When I was in paralegal school, the teachers and the dean gave the impression that when we graduated we would all be carrying briefcases, working in a high-rise building, wearing suits, going to court and have our own assistant to do our filing and typing. Of course, we also would be earning a lot of money. However, none of this is true when you first graduate paralegal school. Just as with any profession, unless you are related to the person whose name is on the front door or at the top of the letterhead, you will have to pay your dues just like anyone else.
Experience counts and that is just not something that can be taught in a classroom. Attorneys are searching for paralegals who possess real world experience because those are the paralegals who are able to do whatever it takes to get the job done. The reason — because the paralegal spent time paying her dues and doing grunt work to learn about the legal field from the ground up.
Attorneys are only as good as their support staff because many, while not all, attorneys have no clue how many copies must be filed with an original document or what the court requires on a motion cover sheet in order to file a motion. Good attorneys know the law and how to argue the law and great attorneys also know how to hire support staff who are efficient, knowledgeable and quick on their feet.
So, how does a paralegal pay her dues, climb the latter of success and become the Erin Brockovich of the 21st century? He or she throws away the image that paralegal schools give prospective students to encourage them to enroll in classes for a more realistic view of the paralegal profession.
12 Things Every Paralegal Should Know Before Graduating from Paralegal School
1. You will not have a secretary.
If you go to work in a HUGE firm, you may have the luxury of having a secretary, mailroom, copy office or file clerk. However, most right out of paralegal school will be hired at the entry level of a small firm. You will be required to make your own copies, do your own filing, send out your own mail and answer your own phone. Never assume that you will never be required to perform what you may view as “secretarial work.” A large portion of a paralegal’s job is actually what most of us consider secretarial work. However, this is just part of the job; you should view it as such and never grumble or complain.
2. Never underestimate the value of a great legal secretary.
In my first paralegal job, I learned more from the secretary who had been with the firm for 20 years than I did in my last year of paralegal school. A great legal secretary knows everything about what happens inside that law firm and he or she knows everything from how many copies are required to be filed with an original document to whom you can call at the clerk’s office when you need to push something through the system. Legal secretaries are an endless source of information and knowledge that can help you become a better paralegal.
3. Being a paralegal is not always exciting.
In fact, it is typically pretty boring. There are some paralegals in high profile firms or litigation firms that work go to court and work on huge cases that require investigative work; however, for most of us, we will be going into the office day after day, drafting documents, reviewing documents and answering questions from clients. The work is not as exciting as it appears in movies and television (or paralegal school). If you are expecting that, you need to set your sights on a large firm in a big city that handles high-profile cases.
4. Office machinery and you.
Learn how to operate every piece of office machinery in your firm. You never know when you may need to get something out of the door and the only person who knows how to use the binder is out sick that day. If you haven’t become comfortable with technology by the time you leave paralegal school, you’re in for a rude awakening.
5. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
You are just beginning so you are not expected to know everything even if your instructors in paralegal school said that you should. It is better to ask for clarification than to make mistakes.
6. Join your local paralegal association.
The sooner you begin to network the sooner you will make the contacts that you will need for support and to advance in your career.
7. Vocabulary, spelling and grammar are important.
Brush up on your grammar skills. You will need these when drafting legal documents and correspondence. Do not rely on spell/grammar checker to catch your mistakes!
8. You will do one thing that you feel is beneath you every day.
Do not get on your high horse and think that you cannot refill the copier with paper. A good law firm functions as a team and as the saying goes, “a team is only as strong as its weakest member.” Do not be that weak member. Be a team player and you will be noticed and advance in your career because attorneys will see you as an invaluable member of the team as well as a leader.
9. You do not need to wait for work to be assigned.
Be proactive! Having initiative and picking up the ball and running without being told to do so is expected of a paralegal. Do not waste time waiting for an attorney to tell you what you already know must be done.
10. Take your certification exams.
Several national paralegal associations such as NALA, NFPA and NALS offer voluntary certification exams. Even though these are voluntary, employers like to hire paralegals who are certified because it demonstrates initiative and a desire to rise above the minimum requirements. Paralegal school should not be the end of your education.
11. Get along with everyone.
Avoid office politics and gossip. Law firms are a hot bed for gossip, backstabbing and office politics as everyone works to get ahead. Keep your nose clean by staying away from gossip and making friends with everyone. If you get along with everyone and lend a helping hand when needed, people will respect you much more. Believe it or not, the attorneys do know who among the staff are the ones who start trouble.
12. Know how to perform legal research.
It is more than simply looking up a case. You need to know how to research topics and write briefs. Educate yourself on the various legal research tools and know how to use each one of them to their fullest advantage.
Being a paralegal is a rewarding experience. Each paralegal encounters different challenges depending on what area of law you work in, the size of the law firm and the city where the law firm is located. As with any job, being efficient, trust-worthy and adaptable will help you excel and advance in your career almost as much as the education you received. Paralegal school is simply the foundation that you need to continue to build upon through experience and a lifetime of continued learning.