The days of the general practice law firm may have passed. Many attorneys have chosen to specialize in a certain area of law in order to make themselves more marketable in that field. Law firms are following suit by specializing in one or two areas of law. An attorney who can advertise to the public that he or she is an expert or a specialist in a certain area of law has an advantage over an attorney who practices several types of law. In reality, it is better for a client to hire an attorney who specializes because that attorney has more experience and probably is on the forefront of the current laws and trends for that type of legal situation.
Paralegals are also following this trend as well with some paralegals going right into a particular area of law directly from school. While there are benefits to being specialized, I am glad that I did not right out of paralegal school. I did work for a general practice law firm that did mostly real estate and family law but took just about anything that came in the door with a few exceptions.
From working in a situation where I had to think on my feet, find resources, research various areas of law and remain calm while I had no clue what I was doing, I learned many skills that have served me very well in my career as a paralegal. However, later in my career, I have specialized in bankruptcy law and being specialized does have its advantages as well.
Advantages of Paralegal Specialization
- Advantage over other applicants. When you are searching for a job, having an enormous amount of experience in one particular area of law can give you an advantage over other applicants with minimal experience. Attorneys love to hire paralegals who can walk in the door and hit the ground running with very little training. By working in one area of law, you gain much more experience in that area making you a valuable asset to an attorney who also specializes in that specific area.
- Becoming a Certified Paralegal. Several national organizations that offer certification programs for paralegals have added specialization certification. Achieving certification as a specialist demonstrates that you have attained a higher level of experience and skill in that specific area of law. This is viewed as a significant factor by attorneys when they are searching for a paralegal to bring into the firm.
- Advantage in certain areas of laws. Some areas of law are very specialized with fewer attorneys practicing in these areas (i.e. bankruptcy, intellectual property, etc.). Therefore, because there are fewer attorneys who practice specialized areas of law there are fewer paralegals with this type of experience. You can make yourself highly desirable by these attorneys by specializing in these areas of law.
- Higher salaries. Just as attorneys who are specialists in a specific field of law charge higher fees for their increased experience, paralegals who specialize can also earn higher salaries based on their increased experience.
Disadvantages of Paralegal Specialization
- Fewer job opportunities. Depending on the area of law that you choose to specialize in, you may have fewer job opportunities. If you choose an area of law that is high specialized such as intellectual property or complex foreign litigation, you will not have the same number of job opportunities as other paralegals because there are so few attorneys who practice in these areas of law.
- Disadvantage compared to other applicants. When an attorney is looking for a well-rounded paralegal, you may be a disadvantage when the attorney compares your resume to that of a paralegal who has experience in several areas of law. You are not as marketable as a paralegal who has experience is several areas of law because you have limited your experience to one specific area.
- Legal trends have a larger impact on your career. If the area of law that you specialize in experiences a decrease in business, your career is impacted more severely than a paralegal who has experience in several areas. For example, when bankruptcies dropped by 20% several years ago, paralegals who specialized in bankruptcy had a very difficult time finding another job because bankruptcy attorneys cut staff and began looking for paralegals with experience in other areas of law so they could expand their practice to cover the decrease in bankruptcies.
Whether you decide to specialize in a specific area of law or not, you should choose an area that you enjoy. Being a paralegal is very rewarding; however, it can also be very stressful. By choosing an area of law that you enjoy, you will find that during the stressful moments you still enjoy your job rather than dread going into the office each morning. Doing something that you enjoy is much more fulfilling and sustains you during those days when you wonder why you ever decided to become a paralegal.