How to Get Experience?
How to Get Experience
By Carole A. Bruno©
If you are a paralegal student about to graduate, or if you are a recent graduate, you know that most legal employers want experience. One of the most common questions “newbies” ask is how to get experience. Unless you have completed an internship, you may find it difficult to obtain a job. Recently, one Texas paralegal wrote on a Yahoo ListServ:
I am on the verge of completing an online paralegal course and look forward to taking the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) exam this summer. . . I could not help but notice the employment ads all specify “heavy experience.” Simple question: How can I get experience without experience?
Getting experience has always been difficult for any person entering the job market for the first time; however, it is more difficult in law. Lawyers are busy and few have the patience to handle training. Besides, with seasoned paralegals are changing jobs more often, they have a selection of experienced paralegals to choose from.
What can you do? You must rise to the challenge with confidence and take charge of your career before you have even started. Having a plan is crucial. Selling yourself without experience is a creative endeavor. Do not buy into your colleagues’ negativity. You made it through the tremendous accomplishment of graduating from paralegal school. Be proud of that and come from a standpoint of achievement.
1. Assess Your Personal Skills.
Before you start your job search, take a personal inventory of your skills that you acquired in paralegal school. Knowing what skills you have will enable you to best present yourself during the interview. When you do not have experience, your education and knowledge is your best ammunition. Take the “Personal Skills Inventory and Assessment” to determine exactly what skills you learned in paralegal school (See form on this website; you receive it free when you join) If you need any additional skills, consider taking more courses online or from workshops or seminars. This will arm you with the confidence knowing that you have much to offer a potential employer. You might consider attaching a completed copy of your Inventory to your resume.
2. Take Any Job With a Legal Employer.
Forget about what type of job you are seeking with a legal employer; consider any job: receptionist, typist, clerk, secretary, courier or court runner, file clerk, mail clerk, copy person, or any job that is available. Your goal is to get your foot in the door. Once you are there, you are one-step ahead of anyone on the outside trying to come in.
Often law firms will invest in your training. Sheri Kyle started as a receptionist in a firm. She did not have any legal experience when she started with the firm. She had done a lot of secretarial-type work and had been an office manager. “There was no work in the area that I lived in so I was desperate for any kind of job,” Kyle said. “They offered me $7 an hour, and I turned them down; they counter-offered $9 an hour, and I took the receptionist job.” After she worked at the firm for about seven months, they needed someone with organizational abilities. ”I told them I was ‘the Queen of the Excel spreadsheet,’ and then they moved me into an asbestos litigation. They offered to send me to school to become a paralegal. “Since then, it’s been a constant learning experience,” Kyle said. “I’ve found that most attorneys that I work for are happy to give you a ‘leg up’ if you’re honest and willing to learn new things.” Kyle is now a government practice and general litigation paralegal at Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen in Peoria, IL.
Victoria Ring, who is now the owner of 713Training.com, LLC, Certified Paralegal and Training Instructor, Colorado Spring, CO, a self-professed “old-timer,” worked as a paralegal back in 1977, when the word “paralegal” did not exist. “Back then we were called legal secretaries,” Ring said. “I never attended paralegal school until I was 45. I am glad I waited because I already had 25 plus years of on-the-job experience in law firms before taking classes. I learned from interacting with clients. By listening to their needs and understanding how they think, I was able to combine the education from the attorneys and marry it with the clients,” Ring said. “This made me have a much better understanding of the legal field versus sitting in a classroom, listening to theory and passing a bunch of tests.” Ring said she obtained her experience from working one-on-one with good attorneys who knew the law and had the ability to train her so that she could do her job better.
3. Ask if They Will Train You In-House.
Some legal employers will train you in-house. Elizabeth Miner, who is now a corporate paralegal at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., in Boston, MA, received training in-house prior to obtaining a certificate in paralegal studies. Miner learned on the job with increasing levels of responsibility. “I began in a mid-sized company as a receptionist, moved into a position as a recording specialist retrieving recorded calls for litigation defense, and increased my knowledge working with a terrific legal team,” Miner said.
Miner got her paralegal certificate after 15 years in the field. “The studies gave me a broader view of areas in which I did not have experience and a solid understanding of ethics in the field,” Miner said. “I am really glad I had experience first; it made the education all that more relevant.”
Susan Winters, now a legal assistant at Miller Heiman in Reno, Nevada, started as a customer service representative for CT Corporation, coordinating UCC and county record searches by day and taking paralegal courses at night. CT paid for her paralegal education. She used that training to educate her co-workers regarding litigation and intellectual property. “Working for a company that provides legal services is a good alternative entrance to the legal community,” Winters said.
4. Accept a Combined Position.
After getting a BA in English in 1998, Yolanda Hiller got a job as a legal assistant in Charlotte, North Carolina, but her duties included back-up receptionist, secretary, file clerk, and paralegal. “I discovered a true passion for the paralegal work and decided to enroll in a paralegal program at a technical school,” Hiller said. “While in paralegal school, I also worked in a larger firm as a floater legal secretary and gained amazing experience in every practice area.” Hiller completed the paralegal program in December 2000, and landed her first job as a worker’s compensation paralegal in February 2001. “Although I did not have the official title of paralegal until 2001, my work experience as a legal assistant and secretary helped me build my foundation as a paralegal,” Hiller said.
Susan Leslie started in her senior year of high school in 1977, in Greensboro/Winston-Salem, North Carolina, working part-time as a receptionist in a law firm in co-op job. Within three years, Leslie was running the whole show. “The attorney was a very good teacher, and I consider him my mentor,” Leslie said. “He not only taught me, but also encouraged me all along the way. I fell in love with the law and have worked in the legal field ever since,” Leslie said. At the age of 40, after seeing the trend toward the requirement of a degree in the legal field, Leslie obtained her paralegal degree, even though she had been doing paralegal work all along. “I see myself doing this the rest of my career.”
5. Put yourself Out There.
Sometimes, you have to sneak in the back door like Jennifer Collins Boyle, a legal assistant at Macy’s in Cincinnati, OH. After getting her BA in Political Science, she did various jobs after school, and then started to work as a phone rep for Macy’s, and later became a trainer. When an opening arose, Boyle got a job in the legal department. “It’s been heavy hands-on training for the last two and a half years, but having the business exposure first helped me a lot in my job.” Boyle also worked in auto claims prior to joining Macy’s, an experience that she believes refined her negotiation skills.
6. Seek Work With Legal Affiliated Companies For Connections.
Being creative in your job search can be as simple as going through the phone book and searching the Internet to find companies where you may get exposure to legal establishments. Such companies may include legal software vendors, printing companies, court reporting companies, recruiting and legal personnel companies, and delivery companies that serve legal establishments; this is a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time.
7. Offer To Do Freelance Or Contract Paralegal Work.
If you research law firms in your area, you may find a firm that is open to delegating freelance contract work. You can do contract work in any field of law; you just do it as a freelance paralegal and under the supervision of a lawyer. Litigation departments often need coders to enter data for e-discovery. Although this is tedious work, it will get you in the door. Pay attention and be accurate and you might get the litigators attention.
8. Become A Virtual Paralegal.
If you have excellent skills, consider doing paralegal work through online freelance companies like Elance [www.elance.com] and Ifreelance [www.iFreelance.com]. The pay is not terrific, but you can get some good experience, and that is what you need most right now. Usually, the work on these sites is outsourced work from law firms or in-house counsel. Study the rules on these sites carefully and learn how to bid properly. Bidding at the last minute will enable you to assess the job better. Prepare your profile emphasizing the classes you took in paralegal school and any other nonlegal experience that you have such as volunteer work. You might sign up for the writing jobs too. This will give you some money while you are looking for your paralegal job. These sites will send you daily updates of current jobs directly to your email.
9. Join Your National, State or Local Paralegal Association.
Most associations have a student, associate, or non-voting membership. There are three associations National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) (www.paralegals.org); The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) (www.nala.org); and The American Alliance (www.aapira.com). If you join a state association that is a member of NFPA, you automatically belong to the national organization. All of these associations give you will obtain access to their websites. Attend as many meetings and seminars as you can in your area and use this time to network. Do not be afraid to let the members know you are looking for your first job. Find out who the job bank coordinator is and take him or her to lunch to get to know the local paralegal job market. Submit your carefully written resume. In addition, volunteer and get involved in the association so that you can get to know your colleagues and can contribute to the association.
10. Read Paralegal Magazines and Online Newsletters.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations publishes the National Paralegal Reporter, and The National Association of Legal Assistants publishes Facts and Findings, two excellent magazines. The American Alliance, the National Association of Legal Professionals (NALS) (http://www.nals.org), and the International Paralegal Managers Association (IPMA) [http://www.ipma.org] all have information-filled websites.
11. Spread the Word.
Access all your networks, including the students you know from paralegal school. Keep in touch with your school’s alumni to see if they know of any job listings and ask them where they got a job. If they have, find out how and where they got their job, and ask if they know of any other openings elsewhere. Do not be bashful about letting people know you want a job especially that you want experience and are willing to intern, if necessary.
12. Get on LinkedIn.
LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/ is an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world, representing 170 industries and 200 countries. You can find, receive introductions to, and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals. Your professional network of trusted contacts gives you an advantage in your career, and is one of your most valuable assets. LinkedIn exists to help you make better use of your professional network and help the people you trust in return.[i]
LinkedIn’s mission is to connect the world’s professionals to accelerate their success: “We believe that in a global connected economy, your success as a professional and your competitiveness as a company depend upon faster access to insight and resources you can trust. LinkedIn is a free business-specific network and in which you may build a network of contacts. You have to get know the people you invite to join your network. You connect to a contact and can get access to their contacts. It has structured rules that protect your privacy. “
When you join, you create a profile that summarizes your professional expertise and accomplishments. You can then form enduring connections by inviting trusted contacts to join LinkedIn and connect to you. Your network consists of your connections, your connections’ connections, and the people they know, linking you to a vast number of qualified professionals and experts. Through your network, you can:
- · Manage the information that’s publicly available about you as professional;
- · Find and be introduced to potential clients, service providers, and subject experts who come recommended;
- · Create and collaborate on projects, gather data, share files and solve problems;
- · Be in a position to be discovered for business opportunities and find potential partners;
- · Gain new insights from discussions with like-minded professionals in private group settings;
- · Discover inside connections that can help you land jobs and close deals; and
- · Post and distribute job listings to find the best talent for your company.[ii]
LinkedIn now has many groups related to paralegals, such as The Paralegal Network, Litigation Professional Concordance Users Group, The Paralegal Group, and the new e-Discovery Paralegal Network. All of these groups are excellent sources for contacts.
13. Try Plaxo.
Plaxo was one of the first networks and started with a different kind of address book, one that leverages the power of the network effect to stay up-to-date. They securely host address books for more than 40 million people.
With “Pulse,” they are bringing those, address books to life with a new way to enrich your connection with the people in your life. Pulse is a bit like some social networks you’ve heard of, but it’s different in several key ways. Pulse is a better way for you to stay in touch with the people you actually know and care about — your family, your real-world friends, and the people you know from business. Pulse makes it easy for you to see what they’re creating and sharing online — their blogs, the photos they’re uploading, their restaurant reviews, and so much more.
Pulse is a dashboard for seeing what the people you know are creating and sharing all over the open web. You can hook your Pulse account up to all the places where you create or share stuff (your blog, Flickr, Twitter, Yelp, and more than 30 other sites).
“And just recently, we became a subsidiary of Comcast Interactive Media, with a plan to have Pulse become central to creating a unified “Social Media” experience across the Web and TV (and more). Plaxo remains an independent operation in Silicon Valley, serving our worldwide customer base. To learn more, go to read the announcement blogpost.
Although Plaxo is not as business-oriented as LinkedIn, Plaxo is a good vehicle for an easily updatable address book. Get on Plaxo on a trial basis, and read their instructions on how to connect with others. You can easily invite people to join your network. Go to http://www.plaxo.com/
14. Join Yahoo Groups.
Go to Yahoo Groups [http://www.yahoogroups.com] and under “Government,” click “Law,” and then “Paralegals.” There are more than 100 or more paralegal groups. Join the relevant groups. Usually, there are no requirements or cost. Paralegals@yahoogroups.com, ParalegalGateway@yahoogroups.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org are active and informative groups. Also, consider joining some legal secretarial groups and ask for contacts. Legal secretaries always know what goes on at their firms and other firms.
Perusing paralegal websites, blogs, Facebook.com, and the paralegal groups in Yahoo and LinkedIn.com will help you learn much about what is happening in the paralegal world. However, to learn what is on the minds of paralegals, reading some of the posts on some of the Yahoo Group ListServs (online message and discussion boards) will give you a peek into the daily problems of the real world of paralegals.
More than often, you will find jobs through these networking sources and do not hesitate to post a request for a job.
15. Work as a Temporary Legal Office Worker.
Have you thought about temping? If you can use a computer, call the various temporary employment agencies; often, if you do an excellent job and make an impression, a law firm will hire you. Swallow your pride, and realize that even though you are overqualified, you can easily put yourself in places where you can make connections with legal employers. Nowadays, everyone has to temp one or more times during his or her career. It’s a tool.
16. You May Already Have Experience.
For example, if you have experience in real estate or have your real estate license, look at Martindale Hubbell, and find the real estate firms in your area. If you have financial experience, such as in accounting or banking, find a job with a legal employer in the accounting department, and wait patiently for a paralegal opportunity.
April A. Williams, CP, FRP, now a Certified Litigation Paralegal at Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon in Pensacola, FL, got a bachelor’s in business with a goal to be a stockbroker. That did not work out although Williams did garner experience in the securities field. “A door opened, and I was recruited to be securities litigation paralegal,” Williams said. “I had not a clue about the paralegal part, but gave it a shot.” A year and a half later, an esteemed law firm recruited Williams, and she later studied for her paralegal certification through NALA’s Certified Paralegal exam. Recently, Williams registered through Florida’s paralegal registration program.
17. Internships Work.
Many paralegal training programs offer internships in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a private law firm, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a bank, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, a government agency or other legal employer. Experience gained in internships is an asset when you are seeking a job after graduation. Potential employers consider internship legal experience by potential employers and often the legal employer providing the internship offers you paid employment.
Internships are often competitive and usually unpaid. Prospective students should examine the availability of internships and job assistance in paralegal programs and talk to recent graduates before enrolling in a paralegal program. Because of her own experience, Keenya Hewett suggests to anyone that he or she should only go into a program that has an internship program. She feels she missed out because of her paralegal program did not have an internship program, and she is now having a hard time getting a job.
As part of her degree program, Heather Kosmulski was required to work 300 hours as an intern. She worked for the Corporation Counsel of the city of Torrington in Connecticut. “It was amazing learning how my government worked and what exactly a municipal attorney did,” Kosmulski said. “I learned a lot and after I fulfilled my 300 hours, I ended up continuing to volunteer in her office. I gained so much useful knowledge from this attorney it is astounding.” Heather also worked as a legal secretary for a collections law firm in Chicago.
Practical Tips Other Paralegals without Experience Used to Enter the Paralegal Market:
Let’s examine how other paralegals have entered the market without experience and explore some practical ideas you may use in your search for experience.
Mariana Fradman got her first job during an internship at a small law office. As she continued to go to college to get her BS in legal studies, she was able to apply her new knowledge to her daily work almost simultaneously. “I found that [like attorneys] senior level paralegals are willing to share,” Fradman said. “I got my second job in a big law corporation during my second internship, changing my specialty to real estate, where I have continued to work for more than 10 years now.” Fradman clearly found her niche.
It just might happen that your professor will offer you an internship like Mariana Fradman received in a small law firm while she was in her first year of paralegal studies at Florida Community College. After her internship, the firm hired her. Although it was a small firm, Fradman says she learned much. After the firm split, she went to work on the Prudential lawsuit and worked with attorneys and paralegals from all over the country. “I learned a wealth of information from that experience,” Mariana Fradman said. “Before I went into law, I was a stockbroker for five years and am happy I changed professions. I love the law.” Mariana is a real estate paralegal at Blank Rome, LLP and is active on the Mentor Program Committee at New York City Paralegal Association, Inc.
Joy Herald Rutan completed her bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies at the college of Mt St. Joseph in 1994, while working at a bank. Rutan’s internship as a paralegal was mandatory because she was collecting unemployment. She choose a non-paid internship with the City of Cincinnati’s legal department. Rutan, an American Alliance Certified Paralegal, now works in Transactions, Banking & Corporate at Keating, Muething & Klekamp in Cincinnati, OH.
After graduation at the National Academy for Paralegal Studies in Massachusetts in 1993, Roland Paquette accepted an internship as a supplement to the certificate so that entry into the job market could document experience based on cumulative knowledge. Paquette interned with a private practitioner, Bernie Cohen, Esq., in Springfield, MA. “He was an experience like none I have had since,” Paquette said. “He was the kind of pro-bono attorney that took many more cases than he could handle but served all with equal amount of professionalism and class whether poor or rich.”
Jennifer Bowling found a legal internship on USAJobs.com at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in their Office of External Affairs prior to registering with her school to earn an Associate in Applied Science in Paralegal Studies. She is now working on my BS in Criminal Justice.
“I learned from interacting with clients. By listening to their needs and understanding how they think, I was able to combine the education from the attorneys and marry it with the clients,” Victoria Ring said. “This made me have a much better understanding of the legal field versus sitting in a classroom, listening to theory and passing a bunch of tests,” A self-professed “old-timer,” Ring was a paralegal in 1977, when the word “paralegal” was not commonly used; we were called ‘legal secretaries.’ I never attended paralegal school until I was 45,” Ring said. “I am glad I waited because I already had over 25 years on-the-job experience in law firms before taking classes.” Now owner of 713Training.com, LLC, in Colorado Springs, CO, Ring credits her experience from working one-on-one with good attorneys who knew the law and had the ability to train her so that she could do her job better.
Sara Younger, a paralegal at Lounsberry Ferguson Altona & Peack, LLP sums it up: “The bottom line is that in order to get experience, you have to ask questions, check the local and state rules and guidelines to help with documents you may need to file. Be willing to hit the ground running and say ‘yes’ to whatever is given to you. Start of loose-leaf notebook of your notes, ideas, rules, forms, checklists, website links, and other information. No one expects you to have all the answers when you are starting out; volunteer and be willing to do anything and eventually, you will get it.”
Getting experience is easier than you think. You have to be open to any type of legal-related job, and not figure that you are too good for that job. Granted, you may have an undergraduate degree and even a master’s degree, plus a paralegal certificate, but you need to get started with some kind of experience. Attorneys are busy; they need help. Canvas the attorneys and other legal employers to find a place where you can help as an unpaid intern. During the interview, convince them that you have the qualifications and can help them, albeit temporarily.
Regardless of the type of job you get, do your best job. Your first paralegal position may be with a different firm, and that is okay. You want to discover how a law firm operates. To experience and learn about the legal environment, you need to be right in the middle of it and study the inner workings of a law firm or a legal employer with lawyers at work. You do not have to hold a paralegal role to observe what you need to learn. Keep your eyes and ears open so that you can see firsthand how lawyers and paralegals work together, and as a part of a larger departmental team, such as a litigation team or a real estate department. Be aware of the roles of the legal secretaries and other law office staff. When you get a paralegal job, you must know to interact with them diplomatically. Again, do you best no matter what your title is so that you will get a good reference.
As much as you can, watch the process of the delivery of legal services and the production of legal documents. Learn the day-to-day functions of the law office or legal department. Watch the chaos when a file gets lost, or when the copier breaks down. Watch how the lawyers treat clients. Study the firm hierarchy. Do not get involved in office politics, but observe. Notice the buzz around partners’ meetings. Notice how the paralegals function. Watch them interact with clients and other paralegals. When you can catch them in the coffee room, talk to them, and find out what they do. Tell them you are a recent paralegal graduate and about your desire to get a paralegal job. Ask them if you can treat them to lunch to ask them a few questions. They will be flattered and eager to mentor you.
Then when you get the job, remember this employer may not be the particular one you hope to work for as a paralegal. Depending on the position you accept, you may or may not get the experience you need. Do not be concerned about that right now; observe and experience the legal environment.
Your reputation will follow you. Attorneys have a tightly knitted network. If you do an excellent job, they might refer you to one of their colleagues for the right paid fulltime job.
©Carole A. Bruno, 2008-2009