Should I go for it?
July 23, 2008 10:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm an undergrad (rising sophomore) interested in going to law school. Is it worth it to become an NALA Certified Paralegal?

I'm looking at taking an online course that would take between seven and seventeen months to complete. If all goes well, I would be finished in seven, studying for the certification alongside my normal undergraduate studies. If I feel overwhelmed, I can cut down on the number of courses I'm taking at once, and focus on my undergraduate studies.

Is it even conceivable that I would get a paralegal job for the summer only? Would it serve me well in my preparation to study law? Will it help in gaining admission to law schools?

General advice as well as personal knowledge appreciated.
posted by Picklegnome to Law & Government (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think it will help you in gaining admission to law school. Law school admission is almost completely based on LSATs and GPA. Studying to be a paralegal might then be hurtful, if it would draw your attention away from maintaining a high GPA and studying for the LSATs.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:56 PM on July 23, 2008

I can't imagine that it would help you much. I've talked to nobody at my law school admission's office that would see it as a big plus.

I'm a 3L at a T25.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:56 PM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: Think long and hard before going to law school. Also, listen to that little voice in your head or heart that tells you, "I have a bad feeling about this..." because it's usually right. That aside, you may be extremely motivated to go and you know it. If that's the case, good for you.

So, if you're sure you want to go to law school, why do you want to be a paralegal? You can apply for legal secretary or legal assistant positions without knowing anything about the law. You'll be formatting table of contents for briefs, answer the phones, calendaring dates, filling out standard form court paperwork.

Not knocking what paralegals do, but if you are doing the paralegal course for work experience, just go out there and try for a standard legal assistant/secretary position. You probably won't find it in Craigslist, just call around. You might have to do it for free. If you don't enjoy the environment or the nature of the work, you might not want to be a lawyer.

What secretaries, paralegals and other support staff do is essentially the same thing solo practitioners do. When you graduate law school and don't have a job (as is the case with many lawyers) you'll find yourself wondering how to setup your own practice.

Are your undergrad grades good? What about the LSAT, have you taken a practice exam? Those months you spend studying for the paralegal certification would be better used at getting a better LSAT score. 5 pts overall score makes a big difference on that exam. 5 pts is the difference between a top 10 law school and a top 50.

I'm not a law school admissions officer, so I can't talk about other life experiences. Your undergraduate grades and LSAT score still makeup a big part of whether you are a competitive candidate or not.

I think the paralegal experience will, if anything, give you an appreciation of what the average lawyers day is like. That can help you with the personal statement part of your application (why do you want to be a lawyer?).

So breaking it down.
1. It's highly unlikely you'll get a paralegal job for the summer. You might get a legal assistant type position. It takes a lot of training to function well in a law office. You have to earn people's trust because a mistake is likely to translate into malpractice.

2. The paralegal study or work experience would help you study law. You would have exposure to concepts discussed abstractly in law school. When the professor talks about filing a petition or sending opposing party written interrogatories, you will have context for it because you probably helped draft those documents. You'll have street smarts that may help you give a "big picture" idea. You won't just learn it though. You have to ask the lawyers how this fits into the big picture. They may not be inclined to teach you. You probably would have to ask a law firm to take you as an "intern" so while they won't pay you, you will feel better about them teaching you what is going on.

3. I don't think it will hurt you gain admission. I think the time would be better spent working on your undergrad grades and your LSAT score since those are still the 2 biggest factors in your application.
posted by abdulf at 11:06 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You'll just be a sophomore next year? Jeesh, I feel old.

Short answer: no, it won't help you one bit. Take it from someone who did something similar and knows that tons of former paralegals, many with far more work experience than you'll accumulate in a few years, apply to law school every year. There are far, far better ways to learn about what lawyers do than to work as a paralegal.

What will help? Transfer into the best undergrad school you can. Get really good grades. Get a really high LSAT score. If you really want, get 2-3 years post-graduate work experience doing something not directly law related but with some law school essay angle (banking, consulting, real estate, stockbroking, or whatever). The only non-oddball job I can think of that would really get you noticed in admissions is police officer--and then only if you said you wanted to be a prosecutor or defense attorney.

Law school applications are, sadly, a raw numbers game. Same goes for first jobs after law school graduation--they're dependent on your law school grades. Any interesting or substantial work experience is only icing on the cake to the numbers that will define you, applicant #29,203.

So if you really want to do this--and I encourage you to read tons of stuff about law school (I can recommend a ton of books) and think hard about it because it's the wrong decision for most people--then just do well academically now and maybe angle for one of the above-mentioned jobs. Trust me on this. Law school was the right decision for me and I'm glad I went (I was one of the lucky ones who did really well), but you don't want to be one of the bitter, walking-dead law school grads who feel locked into a career they hate because of ill-considered decisions made when they were, well, sophomores in college.
posted by saslett at 11:56 PM on July 23, 2008

no. more useful would be working as a paralegal for a year after college to see if the law is for you. the best two things you can do for your law school chances are to earn As and a high LSAT score.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 12:51 AM on July 24, 2008

Would it serve me well in my preparation to study law?

It won't hurt, but its true value lies in helping you to prepare to practice law. In my office, the attorneys who are the most productive, organized and (not the least) enjoyable to work with are those who worked as paralegals before attending law school. They just have a much better sense of how long things actually take, e.g., that a proper cite-check of a 70-page brief can't be completed in an hour, and are much more effective and productive overall.

Will it help in gaining admission to law schools?

It won't hurt, particularly if you're working in a smaller firm - you get a lot more exposure to projects that would be tasked to associates at large corporate firms. It will certainly provide you with material for the "interest" essay that appears on so many law school applications nowadays. But more importantly, it'll help you in deciding whether the law is really something you're interested in. There's a lot of "scut" work in the law, so if you can't tolerate actually doing some of it as a paralegal, you're not going to be happy as a lawyer (this is particularly true at larger corporate law firms where associates do a lot of the work that would normally be done by paralegals elsewhere).
posted by longdaysjourney at 4:47 AM on July 24, 2008

What will help? Transfer into the best undergrad school you can. Get really good grades. Get a really high LSAT score. If you really want, get 2-3 years post-graduate work experience doing something not directly law related but with some law school essay angle (banking, consulting, real estate, stockbroking, or whatever). The only non-oddball job I can think of that would really get you noticed in admissions is police officer--and then only if you said you wanted to be a prosecutor or defense attorney.

These suggestions will all help. But grades and LSAT weigh more heavily than all the other factors combined (with the exception of race). If any of these suggestions (i.e. transferring to a better undergrad) would cause lower grades or take time away from studying for the LSAT, then don't do it. If you're right on the bubble in terms of your numbers, then things like extracurriculars, work experience, personal statements, recommendation letters, quality of undergrad institution, etc. come into play. Otherwise, numbers are almost entirely dispositive.
posted by ewiar at 6:27 AM on July 24, 2008

As a paralegal working at a BigLaw firm with law school aspirations, it is 110% not worth it to get certification, unless you want to go the career para route (which, even then, is debatable).

I'm working in the corporate group right now, and while I can't say that there is much substantive work, it's really about what you make of the experience. There are a lot of factors involved with how much you can take away from working as a paralegal. But if you are absolutely sure about going into a particular field, then you have a better handle of what to pay attention to (certain sections of a particular law, federal acts that have a bearing on the case you're working on) - in this vein, I 100% agree with longdaysjourney in that working as a paralegal will prepare you in how to practice law.

(Also pertaining to the BigLaw route, it gives you a more intimate view of what firms look for in hiring summers or fresh associates. But as everyone else has mentioned, it's all about the big numbers for LSATs and undergrad grades.)

As far as summer paralegal positions go, check your MeFiMail.
posted by chan.caro at 7:06 AM on July 24, 2008

I'm a lawyer and was just out at lunch yesterday with two other lawyers and a young woman who will be starting law school in the fall. Somehow we got on this very subject, and all agreed that former paralegals seem to have a really hard time in law school, at least in the beginning, because they are going into it thinking that they have a head start, when in fact the skills needed to do well in law school have nearly no overlap with the skills needed to do well as a paralegal. It does expose you to the practice of law, which can be valuable in figuring out of this is what you really want to do or if you like a certain type of practice environment, but as far as actually improving your ability to get good grades in law school, no.
posted by HotToddy at 8:15 AM on July 24, 2008

In my experience being a paralegal pre-law school offers several advantages. I did not go this route, but some of my classmates and friends did.

1. It gives you a very good opportunity to see lawyers in action, which may well help you figure out that you don't want to be a lawyer BEFORE you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school.

2. It gives you skills that are surprisingly useful when you are a lawyer, especially if you work in a small firm. I can't tell you how many evenings as a lawyer I've spent collating documents and assembling exhibits or putting together a table of contents after the help had left. Also, calendaring and organization are ESSENTIAL skills that many lawyers haven't mastered.

3. It gives you connections to other lawyers and my experience is that big firms really liked to see that you had experience as a paralegal.

Having said that, I'm not sure you really need the paralegal certificate to get these benefits. Most really big firms love to hire recent college grads pre-law school as paralegals no certificate required. Your bright, ambitious, and energetic. What's not to love? So the certificate may not be necessary.

Good luck.
posted by bananafish at 10:22 AM on July 24, 2008

oops that should have been you're. Yes I did take the writing class in law school, but I should have made more attention to the part about editing.
posted by bananafish at 10:24 AM on July 24, 2008

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