A Real Role in the Midst of the Legal Fray
25 years ago, I got an paralegal certificate wondered aloud whether becoming a paralegal, as a male of 35 years of age, would lead to an actual "career". Back then the young baby boomers with liberal arts degrees they had garnered in the 70's, were wondering whether those degrees were going to be worth anything. So many were hoping that one could combine the degree with the certificate and actually have a working life in a true growing profession. Happily, most found that was indeed a working formula. Many have worked since the mid-1980's as paralegals all of this time.
In 1995, 10 years later, paralegal textbooks were declaring "Yes, there is a place for men in the paralegal world, and all paralegals regardless of gender are going to be working, not only in law firms, but in government and corporate settings."
Now in this present day, there is no doubt about its viability as a professional niche that thousands of people work in. A paralegal really does have a viable role in the midst of the Legal Fray.
A History of Morphing with Need and Technology -
As technology changed and the expansion of legal skill needs grew, a place for a paraprofessional to work "above" the legal secretary and "below" the attorney/lawyer became obvious in the 70's. Yes, it started as a female dominated profession, and it still is. But fears aside, males have been come into this niche and established themselves probably in a greater way than ever thought. However, it still is a young woman's profession. Are there still boomers working in it? Yes. There are 30 to 40 year plus paralegals in addition to all of the 10 year plus paralegals. Keep in mind, whatever your vintage, the "get smart with technology" message has always been there.
How are you at Excel -- Word, Outlook, Power Point? Software programs and specialized proprietary properties are all there to be embraced, trained up on, and improved upon. Another warning. Don't over promise your sophistication. Many electronic applications these days ask "just how good are you at" ----. It is important to know that these exist because there are vast areas of difference between a person who can handle EXCEL on indexes and informational spreadsheets, and someone who can handle all the formulas embedded in Excel. The specialized programs that now populate the world of Litigation are sometimes required of the applicant. Bankruptcy software -- EZFILING will be asked for and demanded of a beginner and semi-experienced paralegal.
Technology Rules The Day - "There's an app for that."
It used to be a question, especially for men, "Can you type? Are you sure you can type? But the world has changed mightily. With the internet and software proliferation, and the big move to 'paperless' in the law, the new and the old paralegal has to be ready, willing and skilled in specific requirements. EFILING is changing the whole legal world. This is a "goes without saying" aspect, but the aspiring paralegal has to realize more and more that if they do not have a specific technological program under their belts, they might not get the interview.
Willingness to Learn -
The watchword for paralegal character and skill profile is the willingness to learn. They must be adaptable, trainable and teachable. These are all aspects to emphasize as you craft your resumes and prepare for your interviews. If you are pondering this profession, these word processing and information processing talents are more of a natural for the younger applicants who have grown up in a new world of technology. However, the young may not be as prepared for the reality of pay and promotion.
Pay and Promotion - Upward and Onward?
Because the paralegal is sitting between the secretary and the attorney, the "upward and onward" part of the pay and promotion issue is special to itself here. Before talking about the lows, I should mention that there are exceptional highs. people have made very high paychecks corporation, especially during the "dotcom boom". When there is not an in-house attorney, a paralegal can stand out with pay and responsibility. It is a distinctive advantage. One can be paid at the level of a new attorney. This example points to how the paralegal profession has become quite interesting outside of the law firm. Inside the law firm pay has been respectable. The longer you work for a law firm, the more your pay will slowly rise. Larger firms do pay respectably, but the pressure is intense and the hours can be long and demanding. So pay is hard to generalize about without also talking about the exceptions.
At the lower end, pay can still be puny. Small law firms, sole practitioners and smaller companies can keep paralegal pay quite low. One can make $12 to $15 per hour very easily in many of those settings. $30,000 per year is a reach in some of these situations.
To be pointed about it, $40,000 to $45,000 can be considered quite high. Then mid 50's and even the 60's are attained by proven, long-term, highly-skilled and specialized paralegals. But, to generalize this profession does not really have an upward and onward aspect to it. When you see requests for experience, you don't see ads that request 10 or more years experience. You can get 25 years of experience, but no one asks for it. "3 to 5 years" is what you see in ads. Why? Would they llike 10 years? Sure. There is just no pay for a 10 year paralegal. There is entry level pay, experienced pay and senior pay. Think in terms of $30K to $50K if you want a broad range - with outliers at both ends.
"Are You Headed For Law School?" -
For those who are not sure they want the law, as a world to work in, becoming a paralegal has been a way to test the waters without plunging in. A young person in their 20's can get a lot of learning done and decide things for themselves, and then not go to law school and still not have "wasted" their time. or, they can go to law school and actually help themselves academically in law school and be much surer of their decision going forward. I have known many people who have done this and all have seen it as a real positive, no matter if the law school choice was a yes or a no.
I remember a woman in her 40's who after two years of paralegal work came into the Placements Office to say hello. She said, "Chris I am going to law school." I wished her well. then 10 years later I saw her being interviewed on a newscast for a high profile criminal case in Southern Colorado. So, the paralegal profession can also be a part of a lawyer's career path.
The Personal Relationship - The Career Housed in Professional Reliance
Many people are paid very well, and keep on getting raises because they have become a "part of the woodwork" at a small firm, or they are a key part of a litigation team at a large firm, or a Sole Practitioner relies completely upon this certain paralegal. It is truly the dimension of professional and personal reliance that constitutes the level of their pay and the continuity of their employment. If you can develop a relationship in which the attorney thinks you "walk on water", then this can help give you long term stability.
A warning, because as the years go on, you can't keep on demanding more and more dollars just because of your seniority, the edge goes to the employer in these circumstances. As long as these employment relationships stay positive and non-abusive they can be wonderfully fulfilling and satisfying. The way to keep these relationships positive is to take other benefits in lieu of constant pay raises -- more personal time, greater latitutde with hours, more vacation pay are ways to make your life satisfying.
Teams of Paralegals -
Contract Administrators and Legal Managers and other titles now fill corporate, business and governmental ranks. The word paralegal can really mean - "Nonlawyer specifically required legal work for the particular milieu that we deal with in this company". Yes, that's right, it's still morphing. Yet, what's nice is that everybody generally gets what everyone else is talking about. A paralegal is what a specially trained nonlawyer does here!
All those Practice Areas -
Resumes can contain work in the financial services world, title insurance, construction, litigation, personal injury, intellectual properties, domestic and bankruptcy. A paralegal should be happy to develop depth of experience, but always willing to branch out horizontally. The challenge is to do both as you work, branching out, but developing existing strengths. This is what is fun about being a paralegal. It is what many were hoping for when they began. People are hoping that the profession will be full of variety and stimulating. Many will declare that it was all of those things.
If Its A World That Appeals -
If I were counseling a young person, or a mid-lifer about getting into this arena, I would ask one first big question. "Does this world appeal to you?" If you hate lawyers, don't get into it. If you are constantly throwing off the world of order and rules, don't bother. If you have a sales personality and want to let your personality expand, don't get into it.
Some Negatives -
It is necessary to throw some warning signs at your feet. Lawyers, while not a homogeneous group, and they are individuals, can have some common personality aspects. First, its not that they think they are smarter than you. Of course they think they are smarter than you. Attorneys can tend to think they are smarter than each other. They are not arrogant, like make-up that they put on every morning, they are just have strongly held self-opinions.
Its an arrogance of not brains, but style. They just have this abiding sense of superiority that tends to help them out in their daily work. And that actually is a positive, just not so much for the paralegal. Smile at this and enjoy it. Remember these people are the kids who went to school and did not want to be doctors because that was too hard, but they knew they were worthy, very worthy, even though they were not smart enough to be doctors. They also knew "All I have to do is get through law school, then for the rest of my life I can say I am an attorney. That is cool."
Because of this sense of inner strength, they can have an inherent laziness It is hard to work as much as they do. They do not anticipate that making money is as hard as it turns out to be. Then because it is the law, they will always be in a state of struggle. But, if you look at all of this positively, you will see the inevitability of the development of the paralegal profession in this context. Because they are under such constant pressure, there is much work that they can't get to. Because they have much weight upon their shoulders, they are happy to have paralegals help them. Because they have to struggle to make money and are in constant conflict, anything you can do to increase their bottom line and lessen their struggle is appreciated. See it all as natural. Look at the "big untalked about" - the fact that you have to work with attorneys -- as a positive, a big wonderful positive. If you can do this with a sense of enlightenment and non-bitterness, you will have a productive professional experience and work in a very stimulating and challenging world.
A Great Payoff -
Once you get all of these elements as a Picture that can be understood and appreciated, there is a great payoff. Its a fun world with challenge. The attorneys you end up working with will be the essential part of the world in which you labor and will and constitute the "flora and fauna" of the legal forest you are working and moving in. Its a truly fun and challenging professional status you can have. And guess what -- you don't have to go to law school to participate!
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