Advice For Getting Hired as a Paralegal
We asked several leaders in the paralegal field to share their best advice for students for getting hired as a paralegal after graduation. These insights and tips can help you effectively pursue employment as a paralegal. Here are their responses:
Laura Kryta: My advice is networking. Networking with other paralegals in your area, by joining a legal organization or paralegal association. Networking with peers often leads to learning about job opportunities in the legal market place. Also Social Networking on LinkedIn provides an opportunity for legal recruiters, and HR managers in law firms and corporate law departments to search for worthy candidates by reviewing your on-line resume.
-Laura Kryta is the President of the Western New York Paralegal Association and Paralegal at Phillips Lytle LLP
Rebecca Lewis: Network, network, network! Sometimes it’s not ‘what’ you know but ‘who’ you know so it’s beyond important to get involved in your local, state and national paralegal organizations. By “involved” I mean work on a committee within those organizations and get to know other established professionals in the legal industry. The more established paralegals who are well connected in the industry are constantly approached by legal recruiters and others asking if they know someone looking for a job who is specializing in a certain area of law. By doing this you can exhibit your work ethics, communication skills and build your own personal network of paralegal professionals.
If you have no legal background and work experience I would suggest volunteering. There are many organizations looking for volunteers where you can glean legal experience such as becoming a mediator or a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Neither of these opportunities require you to have legal background and both will give you an immense amount of exposure to the legal world as well as being a very rewarding experience. I promise you that having these types of volunteer experiences on your resume will draw attention from a hiring manager which will make you stand out as a potential candidate to be hired!
-Rebecca Lewis, MBA, MPA is the Vice President of the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio and Paralegal Supervisor at the Office of the Chief Legal and Governance Office, Nationwide
Mindi Schaefer: Getting hired as a paralegal involves a few key steps – (1) gain as much experience as possible to couple with your education; (2) put your “package” together including your resume, cover letter with career objective, reference list, reference letters, and up-to-date LinkedIn profile; and (3) create a solid job search plan with necessary websites and publications to monitor and schedule for follow-ups.
Education is one thing, but most employers are looking for experience as well. Many paralegals,
especially those new to the market, are concerned about how to find the necessary experience as a paralegal. There are a number of ways to gain experience as a paralegal including pro bono work, internships, and contract based assignments.
Your package must be top notch to be noticed. The resume must be current and organized so
potential employers can easily get a flavor about you, your education, and your experience. I also encourage paralegals to utilize LinkedIn as a resource to further promote themselves. It’s FREE and can be invaluable.
A plan for any project is necessary. A plan to find your paralegal job must be something you create from the beginning. For example, create an Excel spreadsheet with columns for name of potential employer, address, phone number, email, contact name, date of 1st contact, date of follow-up contact, etc. Even if an employer is not hiring, set a follow-up to contact them in 60 or 90 days to see if that has changed. Also utilize the spreadsheet to track websites visited during your job
search and set those for follow-up on a routine basis.
So to wrap up … get experience, prepare your package, and set your plan!
-Mindi Schaefer, M.S., RP, OSBA, AACP is the President of the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio and Lead Paralegal at Poling Law
Diana Martinez: Graduates of any paralegal program may have the “book smarts” from the courses and years of schooling that they achieved, however, experience is key to any successful paralegal. I do not recommend being “hired” as a paralegal right out of any program as many firm expectations can be brutal and sometimes can sabotage a career. Most firms will expect you to hit the ground running and attorneys can be egotistical, demanding, or stressed out and do not see their paralegal as a vital resource and/or team player. They will demand that you perform for them on a very high level and a paralegal just starting out may not be experienced enough to take on certain tasks or equipped to handle all of the responsibilities and stress that comes from being the one who handles everything behind the scenes.
I would recommend that any paralegal graduate seek an entry level position such as a “Legal Secretary” for the mere fact that they need to know the “guts” if you will of a law firm beforehand to build their confidence and knowledge of their firm’s duties and daily expectations. My saying is that if you want to excel in any position you better be able to “Own your Stuff” or else you will look incompetent and your reputation will be tarnished. If you do not have an honorable and lucrative reputation, you will not earn the salary that a seasoned and experienced paralegal can obtain. You will not be respected amongst your peers as we “paralegals” take pride in our positions, have a huge level of expectancy to stand up too and if one of us looks bad, then it is a reflection on all of us. Being a paralegal is a great career; we are the soul and energy of a law firm and we take pride in that and hope you will too.
-Diana Martinez is the Second Vice President of Memberships of the Ventura County Paralegal Association
Connie S. Johnson: My best advice to students would be to join your local paralegal association NOW. Do not wait until you are a paralegal. I recommend this for several reasons.
- It shows a commitment on your resume early on that will benefit you looking for a job fresh out of school.
- You can attend the monthly meetings and MCLE presentations where you can learn more.
- You can meet active paralegals in your area and possibly develop job leads through that.
- You can avail yourself of scholarships, mentoring and other opportunities for students through the associations.
- You can keep up to date with the changes in the courts so you are more knowledgeable in the local court situations, filings, and rules. This will be a huge benefit when you start looking for work.
-Connie S. Johnson is the Director/President of the Inland Counties Association of Paralegals
Tammy Martinez: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is training, experience and networking. As a new paralegal getting that first job is tough because employers are looking for experience. Any internships a paralegal student can do would be beneficial in the long run and worth the legal experience gained in the field. This experience can be listed on a resume. By networking paralegals make the vital connections needed in today’s market to give them the extra inside track of who’s hiring and who to talk to. Joining their local and state paralegal associations and attending meetings and socials is a great way to network.
-Tammy Martinez is the Vice President of the Greater Lexington Paralegals Association
Treva Hansen: If you have no legal experience, I would suggest getting your foot in the door at a law firm in any available position. We have had many runners, file clerks, and secretaries work their way up to paralegal, and some have even gone on to become attorneys. Make sure your resume looks professional, is mistake-free, and contains proper grammar and formatting. A potential employer forms their first impression of you based on your resume. If you are a student who will be graduating soon with a legal degree or you are a paralegal looking for a new job, I think that one of the best things that you can do is to get involved in a local legal professional association where you can network with paralegals. Often, people within legal associations know about job openings before they are made public.
-Treva Hansen is the President of the Kansas Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegal at Hinkle Law Firm LLC
Christi Powell: Be honest about your skills. If the job description lists programs you don’t know, be up front and state you have no experience in those programs – but you are willing to learn. Take free classes when they are offered on programs or features that you don’t normally use but realistically could be expected to use. Community colleges will sometimes offer adult education classes for free or at a nominal expense on the basics of Excel, PowerPoint, etc. Legal research companies will offer webinars or courses at no cost to update you on the new features available to streamline your legal research. It is important to stay up to date on technology. However, if you have fallen behind, it is more important to be honest and be willing to learn than to try to bluff your way to obtain a position that is technologically outside of your experience level.
-Christi Powell is the First Vice President of the Kansas Association of Legal Assistants
Marisel Walston: The best advice I have for getting hired as a paralegal is to do your homework before you go to a job interview. Take time to research the potential employer by reviewing their website and reading through the bios of the attorneys working at the law firm or the corporate department. This will help you formulate questions during the interview as well as feeling a little more at ease during the interview process. Bring questions with you to the interview. Know your resume. Highlight your accomplishments even if they were not in the legal field. Be confident and smile.
As far as advice to becoming a paralegal, I would say choose the best paralegal program you can find. An accredited program is preferred by employers and most require a four (4) year degree, but requirements on paralegal education by employers vary a lot so it is best to research your area and find out what employers in your local area are looking for when hiring a paralegal. Contact your local paralegal association and become a member of the association. Participate in their meetings. It will help you to network and understand what you are getting into! Paralegal associations often provide inexpensive CLEs or lunch series which will help a new paralegal with their skills. Organization, attention to detail, flexibility, knowing how to handle stress and people in difficult situations, and good management skills, among others are all skills that make a successful paralegal.
-Marisel Walston is the President of the Kansas City Paralegal Association
Kristine Custodio: I have been involved with the San Diego Paralegal Association for seven years and highly encourage paralegal students and up-and-coming paralegals to volunteer with their local paralegal associations.
It is so very important to be connected and to stay involved. I have served in many capacities in my association over the past several years including Director, Vice President, President, and my most favorite role as the School Liaison. Education and working with students is my passion. I often speak at local paralegal schools and share my journey of how I achieved a high level of success in my career. My advice to paralegal students and to new graduates seeking their first job is as follows:
- Network, network, network!
- Find a mentor.
- Attitude is everything.
- Work hard.
- Don’t compromise your ethics!
Lastly, I encourage paralegal students to explore the following resources:
- California Alliance of Paralegal Associations publication “6450 & You” (specific CA law that regulates paralegals–the only state that has a code regulating paralegals): http://www.caparalegal.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/6450.pdf
- The Paralegal Association (NALA): http://www.nala.org
- The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS): http://www.nals.org/
- National Federation of Paralegal Association: http://www.paralegals.org/
- Paralegal Mentor: http://paralegalmentor.com/
- The Paralegal Society blog: http://theparalegalsociety.wordpress.com/
- The Paralegal Voice podcast: http://legaltalknetwork.com/podcasts/paralegal-voice/
- Washington State Bar Association’s Limited License Legal Technicians (limited scope practice permitted for non-lawyers): http://www.wsba.org/Licensing-and-Lawyer-Conduct/Limited-Licenses/Legal-Technicians
- ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals: http://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals.html
-Kristine Custodio is the Vice President of Programs & Education and NALA Liason of the San Diego Paralegal Association
Ann Atkinson: On behalf of NALA, the following tips are considered our best advice for getting hired as a paralegal:
- Get your paralegal certificate from an ABA-approved school.
- Experience is very helpful, so suggest interviewing for some other position within a firm or corporation just to get some basic legal experience, then when a job opening comes up, the applicant would be able to apply before the job is offered to “outsiders.” Also, list specific experience obtained as intern.
- Take your certification exam right out of paralegal school. This shows that you are serious about your education and training.
- Join a local or state association for the purpose of building up your network. Many job openings are announced at local affiliate meetings.
- Come to the interview well dressed, with a smile on your face and master that “firm” handshake. Answer questions honestly and have eye contact with the interviewer.
- Do not bring your cellphone to the interview, or if you must bring it, shut it off.
-Ann Atkinson is the President of NALA – The Paralegal Association
Sandra M. Herdler: There are a number of things that will lead to success as a paralegal.
First, do your research into which paralegal program best fits your needs. I would recommend an ABA approved program. I would also attend classes in person rather than on line. This will allow you to network with your instructors and other students. Do well in your classes and go above and beyond what is required. You never know when your instructor may know of and recommend you for a paralegal position. Do not stop with a paralegal certificate or two year degree. Go for a four year degree. If you can not find a program with a four year paralegal degree program, obtain a four year degree in a field of study that will complement your paralegal degree and certificate.
Secondly, you should network. Join your school’s paralegal organization or your local paralegal association. This will allow you to network with working paralegals that may ultimately end up helping you get your foot in the door and land you your first job. Internships are also a great way to help you land that first job.
Third, get a job with a law firm as a file clerk, receptionist, typist, secretary, or any position that could lead to a position as a paralegal. A lot of law firms promote from within. Most law firms in our area do not like to hire a paralegal with no experience.
Fourth, resumes are very important. While in school do volunteer work, join clubs and organizations within your school. All of these things look good on a resume and make a potential employer do more than just glance at your resume.
Fifth and probably most important is to be organized and have great oral and written communication skills. Your attorney is going to rely on you to communicate with clients on behalf of the firm. You need to be on top of your game to make not only yourself but your attorney look good in front of clients. Anything you can do to make your attorney’s job easier will make you invaluable to your firm.
-Sandra M. Herdler is the Vice President of the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. and a Senior Paralegal at Krigel & Krigel, P.C., Kansas City, Missouri.
Elizabeth Olvera: My advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to be proactive. Send resumes with a cover letter and make sure you follow up with the hiring manager to stay on their radar. If necessary, apply for positions such as a file clerk, a records clerk, or a legal assistant just to get into a firm. Once you get hired, you can prove that you have the skills to do paralegal work and ask to be promoted to a paralegal position. Also, get actively involved with a paralegal association, volunteer, and attend networking events. Be proactive in your search and stay positive!
-Elizabeth Olvera is the Vice President of the San Francisco Paralegal Association
Johnanna Oglesby: Don’t wait till graduation, if you do you will be behind the curve ball. Start at the beginning by being the best in your class or at least the best you can be. Try to absorb all you can, and go the extra mile for the extra credit. Network with the professors and department heads. These individuals may be utilized for references or specific job leads later.
Take an internship if they are offered as a part of your program. If they are not, approach your instructors or counselor about implementing such a program. If that fails, seek either a paying or even non-paying internship at a local firm. This type of hands on experience is incredibly valuable. Also if you do a great job and make yourself indispensable, these positions could turn into something more once you graduate, or at the very least provide another source of references.
Join any organizations you can, Local, State and National. Organizations are great ways to network. Don’t just join, be active and seek office. These types of actions say to a potential employer that you have ambition and the potential for leadership.
Study and sit for NALA’S certification exam as soon as possible. That designation will set you apart from and give you an edge over non-certified applicants. It is an immediate way to convey that you have the requisite knowledge to perform the job.
Once you have an interview, do your homework and learn as much as you can about the position and then present yourself as a self-confident professional who is the right candidate for the job.
-Johnanna Oglesby, CP is the Vice President of the Oklahoma Paralegal Association
Leigh Johnson: When it comes to advice for getting hired as a paralegal, I’ll begin with the most obvious—proof, proof, proof your resume before applying to a job. You do not need a business course in order to learn how to properly format a resume. Find a reputable website — there are plenty out there — that give examples of a properly formatted resumes.
Next, the easiest — smile throughout the interview. Following that, make sure you have standards and not expectations. Expectations are us trying to will other people to do what we want — since we can’t control anyone besides ourselves, this sets us up for disappointment and hurt when it comes to not getting that job you wanted. Standards are for yourself — they’re the rules you live by and strive to achieve. If your standards shine in your resume and during your job interview, you cast a glow of self worth which will definitely impress an interviewer. Another way to impress the interviewer is to do your research. What I mean by that is learn about the firm, company or agency you’re interviewing with — what type(s) of law do they practice; how can they utilize your strengths to their benefit. They need to believe you’ve actually heard of them and this position is your first choice.
During my junior year of college, I knew I would be required to have an internship my senior year. I believed that I would understand the legal field more and it would help me in paralegal courses if I had a real world experience in a law firm. So, instead of waiting another year for the internship, I prepared cover letters and resumes and went door to door of law firms in town and dropped them off. I didn’t know all of these law firms were hiring, but I took the initiative and it paid off. I did get an internship at a law firm and I learned an enormous amount from them. Not only did they educate me, but it helped me build my professional network, which, in turn, helps get my foot in the door for future job openings.
Finally, don’t forget to send a thank-you note to your interviewer.
-Leigh Johnson is the 1st Vice President of the Western Dakota Legal Assistants Association
Alexander May: So, how do you convince the attorney or personnel manager who is interviewing you that you know what it means to be a paralegal, if you’ve never been one? My advice for the first-time, fresh-out-of-paralegal-school, or otherwise known as a “newbie” paralegal, would be to expect anything – including nothing. Here are several reasons why:
You are not a paralegal just because you have obtained a certificate of completion of a paralegal program from an educational organization. This is because paralegal programs do not teach every aspect of what you need to know to be a successful paralegal; they teach just the essentials. So, the first step after completing the paralegal education program is to identify what you are lacking – what are your weaknesses? This involves the ability to honestly assess yourself. In what area do you need improvement: the way you look, or the way you speak, or perhaps, the way you write? Maybe you need improvement in your comprehension, or the way you listen?
Get more education; on your own time or through a study group provided by a local or national paralegal association. Read the Federal Rules of Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. Read the state equivalent of these rules. Then, read law review articles about the rules. If you are really serious about being a paralegal, obtain certification status. Attorneys know that when you are certificated (when you are fresh-out-of-school), you have a good feel for what you are talking about. Whereas when you are certified, you have “arrived” and you know what you are talking about – certification means you can be reasonably relied onto know what you’re talking about. It means you’ll be able to demand a higher salary right off the bat.
It is important to understand that a successful paralegal is always changing, always adapting and learning; whether learning new laws and rules, the shifting political atmosphere and personnel at work, new technology, or simply the new facts from case to case. Understand that the paralegal’s number one job is to be an asset to her lawyer or team of lawyers. This means doing whatever is necessary to allow the supervising lawyer or lawyers to do their job, which means learning anything and everything; from licking envelopes and filling out forms to writing briefs, evaluation reports, and legal research. In other words, expect anything. Essentially, you should be behaving like a paralegal even before you become one: find a way to win the case – or the interview! To summarize, learn how to improve yourself, then learn who is interviewing you or will be supervising you. What is her background and what area of law does she practice? Talk to and interview other paralegals who are in that area of the law – find out what they do from day to day. Demonstrate that you like learning, that you like changing, and that you have an infinite thirst for this: that you can be what you decide you want to be; and more importantly, what your boss wants you to be.
Finally, realize that a large part of what you will need to learn to be an effective paralegal is job-specific. Knowing this, a humble but eager attitude will carry you a long way in an interview. Use the fear of the unknown for motivation to look deeper and further into what you don’t know – be courageous, and unafraid of mistakes. Ask questions that will tell your potential boss that you are comfortable not knowing. This is so essential, yet not taught in paralegal school, or any school for that matter. This is personal; something you have to reach for and attain about yourself, for yourself. Many will have a self-important, too-confident attitude that screams “know-it-all” from the very first answer in an interview. Many others will have a passive, uninterested, get-me-out-of-here attitude. Just consider some minor details:
- Are you exaggerating your typing speed?
- Are you really familiar with PowerPoint?
- Why should you be trusted with important confidential case information?
If you expect nothing, you will answer honestly and accurately. It’s okay if you are not hired on the first interview because you expected nothing. After all, you’re expecting a lawyer to take a leap of faith to hire you as a paralegal. Frankly speaking, many newbies are still in the “shock and awe” state of mind after leaving paralegal school and during interviews for their first paralegal job. There is, fortunately, a solution that will wash out the “deer in the headlights” look right out of a newbie’s eyes. The solution is to be hungry for anything, as in any position in a law firm at any salary. That hunger will be visible in your eyes – it’s the unmistakable look of a hunter, a determined person who will soon get what she wants; never to be confused with passive prey.
-Alexander May, Board Certified Paralegal, TBLS is a paralegal at Germer Beaman & Brown PLLC and President Elect of the Capital Area Paralegal Association
Mianne L. Besser: Find the area of law that is your passion. Be open to the possibility that the paralegal job you desire may not be immediately in your reach and accept the opportunity (whether Receptionist, Legal Assistant, or Legal Secretary) presented and make the best of it. Many companies like to promote from within.
Start networking as soon as possible and connect with paralegals who work in the area(s) of law which interest you. Look within your network and find a mentor (or two; “one-size” does not fit all).
Locate the Paralegal Association in your area and become a member and volunteer for a committee which you believe suits your personal/professional interests.
Volunteer in your community as many service organizations welcome Paralegal volunteers because of the education, experience, attention to detail and professionalism brought to the environment.
Continue your paralegal education by attending paralegal/legal education opportunities (“CLE”), whether in your chosen field or a legal area of personal interest. There is a plethora of education opportunities available through local paralegal associations as well as the American Bar Association, national paralegal associations (NFPA, NALA, NALS, AAPI, etc.) and companies like NBI/IPE, Lorman, WestLegalEd. In addition to continuing paralegal education, consider adding professional development courses to your profile including MS Suite training, PACER, eDiscovery, ethics, time management, billable hours, stress reduction, interpersonal communications, leadership, etc. Consider auditing a college course in an area of personal interest or participate in an online course offered at no-cost or low-cost through Massive Open Online Courses (“”MOOCs””) including Coursera, EdX, and Lynda.com.
Keep your resume and references current and recognize that there is no one particular format suitable for all paralegal opportunities. Be aware that your resume may need to be rewritten for each intended recipient based upon the criteria and skills needed for the job.
-Mianne L. Besser is the President and NFPA Secondary of the Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association
Heather Purnell: My advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to get your feet wet at a law firm. Many paralegals (especially recent paralegal college graduates) get bogged down with getting hired immediately as a paralegal. But some law firms want you to have experience first. If there is a job open as a legal assistant, take it. If you do a good job and show your skills, you can easily move into a paralegal position.
-Heather Purnell, Registered Paralegal, is the President of the Greater Lexington Paralegals Association and paralegal at DelCotto Law Group PLLC
Melanie Hicks: The best advice I can give to someone to be hired as a paralegal is to always be willing to learn new skills and adapt to your environment. I have worked as a paralegal for twenty years and every office that I have worked in operates differently. All attorneys have specific document drafting styles, review work differently, and have different expectations with respect to a paralegal’s duties. Whether you are just out of school or an experienced paralegal, be willing to adapt your skills to the expectations of the supervising attorney or attorneys. Also, being educated in various areas of the legal field can expand your opportunities in an ever-changing work environment.
One additional piece of advice that I would give to everyone is never burn bridges and be respectful of current and previous work colleagues. If you do not get along with someone or disagree with their ethics, remove yourself from the situation but do not vent your frustrations within your work circle. Negativity spreads quickly and it may end up being communicated to a potential employer.
-Melanie Hicks, CP is the First Vice President of the Legal Assistants/Paralegals of Southern West Virginia and Paralegal at Paralegal Solutions LLC.
Kevin Johnson: My advice for getting hired as a paralegal would be to focus first on obtaining a bachelor’s degree. More so than ever, employers are requiring candidates to hold, at minimum, a four-year degree. While in school, I would encourage candidates to join their local paralegal association to take advantage of the many networking, education and pro-bono opportunities that it provides. Finally, I would encourage candidates to choose a specialty in the field (e.g., corporate, litigation, real estate, intellectual property, etc.) that he or she is passionate for and build on that enthusiasm. It’s nice to be well-rounded in the legal field, but candidates who offer employers a specific skill set and expertise in any given specialty can often command a significantly higher salary and tend to have greater opportunities for advancement within the company.
-Kevin Johnson is the Vice President of the Massachusetts Paralegal Association and Legal Assistant at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.
Patricia DeRamus: Internships/clerkships at law firms, legal aid societies and governmental agencies are a great way to get a foot in the door. Many have started as Legal Assistants/Administrative Assistants which allows for commencing on the ground floor and working up the legal ladder.
-Patricia DeRamus, ACP, FRP is the President of the Paralegal Association of Florida, Inc.
Melanie Ells: My best advice for someone fresh out of school trying to get a paralegal position is to be willing to start as a legal assistant and get their foot in the door. Once they are in, they will have the opportunity to prove their skills and worth and move up very quickly in the organization.
-Melanie Ells is the Treasurer/Membership Director of the Central Massachusetts Paralegal Association
Cindy Wirtz: My advice to anyone seeking a paralegal position is to network, in particular using an organization such as the Pittsburgh Paralegal Association (PPA). I found my present position in 2006 as the firm had the paralegal job posted on the PPA website. As we all know, most job opportunities are not advertised in the newspaper. The legal community is close knit and I have found that attorneys refer not only clients to one another on a regular basis, but staff as well. Another great resource is the local Bar Association. In Pittsburgh we have the Allegheny County Bar Association which has a great job bank.
-Cindy Wirtz is the Vice President of the Pittsburgh Paralegal Association
Robert E. Mongue: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to join a paralegal association and participate in every opportunity to volunteer provided by that organization. Many, if not most, job openings are never advertised. They are filled because someone knows someone. Active participation in paralegal organizations and pro bono projects can make you the someone someone knows. It is a networking opportunity that provides personal contact with other paralegals, attorneys, and frequently court personnel.
Yet, it is more than just a networking opportunity. Each project provides participants with the experience so often sought by law offices, so it improves a participant’s resume. It helps build the confidence and self-esteem so important to a successful interview. It fulfills a paralegal’s ethical obligations to the community in which they hope to work. And, it feels good to do good.
-Robert E. Mongue, MA, JD is the Secretary for the American Association for Paralegal Education and Associate Professor of Legal Studies at The University of Mississippi
Nicole Rodriguez: My advice would be to join an association at any level, local or state. Become involved and network.
-Nicole Rodriguez is the President of the Alamo Area Paralegal Association, Inc.
Beth Rountree: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to join a local paralegal association. This is an invaluable way to network and get insights into the legal community you want to work in. Many associations allow students to join while they are in school and participate in continuing education or even join a committee. This experience looks great on a resume when the candidate has no paralegal working experience. Many associations have job bank resources to learn about opportunities that some employers do not post on large web sites or advertise publicly. A local paralegal association is also a good resource for internships or even a short-term job shadow opportunity.
-Beth Rountree is the President of the Idaho Association of Paralegals, Inc.
Lori Hanlon: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to complete a four-year degree from an accredited program and join the local paralegal organization. Joining the local organization provides an individual multiple networking opportunities, which could lead to job leads. Once an interview has been landed, the applicant should research the firm and the job description so that he/she is prepared for the interview. Additionally, in addition to a strong resume, the applicant should bring a work portfolio to show the potential employer some of his/her work product. The portfolio should also include writing samples. If the applicant is a student, then the portfolio should contain projects and papers from school.
-Lori Hanlon is the President of the St. Louis Paralegal Association
Kimberly Mumford: To echo the advice so competently provided by my colleagues, getting experience and exposure to the legal field are key to getting hired.
1. Consider taking on an entry level position at a firm or in the court system as a file clerk or legal secretary. We have hired several file clerks that entered the paralegal studies program and garnered enough experience upon graduation to be hired immediately as paralegals.
2. If you are having difficulties obtaining an entry level position, as can happen during an economic downturn, then going for an unpaid internship is something that will ultimately pay off in the long haul for the experience you will earn and the contacts you will make. I did a 6-month, unpaid internship at the District Attorney’s Office while I was trying to decide which field of law to follow. This was an invaluable experience to add to my resume and opened many doors for me in my career. Always ask for a letter of recommendation upon finishing the internship.
3. Join the local paralegal association to network, find mentors and mingle in the legal community. Our association has a job listing service, where businesses will often inform us of job opportunities and we in turn share them with our members. So if you are a student looking for an entry level position or an experience paralegal looking for a new position, this is an invaluable asset that your paralegal association can offer you. Finding a mentor through networking is another key to success. Consider volunteering on a committee to meet other experienced paralegals. While I was a student, I volunteered to help with the newsletter for my local association and met numerous women who had long-standing excellent careers as paralegals. They taught me a wealth of information you can only get from a veteran in the field.
4. Solidify your skill set. If you haven’t worked in an office environment, learn how to draft a basic business letter, improve your typing speed, learn the latest office software, and be on top of your game. Build a solid, clear and concise resume and a sheet of personal references, but customize it for each job opportunity. Have the supporting documentation available for any questions about your education or skill sets. There are often a lot of free resources available to job seekers. Before I went for my first interview, I took the time to refresh my clerical skills at the local city college, adult education program. It was free to use their computer labs, which are intended to teach folks the basics to get a job. They even had workshops for preparing the perfect resume.
5. When you are called in for an interview, be confident, poised and prepared to answer questions about yourself. Know your weaknesses and strengths, and be ready to market yourself. It’s always good to familiarize yourself with the company who is interviewing you, and prepare some questions of your own – you may want to interview them as well to know the job is a good fit.
Remember to be proactive: you are in charge of the direction of your career, so take it where you want to go!
-Kimberly Mumford is the President of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association and a paralegal at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck
Mary M. Olson: So you want to be a paralegal? I say, “Good for you!” I have been working as a paralegal for over 20 years. I enjoy my work every day, although, as in all jobs, some days are better than others. After the economic downturn a few years ago, the job market tanked and so did the market for paralegals. I think we are finally starting to see the market come back if the number of employers looking for paralegals is any indication. There are many areas and types of work a paralegal can do. I am not a traditional paralegal, since I do not have a degree or a paralegal certificate. I qualified for the position I currently hold because of my years of experience and knowledge, not because I had experience working as a paralegal in a traditional paralegal environment. I have worked at this firm for eight years and, because I worked my way up through the “trenches”, I would like to share with you what I have learned along the way. If you want to be set apart from the rest of the paralegals out there, here are some things to think about or accomplish: (a) The most in-demand paralegals have five plus years of experience, (b) they hold a Bachelor’s Degree, and (c) they hold a Certificate of Completion from an American Bar Association (“ABA”) approved paralegal program. If you aren’t lucky enough to have this much work experience or all of the education, you should at least obtain a certification from an ABA approved paralegal program. Here are some suggestions:
1. Make sure you get as much technical training as you can. Some of the programs you should be proficient in are Microsoft Office and Visio, leading legal software applications, tools and platforms used for research, trial preparation, time management, case management and billing. These would include Westlaw, Summation, Concordance and TrialDoctor.
2. If you are an entry level paralegal, any type of office work will benefit you and improve your chances of getting hired.
3. Internships are key. Even if the employer doesn’t offer any compensation for the time you work, you should work for free to gain the experience. Internships often lead to offers for a permanent position, so do your best!
4. Pro bono volunteering is an opportunity to gain experience and do something good for your community. Volunteering provides for an excellent opportunity to network with other paralegals, lawyers and professionals.
5. Gain exposure by joining the professional associations that are specifically for paralegals (e.g. Minnesota Paralegal Association), or pertain to a specific practice area. This can also be a great networking opportunity for you.
I hope that some of these suggestions help you on your journey to a truly fascinating career as a paralegal. Good luck!
-Mary M. Olson is the Vice President of the Minnesota Paralegal Association
Penny Higdon: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal would be to network – join paralegal associations, attend local seminars – the more people you meet, the better. If a position becomes available and you have a connection with that firm or organization through networking, you can reach out and let them know you will be applying – as with any opportunity where there is competition, you need to do what you can to make yourself stand out in a good way.
-Penny Higdon, North Carolina Certified Paralegal is the President, Metrolina Paralegal Association
Vicky La Celle: I give advice to many new paralegals and paralegal students regarding just this subject. I believe that the key is to know your strengths and understand how they, along with your experience, will help you get a paralegal position. Often students are new to the legal field and do not have prior legal experience, but they may have strengths and experience that are relevant to a paralegal, or other legal support position. For those individuals, I encourage them to be open to all opportunities in the legal field. I myself started as a file clerk shortly before I graduated from paralegal school. I had no experience in the legal field, and in being open to getting experience as a file clerk I positioned myself to be promoted to a paralegal position in less than one year. Once a new paralegal gets a position as a paralegal, I feel that it is important to learn everything that you can and be willing to help out when asked. By doing this, the new paralegal will become a person that everyone wants to work with. Lastly, stay positive and keep smiling. A positive attitude and a gracious smile will be remembered.
-Vicky La Celle, ACP is the President of the Orange County Paralegal Association
Harry Reichner: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is threefold. The first is to produce a great resume that highlights your education, but firmly sets forth your skill sets and interests that add value to a firm. Membership in sports teams and academic organizations, taking a role in non-profit groups and charitable organizations, and any organizational or leadership roles set you apart. The second task is to seek out and join your nearest paralegal association, many of which can be found on the National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ website. Paralegal associations are business leagues where the paralegal members network, assist each other’s practice, and advocate for the paralegal profession. The third and final step is to find a working paralegal mentor. You will no doubt find one at the paralegal association you become involved in. Your mentor can help you choose an area of law suited to your interests and will guide you in the ways of procuring gainful employment in the profession.
-Harry Reichner, MA is the Chairperson of the Keystone Alliance of Paralegal Associations, Vice President of the Montgomery County Paralegal Association, Adjunct Faculty at Villanova University, Adjunct Faculty at Delaware Valley College, and Paralegal at
Klehr | Harrison | Harvey | Branzburg LLP.
Steven Jones: As a paralegal student entering the profession, it is very important to network with veteran paralegals. A great way to network is to join your local paralegal association. Not only will you have an opportunity to network with veteran paralegals, you will also have the opportunity to gain CLE that you may not have access to in the classroom. In most cases, you will also have community service opportunities which can strengthen your relationship with members of your association. Building friendships that last a lifetime can go a long way when looking for job opportunities. It is also important to stay updated on the many new issues surrounding the legal community. Whether it is new legal software or updated Federal Rules, it is important for you to be aware. Also, when job searching, have an opened mind and be patient. Make sure you broaden your horizon when job searching. Do not limit yourself to law firms only. There are thousands of jobs for paralegals outside the general law practice. Search for positions at major corporations (private and public), hospitals, governmental agencies, etc. Lastly, set yourself apart. There are hundreds of paralegal students entering the profession annually and many of them are seeking the same positions as you. What will make you stand out among the pool of potential candidates? If you have already obtained an associate degree, you may want to consider obtaining a bachelor degree in paralegal studies or a paralegal certification. You may also want to consider volunteering in a law office so you may gain hands-on experience.
-Steven Jones, AAS, BS, MS is the President of the Mississippi Paralegal Association and Paralegal and Office Manager at The Michael R. Brown Law Offices PLLC, in Jackson, Mississippi.
Christine Flynn: If you are currently looking for a paralegal position, I would suggest joining your local paralegal association. Whether you are paralegal student or an experienced paralegal, the local paralegal association can provide you with a wealth of resources for obtaining a position in the field. The Philadelphia Association of Paralegals, for example, offers numerous networking opportunities including student events, a weekly e-mail blast, lunch and learn committee meetings, professional development, social events and a full-day education conference. Additionally, we offer a members-only job bank and constant updates on the ever-changing rules and trends in the legal field. The local paralegal association will also most likely offer pro bono opportunities to members resulting in members feeling a sense of both personal and professional satisfaction.
-Christine Flynn is a Litigation Paralegal at Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith and Chair – Membership at the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals (PAP).
Kerry Swancutt: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal would be the following:
- Earn your Paralegal Certificate from an American Bar Association accredited program. You need to set yourself apart and set yourself up for success – and that starts with your Paralegal education.
- When trying to land your first paralegal job, don’t expect to start off in your dream job making great money. Often the best way to get your foot in the door and gain experience comes from working your way up from the bottom. Don’t be afraid to start your legal career as a receptionist or legal clerk.
- Network with other paralegals at your local paralegal association. At the Orange County Paralegal Association, we post a wealth of jobs for our membership in our job bank. I am also constantly being contacted by recruiters looking to hire and I pass on that information to paralegals who I have networked with at our meetings.
- Be a lifelong learner. Best advice for any paralegal is to keep learning and fine tuning new skills. You never know what new task your firm or company will ask you to do, so be prepared and be familiar with a variety of paralegal tasks. The Orange County Paralegal Association offers a variety of MCLE courses throughout the year to continually educate paralegals.
-Kerry Swancutt is the Vice President of Administration for the Orange County Paralegal Association.
Julie Craft: Before you begin searching for a position as a paralegal, evaluate yourself – honestly. Do you thrive in a fast-paced, high-stress environment or are you more laid-back? Can you work long hours or do you prefer to be home with your family? These types of questions will help you discover the best work environment for you.
Then dig deeper and ask yourself the difficult questions an employer might ask. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Try to find a way to turn your weaknesses into strengths. If you lack job experience, present it as a clean slate. It will be easier for you to adjust to your new employer’s way of doing things.
By knowing who you are and what you are looking for, you can go into any interview with the confidence to answer any question that may be asked and present your best self. When I was interviewed for my current position, my future boss asked why he should hire me over someone else. I said, “I’m good at what I do.” He hired me a week later and I have been with him for 19 years.
-Julie Craft, Advanced Certified Paralegal President, Alabama Association of Paralegals, Inc. and paralegal at Chenault Hammond, P.C..
Lisa Kilde: My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to keep your options open. Apply for jobs even if you feel it isn’t in the area of law you ideally want to work in. Furthermore, apply for jobs even if you feel that you may not be qualified. By sending your resume in you may be fortunate enough to get an interview and the interview experience alone is priceless. Each interview will teach you valuable lessons on how to answer tough interview questions and what questions to ask. Be your own critic, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the position. Once you go through a couple of interviews you will have perfected your interview skills and landed a paralegal job. Also, it is important to meet and talk with others in your profession and a good way to do this is to join your local paralegal association. Other paralegals will have insight as to which firms are hiring. Plus if a paralegal within a firm that is hiring recognizes your name they may put in a good word to their employer.
-Lisa Kilde is the President of the Red River Valley Paralegal Association and paralegal at Ohnstad Twichell, PC
Missouri Paralegal Association: We have polled our members that work for County, State and Federal agencies, private practice (small to medium firms) and corporate firms.
- Network. Not all job openings are on job boards, or on any other announcement. The phrase “it is not what you know but who you know” is true. Network with classmates, advisors, find a professional organization – these are huge. A lot of employers are now seeking out professional organizations to get better qualified applicants that they would possibly not reach.
- When you graduate from college – you probably have how-to knowledge, but as far as application of that knowledge you probably have not had an opportunity. If you have the opportunity to have an internship take full advantage of it. If you do not have the opportunity of an internship, see if you can volunteer for some experience.
- Find a way to make yourself stand out in a good yet intriguing way. Develop a hobby. Employers want to see that you are a person with a life outside of work. Work/life balance is very important. A hobby that I took up that helped me later in my paralegal career is photography. I later worked for an personal injury attorney and was photographing accident scenes, vehicles, injuries, etc. It was invaluable to them to have someone there that they could send out and obtain their own photographs.
- You may want to take a lower job – legal secretary to get your foot in the door. Some attorneys do not know exactly what a paralegal can do for them, and this will help you get a job, and then show them what you can do and add value, plus billable hours.
- And now one word of caution. If you are working somewhere and the culture is that you do not share that you are looking for a job, do not allow them to call your current employer. Explain to them the situation and that them calling for a reference would jeopardize your current job. Have a list of three individuals they can call for a references.
-Group response by the members of the Missouri Paralegal Association
- Be organized. Organization is an integral part of being a paralegal.
- Don’t chew gum during your interview, and bring a copy of your resume on resume paper just in case.
- Have a great attitude.
- Don’t say “that’s not my job.” Paralegals do many different tasks every day. If you are a team player, it will go a long way in the office.
- Proofread everything.
-Barbara Carter is the President of the Charleston Association of Legal Assistants
Network – Connect with other paralegals, legal administrators, and even legal vendors to let them know you are looking to break into the profession. Becoming actively involved in at least one local paralegal association is a great way to not only meet these people, but to also demonstrate your commitment to a career in the legal field. Most associations have different levels of membership so even if you are not already working as a paralegal, you can become a member.
Know What Skills You Bring to the Table – Even if you have never worked in a law office, you likely have many skills needed to succeed as a paralegal; ability to meet deadlines, analytical, customer service, detail-oriented, etc. Be ready with examples of how you have applied these skills in previous employment.
Work Your Way Up – Be willing to take entry-level positions within law firms including receptionist, document clerk, or secretary positions. You can learn a vast amount about how law firms operate in any one of these positions while giving the employer a first-hand look at what you are capable of handling. Internships are also a great way to get your foot in the door. I work frequently with area paralegal programs to hire students part-time and/or on a temporary basis.
Utilize LinkedIn – LinkedIn is another great tool for connecting with the people who can help you land your first paralegal job. There are numerous paralegal boards to discuss your job search and other legal related issues with others. DO NOT post anything negative related to your job search, prior employers, or generally. DO proofread your posts. Prospective employers will check LinkedIn.
Don’t Give Up – The right fit is out there, and you will find it.
-Tomi Holt is the Vice President of the Heartland Paralegal Association and Paralegal/Law Office Manager at Bottaro, Morefield, Kubin & Yocum, P.C.
Jessica Kubiak: My best advice for being hired as a paralegal is be willing to take a chance. When looking for a position we often don’t apply for a position for fear of lack of experience or lack of knowledge of the area of law. Be brave. Send in that resume. You never know, that employer may be willing to take a chance on you and teach you the area of law. My first position was in a 4-attorney firm who practiced civil, probate, asbestos defense and domestic relations. The only area I had any knowledge (and very little) was civil and domestic relations. They took a chance on a newly graduated, inexperienced paralegal and helped me to develop my skills.
-Jessica Kubiak Ohio State Board Association Certified Paralegal is the President of the Cleveland Association of Paralegals
Kathi P. Ingram: Before I give you my best advice for getting hired as a paralegal, I would like to give you a bit of information about me. Currently, I am an unemployed experienced paralegal looking for a new paralegal job. I am the current President and a co-founder of the Paralegal Association of Northern Virginia. I am very active in my state and national paralegal associations. I have been a paralegal for over 20 years now and I still love being a paralegal!
1. Join a local paralegal association.
As a paralegal student, I did not do this because I thought that I needed to complete my paralegal program before joining a local paralegal association. You do not. So, join a local paralegal association. Most local paralegal associations are member associations of a state and national paralegal association; so once you become a member of a local paralegal association, you are automatically a member of a state and national paralegal association. This widens your paralegal network, gives you exposure as a paralegal, and gives you an opportunity to get involved in your profession.
2. Consider your current employer.
Becoming a paralegal was a second career for me. I had been working in the defense industry for about 15 years when I decided to make this career change. While I attended paralegal school at night, I worked full time for a large defense corporation making a decent salary. I realized that I might have to take a decrease in salary because I had no paralegal experience. Therefore, after I obtained my paralegal certificate, the first thing I did was look internally with my current employer for an entry-level paralegal position. I was incredibly lucky because the corporate office of my employer was looking for an entry level paralegal. I applied and interviewed for the position, subsequently getting hired for my very first paralegal job. More importantly, it was considered by my employer as a lateral move, meaning I kept my current salary.
3. Don’t lose sight of your current skills and abilities. Although you may not have experience in the legal profession, you do have skills that can apply! My 15 years in the defense industry taught me about being organized, paying attention to details, meeting deadlines, and having excellent client relations all of which are key skills to have in the legal profession.
-Kathi P. Ingram, RP is the President and Co-Founder of the Paralegal Association of Northern Virginia
Diana M. Olack:
Effective communication is fundamental to law practice. Up to 80% of your day is spent communicating with others. As the lawyer’s right-hand, paralegals serve as a liaison between clients, experts, vendors, opposing counsel and other parties in a litigation or transaction. Use your manners! Being kind, gracious, and respectful will get you a long way with many unpleasant people (e.g. the blowhard opposing counsel and clerk that is actively trying to destroy your career). Get to know your court clerks and coordinators. Being polite to courthouse staff can make your life easier when getting things done. Therefore, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is an essential paralegal skill.
Paralegals spend a lot of drafting pleading, correspondence, motions, brief and legal memo. It is important for you to be accurate, concise and be persuasive.
3. Research and Investigative Skills
Research is another core paralegal skill. Besides the basic legal research databases such Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis, paralegals must also learn to track down witnesses and complainants. Think outside the box. Sometimes you have to use the unconventional methods, such as social media, to track down witnesses and complainants. Investigative skills are needed in all areas of law, especially when tracking down medical records, evidence, documents and witnesses.
4. Technology Skills
Paralegals must master word processing, spreadsheet, telecommunications, database, presentation and legal research software. Technology is always changing and sometimes paralegals are responsible for keeping the attorney or law firm informed and updated. Knowledge of e-filing is the most sought after skill today. Paralegals who bring advanced technology skills to the table have a competitive advantage in the legal market. A lot of the attorneys use ProDoc or another type of legal software to help create legal documents. Larger firms will have billing software (e.g. Timeslips or Needles).
Attorneys rely on paralegals to keep them organized as well as their files. Civil and criminal files require a lot of organization and may require sorting, indexing and categorizing. Sometimes the attorney will allow the paralegal to set up a method of organization that is easier and quicker for the paralegal to access.
Rarely are paralegals assigned to a single case, deal or task. In sole practitioner’s office, paralegals are opening files, closing files, preparing motions, preparing billing, legal research and calling courts, opposing attorneys or clients.
Paralegals are part of a legal team that consists of the associate attorneys, partners, fellow paralegal, legal secretaries, file clerks, runners and others. Everyone has to work together to achieve and complete a common goal. Paralegals also have to work with outside parties such as clients, vendors, opposing counsel, and experts. Sometimes people have problems with co-workers. You don’t have to be their best friend. Feelings need to be set aside to get the job done.
8. Attention to Detail
A lot of times the attorney will only skim a document which may have important details including deadlines and court dates. It falls upon the paralegal to summarize details for the attorney.
9. Calculate Deadlines/ Calendar Court Dates
Calculating deadlines and calendaring court dates always fall on the paralegal. Attorneys rely on paralegals for accuracy of the calendar and calculating deadlines for motions and/or discovery. No attorney wants to miss a court date or miss a filing deadline.
Join your local and state organization for paralegals. You meet paralegals from different fields that could always help you in the future. The more paralegals you know the better off you will be. You have access to job bank, forums, CLE, etc.
Learning is never ending. There are always updates when it comes to the law. Make sure that you and your attorney are updated. Go to as much CLE as you can. A lot of times you can find local CLE for a low cost if not free.
12. Ask Questions
DON’T ASSUME!!!! If you do not understand something, ask questions.”
-Diana M. Olack is the Membership Director and Past President (2011-2013) of the South Texas Organization of Paralegals, Inc. and Paralegal at Carolyn M. Wentland, P.C.
Carla Baker: Networking is a definite must. If you have chosen this field, without knowing someone already in it or have been out of the work force for a while, beginning your networking may be more difficult. For many, like me, your first connection to the legal world will be your instructors. With that being said, act as if your time at school is a preliminary interview. You would want to wear appropriate clothing. Watch your attitude and reactions when given an assignment; instructors can spot an eye roll from several feet away. Also, watch your tone and manners when speaking to your instructor and others in the classroom. Sometimes you may get into a debate about an issue, and even if it is with your best friend in the class, always keep your professionalism. Never, ever leave your cell phone on. Instructors watch and learn who their students are. They watch for those particular students who stand out, are prepared and do their best. These same instructors are the ones that many local lawyers call for referrals when they are looking for paralegals. Instructors can give you advice on how to approach looking for a job in your local area and suggest contacts that may not be openly posted online.
I am not saying that you need to wear a suit or other office attire every day, but if the city’s top attorney walked into the classroom, you would not be embarrassed to introduce yourself to him or her. Ask questions during class when you do not understand, or even if you do understand, asking questions lets the instructor know you are interested and paying attention. Stop and make sure to introduce yourself to the instructor and let him or her know you are in their class because you are serious about the legal field and you have a passion for becoming a paralegal.
-Carla Baker is the First Vice President-Education of Greater Memphis Paralegal Alliance and Paralegal at Rice, Amundsen, & Caperton PLLC.
— OC Paralegal Assoc (@OC_Paralegal) April 3, 2014
— Mianne Besser (@MianneBesser) April 1, 2014
Looking for advice on getting hired as a paralegal? Visit the Paralegal 411 web page for some great suggestions… http://t.co/ihZQpdKeI9
— Philly Paralegals (@PhilaParalegals) March 26, 2014
— SFPA (@SFPA_) March 10, 2014
Check out this website! Lots of valuable and informative articles, discussions, advice and more! http://t.co/c0qyq7EiWF
— PACO (@ParaAssocCenOH) February 26, 2014
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