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Understanding the Law Firm and Your Position There

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Finding the Decision Makers in Law Firms and Corporations

It is crucial in seeking your first paralegal job that you determine who makes the hiring decisions in the law firm or corporation. This also includes finding out what is the accepted process of interviewing and hiring. In non legal work, being referred to a personnel or human resources department may sound a death knell to your job aspirations: successful applicants often find that going directly to the person making the hiring decision is most productive.


However, the direct approach may not be appropriate in seeking a paralegal job. Law firms and corporate counsels' offices are often very formal, and this means following established procedures. While it will ultimately be necessary to meet with the hiring authority, it may be inappropriate to seek to do so at first. You initially need to determine the first person in a firm or corporation you need to contact about employment. Once that contact is made, you can determine through questioning who makes the final decision. With that knowledge, you will have a better understanding of who you're meeting and why, and you can modulate your behavior accordingly. You may, for instance, seek to establish a personal rapport while interviewing with an associate who may later be your boss. For the firm's managing partner, who is the ultimate hiring authority in a number of firms, you may want to be more formal.

Law Firm Structures

Law firms and corporations are structured quite differently. Most large firms have a managing partner or management committee made up of the senior partners who are responsible for managing the firm. The hiring authority could be any one of the following persons: partner, associate, director of administration, office manager, recruiting coordinator, paralegal manager or paralegal.

Usually there is an office administrator, sometimes called the director of administration (DOA) or the office manager. This person is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the firm, from overseeing its financial organization to figuring out what kind of computer system to purchase. Sometimes this person is in charge of hiring paralegals, and you may need to meet with the administrator first. Then again, there may be a personnel department that handles this initially, and then reports to the administrator.

Some firms are structured so that the paralegals are managed by a paralegal supervisor (also called a legal assistant manager in some firms). All managers are good sources of information about the firm's structure, work flow and hiring process. Smaller firms usually have one office manager who may be the first contact in the hiring process. Call the firm initially and ask the receptionist who is the appropriate person to contact about employment. Once that contact is made, you can begin gathering the additional information you need about the firm.

Many large firms (over fifty attorneys) have a formal, structured paralegal department (sometimes called "program"), headed by a paralegal manager or coordinator. Paralegal managers have become such important figures in the paralegal world that they have founded the Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA) with chapters around the nation.
Some large firms have also created a legal assistant career ladder frequently called the "paralegal program" that you can climb as you gain position. Legal assistant levels I, II and III may exist, all with different levels of pay and degrees of responsibility. Some firms will also utilize case clerks, document clerks or paralegal assistants who also fall within the program.

These clerks are below the paralegal position. It's a great way for those of you without a certificate to enter the field and work your way up the ladder. At some point, however, you may be required to obtain a certificate or take certain courses in order to be promoted.

There is usually a paralegal manager at the head of this configuration. This person can be a great source of information about the opportunities available at the firm, and because most managers are former legal assistants themselves, can also be good sources of informational interviews.

HOT TIP: Even if you are to be interviewed by the lawyer you will be working with, it is a good idea to contact the paralegal manager both to establish rapport and to gather information about the role of paralegals in that firm.

Some larger firms do not, as yet, have formal legal assistant programs. A legal assistant with five years of experience may have the same rank as a new person. All legal assistants are expected to report directly to attorneys, and there are no structured levels. However, experienced legal assistants at these firms have found their specific niche or specialization and enjoy status, tenure and great salaries.

Most small law firms do not have a structured paralegal program. Legal assistants are hired to work with a particular attorney who is generally overloaded. How you get along with this person is crucial to your happiness and success on the job. Be sure to talk at length with this lawyer about what is expected of you.

Corporate Law Department Structures

If you accept a position with a corporation, you will most likely be working in a legal department headed by the general counsel. You may answer directly to the assistant general counsel or a paralegal administrator. Ask about this structure and try to meet these people during the interviewing process.

In a law firm, each partner is fairly autonomous. You may answer to partner X, but have nothing to do with partner Y. In a corporate legal department, the general counsel is the boss.

Corporations can offer opportunities for career growth that are not always found in law firms. Often employees at corporations enroll in a paralegal training program—taking either a full program or just one or two courses and then use this knowledge, coupled with their existing knowledge of the company's business, to jump into the general counsel's office. Many make this move because they believe the work will be more rewarding and interesting.

After working as a paralegal in a general counsel's office, many legal assistants have been promoted to other areas of the company where their knowledge is a specific benefit. Corporate paralegals may aspire to administrative supervisory positions, marketing management positions, or computer information management positions (sometimes referred to as MIS for manager, information systems).

HOT TIP: If you are seeking a vertical climb up the corporate ladder through the paralegal position, be sure to find out how many vice presidents in the corporation came from the legal department. If that department has been ignored, then this may not be the place for you.

Organizational Charts Tell You Where You Fit

What follows are typical organizational charts of various-sized law firms and legal departments of corporations. As you contemplate working at a specific firm or company, try to gain an understanding of its organizational structure so you will understand how you would fit in. In a typical small firm, for example, you may be working with an associate you like very much, but have to report to an office manager who puts you off. Think twice before taking a job with that kind of structure, because you may be headed for friction you could avoid.

Where Can You Find Jobs?

In Private Law Firms

Wherever there's an attorney, there will usually be a need for a paralegal. The greatest employers of paralegals are large law firms (50 or more attorneys), but many small (1 to 15 attorneys) and mid-size firms (15 to 50 attorneys), are realizing the benefits of paralegals and are hiring more people to fill these positions.

With Corporate Legal Departments

An increasing number of corporations are using paralegals whether or not they have in-house legal departments. An in-house legal department is usually a separate department made up of attorneys and requisite staff within the company. They handle the corporation's legal work and coordinate with outside counsel. If a corporation does not have an in-house legal department, a paralegal may be hired to act as the liaison between the corporation and outside counsel.

Virtually every industry that uses corporate counsel employs paralegals today. Among them are companies specializing in health care, oil and gas, entertainment, financial services, accountancy services, computer technology, print and electronic media, utilities, transportation, manufacturing, publishing, food production and food services, software development, and construction, just to mention a few. Many state and local bar associations and nonprofit organizations—including The United Way, American Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, Catholic Charities, and American Civil Liberties Union—use paralegals as well. There are many other nontraditional organizations utilizing paralegals.

If you want to work as a paralegal in the corporate world, it is a good idea to seek a position in an industry that interests you as well. This is important because the work will certainly interest you more, and because you could use your paralegal job as a stepping stone into other aspects of the business.

In Federal, State and Local Government Agencies

Government agencies employ paralegals in many different areas. At the state level, positions can be found with the courts or the state's Attorney General's office, or within the legislature, either as a state employee or a member of a legislator's staff. Lobbying groups also employ paralegals in large numbers.

Local governments usually employ significant numbers of legal assistants. For paralegals interested in a criminal law specialty, district attorneys' and public defenders' offices offer good chances for employment. City governmental agencies like the city attorney's office, frequently hire paralegals, especially for areas like housing and job discrimination.


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