You must also be aware of (and wary of) firm politics when you interact with your friend or contact. A barrier or labyrinth exists at the front door of a law office. The back door, or the path of networking, does not have the same barricade to the decision makers. Often, due to networking, you are talking to decision makers very early in the process.
Below, we will discuss some of the advantages, and pitfalls, of networking within a small or midsize firm.
Honor the organizational structure of the firm. If networking is the source of jobs that are hard to find but easier to get, then part of the work you must do when you network is to learn the political terrain of the firm and understand its organizational structure as you begin networking.
Suppose you have interviewed with a young partner at a small firm. She seems to like you and wants you to interview with others. You may have an ally in this partner, but you still have to go through the formal interview process. It would be quite helpful to write to the legal administrator/office manager early on in the process, so that if the partner mentions your name in a meeting or in passing the administrator will know who you are. Simply be ready to walk through each step of the process, mindful that each person with whom you speak has an important role to play in your hiring. Many people have used a networking contact profitably and then interviewed with an "administrator" who disqualified them. Often it is because proper "respect" for the administrator was not shown in the process. When a person is given charge of the hiring process, it is all-important for you--the approaching applicant--to address that interview with as much consideration as you would a partner's interview.
The thank you note is an extremely effective strategy that will hold you in good stead when you interview with everyone in the interviewing process. They can be short and friendly:
Dear Ms. Jones:
Thanks for the time you spent with me yesterday. I enjoyed talking to you about your practice and feel I could be an effective part of your team.
Dear Mr. Smith:
Thanks for the interview on Wednesday. I hope we can work together in the near future. I look forward to your high-energy office atmosphere.
Mail a little Hallmark card to everyone with whom you interview. The thank you note falls under the category of "Highly recommended, but highly neglected”. It can act as an "extra salute" to someone, or a "patch" on an area you might have neglected, or a "restatement" of enthusiasm and interest you might have underplayed. In any case, in this context it helps you remember the political terrain upon which you are treading. It is important to know this terrain, since you might be walking it for years after you are hired.
Each firm is different
Just knowing that firm politics may have an impact on your hiring is not enough. You should do as much as you can at whatever stage you find yourself to discover as much as you can about the firm you are pursuing. If the firm is small and has been small for years, it might have a legal administrator/manager who is a spouse of one of the partners. It might have a group of partners who have been together for years and only hire associates to get them started, offering little chance of partnership. This kind of firm could be good for paralegal utilization and could have a very influential manager. Other configurations of firms might have different meanings, but hopefully all of your information goes to one goal: Filling in an incomplete picture so you can make intelligent moves toward your ultimate hiring.
Small firms have definite personalities. Life-style, politics, and socio economics could fall into very clear patterns. A senior partner/owner in a small firm has a much more powerful impact on the personality and atmosphere of a place than one in a large firm. The impact of personality and style is very strong in a small setting. Questions you can ask that will help you learn quickly would be:
- Is this a new firm or an older firm?
- Is the firm's partnership made up of younger, middle-aged, or older individuals?
- Do life-style and politics seem to be very important to this firm?
- What is the make-up of the firm and staff (culture, gender, age, etc.)?
- What do their practice area and client picture tell me about the firm and how to become a part of it?
- Where is this firm located? What does that tell me? Is this a suburban, urban, or rural firm? How will those factors affect the political terrain, the firm personality, and the attitude toward paralegals?
- Once I have a picture of this firm and get an idea of how they utilize their paralegals, what will I emphasize in my letters, networking, telephoning, and interviewing?
The paralegal role in small and midsize firms: While sole practitioners utilize paralegals in the way they feel they ''have to in order to keep their practice going," the small and midsized firms can differ radically from each other, based upon attorney attitudes, professional habits, practice area, and the attorney/paralegal ratio.
Among the attorneys you may encounter:
- Those who acknowledge that paralegals are out there and doing something special
- Those who believe paralegals are "glorified secretaries"
- Those who use paralegals for all office-support functions
- Those who hold paralegals in high esteem and are mindful of the workload and kind of work paralegals do
- Those who believe in the profitability of paralegals and keep their attorney/paralegal ratio at such a level as to put much of the weight of their practice on the paralegal function
- Those who attempt to keep their valued paralegals as "virtual partners" by rewarding them with a full array of benefits, bonuses, and high wages As the paralegal profession grows and makes gains in nontraditional and traditional areas alike, there is a gradual lessening of old, entrenched attitudes and an increasing growth of enlightened attitudes. Still, be forewarned that in your experience you can find every attitude toward paralegals as you go through your career.
The small and midsize firm does not generally have the fixed corporate policies of large firms. It is here that you, as a future paralegal, will discover the widest range of existing attitudes and philosophies about paralegal roles. One firm will value its paralegals because they are heavily used in client contact, others use their paralegals in case management. Still others use their paralegals in a much broader way, treating them not unlike paralegals in a sole proprietorship. In any case, the challenge is to understand as early as possible how paralegals are utilized so that you can adjust your presentation to fit the need.
Summary: Issues to consider when facing a small firm understand the organizational structure, particularly:
- The contact person whom you must discover and communicate with
- The possibility of networking with an associate, partner, or other paralegal in the office
- The usefulness of thank you notes, cover letters, and follow-up phone calls
Learn the individual terrain of the particular firm you are pursuing and its specific personality by:
- Asking meaningful and specific questions about the firm
- Understanding how paralegal utilization varies in these firms depending on their personality and style and degree of sophistication, and endeavor to fit that particular mold
The large law firm
The large firm varies by number and city and region. Suffice it to say that "large firm" probably has a specific bottom number of attorneys, like 50 in a medium-sized city, or 100 to 200 or more in a larger city. A large firm, from a placement and job hunting point of view, is one that is the largest in a given area. In stricter terms, it is a firm with a broad base of clients; it has practice areas with teams of partners, attorneys, and paralegals who often work in what are called "pods" (to use a newer term); it is highly structured and has broad corporate and personnel policies. Often, they employ a Human Resources professional and have "Hiring Commit tees" with designated attorneys as "chairman." These responsibilities change over the years as people rotate in and out of different functions.
Large firms are very much like modem corporations and differ from the sole practitioner and smaller firm in kind. Yes, they practice law, but in almost every other way they differ as places of employment.
The Paralegal in a Large Firm
In a large firm most paralegals will have their own offices. This is a benefit indeed. Paralegal work in a large firm is highly delineated and compartmentalized. Some do "case management," which for many paralegals is very satisfying and rewarding. Others, after they reach large firms, long for the days when they had the greater independence and variety of the smaller setting.
A "bankruptcy paralegal" in a large firm might be an expert on Dbase or Lotus, and manage cases with very large numbers of documents. The debtor bankruptcy practice of a sole proprietor bears little resemblance to this. A real estate paralegal in a large firm might be handling scores of foreclosures or immense commercial transactions-work that can be fraught with pressure and tension, providing the stimulation that many enjoy in the world of paralegal practice.
The stakes are higher in a large firm, or at least they seem so. The paralegal has a case load to manage. Perhaps he or she will be interfacing with two or three different specialty areas. Some in large firms work only with a single team or practice area.
The challenge in a large firm is to be "busy, but not too busy." There is only so much control you have over your own life, but the key lies largely in diplomacy and the ability to be efficient. At times you can say "No" to work if you are overloaded. Trying to gauge work level is the continual mission in a large law firm:
- How busy am I right now?
- How busy will I stay at this current level?
- If a case settles, will I have enough work?
- Maybe I should say "yes" to all the new work.
- Maybe I should always say "yes" to all the work offered me.
- How can I get into other practice areas in the firm?
- Can I meet my monthly billing requirements every month this year? Are layoffs a possibility?
Many large firms only hire paralegals with experience. An entry paralegal is often not considered because the large firm wants to see that you have been trained as a paralegal and know enough about the legal world and its standards to survive and succeed in a professional setting such as theirs. Occasionally, however, large firms will specifically advertise for recently graduated paralegals to work on large cases requiring litigation support assistance. These positions are often titled "Case Assistant," "File Clerk," "Document Clerk," etc. In these circumstances, apply if you are prepared to take a lower salary but want the chance to get established with a "name" firm.
How does an entry paralegal get into a large firm? He or she enters a large firm through network, or
through a friend, or the relative of a firm member, or the friend of a friend, or relative of an associate. Sometimes large firms go through agencies so that they do not have to interview until the end of the process. One entry paralegal got on with a large firm through a skiing club.
The myth that large firms have the best pay often draws paralegals to large firms. Only then do they discover that large firms did not get large by throwing money around. They discover that pay policies are more structured and that raises are predictable and fixed (within a range). They discover that they will be paid well the longer they remain with the large firm, but that a large firm can be tough to negotiate with when discussing initial employment. The large law firm offers its reputation, good benefits, relative security, and a comfortable environment in which to labor.
The large firm can be impersonal, and at times the paralegal can feel anonymous. The friendliness and team spirit of a smaller entity is just not there. The large firm should be viewed as a goal that many reach, but it should also be seen as a goal that might dash expectations. Large firms are simply like everything else we have been covering--a place in which there is benefit and risk, good and bad. The more you know and discover before making a decision, and the sharper your eyes are as you proceed through your career, the better off you will be.