How do I get hired as a legal documentation specialist?
November 10, 2010 5:18 PM   Subscribe

I want to get a job as a legal documentation specialist (word processor). I have no prior work experience in law firms. What's the work like, and how do I get hired?

I recently learned that there are people called “documentation specialists” who work in law firms and spend their entire work days using software to make documents look pretty, organized and professional. I know I would enjoy this kind of work, I think I would be very good at it, and I want to do it for a living. I’m introverted, methodical, organized, resourceful and detail-oriented, and I’m happiest and most effective when working in back office administrative support roles rather than in management or dealing with the public. As a former web coder (HTML/CSS) geek, I’m also fairly computer-savvy. In addition, I enjoy documentation-related administrative tasks that others often find tedious, such as scanning, formatting, indexing, printing, filing, data entry, records storage and management, etc. And I type 60+ WPM, or at least I did the last time I was tested (which, admittedly, was many years ago).

However, although I have lots of education, office experience, writing/editing/proofreading skill, and intermediate-level skill with word processing software, I have no law firm experience. I have a bit of familiarity with legal terminology, which I imagine will be helpful; most of it was gained through experience with my divorce, and through classes I took in business law and estate taxation when I was an accounting student. I have no interest whatsoever in other litigation support jobs, however - I don’t want to do paralegal or legal assistant work, for example. Just give me your documents and I’ll gladly make them look pretty and professional, thanks.

As far as I can discern, the best way to get a documentation specialist job with no prior experience in the field (and no friends working in the field who could recommend me) would be to apply to a staffing agency and have them try to get me an assignment in a law firm. In preparation for that, a friend loaned me some Word training books and DVDs, and I am using those to refresh and extend my skills. I am currently unemployed, so I can devote myself to this full-time. I have located a couple of agencies that specialize in legal job placements where I live (Portland, OR), and am planning to apply as soon as I feel ready to take placement tests.


1) Is this a good plan? Do I have a better chance of getting hired via a staffing agency, or should I apply directly to law firms where I’d like to work?

2) If you do this kind of work – especially if you are an introvert like me, and had no previous law firm experience - give me a reality check. What’s the work like day-to-day? How’d you get the job? Does your firm use Word 2003, 2007 or 2010 (or, perhaps, WordPerfect)? What do you wish you’d known before you started?

3) What's the pay range for documentation specialist jobs? Online salary surveys have been unhelpful here, perhaps because "documentation specialist" is a vague job title.

4) Should I mention in job interviews that I want to stick to administrative support work indefinitely, and have no desire for an ambitious career in law, or would this be looked upon unfavorably?

5) How advanced do I need to be in Word to do well on placement tests? Aside from improving my Word skills, what else can I do to improve my chances of getting hired as a documentation specialist? Are there specific resources you can recommend?

Thanks in advance for all advice!
posted by velvet winter to Work & Money (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a word processor, but I'm an attorney at a large law firm in San Francisco who works with them.

You are largely correct about the job description. It requires being an MS Word (we use 2007) and Adobe Acrobat Pro wizard. Spacing; margins; fancy tables; numbering and outlines; complex custom macros. While the job is not a constant pressure cooker, sometimes there are deadlines and fire drills, and you'll have attorneys standing over your shoulder demanding that some arcane formatting task be done yesterday. Other times it is boring: entering scrawled handwritten edits from attorneys into documents. Creating exhibits. Manipulating PDFs. Converting documents into editable Word format. That kind of thing. You should know the software inside and out.

Most of the Word Processors at my law firm are employees of the firm. Occasionally when someone is sick or on vacation, we'll bring in a temp from an agency. This may be a good way to get experience, but ultimately you should shoot for becoming a full-time law firm employee. Most firms have a contact listed for staff hiring. You should contact that person directly.

Word Processors generally are not asked to double as paralegals or assistants where I work. It may be different elsewhere but I doubt it.

Feel free to Memail me if you have more specific questions. Sadly I don't have salary information.
posted by eugenen at 5:39 PM on November 10, 2010

There are fairly regular postings from placement agencies for this kind of work (at least, in Vancouver) for an unpleasant reason: the first time you can't meet a deadline or make any kind of serious error, you'll get shitcanned. You're of no use to a company if you can't get product on the door on time every time.

You will need to be a fast typist and very skilled with the latest version or two of Word. Professional offices looking for people to do this type of work (legal, engineering, consulting, etc.) will need you to be able to turn an unformatted Word document into something pretty with very rapid turnaround -- a typical "fire drill" job might be, say, 40 pages with a table of contents, lists, tables, headers, footers, tables, captioned inline graphics, etc. in under an hour, including printing multiple copies. It will be helpful if you can write macros (in VBA) to speed up the process.

Seriously, you really need to know the software inside-out.

When I was a documentation coordinator at a consulting firm, I made $40K/year.

Also keep in mind that you are a clerk to an office of Type-A professionals; this can be rough on the ego, and can be very tough on your time management. If two staff need product at the same time, one won't be happy.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 6:41 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I worked as a word processing operator for a mid-size firm a few years ago. I was hired through a legal staffing agency. When I applied for the job, I did not have any prior word processing experience (just customer service/call center jobs) but I performed reasonably well on the staffing agency's Word, spelling, and typing tests. I think having a good grasp on Word was the deciding factor in getting the job. When I was being interviewed, my employer wanted to be especially sure that I felt comfortable with styles, cross-referencing, and making/using templates.

I am an introvert too and the job suited me just fine. The attorneys would generally email documents to me or have them delivered to my desk. I would work on the document and email it back when finished. There was little interaction unless the document was particularly complex or the attorney needed to provide special instructions. The firm provided a broad spectrum of legal services, so the work could be unbelievably dull (tax and real estate matters) to incredibly interesting (criminal law). A significant chunk of the firm's revenue came from representing an insurer in medical malpractice matters, so having a decent grasp on medical terminology helped too.

Based on your description of yourself, I think that you will probably enjoy this work. For me, the most difficult part of the job was dealing with the handful of attorneys who had unreasonable expectations regarding the importance of their documents vis-a-vis everyone else's. Otherwise, the working environment was pretty agreeable as long as I kept on top of my work. After reading ten pounds of inedita's comments, though, I don't know if this is an exception from the norm.

Mentioning in an interview that you want to stick with admin work should not disadvantage you, in my opinion. The majority of the word processors at my firm were career administrative support staff. The firm placed the aspiring attorneys in paralegal roles. Starting pay was $37K with good benefits.
posted by madforplaid at 6:54 PM on November 10, 2010

I can't speak from experience in law firms, but rather in getting jobs. I've led a footloose yet comfortable life, and what made it possible was being able to get a decent job anywhere. At 25 waiting tables fit the bill; later I found acceptable office jobs, and a few other things too.

Particularly after reading the previous thread -- which confirms to me what you already seem to know, that there's a market for this -- I think the temp idea is solid. Get some paid experience (you might call it free tuition) in a law office. Any given temp job may not lead to a regular jog at that firm (although it could).

But it's good resume, and it will build confidence. When a real LDS possiblity comes along, stretch your account of the temp work, to the degree you're comfortable. Good luck.
posted by LonnieK at 7:11 PM on November 10, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, these are all great answers so far - very helpful! Thank you! It definitely sounds like I should concentrate most of my efforts on advancing my Word skills, especially in using styles, templates and macros. It also sounds like I would do fairly well in this kind of work. The possibility of having to deal with "fire drill" stuff doesn't deter me, though I'm sure my performance would suffer accordingly if such pressures were constant and unrelenting.

I'm not at all worried about the work being dull if it involves tax and real estate matters, as those areas happen to be of great interest to me - especially taxation, as that was my area of special interest when I was an accounting post-bac student. So perhaps I should concentrate my job search efforts on firms that specialize in tax or accounting law, since I am already familiar with the terminology. (I know very little of medical or criminal law terminology, by contrast).

By all means, please keep the great advice coming!
posted by velvet winter at 7:23 PM on November 10, 2010

You're well on your way it sounds like. I can report that the legal community in Portland is very much a small town: personal connections are invaluable things to have in your pocket when job hunting. I can't speak to how helpful an agency like Boly Welch will be for this type of work (I have no direct experience with it, I must say), but any temp gigs that do come along should be viewed (surreptitiously, politely, firmly) as networking opportunities. But of course this is basic common sense.

Offices run the gamut from XP to Windows 7 at this point. Even some poor souls stuck with a Vista implementation. I can' t think of any of our clients who still use WordPerfect, but the old skool paralegals do lament its passing.

One thing to be aware of that you can't really prepare for is the presence of document-management or file-management systems like Hummingbird, or full-blown legal-specific case management systems like Time Matters: programs that (among other things) facilitate and direct the creation of documents to track metadata such as matter number, client, etc. The more advanced systems allow for template documents that pull all manner of data from case files and boilerplate with a couple of codes and some button-pushing. Some firms use them, some don't at all, there's no real way to prepare for it beforehand beyond being generally comfortable with and ready for the concept, but in terms of creating and formatting documents for a law firm, depending on what they use--and how well they've drilled everyone in how to use it--it'll be either your best friend or your worst nightmare.
posted by kipmanley at 12:24 PM on November 11, 2010

I don't think you should limit yourself to law firms- I work at a financial institution in Portland where we have a department of people that do that same document specialist job that you describe, including formatting legal documents. (Having met you, if there were currently any openings, I would recomend you!)

I don't work in that part of the company, but here I think one of the most important qualifications was knowledge of and experience with the latest software. I think we do a practical test- for example, someone would give you a raw document and ask you to format it, and watch. Here, having a financial background for the job wouldn't be important- it probably would have even brought up questions of why the applicant was applying for a word processing/formatting job rather than a different position. If you have a portfolio of web design or graphic design work, that would also be a good thing to have ready for an interview.
posted by Secretariat at 1:14 PM on November 11, 2010

I think you may be writing a book: How to Get Hired As a Legal Document Specialist. And what the hey, this is a great way to do that. OR you may be a smart cooking looking for a good job, in which case of course this is a great way to do it. I think you can pull off either one. When you get rich hire me. Good luck to you!
posted by LonnieK at 4:25 PM on November 11, 2010

smart cookie.
posted by LonnieK at 4:26 PM on November 11, 2010

Response by poster: kipmanley - Thanks for the tips! Portland really is a "small town" in so many ways, isn't it? I do have many personal connections, but none in the legal community, so I will have to remedy that somehow. As for the operating systems, well, I've been using Windows since version 3.1, and I'm up to speed on Windows 7 (I use it at home), so no problems there. Sounds like I'll be learning on the job if I end up at a firm that uses a document or case management system, in any case.

Secretariat - Thanks for the suggestion to broaden my search to other institutions besides law firms. That's a good idea, and I will look into the possibility of doing this kind of work for other types of businesses. Perhaps, given my background, I'd have a better chance of getting hired at a financial or real estate-related institution. And thank you very kindly for the vote of confidence based on having met me - believe me, that is VERY much appreciated!

I am fortunate in that I have a number of friends and fellow alumni who have been keeping an eye out for me and offering to recommend me for jobs, but they all tell me a similar story - there are just no job openings where they work, and none projected anytime soon. I'll just continue to hang in there and keep on improving my Word skills until I know the software inside and out, and hopefully one day I'll manage to be in just the right place at just the right time when there's a suitable job opening.

I do need to give some more thought to how I'll handle questions from interviewers about why I am applying for word processing jobs rather than accounting jobs, given that I have a baccalaureate-level certificate in accounting. The short answer is that, while I'm still open to accepting accounting jobs, I am more skilled at jobs that involve word-slinging and software-wrangling (so to speak), and I also enjoy that kind of work more. My interest in accounting is much more theoretical and academic, I've found, than occupational. I love answering tax planning questions and reading about tax theory, for example. But I think I'm better at that sort of thing when I do it for fun, as a hobby, rather than for a living.

Would a portfolio of web or graphic design work really be useful in a job search of this type? I have no such thing available, as I did most of my HTML/CSS work in the mid-to-late 1990s, and my web skills would need a LOT of updating if I wanted to put something like that together now.

LonnieK: Thanks muchly for the encouragement, optimism and compliments. You know, writing a book like that doesn't sound like a bad idea at all! I'm already "moonlighting" as a writer, and intend to continue my self-driven writing pursuits after I find a documentation specialist job. One never knows what the future may hold, eh?
posted by velvet winter at 4:56 PM on November 11, 2010

Document specialists at my company do use a certain amount of graphic design know-how- not on every project, a lot of the work is text editing/search and replace/ basic formatting or using word templates, but there are also projects to design new marketing pieces, or things like a logo for a website. I haven't worked at other companies like this, so I don't know how common that is, that the word processing and graphic design departments are combined. I doubt that a portfolio was a requirement for the positions here, but if you just happened to have something recent that showed professional formatting and design work, I don't think it would hurt. Definitely dependant on what type of documents you'd be working with.
posted by Secretariat at 12:53 PM on November 12, 2010

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