Begin by assessing your current job skills. What have you done in the past that would be valuable to future employers? Do you have office skills? Have you been responsible for a budget? Have you had experience in managing or training others? Have you been responsible for planning activities? Have you been in positions requiring others to depend on you? Have you received any recognition or been promoted because of what you have accomplished? Do you speak any languages other than English? Have you traveled extensively? Do you have expertise in any particular field or do you have a hobby that requires special skills?
In doing this assessment include volunteer work, school activities, and parental responsibilities. Include anything you have done that demonstrates your ability to show initiative and be responsible, timely, dependable, competent, and creative. Remember that everyone has to get that first job in the legal field. Most employers do not expect everyone they hire to have years of legal experience. But you will have to convince them you have the potential to be an employee they can rely on to perform every task to the best of your ability, to ask questions when you do not understand, to take directions, to be punctual, to be self-reliant and thorough, and to take criticism graciously.
Once you have assessed your current bank of skills, have a paralegal instructor, someone employed in the legal field, or a college career counselor, ask them for an evaluation. Ask this individual to assess your strengths and weaknesses and recommend actions you might take to remedy any deficiencies. If, for example, your computer skills need improvement, you should certainly take classes now to become proficient. Almost all paralegals work on the computer daily, so most law firms will not even consider your application if you do not have basic skills. By the same token, consider expanding whatever computer skills you currently have. Even those attorneys who are marginally computer literate themselves are acutely aware of the value that computers bring to the legal process and actively recruit paralegals who can perform essential computer tasks.
Use the following questions to help you assess your current computer skills.
Can you type? How many words per minute?
Are you proficient in using a computer keyboard?
Are you proficient with a word processor? If so, which one and which version?
Are you accustomed to using a Macintosh or a PC?
With what operating system are you most familiar?
Do you know how to use a scanner?
Are you familiar with any optical character recognition (OCR) programs? If so, which ones?
Can you create a table of cases with your word processor?
Are you familiar with the search and replace functions?
Are you familiar with any of the following software programs?
If not, are you familiar with any other timekeeping, document management, database management, spreadsheet, or accounting programs?
Communication skills are also essential in the legal arena. If your written or oral communication skills are somewhat shaky, use the time you are in school to rebuild or expand these skills. Paralegals with excellent writing skills invariably progress faster and further than those with marginal skills. Paralegals that are verbally articulate almost always stand out in the minds of their supervising attorneys, especially because many attorneys have carefully polished their own verbal skills. Instead of avoiding classes that require writing, verbal presentations, and independent thinking, seek them out.
Finally, if you have not had any experience working in an office setting, consider taking business classes that teach the basic elements of telephone etiquette and professionalism. Knowing how to function in a business environment is not an innate skill and must be acquired through training or experience. Once you have reviewed your skills and visited with an advisor, prepare a resume and date it each semester. This will give you a baseline from which to expand your skills.
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