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Matching Job Expectations to Job Realities for a Paralegal

published February 19, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 65 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind. Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.)

You must know what harbor you are making for to find employment as a paralegal. The first challenge is to know what winds will take you to what jobs.


Paralegals must understand what it is they will be working at and what they will be doing after they are hired. Those engaged in a paralegal job hunt must master a special language that is derived from the various modes of legal employment you will encounter during your search. Often, those who fail to achieve employment have failed to understand the language of the paralegal job descriptions that were discussed in their interviews.

Assumptions, Expectations, Apprehensions and Misinformation

Nothing dims the prospect of success like going into a new job with a head full of bad information, wishful thinking, questionable assumptions and unrealistic expectations. You may have assumptions and expectations that are based upon any number of sources, all of which could contain a mix of accuracy and inaccuracy. In describing practice areas and jobs, we will discuss how much time is spent on word processing, in public contact, in "the back room" handling involved research projects or large litigation support tasks, or on the phone.

It is important to know not only what legal activity you will be working on, but also how your time will be divided. Those who become working paralegals do not:
 
First find things about your prospective employer

Put your assumptions "on hold" until you find out about the basics of the prospective firm. Ask whether the firm:
 
  • Practices plaintiffs' practice or defense?
  • Is large or small?
  • Is general or specialized?
  • Is an employer of a large number of paralegals or a small number?
  • Is sophisticated in its use of paralegals or basic?
  • Is a heavy user of computers or computer-phobic?
  • Is one that grants paralegals public contact or little public contact?
  • Is one that considers paralegals part of the professional staff or the nonprofessional staff?

Query, Query, Query

I do not intend to offer an exhaustive source of all paralegal job descriptions, but instead to give you an understanding of the extent to how much different paralegal jobs will vary. This will hopefully raise your consciousness during the job search process so that you will "query, query, query." Keep your antennae out for key points about the particular working world you are trying to join.

The World of the Working Paralegal

Understand the job description for which you are applying and be sure the job meets your expectations.

For example, some paralegals want (and even crave) client contact. Others become paralegals so they do not have to deal with clients at all. One paralegal job may emphasize client contact and the other may virtually forbid it. It depends on the attitude of the boss, the community in which you live, the practice area, and whether the job involves the defendant or the plaintiff. (Remember, this is just a particular example that points up the need for you to use in your quest for employment.) Know what you are likely to get when you go hunting for it. Be sure to ask all you can about it before accepting it. And then once you have accepted a job, find out even more about it, and then fully embrace the job as it is given to you.

The Real World of the Paralegal

Before describing specific practice areas and focusing on paralegal duties within those practice areas, a look at the "real world" picture would be appropriate. Most paralegals are multiple or (general) practice area paralegals for two reasons:

1. Many law firms start out with generalist practices and grow to become specialists. Thus they need paralegals who can help in different areas.

2. Many specialist paralegals have grown into those categories after being exposed to a wide range of practice areas.

The fact that many paralegals are generalists goes straight to job search issues:
 
  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Willingness to handle differing tasks in the same day
  • Able to move skillfully and enthusiastically from basic to complex, team to individual tasks
  • Enthusiasm for new assignments
  • Willingness to develop new skills
  • Take on the unknown with a sense of adventure; embrace the new
  • Always ready to learn new software, research a new topic, delve into a new practice area; in short, do what's needed, even if it has not been handled before

Be interested in the employer's stated practice areas. Be enthusiastic about potential new assignments. The natural evolution of practice areas and firm development will tend to make you a multiple practice-area paralegal.

In a five-year paralegal career, I handled many practice areas. In my first job, which lasted one year, I was hired to handle a basic plaintiff's bankruptcy practice, which grew into three other practice areas.

I left for a substantial pay increase to Job #2. At the second firm, the firm started with one paralegal (myself) and in a two-and-one-half year period grew to three additional attorneys and five more paralegals. The number of practice areas demonstrate the firm's rapid expansion.

Job #2

Original Role Products Liability/Personal Injury Paralegal

(Asbestos cases)

Actual Role Products Liability/Personal Injury Paralegal, Mechanic's Lien Foreclosure Paralegal, Domestic Paralegal, Criminal Defense Paralegal, Bankruptcy Paralegal (Creditor), Lender Liability Paralegal, Litigation Paralegal

This firm's partnership broke up, and I went on to a large law firm in Job #3. In this position, I was brought on to handle one large litigation case involving tens of thousands of documents. When that case was settled I went on to handle other cases in various practice areas.

Job #3

Original Role Litigation Support Paralegal

Actual Role Litigation Support Paralegal, Lender Liability Paralegal, Commercial Paralegal, Intellectual Properties Paralegal, Personal Injury/Insurance Defense Paralegal This brief outline of my paralegal career is very representative of the way law firms work. A paralegal is "on board" and, like a ship at sea, all hands contribute to the whole effort. It is not generally in a paralegal's self-interest to refuse work because of one's classification, even though in larger firms there is a "division of labor," and specialist paralegals are usually busy at their special practice, be it bankruptcy, foreclosures, * litigation, corporate law, etc. Before specific paralegal duties are outlined, you must understand that any given paralegal may do one, two, three, four, or more of these job descriptions in any given year or in any given stay at a particular law firm or over the course of a career. It is a rare person indeed who is hired to do one particular job and then continues in that specialty area over a number of years.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

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