Taking the Next Step: Paralegals and Legal Assistants Going to Law School

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Enrolling in a Juris Doctorate program means immense professional advancement for the paralegal. ''Going to law school meant great professional improvement,'' said Renee Sova, a former paralegal and current Director of Alumni and Advanced Specialty Programs at the American Institute for Paralegal Studies, who decided to attend law school after more than seven years as a paralegal.

Taking the Next Step: Paralegals and Legal Assistants Going to Law School

And the decision to enroll may be beneficial to the firm as well. ''My employers were really the ones to push me to go to law school,'' said Ms. Sova. As the profession continues to evolve and gain respect, law firms realize paralegals' worth and strive to keep valuable employees. In fact, some firms even offer reduced work hours for part-time law students or the prospect of a job upon graduation.

''I think that [going to law school] gave me more credibility and respect in the office,'' said Kathleen Malone, former legal assistant who recently finished law school and passed the Bar Examination in Massachusetts. ''However, some law firms may not be as accommodating,'' Ms. Sova warned. ''The lines between attorney and paralegal are becoming less blurred, and attorneys may be reluctant to let a good legal assistant or paralegal go.'' Ms. Malone agreed, ''Law firms are 'caste' system, and…a firm [may not] see you as a lawyer if you have worked as a secretary [or legal assistant].'' Another potential problem? ''If an employer knows that you want to 'learn the law,' they will not hesitate to dump research projects [on you] and seek to give you things to 'help you learn,''' Ms. Malone recounted.

During the applications process, legal knowledge may not amount to much. ''Getting into law school rarely depends on pre-law courses [or knowledge of the law],'' said Wendy Margolis, Director of Communication for the Law School Admissions Council. ''Writing skills and critical thinking abilities are what count.'' While knowing how law firms work doesn't give candidates an edge, actual work experience may. ''Schools look at each person individually, and work experience is counted as part of the whole,'' Ms. Margolis said.

Once admitted, however, those with legal experience have a definite advantage. ''I made law review and got the highest grade in my Legal Research and Writing class,'' Ms. Sova recounted. ''My work experience helped me to better understand legal terminology.'' Students with legal experience often also fare better at the ''clinical'' side of law school, understanding the day-to-day operations behind the legal theories. ''For example, I had drafted pleadings and done research at work, and I better understood the reasons behind studying those,'' Ms. Sova explained. ''I could see how things fit together and put some classes, like Civil Procedure, in a 'real world' context,'' said Ms. Malone. ''Some of these concepts are new and abstract, and no matter how well a text explains them, seeing the real-life operation is something that cannot be matched.''

Having legal experience may also help job seekers upon graduation. ''No graduate out of law school has 'lawyer experience;' you cannot get that until you pass the Bar. However, familiarity with practice and procedure, no matter what level, is attractive to employers,'' Ms. Malone explained. ''Whatever you already know is [that much] less they have to invest in teaching you.'' In addition to legal procedure, former paralegals and legal assistants have the upper hand when it comes to firm culture and environment. ''Working in a legal environment gives you insight to the daily transactions of lawyers, lawyer etiquette, habits, and customs in the trade,'' said Ms. Malone. ''You can avoid looking like a 'green hack' when you first practice and save yourself some agitation and potential embarrassment.''

So, should you make the move? Paralegals and legal assistants who are interested in attending law school should assess their goals, experts say. ''Figure out what you want to gain by going to law school,'' advised Ms. Sova. ''Is it more money? Added respect and responsibilities? New knowledge? The opportunity to broaden your horizons?'' Law school is an extensive time commitment; even part-time programs that are designed for working adults can stretch for 15-20 hours of class time per week—add to that at least twice as many hours for reading and class work at home. Law school also comes with tremendous costs: according to the LSAC's website, three years of tuition can exceed $150,000. ''Consider all the factors before jumping in,'' Ms. Sova said. ''Some paralegals may find that they aren't really looking to change careers, but merely to change jobs. They simply aren't working for the right firm.''

But for those paralegals and legal assistants who are determined to get their Juris Doctorate, law school is an increasingly viable option. ''Go for it!'' Ms. Malone said. ''As long as you have a true love of the law, there is nothing holding you back.''

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