How to begin paralegal-ing?
June 11, 2012 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Paralegal career questions.

I have some broad questions about the paralegal job field. I am three years out of college, about to start a six-week contracted teaching summer job, and still searching for a career path. I recently went to jury duty and was fascinated, and stumbled across the idea of a job as a paralegal (a job I previously didn't realize existed).

I've since applied to about 30 paralegal jobs in New York City, but have slowed down since I got an offer to teach for the summer (which I have considerable experience in). Of those 30, I received one email back for a group interview (I wasn't yet in town so I had to decline.)

Given that I have zero experience or education in the law field, what can I do to increase my marketability? I tried to highlight what I believe to be key paralegal skills on my resume-- I am good with people, love researching, and am a good writer. I have a B.A. in an unrelated field. Would it be worth it to get a paralegal certificate, which would take about 9 months and cost around $5,000? What will employers be looking for as they hire, and how can I convince them to hire me?

Bonus question-- has anyone here actually been a paralegal, and what was your experience like? I am drawn to the job because it seems intellectually challenging, interesting, and pays much better than what I have been doing. If I really like it I'd like to eventually explore law school.

Thanks in advance!
posted by queens86 to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This depends 100% on what kind of law firm/company you end up at.

My old firm - very large, multiple departments - had lots of paralegals. Most of them did not research, write, or work with clients much, if at all. Instead, they tended to "work files" - which meant they were in charge of the documents. I was an employment lawyer, so when I got a case, my paralegal would immediately send out requests for medical records, employment records, and anything else relevant. They would do background investigations (sort of research - lots of googling, checking social media, etc). They would organize the documents when we got them back. Sometimes they would summarize the documents, often they would have to redact information (black out social security numbers, for instance), index information, and the like. During trials, they were basically in charge of anything that was asked of them - from getting coffee to making exhibits to babysitting clients. I had one who was trained in a very specific set of software and was given extremely important tasks that I oversaw. They were very well compensated, worked hourly (which meant overtime) and had awesome benefits. I was often jealous of them. All of them had bachelor's degrees, some had paralegal certificates.

At my new, much smaller firm, paralegals are used differently. They still handle the documents in a file, but they may also be asked to pull case law, or research in different ways ("please find all the collective bargaining agreements between the counties of the state and this particular union, then summarize their pay structures"). They also do a lot of filing at the courts (my old job had runners for this). They may be asked to interact with the client more often. They may have to do a lot of photocopying (my old job had other people for this). They may be asked to organize an event (like the firm christmas party - again, old job had a whole department for this). Some of these paralegals used to be secretaries; some were runners; some have paralegal certificates. They are less well compensated, but still make a good living.

I have worked with clients where "paralegals" are basically practicing law without a license.

So, paralegal work, like legal work generally, involves a lot of pushing paper, a lot of handling different, sometimes difficult, personalities, and is 100% dependent on where you work.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:19 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

In many jurisdictions, a paralegal certificate is required to do "paralegal" work -- or at the very least to allow your attorney to bill for it at the paralegal rate. Without the certificate, you're doing legal assistant work, which is often (in a law firm setting) paid a lower salary, billed at a lower rate, and contains a larger portion of administrative work.

Consider, before you jump into something like this, that there is a glut of labor in the legal market right now -- much of it at the attorney level, but desparate out-of-work attorneys can make attractive paralegals. I'll venture that the knock-on effects of the attorney bubble will suppress paralegal career prospects for the next 5-10 years.

If you want to explore or get into the legal field without any experience, probably the best way to do it would be to talk to a temping agency that places people in law offices. You will want a long-term placement but may have to do a few short-term gigs to prove yourself to the temping agency. That is probably the best way to get the experience that will put you next to paralegals doing paralegal work.

Good luck!
posted by gauche at 10:21 AM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am a paralegal. I got the one year year certificate after getting a B.A., and though the classes weren't great or super helpful, I think having that on my resume has helped open doors. I took those classes while working almost full time because the workload was really light. The really necessary skills - writing, reading comprehension, organization, working under stress, managing variable workloads, taking direction from multiple people - aren't really taught anywhere. The more technical stuff, like terminology and drafting, are learned on the job.

I work in a small city on the opposite coast, so my experiences probably aren't super relevant to you. I did find that most firms don't advertise vacancies, instead relying on word-of-mouth referrals, and I got my job by walking around and dropping my resume off at every firm I could find. That obviously wouldn't work for you, buy if you're interested in a certain area of law, maybe you could research what firms practice in that area, and apply at them even if there aren't any positions listed. Besides the good qualities you listed, I would add in your cover letter why you want to work in the legal field. Also make sure you dress and act VERY professionally, even when just dropping off a resume.

There are probably MANY law-related volunteer positions you could look into to get your feet wet. There are also legal staffing companies that place temps specifically in law offices.

I do enjoy my job, especially compared to what I was doing before! It can get a little rote, though. There isn't a lot of room for growth in terms of new titles, but the range of tasks a paralegal might handle is absolutely huge and depends on your skills and the needs of your employer.
posted by Safiya at 10:24 AM on June 11, 2012

Also, what gauche said about the market and temping - a lot of the paralegals at my old firm came from the temp agency; at my new firm temps never get hired permanently. If you decide to go the paralegal certificate route, maybe look at a program that does externships, if that's possible?
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:26 AM on June 11, 2012

"I have a B.A. in an unrelated field."

Dual-competency paralegals are typically in the highest demand (such as nurse-paralegals on medical malpractice cases). The subject-matter knowledge a paralegal can bring to cases is very valuable; they may catch something the attorney overlooks, and they're up to speed on the background of a case much faster. I looked back at an older question you posted and saw that your BA is in environmental studies; apply widely, but be sure to also target attorneys and organizations that do environmental law and related area (land use/zoning/regulatory litigation, maybe, I don't know what exactly you studied in environmental studies).

A lot of what paralegals do is essentially secretarial work, and a lot of the paralegals I know have entered the field by starting as a legal secretary and proving themselves diligent, intelligent, discreet, and capable. In some firms (especially if smaller) it's quite typical for legal secretaries to "become" paralegals, or (especially in very small firms) the same person to be the secretary AND the paralegal. In other firms, a secretary is a secretary, and you may gain some law-firm experience at that firm, then move to another firm to "move up" to paralegal. (However, legal secretaries are pretty well-paid too, and good ones are difficult to find.) We only recently got a certification program nearby, so it hasn't been a common route around here. I don't know about NYC, but I would certainly look for a while and if you're not finding something, then take the paralegal course.

(Also, as dpx says, if you're at a bigger litigation firm, you're going to be mostly reviewing files. Some places call this "legal document assistant." I don't really know any paralegals who have to be good with people, because they don't really get to interact with clients; in the U.S., paralegals are pretty limited in the ways they're allowed to interact with clients, and attorneys don't interact with clients that much anyway. It's a paper-pushing industry generally.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:26 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

What Eyebrows said. Larger firms have "secretary = secretary", "paralegal = paralegal".

Smaller firms (or even better, a sole practitioner) have "secretary = secretary, paralegal, receptionist, messenger....."
posted by Lucinda at 10:44 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you considered getting the certificate online? Duke U. has a program that you can complete in a few months. There are probably others as good, just make sure, if you do choose this route, to enroll in a legitimate program run by a real college or university, not some lame diploma mill.
posted by mareli at 11:17 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can increase your marketability by getting a job, any job really, at a law firm, while working to obtain your paralegal certificate. I work at a small firm and we've been interviewing paralegals, and we didn't seriously consider anyone without at least some law firm experience and a certificate, or a lot of law firm experience, and we probably pay on the lower end of the salary range for paralegals.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:03 PM on June 11, 2012

"Paralegal" is an actual job, not just a generic job description. It's a regulated profession in most states. You can get a degree--usually an associates'--and need to be licensed. If you're applying for paralegal jobs but aren't a paralegal, you can kiss it goodbye.

I think what you're thinking of isn't so much "paralegal" as "legal assistant" or "legal secretary." There's definitely some overlap, but paralegals do more actual legal-type work than most legal assistants, who do a lot more clerical and scheduling stuff. If I want someone to figure out the total amount due on a stack of medical bills, I'll give them to my paralegal. If I want someone to make three copies of that stack of medical bills or scan them on to the server, I'll give them to my legal assistant/secretary. Being a legal assistant doesn't require any particular qualifications beyond general office competence and professionalism.

But if you're thinking that being a paralegal is going to be intellectually stimulating... you may have another thing coming. Lawyers give work to paralegals when the work in question is tedious, or repetitive, or boring. Again, if I've got a stack of medical bills, it doesn't take any particular skill to run up the total, it just takes time and attention to detail. Summarizing depositions is frequently considered paralegal work, but a lot of smaller firms have associates do it anyway. What you won't be doing is legal research or analysis. That's for the lawyers. Now depending on what you're doing, this may be an immense step up. But odds are decent it's just a slightly more pleasant version of whatever tedium you're dealing with now.

That being said, odds are decent that paralegals make more than you do. A firm big enough to hire actual paralegals and use them as paralegals and not overqualified secretaries can pay $40,000-60,000.
posted by valkyryn at 12:11 PM on June 11, 2012

Valkyryn, "Paralegal" is an actual job, not just a generic job description. It's a regulated profession in most states."

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations disagrees: "Licensing is how a governmental authority controls certain professions. There is no single authority in the United States which oversees the paralegal profession. Also, at the time of this writing, no state has paralegal licensure." (OP, this link also addresses different types of credentialling available.)

Here is a PDF chart of regulations by state as of April 2012.

I personally have never met a "licensed" paralegal, or one claiming to be licensed, and my state has no regulations for paralegals.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:15 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a legal assistant, not a paralegal (no certificate), and I will nth that the job really varies a lot depending on the firm and its size. In a small office, a legal assistant/paralegal does a little bit of everything: billing/accounting, document review, working files as dpx.mfx explained above, general admin stuff like copying and proofreading, running assorted errands, drafting correspondence and simple pleadings, etc.. In a larger firm, an assistant/paralegal is more likely to specialize (for example, just work on document review/production) or be limited to covering 1-3 attorneys' desks.

As to whether the job is intellectually challenging and interesting, again, it can depend on what kind of firm you end up at and the kind of cases they handle, but I will second that a lot of the work is just stuff that is too tedious or time-consuming for the attorney to handle. There's plenty of stuff that's genuinely interesting and challenging to work on (basic background investigations, analyzing and summarizing a large volume of documents), but you need to be okay with and great at doing the boring stuff too.

You'll get a better sense of this as you interview or research positions, but I urge you to have a good idea of the kind of firm you want to work at. Being a legal assistant/paralegal for a small firm or solo practitioner is hugely different from being being one at a large firm.
posted by yasaman at 3:46 PM on June 11, 2012

I am a paralegal for a government agency in NY. (I don't have a certificate, but my job description is still "paralegal.") My job doesn't pay well compared to private sector ones but it's probably a lot more interesting, based on what I've heard. Not that everything is exciting--I do have to make photocopies, run around to file documents, and occasionally answer phones, for example. But I also get to write letters, work with a large variety of people, and help out in court once a week. If you memail me I can tell you more but don't want to get into too many more identifying details here.

Even at my agency, though, it's unusual for a paralegal to do some of the work I do; and in fact I was originally hired for a new position which was created for someone with a writing background. Most of the paralegals in my office, so far as I can tell, work with only a couple of attorneys and have to do a lot more of the grunt work--probably like the big office dpx.mfx described above.

I'll second Eyebrows McGee that people skills aren't something that's really highlighted in my job. I think my relevant skills are probably my writing, my attention to detail, and my ability to keep track of a whole slew of projects at once.

Have you checked out the Rainforest Alliance, if you're interested in environmental work? I had an interview with them for a paralegal position once and though the job ultimately wasn't for me, it might be for you.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:04 PM on June 11, 2012

Paralegals may not be "licensed" in the same sense as doctors or lawyers, certification requirements are increasingly common (at least to use the title "paralegal.")
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:37 PM on June 11, 2012

If you're coming into the idea of being a paralegal based on what you saw while on jury duty, I'd recommend trying to enter a firm by being (what it was called in one of the firms where I worked) a "floating" secretary. You basically sub in for other secretaries when they are out (whether it's for an hour doctor's appointment or many months for maternity leave). It's a great way to experience all the different facets of law without tying yourself down to one particular aspect.
posted by Lucinda at 6:36 AM on June 12, 2012

I'm a paralegal at a large firm in NYC. I got the job while I was an out-of-work social worker. I don't have a certificate, but was told I was hired because I had a background as a writer and editor, and could handle "difficult" people.

I do a TON of writing and communicating with clients. (I'm in immigration law and work on green card cases.) Sure, I pull documents and have some administrative work to do, but there's not much and I don't find it particularly tedious. I don't know if I'm going to pick this as my one true career path, but I don't feel like a glorified secretary. And I'm certainly paid better than a secretary. (Yes, I've also been a secretary.)

The answer to this question will really depend on the firm, as others have stated.
posted by pineappleheart at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2012

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