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Getting Started on Your Career as a Paralegal

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Do you think you want to be a paralegal? That's great. Before you embark on your job search, try to be sure first. Your decision could be the first step toward a rewarding job — or a wrong turn from your real career goal. The choice all depends upon your personal objectives, and upon how much you know about the paralegal world.

Most paralegals enter the field for three basic reasons: as a career in itself, as a stepping stone to other careers, or as a route to law or business school.


Does the paralegal field offer career opportunities?

There is a lot of discussion by experienced paralegals about whether the field offers true career opportunities. After all, people have differing opinions about what a "career" means. Many fields have limitations to how far one can grow and to how much one can earn without changing fields or gaining more education and credentials. Paralegals, simply, are not lawyers. This means that they can't do all the things that lawyers do: make the business and legal decisions that lawyers make; own the law firm; earn as much as lawyers do.

Frustrated paralegals are often unaware of the hundreds of career opportunities available to them today. The paralegal field is barely two decades old and it is continuously growing and changing. If you think of a career as a job with personal rewards, substantial salary, challenges to your intellect and inter-personal skills and endless new opportunities, then this field could easily be for you.

Because the field is young and growing so rapidly, the paralegals who have taken charge and creatively contributed to its growth have found rewarding careers. They've started associations, become experts in specialty fields, educators, administrators and writers. Some have even started their own paralegal companies. Many other paralegals have been taking advantage of the newly created opportunities-so can you. So, are there career opportunities for paralegals? Without a doubt, yes!

A Stepping Stone To Other Careers

If you've recently graduated from college and are starting on your career, you may be uncertain as to which direction you should take. Should you go on for additional schooling? Or should you start your career with a job to gain experience, and perhaps, time. These questions are pretty hard to answer without a perspective on what's available and what you really want. Moreover, once you are out in the "real world" for a while you may find that your needs and interests have changed.

Paralegal work can be an excellent first job for a college graduate. It can provide a fine introduction to the world of business and to the professions. You'll have a chance to investigate various industries through working on legal matters involving those industries. Learning how to work in an office environment will also be a valuable by-product. If you work in this field for a year or more, you may also develop a better perspective on your career goals.

Another reason why paralegal work is recommended as a first job is because you can often find work immediately following college graduation. As a paralegal, you'll also be using the same writing and research skills developed during schooling. The work is fairly high-paying and highly responsible. Is a paralegal job a good route to other careers? For many occupations, it can be. Many employers prefer job applicants with solid work experience in a business environment, to ones who've just finished college. By doing paralegal work, you can demonstrate your abilities to perform research, work well with details, and write.

These skills are valued in many fields, but they are especially applicable in a few areas that many paralegals enter: stock brokerage, banking, and management training programs.

From Paralegal to Law or Business School

Entry-Level Qualifications

If you're considering a career as a lawyer, a business executive or similar professional, starting out as a paralegal (whether you are just out of college or not) can be one of the best ways to begin-whether you're unsure about your direction or have no doubts.

Paralegal work probably provides the best possible expo sure you can have to the real world of law. As a paralegal, you'll work side by side with attorneys and become fully involved with the details of how law is practiced. If you're unsure about a career as a lawyer, working as a paralegal can help you decide. If you already know that you want to become a lawyer, an interim position as a paralegal may help you become a more effective and knowledgeable one.

Will becoming a paralegal help you get into law school? The most important factors are your grades and your LSAT scores. Work experience as a paralegal can be an asset, though, if you already meet a school's entrance requirements. The lawyers for whom you have worked may write a letter of recommendation, which can only enhance your chances for admission. Plus, as one law school admissions officer put it, "If a paralegal, after working in a law office and seeing what practice is all about still wants a law degree, it shows that he or she is serious about the profession. That's something we take into account."

Another valuable consideration is that the money you earn as a paralegal can be used toward paying law school or business school tuition. In addition, law firms usually pay time and a half or large bonuses for extensive overtime. And companies often have a tuition payment program as part of their employee benefits package.

If you decide to attend business school, you may find that a paralegal job has provided you with invaluable insight into how businesses in various industries function and how every aspect of business is inextricably linked to law. As a paralegal, you may have to become familiar with an entire industry, its organization and practices, in order to assist in major litigation. If you work in a law firm's corporate finance, bond or real estate department, you'll learn how everyday business deals are conducted and of the role lawyers play in creating or expediting them.

If you are serious about exploring a paralegal career, you'll want to know what qualifications you will need to get started. Unlike professions which have licensing or entry examinations, paralegal work lacks a standard set of qualifications But we can tell you what employers look for in entry-level paralegals, and what skills you'll need to succeed on the job.

While a paralegal course may be very helpful, it is not usually mandatory. What about a college degree? One of the best preparations for a paralegal career is a liberal arts education. Most employers agree, and they require a B.A. for entry-level paralegals. But there are many exceptions. Especially in small towns, or at smaller law firms, an associates’ degree is acceptable, particularly if you have a concentration in paralegal studies. Even a high school diploma is sometimes sufficient, if the applicant has relevant experience and some paralegal course work.

While a college degree in itself is a big plus, good grades are also important, especially if you haven't had paralegal training or experience. Many of the larger corporate law firms only hire people who have top grades from well-known schools. They're looking for people who could, if they chose, go on to law school and later join the firm. But for any law firm or company, good grades are important.

In addition to a formal education, what else is necessary? Paralegal work places a premium on intellectual skills and analytical ability. Sometimes, you'll have to make the kind of subtle, conceptual distinctions that lawyers do. Also, you'll have to become familiar with unfamiliar concepts and terminology about law and business. So it's important that you show that you're a quick learner.

Paralegal work is detail work. Whether you're working with litigation documents or filing a will, attention to detail is critical. Mistakes could cost the firm a client or a case. To be a successful paralegal, you have to be attentive and precise, even if you're tired or working under pressure.

Oral communications and interpersonal skills are important in working with clients, attorneys and other paralegals. You may have to interview people, or explain your research findings to attorneys. If you work in areas like matrimonial and family law, immigrations, or trust and estates, you'll have a lot of direct client contact. You may be dealing with people who are undergoing a lot of stress. If you're working in trial litigation, the attorneys for whom you work might be pressured and harried. You'll have to keep your cool, even when others can't.

Do you know how to write clearly and concisely? Writing skills are important, as almost every paralegal job involves summarizing information, drafting reports and writing correspondence. And it goes without saying that neatness, careful spelling and good grammar are necessary.

A sense of responsibility is crucial for the successful paralegal. Do you have what it takes to get a job done, despite obstacles? Will you cancel an evening's date on short notice to meet an important deadline? Will you do that extra bit of research? Are you flexible enough to leave one project and pick up another without advance notice? Can you take directions, listen carefully, and handle constructive (and some times unconstructive) criticism?

These are the basics. Of course, each job will have its own specific qualifications and demands. Any kind of expertise- in real estate, computers, foreign languages, science or finance — can be an asset. It all depends on the particular job you choose.

From Legal Secretary to Paralegal

A paralegal career can be a rewarding career change for a legal secretary. Is it right for you? What's the best way to go about making the transition? In changing from legal secretary to paralegal, you'll have some special opportunities and some special hurdles.

The first and most important question you should answer is "Why do I want to become a paralegal?" As a legal secretary, you already have the inside scoop on how law offices are run; you are probably handling some paralegal duties as part of your present job, and you also probably have a chance to observe paralegals as they work. So, you should have a pretty good idea of the pros and cons of a paralegal career. If you have researched the paralegal field thoroughly, you're now ready to answer the question of why you want to become a paralegal.

No career change should be taken lightly. Do you want to change careers because you like the work paralegals do better than the work you're doing now, and because you think you'll be good at it? Do you want to change because you feel that being a paralegal has more status and recognition, that it's more "professional"? Do you want to change because you want to earn more money? Have you compared becoming a paralegal with becoming an office manager or personnel manager in a law office, or with advancement opportunities outside the legal field? If you haven't given serious thought to these questions, you should.

The best reason for becoming a paralegal, is that you like what paralegals do and you think (or know) that you'll be good at the job and happy in it. If you're unhappy in your current job, wanting to be a paralegal might not be the best way out. If you feel your job is too clerical or that you don't get proper recognition, the trouble may not be with the legal secretarial position, but with your own particular position.

Switching law firms maybe the right answer. And then again, it may not. Be sure, whatever you decide, that you don't underestimate your worth. Talk with others, compare law firms and, after this research, consider what's best for you.
Whatever you decide, it's always best to make career changes for positive reasons, not negative ones. The grass isn't always greener. Also, be aware that you may have to take a cut in salary to start over as an entry-level paralegal.

Qualifications

As a legal secretary, you are in a unique situation. You may already be performing dozens of paralegal tasks. But are you qualified? Do you need a B.A. if you don't have one already? Do you need to take a paralegal course? There are no hard and fast rules. You might make yourself eligible to become a paralegal just by rewriting your resume-especially if you're working in a field like trusts and estates or real estate where you may spend most of your time on paralegal tasks. If you don't have a B.A., it's advisable to take a paralegal course. Many employers waive the B.A. requirement if someone com bines experiences as a legal secretary with a paralegal course. Even if you have a B.A., taking a paralegal course might well be an asset. For some jobs, such a course is a requirement. In any case, it will show potential employers that you're serious about the field and it will add significantly to your qualifications. If you work in a specialized law field now, become as familiar as you can with what paralegals do. You'll get a better idea of how you'll do if you are so informed.

Making the Transition

In making the transition from secretary to paralegal, you will have to overcome a few obstacles. Perhaps the most formidable obstacle is that of being "typecast" as a secretary when you want and need to be looked on as a (potential) paralegal. The place to begin is with yourself. You may still be unconsciously regarding yourself as a secretary. Your psychological attitude toward yourself is important. Also, your wardrobe can be important-how you dress can affect the way you approach work.
Dress as professionally as the other paralegals.

There are two basic ways to make the transition from legal secretary to paralegal-within the context of your present firm or company or by looking for a new job. Depending upon your present work environment, you may have an easy time or a very difficult one. Corporations and government agencies tend to encourage the transition more than do private law firms. And smaller law firms tend to be more open to such changes than larger law firms. Further, it may be easier to become the first paralegal in your department or firm than to make the transition into a larger group of paralegals, especially if none have previously been legal secretaries.

An obstacle you may encounter once you've established your willingness to make the transition within yourself is that everyone else in your firm may still initially think of you as a secretary. You may have to make new friends and develop new relationships with previous friends. An attorney might absent-mindedly ask you to get coffee or type a letter for him. Be prepared to handle such things gracefully. A more difficult problem may be that you might be more valuable to your current employer as a secretary than as a paralegal. If that is the case, it's in order for you to consider changing law firms.

Becoming the first paralegal in your firm or specialty department is one of the best ways to make the transition- especially if the firm is growing. Most attorneys work with paralegals and, if not, they ought to. Take advantage of opportunity.

Do some research and find out what paralegals are doing in similar types of law firms or corporations. Then write up a job description outlining what a paralegal would do in your department and how this work would benefit the attorneys- and result in greater productivity. You can show how all your paralegal responsibilities could be billed to clients and not be otherwise written off as secretarial overhead.

Next, you'll have to show why you should be chosen. You should be prepared to show how you already know, or can learn how to perform, the tasks called for in the paralegal's job description. Since you already know the attorneys and the work involved, and they know you, a great deal in time and expense would be saved if you became the firm's or department's first paralegal. You may even have the firm send you to paralegal school during the evenings. The firm may be able to hire a more junior secretary to handle typing, stenography, and other functions. So, everyone benefits.

Your Resume

For one reason or another, it may not be possible-or beneficial-to make the transition from legal secretary to paralegal with your present employer. Your resume, then, be comes important. In it you'll want to present yourself as a paralegal candidate and not as a secretary. You'll want to emphasize the paralegal and administrative skills you have and to down play your clerical skills. With this in mind, a straightforward chronological resume may not be the best. A functional resume may be better.

You might want to start your resume with an objective which indicates that you are an experienced legal paraprofessional seeking a paralegal position (if you have a special area of interest, you might specify it here). Next, if you have a paralegal degree, you might indicate it after the objective, and/or include this in an Education section after you've discussed your skills and experience.

The most important part of your resume should come next-a discussion of your "paralegal" skills without reference to previous employers. You might label this section "Paraprofessional Skills." In it, you should cover as much detail as possible about your paralegal skills and experience acquired from all your work positions. Organize your experience according to legal specialties, such as trusts and estates, litigation and so on. You'll also want to highlight special projects you've handled but again, don't emphasize the secretarial skills.

Of course you then will need to indicate where you've gained all these skills. You can do this in a following section, which you could call "Professional Experience." Consider making your job titles as descriptive as possible and close to the position you are now seeking. For example, you might indicate that you were a "Paralegal/Administrative Assistant," instead of a secretary. List your employers and the dates of employment. Be careful, at the same time, not to stretch the truth too far. Your potential employer will certainly want to check your references.

Paralegal Profession

There are four main sectors of the paralegal profession: private law firms, government, corporate legal departments, and community or public interest work. Private law firms enjoy the greatest number of paralegals. Although they can vary greatly from each other, according to location and specialty, they have some aspects in common.

Private firms often provide the easiest entry into paralegal work. They often don't require that you have a paralegal certificate from a training program or that you have special skills. (This is especially true of large litigation firms.) They do, however, often recruit people who have attended college with superior academic backgrounds. Because of the traditionally high turnover rate in this sector of the profession, your chances of finding work when and where you want can be good. Salaries are highest in private firms. Although most paralegals begin at $10,000 to $14,000 per year, annual salaries can top $20,000 after a few years of experience. At the same time, private law firms also have what some may consider a drawback: the work can be quite demanding and the hours can be long. Especially if you're assigned to a case that will soon come to trial, you might be expected to work a number of overtime evenings and weekends. Thus, if you're thinking of law school, private sector is a very good bet.

If you value a stable position with a good salary, you might consider paralegal work in one of the many federal, state or local agencies. The federal government offers very good salaries, excellent benefits and much independence and responsibility for paralegals. Although the work can be demanding, the hours are usually shorter than in the private sector. However, state and local governments vary greatly in their attitude toward paralegals. Therefore, you'll have to investigate paralegal work in your own state or locality. You should also be aware that fulfillment of many government jobs is based on the passing of a standardized exam. Inquire about this in applying for a job.

Corporate legal departments are worth investigating for the paralegal who wants a long-term career. Many corporations offer superior benefits, such as tuition refunds and training programs. Also, if you decide later to move out of the paralegal profession, you might be hired by another department of the corporation. Promotion from within the company and lateral job transfers are advantages to corporate work. And, if you decide to relocate, you may have the chance to be transferred to another branch office of the same company.

For the socially committed, community or public interest work in the paralegal field can be very rewarding. In church groups and in community organizations, as advocates for consumers, immigrants, minorities, elderly people, prisoners, patients and the poor, paralegals are making an in valuable contribution. Since many non-profit groups must handle a large workload with a small staff, you may be called upon to perform a number of duties, from mediation to proposal writing, to legal research. In fact, many people believe that paralegals in the non-profit sector assume greater responsibility than do those in any other paralegal field.

Of course, there are some major drawbacks to social service work for paralegals. As of this writing, many community groups are struggling to stay alive. Social programs have been hard hit by federal budget cuts, and organizations don't have the money to hire new employees. If you do find a job, you're unlikely to get a large salary. Paralegals might be the back bone of a public interest group, but they often remain unsung heroes. They usually won't find substantial rewards in their paycheck. Public service work is an excellent choice for those seeking part-time or volunteer employment.

Job Hunting for Beginners

Most anyone seeking entry into a new field runs into the same old "catch-22"-how to get a job without experience and how to get experience without a job. The paralegal field is not a particularly hard field to break into, if you have the basic qualifications, but it is a popular one and so it can be competitive. A confident and determined attitude is important. You may have to try and try again. Keep your moral up, and you're likely to succeed.

A classic pitfall of beginners is holding out for the "perfect" job. It's not usually likely that your first job will be ideal. Getting that first job is always the toughest: once you have it you'll gain experience which you can later trade for a job more to your liking. In fact, don't overlook any opportunity to gain valuable experience. Taking almost any job in a law firm or legal department might be a way to learn more about law, and to give you an opportunity to become better known by your employer. Many employees have moved from positions like proofreader, clerk, receptionist and typist to paralegal.

Another possibility for gaining legal experience-especially if you are having trouble finding a full-time position-is to work as a temporary legal assistant. You might try a temporary paralegal service or a litigation support firm. As a temporary you may become exposed to many different law firms and types of legal work. Moreover, you might be at just the right place at the right time when a permanent legal position becomes available.

While permanent employment agencies, as opposed to temporary personnel services, place entry-level people in paralegal positions, they often favor more experienced paralegals. This is because most law firms receive hundreds of unsolicited resumes each year from qualified entry-level applicants, so generally the only time that firms or corporate legal departments need to turn to permanent employment agencies is when they need someone hard to find-an entry-level paralegal with a specialized background. Having said that, still it can't hurt to register with an agency, as long as you are also prepared to conduct your own campaign.

If you are affiliated with a college or university-as a student, alumnus, or employee-check to see if any internship programs are available or known about. Many schools have excellent contacts with a number of companies and can place people in rewarding intern positions. You won't likely receive more than a nominal salary, if that, but you'll learn, make contacts, and gain invaluable experience. If you are not affiliated with a school, or if you need additional ideas, check the Directory of Internships. It's available at major libraries and lists many internship possibilities that exist.

In addition, speak to everyone you know who works as a paralegal. Find out who's leaving a job, and who's hiring. Join your college alumni association. Get to know lawyers who are fellow alumni and talk to them about their firms. Use them as resources. Keep abreast of changes in the legal world: which specialties are "hot" and which are declining; what firm is taking on new clients; who's opening a new office. Also, expand your network-and don't overlook any one who might be of help (one person might know another who can help you)-including friends and relatives. By leaving no stone unturned, you'll be on your way to a rewarding job.


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