Many things have changed in the last 25 years (that number is HUGE and difficult to say, much less believe) but one thing seems to be the same: attorneys only want to hire paralegals with experience. I remember all too well my first paralegal job search after graduating. I thought I was an excellent candidate. I had a 4.0 GPA, was at the top of my class, had letters of recommendation from my professors, and my cover letter and resume were perfect (at least according to the resume books I researched). After numerous interviews, I learned that I was missing the one critical element that would get me hired — experience.
The Paralegal Paradox
When I was in paralegal school in the dark ages, the administration lectured to us about how we were entering the professional world of lawyers. We would be carrying briefcases, performing legal research, drafting appellate briefs, investigating cases, and assisting the attorney at trial. They made it sound like we were going to be “mini-me’s” of our attorney. While one in one hundred graduating paralegals may eventually have this type of paralegal job, the rest of us have paralegal jobs that are very different from those described in the school catalog and its rhetoric.
As with any profession, the types of jobs open to paralegals are as varied as the types of law that we work with in the legal field. As one particularly grumpy professor once said, “Paralegals are just glorified secretaries with a degree so I have to pay them more money.” Of course, this attorney had no clue how to use his paralegal to her fullest potential. He simply wanted a paralegal so he could bill her time to the client for performing secretarial work at a higher rate.
Other paralegals manage tasks that would be categorized as somewhere between a secretary and a paralegal. They’re required to perform their own secretarial duties (and tasks for the attorney), but they’re also required to perform paralegal tasks such as research, drafting, investigation, and trial support. The types of duties a paralegal must perform will depend greatly on the attorney supervising the paralegal and the field of law in which the paralegal has chosen to work.
Unfortunately, regardless of what role a paralegal plays within a law firm, most attorneys only want to hire paralegals who have previous experience in the work force. They remember law school – it was great for teaching them about the law but did very little about teaching them how to practice law. This translates to some paralegals schools – they do a great job teaching the paralegal about law but very little to prepare them to work in a real law firm. This is the main reason attorneys prefer to hire paralegals with some “real world” experience. And it creates a huge problem for paralegals ready and willing to enter the work force – they must find a way to get their foot in the door to prove how valuable they can be to the firm.
Times Are Changing
Paralegal schools are beginning to make changes that help paralegal graduates find their first job. Schools are offering additional courses that make graduates more attractive to potential employers as well as adding internship requirements so graduates will have some “real world” experience upon graduation. An interview with Madonna University paralegal professor, Mary Meinzinger Urisko, J.D., on the The Paralegal Voice outlines some of these changes as well as some other ways the school is helping graduates find a job (start at 19:40 in the podcast). They include:
- Creating a portfolio of your work from each class (your best deposition summary, legal memo, or complaint) and bring it with you to the job interview
- Including a list of competencies at the top of your resume
- Completing an internship while in school (for example, volunteer in Legal Aid clinics or a do a clerkship in the courts system)
Other ways to find a paralegal job with a lack of experience
It’s not hopeless! I found a job with no legal experience and so can you. In fact, you have far more advantages today because the education you receive is superior in many ways to the program I completed over 25 years ago. However, if you’re having difficulty finding your first paralegal job after graduating with a paralegal degree, below are a few tips that can help you land the job of your dreams.
The Best Piece of Advice
In my opinion, this is the best advice I can give any paralegal without experience looking for a job, “Take any position you can with a reputable law firm to get your foot in the door!” I turned down several offers because the salary was low and the job was more secretarial than paralegal. It was not until I swallowed a bit of my ego and pride and accepted an entry-level position earning a salary far less than my school adviser promised that I really learned how to work in a law firm. I learned more from those seven years than I learned in paralegal school. When I chose to search for another job, I found the job I wanted, the salary I deserved (and worked hard for!), and was soon was promoted to office manager. The experience I gained from my entry-level position was priceless. Once I got my foot in the door, I was able to slowly work my way up in that law firm so that when I was ready to leave, I had the experience I needed to land my dream job.
If you’re having trouble finding your first paralegal job, expand your job search to include legal assistants, legal secretaries, receptionists, runner, etc. When you make it inside the law firm, read everything you handle, when you’re filing, glance through the files, listen to all conversations around you, and read the trial exhibits, briefs, orders and other documents you’re asked to copy, file, or carry from one place to another. Ask questions whenever you have the opportunity to do so. Your new best friends should be the receptionist, secretary, and legal assistant. They know everything that goes on in the law firm and, if they have years of experience, are often performing paralegal duties without the title. One last tip, be the consummate professional regardless of the role you’re in – that means when it comes to dress and more importantly, personal conduct.
More Helpful Tips
I surveyed my friends and included the “tried and true” tips that helped them land their first paralegal job.
- Immediately sit for a certification exam
- Read up – check out paralegal blogs like The Paralegal Society and The Estrin Report and read books specialized for you
- Join your local, state, and national paralegal associations
- Network, network, and then network some more
- Create profiles on professional websites such as LinkedIn (some excellent tips for that here) and CareerBuilder
- Find a mentor
- Accept an internship to gain experience
- Take a course to learn better interview and resume skills
- Take a CLE in the area of law you love and network with the attorneys present (my top tips to stay sharp and marketable)
Pipe up and tell us how you landed your first paralegal job.