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Student's Workshop

Overcoming Paralegal Employment Obstacles

Former students offer practical advice on how to do so.

By Susan Howery

(Originally appeared in print as "Bridging the Gap")

May/June 2001 Table of Contents

 

As a paralegal studies program director, it’s my job to find out how well my students are prepared for the jobs landed after graduating from Yavapai College with an associate degree in paralegal studies, a post-degree certificate in paralegal studies or with a legal nurse certificate.

I accomplish this by sending out graduate surveys and employer surveys. What I have discovered from the feedback is no matter how hard I try, I can’t completely prepare paralegal students for everything they will encounter in the legal environment.

The survey results are somewhat revealing. But to really know what is needed to bridge unforeseen gaps between academia and the working world, I interviewed some of my former paralegal students about the career challenges they faced.

I discovered students should try to get as much experience as possible with a law firm and legal practice while still in school. I also learned that adjusting to the new position requires good listening skills and a great deal of patience. The students I interviewed stressed adjusting difficulties also extended into dealing with different personalities and office politics. Sometimes dealing with these difficulties might mean taking more courses or learning a specific skill on your own time.

Students Talk Back

The following comments were taken from various surveys sent out over the last four years. Below, I have included students’ suggestions and criticisms about the education they received.

  • “I think the most valuable thing I got out of the program is I write more clearly than before. [You] need to concentrate more on writing, and less on the fundamentals of writing. One should know the mechanics of language before entering this course of study.”
  • “We need to organize paralegals and work at enlightening the law profession to our worth.”
  • “If the internship is longer, it may help prepare [us] better for a real paralegal job — no attorney wants to hire a paralegal right out of school.”
  • “The classes do not prepare you for everyday reality. Have more on-the-job training for students without law office experience.”

Graduates reported the skills used frequently in their jobs included word processing, reviewing and digesting documents, ethics, file management, factual and legal research and writing letters. Graduates said they would like to see continuing legal education (CLE) in Certified Legal Assistant exam (CLA) preparation, computer applications, current legal issues, constitutional law, client interaction, law office organization, specialty areas of law and trial procedures.

The practice of law is changing, and the expectations of what paralegals should know and what skills they should possess are changing as well.

As a result, you should take advantage of CLE courses offered by your local bar and paralegal associations, particularly to stay current with your legal specialty area, innovations in technology, law office organization and ethical concerns.

Courses Needed to Cross the Divide

Students suggested the following be added to the requirements for the programs, as electives or as CLE courses:

  • Database management
  • Advanced computer litigation support
  • Credit courses in specialty areas such as labor, environmental, tribal and Constitutional law
  • Advanced writing and business management
  • File management
  • Medical records research.

There is no doubt any additional computer knowledge and skill will help students market themselves and feel comfortable in their first position.

I advise students to take as many computer software courses as they can afford (in both time and dollars) to add to their portfolio of skills. Additionally, students should add to their knowledge of specialty areas whenever possible. Even if a course isn’t required for a program, but is offered as an elective (e.g., constitutional law), I advise students to take the course.

The lawyers surveyed have a common complaint about new legal assistant graduates: “Graduates need more writing experience.”

I strongly recommend students and graduates take additional writing (particularly grammar) courses. Work on your vocabulary development. Graduates and employers commonly comment on the need for more preparation in this area.

Graduate Interviews: What You Should Know

Carol Kennedy, CLA, graduated from the program a few years back. Kennedy came to the program as a post-degree certificate candidate, which means she already had earned a bachelor’s degree.

When she graduated, she was offered a position at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, where she worked approximately a year. She is now attending Arizona State University Law School.

“There is a whole new set of things to learn specific to the office. I never had complaints like, ‘Oh, I should have learned this.’ [But] it is just different in a law office. There are things you couldn’t learn in an academic setting,” she said.

You will not know everything when you finish your education. There will be a great deal you will need to learn about specific law office practices and procedures. According to Kennedy, good note taking is a must. Take good notes when the attorney is giving you an assignment. Don’t assume you will be able to remember everything later.

Mira Engelhart also graduated a few years ago. She was first hired by a private law firm, and then she was hired to work for the Yavapai County Superior Court as a court clerk. Engelhart said one major adjustment is getting used to other people in the workplace.

“I had not been in a workplace setting for more than 20 years, and it takes some time getting adjusted. As an entry-level paralegal, both in the law office and now as a new court clerk, adjustment is a key word,” Engelhart said. “My strategy has been to be quiet and try to learn all I can about different personalities.”

Prepare yourself for some office politics and for the adjustment to the environment. Listen to everyone, but keep your opinions to yourself, then make adjustments accordingly that benefit you.

Being a court clerk is truly a position Engelhart said she loves, but she said it’s specialized and many procedures had to be learned. Continuing legal education is a solution. There is always more to learn, and it’s essential to stay current.

Barbara Word, RN, CLA, and a graduate of my legal nurse certificate program, was hired as a legal nurse to work for a local law office. Word advised students to “bone up on your grammar and to use words properly.”

She also advised students to expand their vocabulary. She warned without working hard on developing and improving writing skills, poor writing will be viewed as a weakness and might limit your ability to move up. Word believes preparing for the CLA exam helped her to improve her communication skills and to clean up some grammatical problems.

She said students may find it difficult to interview at first, and it may be hard to find a job without experience. She suggested seeking extra career experience while in school, even if for a little while, as a runner, receptionist, or volunteering in the local law library or law office.

“I had no clue about working in a law office,” she said. “I felt very intimidated. Even the conference room intimidated me.”

Other options include:

  • Practice interviewing. Anticipate some of the questions you might be asked and practice with a friend.
  • If your school doesn’t require a mandatory internship, you might want to ask if an internship is available. You need to have some experience.

Lisa Posada finished her program last May, and was hired by a local litigation law firm. To make the transition between school and work, she said the following worked for her:

  • Develop a professional portfolio of forms and documents while in your program. Keep your notes. You may need them later.
  • Ask questions when in doubt. There is a great deal to learn that is specific to the law office, governmental office or company where you will work. Just because you prepared a disclosure statement one way in a classroom setting doesn’t mean your employer will use the same format. Don’t assume too much. Ask for samples before beginning a task.

As you can see there are a variety of ways to adjust to the demands of your new career as a paralegal. This column can’t encompass all possible solutions, but these suggestions may help you prepare for what is to come. You have chosen a wonderful career. Good luck.

 


 

Susan Howery is the paralegal program coordinator for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. She held the same position at Davenport College in Kalamazoo, Mich., for several years. Howery also taught in both programs. She initiated and advised two student paralegal associations and has been active in state and local paralegal associations. Howery is on the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) board of directors as the representative for associate degree programs. She was the legislative chairwoman of AAfPE and the 1998 annual conference co-host. She also hosted the 1996 regional AAfPE conference in Phoenix.

 

 

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