Going for a Paralegal interview with no legal certification.
April 11, 2016 1:24 PM   Subscribe

I have an interview coming up for the role of a Paralegal and would need your advice on how to prepare for it! I have zero paralegal background/qualifications.

Hi everyone! I've been reading up on paralegals on the internet, askmefi, other forums etc, because of my interest in the role. I live outside the continents and countries where Europe, U.S., and Canada are. I mention this because it seems like you don't neccessarily require paralegal certification to be hired as one in these countries. Where I live, almost all the hiring ads specify that you do.

However! *fortuitously so far* my friend who is a lawyer, egged me to apply despite that. Hence I wrote an email to 5 law firms advertising for criminal paralegals and asked if they would consider hiring me. I wrote that despite having no paralegal background, I have a B.A. in English (Literature), am good with vetting texts, and a keen interest in criminal law. My only major work experiences were in college administration/academic management and private tutoring. None wrote back except for one - to my surprise. This firm deals mostly with criminal and civil litigation. They asked me to send my CV, and want to meet for an interview which is in a couple of days.

Having zero legal background, I'm abit nervous. I don't quite know how to prepare besides reading up on the role. My busy lawyer friends haven't advised much besides telling me that I need to be insanely organized. I'd like to ask those of you who know something - on how else I could prepare for the interview, and what to expect besides knowing that I need the neccessary skills like paying attention to details and writing proficiently. Should I admit during the interview that I'm not particularly interested in corporate/fiscal law or should I be open to it should they ask? I'm saying this because I'm not even sure ho corporate law is like. But with all my lack of knowledge, I'm hoping to deal only with criminal law. Also, the person interviewing me is a lawyer. They didn't reveal who so I can't google him/her.

Thanks in advance for all your advice!
posted by eustaciavye87 to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do extensive research on the firm you are applying for. Never say that you are "not interested" in any of the areas they do litigation in. It's okay to say you have specific interests, but paralegals and legal assistants are the people who do the grind work at all hours. They aren't the folks who direct the strategy of the firm.

If they are willing to interview you and you have no experience, you should spend a lot of time giving as many examples in your career of similar work you have done as you can. Editing, preparing documents, scheduling, etc. Working for more than one boss. Multitasking.

Good luck.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:37 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was a paralegal for a while and have zero legal training or background.

Talk about how much you loooove repetitive paperwork and have impeccable attention to detail. Accent marks on names, long strings of numbers, referencing things by exact names and acronyms--oh yeah, you're all over that shit. If you had to pick not-paperwork, you guess you'd have to say your one true passion is research. At the end of a long day of filing, what you look forward to most is flipping through legal texts to find relevant case law and documentation for all the little things that have come up that day. And your internal timer is impeccable. You can break your day down into precise 15 minute billable increments and your record keeping abilities are totally on point. In your free time you like answering and returning phone calls, collating, and standing in long lines at the post office.
posted by phunniemee at 1:37 PM on April 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

precise 15 minute billable increments

15 minutes? Amateur.

If there are paralegal certifications in your country, does that mean there are exams? I would try to get hold of a textbook for either a paralegal course or (preferably) the certifying exam and flip through it. That should give you some idea of what you are expected to know. It may not be as daunting as all that. And, if it comes up, you can say, "True, I don't have my certificate, but I learned [xyz] in Job Setting, and I have demonstrated my ability to do [pqr] through This Project."
posted by praemunire at 1:40 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

P.S. Don't raise the issue of what you are or are not interested in. It's not just that your employers won't care. They want to know that they can trust you to put your head down and do whatever boring work they give you to do. If you tell them up front, as if they should be interested, that you don't care for a particular kind of practice, you will be signaling that you aren't the kind of person who will do that without excessive babysitting.
posted by praemunire at 1:42 PM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Should I admit during the interview that I'm not particularly interested in corporate/fiscal law?

No. In an interview, it's okay to be most interested in thing B, but it is generally not okay to say you're not interested in thing A. Possible exception if you would absolutely turn down a job offer if it was focused on thing A and don't want to waste anyone's time, but even then it's usually better to play nice so that you can decide for yourself if you'd like the job instead of tempting them to make that decision for you.
posted by aimedwander at 1:45 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Never mention you're "not interested" in something during a job interview. You can definitely say something isn't an area of expertise for you, but if they mention if you would be interested in a thing, unless you find it in some way utterly repulsive, the worst you should say is that you've never considered it but are confident you can work with it. I'm sure you'll be able to find a time to mention your interest in criminal law, but if you're trying to get your foot in the door, don't turn down a chance to (at the worst) pay your dues to eventually get to the thing you want. Even if this particular paralegal job turns out to never give you criminal law experience, the next paralegal job for which you will be eminently more qualified after working at this one may.
posted by griphus at 1:45 PM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've interviewed paralegals at a small firm, and we had a number of paralegals at the firm who had no formal paralegal training. Some worked out well, others not so well. Generally, I didn't need or expect paralegals to know what they were doing when they came in the door, but the trade-off was that they had to be easy to teach. Along the lines of:

Lawyer: here's a new procedure/task for you, you need to do A, B, and C, got it?
Paralegal: can you show me C again?
Lawyer: Sure
Paralegal: got it. From now on I'll be able to do A, B, and C without further instruction when you ask me to do them.

Sarcasm aside, phunniemee's response is pretty accurate as far as tasks that will likely land on your desk. Keeping track of your time in 15 minute intervals (actually 6 minute intervals, tenths of an hour) is way more important than it sounds because the firm likely gets paid for the time you spend on billable matters, but they don't get paid unless they can tell the client what you did and how much time it took.

Also, in the interview, play up your ability to get things exactly right before they leave your desk (and follow up on this promise if hired). Depending on the setup, you may have a legal assistant around to proof your work, but you may not, and either way, things should be just right before they leave your desk. No typos, no leaving the name of Client A in when you use their document as the skeleton for Client B's document, no sending something to John Smith when you meant to send it to John Smithwick. This level of attention can be thankless sometimes, but it's necessary. No lawyer ever wants to have to write a reply brief explaining that they meant to attach Exhibit B but it just slipped through the cracks.

Finally, this goes for interviewing for any position but it goes doubly so when you're interviewing for a job that doesn't require ultra-specific requirements: make sure you present yourself as someone who is easy to get along with who your interviewer wouldn't mind spending late nights in a conference room with or sitting next to on a long flight. For most interviews I do, I only bring in people for interviews if it looks like from their resumes they can handle the work; from that point it's just determining whether personalities fit.
posted by craven_morhead at 4:20 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I worked for over 20 years as a legal secretary (Canada) and had an intensive legal training course that I mostly didn't use. So much of what I did was secretarily, fielding client calls, scheduling, transcribing letters so if you are a smart hardworker (get a law degree!) you will get a job with no training. Emphasize your skills, fast learner, adaptable, hardworking-ness and attention to detail and ability to be calm and professional under pressure. There is often intense workload and time deadlines. You will learn as you go. I did crim law and after 5 years I was happy to change to personal injury and then family law and then....corporate! which I enjoyed because there was no drama for which there was no fair solutions. Corporate law involves creating companies dealing with shareholdings, mergers. It sounds dry but after doing crim law you may find it a welcome area of work. So no don't mention your preferences if you want to build your career in this area, keep your options open. Until you have worked in this job its difficult to know what to expect. Goodluck!
posted by RelaxingOne at 9:48 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am currently a paralegal. I got my first paralegal job with no certificate, although it was an immigration firm and my duties consisted mostly of writing, since I worked for an attorney who handled the more writing-intensive visa petitions (O-1, NIW, EB-11) etc. After a while at that job I realized I didn't want to stay in immigration law, and I thought I had better get certified so that I could more easily join a different law practice (I knew I wanted to do civil litigation, but I didn't particularly care which kind. Mostly for the money).

I was about three months in of a 12-month paralegal course when I applied for my current job (civil litigation). Of course, the work I did prior to that at the immigration firm was entirely dissimilar from what they needed, so I emphasized the certificate program as having prepared me. They really could not have cared less about that; all that mattered was my ability to learn new things quickly, follow instructions, and supply of common sense.

I have since gotten my paralegal certificate, but I wouldn't necessarily advise anyone looking to become a paralegal that they must get one. The things others have mentioned are far more important: being organized, following instructions, observant of details, and quick to learn. Emphasize those things, rather than your interest in criminal law or disinterest in corporate law. If asked, I would tell them that I can follow instructions closely, don't need to be micromanaged, but won't hesitate to ask questions if the instructions are unclear.

Others have said that you must be prepared to do dull, repetitive tasks; in my experience, you will have your share of those, but if you do good work, you will be rewarded with more interesting and important projects.

I love my job and I think being a paralegal can be quite rewarding if you are interested in the law as it is practiced, but don't want to undertake the time/cost commitment of becoming a lawyer. And, at least where I am, paralegals are quite in-demand so the job outlook is bright. Feel free to memail if you have other questions!
posted by Aubergine at 8:47 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a trial lawyer in the US (Barrister to the other former colonies). Not only do the jurisdictions I practice in not require certification I view it as a negative if the applicant has been to some "paralegal school." I much prefer someone with a strong background in something (I don't care what) who wants to learn the details of a law practice.

I would consider hiring a smart, motivated person with a degree in fine art over one whose claim to fame was a "paralegal" degree.

Hope that helps. It can be a very fun, rewarding job in the right environment. Good luck!
posted by BrooksCooper at 9:41 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dear all, thank you so much for your invaluable advice. I read through every single one again before my interview today. It seemed like it went really well but I won't know until I am officially informed. Will keep you guys posted before i mark this as resolved :) the suspense is killing me.
posted by eustaciavye87 at 12:51 PM on April 13, 2016

Thank you again, everyone! I got the job! 3 months probation :) hope this works out fingers crosseddd!!!
posted by eustaciavye87 at 9:39 AM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

posted by craven_morhead at 10:16 AM on April 15, 2016

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