When I decided to become a paralegal 26 years ago, I wish I had known more about the job. I’m not sure it would have changed my decision but it may have influenced my career path. I chose to become a paralegal because I was very young, about to get married, and needed a job that met my narrow criteria for a long-term job:
- No physical labor and indoors
- Earn more than minimum wage
- Professional dress
- Must have holidays and weekends off
- A 9-to-5 job (preferably not working nights)
Wow, three out of six – not too bad. I’ll let you guess which three actually turned out to be true.
Becoming a paralegal was one of the best decisions I made because I’ve loved my career in the legal field. While there are definitely some things that I don’t enjoy, there are far more things I do enjoy about my job. That said, over the years I’ve realized that there are some things I wish I had known, and now wish others knew, about paralegal work.
Let’s dispel some paralegal career myths:
One: We can give legal advice.
I can’t tell you how many times clients, friends, family members, and even complete strangers have said, “I know you can’t give me advice but just tell me what you think.” If I tell you what I think about a legal question, I’m giving you legal advice. While I may know the answer to your legal question, I didn’t attend law school or pass the bar and I don’t have a license to practice law. It would be not only wrong for me to give you legal advice, but illegal.
Two: We know about every area of law.
This is closely related to Number 1, but still worth mentioning. Many assume that if you’re a paralegal, you’ll know about a diversity of laws. I’m a bankruptcy paralegal – I know bankruptcy backwards, forwards, and sideways. But I know nothing about criminal defense or other specialties that don’t fall in my area of expertise.
Three: We hate working for attorneys.
Like others, I’ve worked for great and not so great attorneys. There are many more myths about attorneys than there are about paralegals. Yes, some attorneys can be demanding, difficult, and operate in panic mode, but some are the most wonderful bosses you could ask for. I try to not let a really bad day define me and apply the same concept to others.
Four: We earn huge salaries.
I began my career earning slightly more than minimum wage and it goes without saying that most paralegals typically don’t earn as much as attorneys. If you’re curious about your future earning potential, you can research paralegal salaries here. I can confirm that these averages are sometimes inflated by a small percentage of paralegals who earn substantially more than the majority – they are the outliers. I’ve reached the top of the median curve which took years of hard work and experience to achieve.
Five: We have 9-to-5 jobs.
This was one of my requirements for a career that fell short of my goal. I guess it really does depend on the type of law and the law firm. There have been many nights and weekends where I’ve had to work to meet a deadline or keep a client from losing their home because they waited until the last minute to file a bankruptcy case to stop a foreclosure sale.
Six: We carry briefcases, wear suits, and go to court.
This was one idea that the dean of my paralegal school drilled into our heads – he could not have been more wrong. Again, there are many paralegals who are, for all intents and purposes, “para-lawyers.” (I can’t take credit for that term – a client called me that for years). In my 26 years of being a paralegal, I wore a suit, carried a briefcase, and went to trial with my attorney less than a dozen times. Again, it largely depends on the area of law and the law firm but just because you’re a paralegal doesn’t mean you’ll be going to court with your attorney on a regular basis.
Seven: We only perform legal research, draft pleadings, and interview witnesses.
Wrong. Some days I was the office manager, receptionist, secretary, mail clerk, and copy person. I was also the IT, accounting, customer service, and moving person. Great paralegals will do whatever it takes to get the job done, make their attorney look good, protect the client’s best interest, and help the law firm operate efficiently and effectively.
Eight: We don’t experience stress.
The legal field is high-pressure, high-stakes, and deadline-driven. You must find a way to manage stress that allows you to forge ahead with your projects and goals. The client trusts the attorney to protect their best interests and the attorney is depending on the paralegal to do what is necessary to make that possible.
Nine: We don’t need a four-year degree to advance our careers.
You don’t need a four-year degree to have a successful paralegal career but it does help you to get jobs in larger firms, earn a higher salary, and advance quicker.
Ten: We can all be like Erin Brockovich!
No, there is only one Erin Brockovich. There could be a paralegal out there who has earned a significant amount of money with limited legal training and no paralegal degree but I have yet to meet one. Be you and figure out how to excel as a paralegal in a way that fits your needs, goals, and interests.
The bottom line is that your paralegal career is going to be whatever you make it – you’re in control. As with any job, being a paralegal has its good days and bad, but overall I’ve found it to be a very rewarding career choice.
Now it’s your turn. What are some myths you want to dispel about being a paralegal?