The Difficulties of Advancing From Paralegal to Associate

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Dear Lawcrossing,

I'm dying to work at a big firm here in Florida. However, I have a 2.0 average, so I know there's no way they are going to let me in the usual way. They are willing to interview me as a paralegal. Is that a good way to break in, and then move over to being an associate?

AT, Fort Lauderdale,


As you know, LawCrossing never says "No." However, in your case, AT, there are other ways to break into this particular heavenly law firm-means that are more interesting, more fun, and-ahem-more likely.

The idea of breaking into large firms via the paralegal route is, alas, an outdated one. It's true that 20 years ago, it was possible to do this; you may find partners at large firms who actually got their start this way. However, nowadays you're about as likely to spot Elvis at a Seven- Eleven as you are to make the move from paralegal to associate at a large firm.

Why is that? For the answer to this question, LawCrossing turned to the wonderful Anne Stark Walker, Career Services Director at the University of Denver College of Law, who in a prior life was hiring partner at a very large law firm. She says that, "Once you are iden-tified in a particular role in a law firm, it's very hard to change people's minds. It's not fair, but that's the way it is." Is it impossible? Well, no, any more than it's impossible that you'd spot Elvis at the Seven-Eleven. But it's very difficult. As Anne Walker says, "You'd have to show stupendous initiative, and you'd need to make an extra-ordinary effort to make yourself valuable. Even then, law firms are suspicious of paralegals with higher ambitions."

LawCrossing knows of one extraordinary young man who did, in fact, break the paralegal mold, but when you hear this
story, AT, you'll see what it takes to step into an associate position by the means you suggest. This particular young man got his foot in the door at his dream law firm with the only job they offered him-a third shift proofreader, working in the basement. ("Ugh," LawCrossing can hear you saying to yourself. Well, hold on. It gets much, much better!) Proofreading the firm's documents from midnight to 8 a.m. every day, this guy got a better idea than any other single person exactly what was "hot" there. The telecommunications department was putting out volumes of material, and this young man decided that department was going to be his entre to the firm. He familiarized himself with all kinds of telecommunications law publications, and found that there was going to be a national telecommunications law conference in town shortly. He volunteered to help out, and wound up summarizing all of the presentations and writing up the minutes. The conference put out a newsletter featuring everything he'd written, put his name on the materials, and sent the newsletter to every telecommunications lawyer in the country. The newsletter wound up on the desk of the partner in charge of the telecommunications department at this guy's firm-six stories above him! The partner was impressed with the newsletter, looked for the name of the person who wrote it, and when he saw it, he buzzed his secretary and said: "Why does this name ring a bell?" She responded, "It's the kid in the basement." He said, "He doesn't belong in the basement. Get him up here!" When the partner confronted the young guy and asked him if the newsletter was his work, the guy 'fessed up, and the partner said, "Why did you do this?" He said he had read everything the partner's department was putting out and found it fascinating, and wanted to develop an expertise in it. The partner, duly impressed, made him an associate-the only new associate in this very hot field at the firm!

So, certainly, AT, lightning strikes occasionally. But what's the easier way to accomplish your dream? As Anne Walker advises, "You're so much better off if you go to a smaller firm or even get into an office sharing situation with another lawyer acting as a mentor. Develop your own client base, develop expertise in a niche area-and two or three years from now, go back to that firm. At that point, they won't look at your grades, because your track record will trump your grades. You'll have shown them what you can do, which is so much more important than your grades ever could be."

In short, AT, the best way for you to get into your dream firm is to start somewhere else first, and move over as a full-fledged lawyer. If you want, look at those first two years as an apprenticeship, so that you won't feel you're compromising your dreams-because you're not. You're just taking a different, more creative, route to making them come true.

University of Denver


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