freelance paralegal -- that's still a paralegal, but one who works under the supervision of an attorney on a short-term basis or project-by-project. Usually, an individual can start out working for a placement agency and then build a reputation. It requires self-marketing in an effective way, but I have known people who have done it well.

Q: Your second book is about transitioning out of the paralegal profession, any thoughts on that topic?

A: In that book, I talk about dealing with not-so-nice attorneys and using transferable skills to market yourself out of the paralegal profession.

A paralegal or another non-attorney professional can represent clients in administrative hearings in front of a commissioner. Some people have effectively made a career out of representing clients in front of agencies like the DMV and the Workers' Compensation Board in administrative hearings. The way to get these jobs would be to find workers' compensation attorneys and administrative agencies.

Mediation is another field that former legal professionals can choose to work in. The County Bar puts on a program where non-attorneys can get training in arbitration and mediation for human resources. Mediation and arbitration are usually well-paying careers and easy transitions for former legal staff professionals

<<Q: Any opinions on non-bar certified JD's practicing as paralegals?

A: Well I knew one -- she was considered a "Super Paralegal;" she was a disbarred attorney. The attorneys in the law firm would listen to her a lot more and she did pretty much everything the attorney did, but could not sign documents and had to work under the attorney. Most attorneys do not like to work with former attorneys since they can go off and retake the bar.

Q: What are your reflections on the paralegal profession in general and what you'd like to see for the future?

A: I have had the opportunity to look at this field from many angles, from the paralegal angle and then from the outside, working on providing paralegals for attorneys, where I was in the peer position to attorneys. A lot has changed in terms of what is required of paralegals, or legal technicians, as they were called when I got started. Right now, California requires a paralegal certificate and requires paralegals to maintain MCLE credits. I think certification is good; it allows the paralegal to be more of a professional.

Should non-attorney professionals be allowed to practice law? Often the middle class can't afford an attorney but they are not poor enough for Legal Aid. California passed legislation to provide legal document assistants, who are bonded by the state to do limited legal work. This provides a safe alternative for people who can't afford attorneys.

Q: Thanks for all this great information, so any thing else to tell our readers about yourself, besides this serious stuff?

A: I love to ski, travel, and take care of my two-year-old grand daughter.

University of West Los Angeles, School of Paralegal Studies


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