No matter how long or short a time you've been a paralegal, there are always many ways in which you can improve your career-even if you're perfectly happy with it just as it is! What better time to make a good thing better! Many people only give serious consideration to improving their careers
when they find they want or need something different. More money, more responsibility, a change of environment-any of these might prompt you to start working towards career improvement. But working towards improving your career should be an on-going responsibility you owe to yourself, just as doing a good job at work is part of your responsibility to your employer.
Career improvement takes thought, commitment and extra work. But it's worth it in terms of the additional satisfaction you can get from developing goals and attaining them. It's the difference between a job and a career!
Your first question about professional advancement is likely while it's easy to agree that you'd like professional advancement, it's hard to say exactly what it is. The concept of career advancement can be viewed in five areas: growth and diversity; compensation: increased responsibility; recognition; and better working conditions. Let's briefly discuss each. As we do, consider what career improvement means to you. What might we have left out? What other ideas do you have? Work through this section, decide what your professional advancement goals are, and then map out a strategy for accomplishing them.
Growth and Diversity
Growth for a paralegal means the acquisition of new technical skills
, and promotion to a more prestigious position. But it also means adding to your personal skills, dealing with clients or superiors, supervising other paralegals, learning to budget your time better and to discipline yourself. You can augment your personal skills by becoming more accurate at work, and learning to follow through on tasks. And you gain increased confidence as you learn-perhaps the most important personal skill of all.
Diversity means expanding your range of paralegal expertise, either by learning new specialties, or increasing your knowledge in a given area. A "general practitioner" paralegal might become more expert in the area of trust and estates, for example. Another paralegal, already specializing in pensions, may increase his or her knowledge by learning about ERISA regulations. Career growth and diversity also mean learning what your weaknesses are, by your own self examination or through feedback from someone you respect-and working to strengthen those areas. There's a lot more to career growth and diversification than simply garnering more money.
Of course, money is important-practically, and as a psychological boost and acknowledgement that your skills are valued. If salary is a prime objective for you, fine. Just don't let it be your only concern for professional advancement. And, in regard to compensation, don't forget other benefits besides money: medical and dental benefits, pension plans, tuition refunds, vacation time, profit sharing, etc. Added up, these "perks" can often amount to considerable benefit.
The paralegal who wants greater compensation has three options: stay where you are and ask for a raise; stay in the profession, but apply to other firms: leave paralegal work for another field. If you decide to leave your current job, your course of action is pretty clear: find the job that offers what you want. But assuming you'd like to continue where you are, let's see how you can increase your earnings.
First, have a salary goal in mind. Don't undersell yourself, but be certain it's realistic. Read ads and talk to paralegals in other firms to learn what the going rate is for someone with your experience. If you approach your supervisor with an outrageous request, it is sure to be denied. Once you've done your homework, approach someone at the firm whom you trust, and explain why you think you're worth the extra money. Mention your awareness of what paralegals are earning elsewhere, but more importantly stress your own achievements: work you've done without compensation: your higher- than-average billable hours; your many evenings of overtime. Keep in mind, however, that for some satisfaction and the likelihood of advancement can, in the long run, outweigh a heftier paycheck.
For many paralegals, greater responsibility is a prime professional objective. If that's the case with you, your first step is to do your homework. List what responsibilities you have now. Find out what additional duties paralegals in other firms handle. Assess your own qualifications. Is there work that lawyers at your firm do now-estate accounting or legal research, for example-that you think you can handle? Are there projects that your corporation or firm is involved in that you feel you could take on?
Using this information, draw up a proposal for increasing your responsibilities. Tell your supervisors that you are willing to follow it out on a trial basis, so that you can both assess your work without risk to them. Show how the tasks you have in mind can tie into your work experience and training. But even more important, show how they can benefit the attorneys in your firm or department. Remember, almost every employer would like to achieve three goals: a better work product: increased work capacity: higher billings. Convince your supervisor that increasing your responsibility can accomplish all three.
If you haven't specialized in a particular area of the law, consider this option. Either find someone at your firm who's willing to train you in a particular area, or investigate continuing education courses or paralegal/attorney seminars on your topic of interest. Having a specialty under your belt is a great means of increasing your responsibility at a firm. It's also a valuable asset if you decide to look for work elsewhere.
Desiring recognition for your accomplishments is a natural, vital part of career satisfaction. If you seek recognition you may find it within your firm or company, or beyond those corridors and in the paralegal field at large. Recognition- or the lack of it-is of vital importance.
If you want to gain recognition from the attorneys and supervisors at your firm, go ahead, "blow your own horn!" If you have expertise in an area of the law, advertise it a bit. Write up a job description that formalizes your duties and identifies your specialty. If you're expert in an area that the firm's involved in-a particular government regulation, for example-offer to monitor it in the press and give a written or oral report to management. Even if you have no real specialty, find a topic of importance to the firm that's been over looked. Research it, make it your specialty, and volunteer the information to your supervisor. Many attorneys write books or publish articles in journals. Find one who's working on an article that interests you. Volunteer to do some legwork for him or her, on your own time, without compensation. The attorney will remember your contribution.
You can also gain recognition outside of your office. Join your local paralegal association. Get involved, and perhaps become an officer. If your local area doesn't have one, start one (contact the NFPA for just how). Or, start a specialty section of your local association. Give lectures at paralegal meetings and conferences. Write articles about your area of expertise, or about issues in the paralegal field.
Better Working Conditions
One day you might realize, "If only I had a window, I'd be happier." Sometimes, things like office environment, location or overtime can make a big difference. Many little things add up. There are probably countless ways your working conditions could be improved.
Some of these may only come with a promotion or other recognition; others might be improved with a little effort on your part-because no one else really gave the matter much thought before.
If you improve working conditions for yourself and others around you, the work of your whole office might be a lot better. That's reason enough for you and your employer to work out a solution together.
It may be that you can't improve your working conditions where you are. You may want to look for another job
if all factors taken together could be better. Don't make a decision to leave lightly. Balance your working conditions against everything else you get from your current job and don't give up without trying for improvement.
Some Career Improvement Strategies
Mentors and Allies
You've decided what growth goals you'd like to achieve within your firm: a promotion, a raise, new responsibility- how can you realize them? Quite obviously, you can't walk right into a partnership meeting and demand them. One solution is to gain an ally or mentor to "go to bat" for you. For an ally, choose someone whom you trust and respect, who has influence within the firm and who is sympathetic to your interests or position. It's best if the individual already knows you through your work. But, you can remedy that by starting to work with your "mentor."
The secret to winning an ally is to be of help to your ally as you build up a relationship gradually. Show how the goals you want will be helpful to your ally, the firm or both. Allow your mentor to give you the benefit of his or her experience. If you phrase your goal in terms of a problem that you'd like his or her advice with, you'll get the best results. Everyone feels good and important if they've helped someone else; so will your ally if he's helped you come up with a solution to a problem facing the firm. Moreover, if your ally has participated in arriving at the solution, he or she will be energetic and positive about putting it into effect. You can even let your mentor take credit for some of the idea!
Your task in all of this will be to steer the discussion of the problem and its solution so that your goals are achieved. But be flexible! It also might help if you offer to write up a proposal. You'd be surprised how powerful something put into writing is!
Change Jobs and Increase Your Income
If you d like a sizable raise and perhaps additional responsibility to go along with it, you owe it to yourself-if you meet with delay or disappointment at your firm-to think about what else is available. In fact, we recommend that whether or not you're actively looking for a new job, you keep an eye out for what's happening in the marketplace. Who knows, you may find that most paralegals with your experience are higher paid. If so, you've got a good reason to ask for an increase right where you are. Similarly, you may find that other paralegals in your position have greater responsibility. If so, you may decide to stay where you are, or make the switch. One way to keep in tune with the marketplace is to watch the want ads in the papers and register with a paralegal employment counselor at a specialized agency.
By changing jobs you can usually minimally increase your income by $1000 per year. You can often negotiate more, to $2000, $3000, even up to $5000, if you go about the process correctly. To earn more money you'll have to locate the right type of position, present yourself effectively and negotiate well. Once you're an experienced paralegal, you should be careful about mailing out your resume unsolicited-it could get back to your employer. As a busy, hard-working paraprofessional, you might not be able to take the time really needed to conduct a full-scale search on your own. A personnel counselor can do this for you.
If your goal is to increase your income by $3000 or more, you will have to move into a new position with more responsibility or one which makes better use of your special skills. Moving from a senior litigation paralegal to a paralegal supervisor, for example, can net you such an increase. If you're a member of a paralegal association or know paralegals at different firms, talking to others will help too.
Once you know that an employer really wants you, then you'll be in the best position to bargain for the compensation you desire. But how can you find out what the prospective employer really thinks of you and what he's likely to offer you? Of course, the employer will not likely reveal such confidences to you, but may to a third party involved in the negotiation-your employment counselor. As a middleman in the negotiation, your counselor can also tell the employer about your counteroffer from your current employer, other job offers or what you're really worth or will move for-all to help you get the highest salary possible!
Becoming a Paralegal Specialist
A key to professional advancement for many paralegals- whether that means more responsibility, greater recognition, a higher salary, or all three-is to become a specialist. Most paralegals work in a few broad specialty areas: corporate, trusts and estates, ERISA/Pensions, real estate, patents, trademarks and litigation. But within these broad areas, there are a score of subspecialties. Paralegals work in such highly specialized areas as municipal bonds, securities, real estate syndication, fiduciary accounting, tender offers and takeovers, and federal agency practice (FTC, FDA, FCC, etc.).
Attorneys need paralegal specialists. As the law becomes more complex, and as experts must deal with technical issues and government regulations, lawyers need more help from qualified assistants. If an attorney has enough confidence to delegate responsibility to a paralegal-without having to constantly look over his or her shoulder-the attorney has more time for matters which entail legal judgment and expertise. How do you become a paralegal specialist? First of all, you may be a specialist already without knowing it. Review your regular and unusual duties. How specialized are they? If you need to improve your special skills, you have three alternatives: get on-the-job training, go to school or learn on your own.
Creating a New Position
One of the best ways to advance your career is to identify a need not being met (with your current employer or with a new firm), build a job description around that need and then sell the decision-maker on you and your solution.
This strategy is very similar to becoming a specialist and in fact most newly created positions require a specialized skill. If your firm has no paralegals and you're a legal secretary, create a paralegal position for yourself. If your firm has several paralegals but no supervisor, perhaps you'll be the new supervisor.
There are two basic ways to discover opportunities for creating a new position. First, determine what kinds of positions exist at other firms, corporations or organizations that are similar to your own. If the other company is a little larger than yours, that's great-especially if your own legal department is growing. Find out what positions these firms have that yours doesn't-recruitment coordinator, personnel manager, administrator, paralegal supervisor, complex litigation manager, etc.
The second way is to look at your own firm's work and to determine recent changes in legal practice as well. Is there a new and growing area? Could it benefit from the creation of a specialist position? In what areas is your firm adding lawyers to the staff?
In order to create your new position, use the mentor strategy we discussed earlier. Research the new position; show how it would benefit the firm and why you should be the one to create it. Also find out what additional skills, experience and training you'll need to handle the new position. Work with your mentor and write up a proposal. Then you will be on your way.
Career Opportunities for Paralegals within a Law Firm
Surprising as it may seem, there's probably a host of career advancement opportunities right in the firm where you work, or in others. The bigger the firm or the faster it's growing, the more opportunities there'll be. Aside from becoming a specialist in a particular area of paralegal practice, there are several general positions, common to most firms, to which paralegals can aspire. We'll discuss some of these positions below.
A good paralegal coordinator is the linchpin of an efficient paralegal staff. As the name implies, he or she has the responsibility of supervising the other paralegals at the firm: assigning work; monitoring costs; training new staff; deter mining efficiency and productivity; troubleshooting when things go wrong; and acting as a liaison between the attorneys and the paralegals. It's a critical job, and one often handled better by an experienced paralegal, who knows what paralegal work and litigation management entails, than by an attorney.
Most of the paralegal coordinators with whom we spoke were promoted to their current positions from within the firm. Usually they were hired as paralegals and gained their expertise by working on cases. Their firms expanded and took on more and larger cases, which required the hiring of more paralegals. But often, the attorneys realized that hiring more personnel alone couldn't increase productivity if the new staff wasn't well supervised. They saw the need for a paralegal coordinator, and the best choice was a paralegal already with the firm who knew about case management, was familiar with the law firm, and had the ability to supervise others. At many firms, the paralegal coordinator works with assistants: one assistant might be responsible for training, another for hiring. These assistant positions provide additional advancement opportunities.
Attorney recruiters, as the name implies, are responsible for recruiting and hiring new associates for the law firm. Typically, an attorney recruiter will coordinate the recruitment program for summer associates: contact law schools, arrange for interviews, plan the summer program and maintain the budgets, statistics and evaluations involved. Attorney recruiters help attract promising young lawyers to a firm. They disseminate information about the firm to law schools, schedule interviews, and introduce prospective associates to the office. Although the partners are responsible for the actual hiring, the attorney recruiter will do all the tasks that lead up to it. In addition, some recruiters perform personnel duties after a lawyer is hired. They assist in personnel and salary reviews; plan firm receptions, outings, and professional and social activities: and sometimes assist in outplacement and continuing education programs. It's a demanding, responsible position that requires organization, knowledge of the law firm, and the ability to work well with people.
Modern law firms often have extensive libraries that rival in size and scope those of many schools. To retrieve the in formation that they need, when they need it, law firms usually employ one or more law librarians.
Law librarians are responsible for overseeing the book and periodical collection of the law firm. Since law firm libraries usually include case law books, digests, legal texts, and reference books in the firm's areas of specialization, the librarian must be familiar with this material. In addition, he or she must know standard library procedures, like filing, ordering, and book classification systems. Although some law librarians have college or graduate degrees in library science that is not always essential. Often, people with good academic backgrounds and law firm experience are trained to be librarians on the job.
Computer Center Manager
Attorneys have always relied on casebooks, texts, and other reference material to research facts and legal precedents. In recent years, however, sophisticated law firms have added another research tool: the computer. As the heart of an in formation processing and retrieval system, the computer al lows attorneys to research the law by tying into electronic libraries of information, called data banks.
At some large law firms, a computer center manager is needed to monitor the operations of the system. In addition to overseeing information retrieval, he or she may be responsible for word processing-the computerized text editing and storage system-and telecommunications-the transmission of documents by electronic means. The man ager of a computer center should have law firm experience, as a secretary or paralegal, as well as knowledge of computer concepts, and data and word processing.
The administrative director is the chief supervisory officer in a law firm, responsible for every non-legal aspect of the law firm's operations: accounting, personnel, office management, purchasing. Usually, administrative directors are only present in large law firms. They report directly to the senior partners, and they sometimes have partnership status them selves. Obviously, this is a high-level, demanding job-and one that's attained after years of work. Paralegals do work their way up to administrative directors. The administrator of one of Washington, D.C.'s largest law firms was a returnee who started with the firm as a paralegal after raising a family. Usually, though, administrators already have a good back ground in finance, often earning an MBA degree along the way, and they have experience as officer managers.
In addition, corporate paralegals have a big advantage over their counterparts in private law firms. If they decide to move out of paralegal work, there's the possibility of a transfer to another department of the corporation. Again, it's a question of assessing your career goals, and seeing what opportunities exist. A paralegal, for example, might work in the legal department of a bank or a brokerage house. If openings or trainee positions arise in a department other than the legal department, in a financial area, for example, he or she might have a chance for lateral transfer. Finally, there's also the possibility of changing jobs to work for a law firm, although paralegals often do the opposite, moving from law firms to corporate legal departments.
Advancement Opportunities for Paralegals In Government
Many large government agencies are similar to law firms and corporate legal departments-there are positions as administrators, managers, librarians, litigation support consultants, and so on.
Because so much of government is concerned with legal issues, paralegals can find a multitude of advancement opportunities in federal, state and local governments. A paralegal who's gained expertise in a specialty-real estate, or securities, for example-could look for a position in the government agency that handles that kind of work. If you don't know which agencies to try, check your library for the federal, state and local government directories. These helpful guides list all the departments of government, describe their functions, and give the names and addresses of the people in charge.
Government paralegals might also look for work as assistants to politicians. Almost everyone in political life, from senators to city councilmen and -women, have assistants to help them with their duties-from researching legislation to answering phone calls from constituents. If you're active in a political party, or have campaigned for someone, these might especially be opportunities for you to explore.