Breaking in: Getting Your First Paralegal Job

by Jan Hill

I belong to several paralegal groups on LinkedIn, and lately many of the discussions have centered around one topic: how to get your first paralegal job, and why is it so hard?
Like many other complex industries, the legal world is hard to break into. Most attorneys don’t have the desire, the time, or the patience to train a new graduate, and would much rather hire someone with experience. The current economy doesn’t help matters much either, with many experienced paralegals being laid off and back in the job market, making for stiff competition.
When I graduated from paralegal school in 2003, it took me over six months to land my first paralegal job, even though I graduated with honors and had recently been published in a legal magazine. I would often make it into the top three, only to see the job go to someone with more—I grew tired of hearing the word—experience. It was the old “you need experience to get a job, but you can’t get a job without experience” paradox.
So how does a new graduate overcome this? Here are a few suggestions that helped me:

Network, network, network.

Don’t underestimate the value of networking. You’ve heard this before, but it is true: It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know. Paralegals should establish connections with fellow students, professors, others already working in the industry, and other professionals in the community. Joining a local paralegal association is another good way to meet people and make connections.

Intern with a purpose.

Most paralegal programs require an internship, so don’t overlook this valuable way to make the transition from student to employee easier. If there is an area of law in which you’d like to specialize, seek an internship with an attorney who practices in that area. Approach your internship like a job by showing up on time, being enthusiastic and willing to learn, and going the extra mile whenever possible. This additional effort may pay off when the firm has an opening for a paralegal and your name rises to the top of the list.

Be patient, even if you think it’s going to kill you.

I worked a full-time job and attended paralegal school part time for two years. I kept that full-time job until I replaced it with a paralegal position, not only because I needed the money, but also because it’s always easier to find a job when you’ve already got one. And don’t be afraid to be a little selective. For example, when I interviewed with an attorney who could hardly see me over the pile of paperwork on his desk, I went with my instincts and kept on looking.

Remember, life’s not fair. Stay positive.

I had to keep reminding myself of this when I would become immersed in negative thoughts like:

  • I worked so hard for…this?
  • I should have just been satisfied with the career I had.
  • There’s always going to be someone with more experience than me.
  • Is anybody really employed in this profession?
  • Maybe if I move… 

Ask not what the law firm can do for you, but what you can do for the lawfirm.

Paralegals are qualified to do much of the same work that attorneys do, just at a lower billable rate. Convince an attorney that by hiring you, he’ll be able to increase his productivity by delegating substantive legal work to you. Doing so will allow him to focus on more complex matters, take on more cases, and work more efficiently.

Emphasize your strengths, such as your computer skills or what a great organizer you are. Remind him that your services are billable to the client, while clerical tasks performed by a legal secretary are not. Now more than ever, attorneys are staring at the bottom line. Show them that hiring you will increase their profits and decrease their stress level at the same time.

And finally, your first job and your dream job may not be (and probably won’t be)the same thing.

When I was job hunting, one of my professors told me that I might have to (figuratively) kiss a few frogs to find my prince. And he was right. After working at two other law firms and a government agency, I now have what I consider to be a great job—I am a paralegal in the Office of General Counsel of a private university, the same one from which I earned my paralegal degree. Remember, it’s not just what you know, but also who you know. Live each day as if you’re interviewing for your dream job, and someday it might come true.

It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job;
it’s a depression when you lose yours.
~Harry S. Truman


Sharon Winborn August 29, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Thank you for writing this article. I was just doing some research for my career management class and came across this article not really thinking that I was going to find anything that was going to actually help me with the road to finding a job, but when I found this article I was really amazed about how much it has raised my spirits. I graduate in 5 months and the more that I look for jobs in my area for this class that I am taking the more I am realizing how hard it is going to be. I am really getting nervous. I never thought about how hard this was going to be. Thank you so much. If there is any other kind of advice that you can think of I would really appreciate any information that I can get right now.

N July 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm

unfortunately, you are so right about networking. it seems to be a big key. i found my job (first paralegal job) because a friend of mine at the bar i frequent knew i was looking for a job, and she told me she had an opening in her firm. she put my resume in, i interviewed, and interestingly enough i was not chosen (didn’t have enough experience, of course!). however, the candidate he chose ended up not working out and he gave me a call to come in instead. sometimes, a door opens where you thought it was closed, and it always, always helps to put yourself out there, to anyone. my friend who hooked me up with the job opening was a drinking buddy…so you may find luck through the last person you would think to ask!

Jan Hill July 4, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Good for you – the key is putting yourself out there. You never know when a connection with someone will pay off!

Kayla August 19, 2012 at 2:52 am

, Haley. I’ve experienced the same thing over the years as tnhecology has changed in law firms where I’ve worked and some have been more receptive than others. Even finding a consistent file-naming system that everyone in the firm will use can be a challenge, but it’s one that everyone needs to rise to in order to find documents in directories used by other co-workers. We’re getting ready to take the next big step to paperless here, with new, high-powered scanners coming. It’ll be an adventure, but we’ve laid the groundwork for a while, so hopefully it will be a welcome and not unexpected one 🙂

Drago August 19, 2012 at 2:47 am

I wish we could go paperless. We scan but then mnataiin HUGE paper files that take up entire offices and storage units. Don’t get me started haha. The naming is not uniform and the file folders on the server are not uniform. Problem is that the partners don’t designate one person to be in charge of telling everyone how they have to do it so everyone just does their own thing, leading to disaster if someone ever dies or leaves. I am working with the partners on creating a more seamless, transparent system overall including with accounting. We are using Needles now and it has really helped a lot. We need document management software as well. Is there some you can recommend?

Jay July 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Dear Jan,

Very inspiring article. I just received my paralegal certification at NYU and I’m having a very challenging time trying to break out and begin my paralegal career. I’ve been sending out resume galore to firms and haven’t gotten any call backs. Which at times, has been very frustrating to me. So I’m hanging in there and still hoping to get my start. It’s challenging especially since the job market is so bleak and competition for these position are at an all time high. Especially in NYC.

Jan Hill July 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

Keep trying Jay! Instead of waiting for call backs, follow up yourself within a week or two. That job might be just around the corner, so don’t give up just before you find success! And once you get your first job and some experience, you’ll find it much easier to move around from there. Good luck!

Geraldine August 19, 2012 at 9:25 am

So true on all accounts.. I can add from wokinrg at the District Clerk’s office for many years.. all the above applies there too.. Be nice to them and your your needs met quickly, be ugly and you will go to the bottom of the pile..

Barbara Rodriguez March 30, 2012 at 10:36 am

Thanks for the positive advice. Yes I’m tired of hearing you don’t have enough experience, its really a sentence I grown to hate I have just graduated with a associate degree in paralegal and almost done with my internship and the attorney I work for is not hiring for a paralegal so my chances with him are none I was thinking of moving but now I feel as if I’m stuck I thought moving to NYC well increase my chances but the famous sentence kept coming up!! I don’t know what to do at this point.

janmhill April 10, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Hi Barbara – Don’t give up! If you’re interested at all in law firm technology and litigation, a great emerging niche for paralegals is e-discovery management. I wrote an article for the October/December 2011 issue of Paralegal Today magazine on how to get into this in-demand and well-paying niche (you can get a link to my article on the Portfolio page of this blog). Since this specialty is so new and growing so quickly, it may not matter whether or not you have a lot of experience as a paralegal. You may even have an advantage over paralegals who have more general work experience than you but are not as skilled or comfortable with technology. There are many continuing education opportunities currently available in e-discovery – take a class to get some cutting edge skills that will set you apart from the pack. Good luck!

Heidi February 9, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Hi Jan,
I got my BA in Criminal Justice/Paralegal Studies concentration in June, 2011. I am still looking for a position and have no idea what to do now! Can you help me? Thanks so much. -Heidi

janmhill February 28, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Hi Heidi- I would begin by networking with paralegals in your area. Join an organization, such as your local chapter of NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) or your state paralegal association. Keep in touch with students you went to school with who might know of job openings, former professors who might be willing to help you, and keep your skills sharp by staying informed about the legal world and industry trends through trade magazines, newspapers, legal blogs, etc. If you’re not already on LinkedIn, create a profile and start networking there. I’ve gotten so much valuable advice – and also interviewees for legal trade magazine articles I’ve written – through the legal groups I belong to on LinkedIn. It’s a valuable resource that every paralegal should use. There’s so many knowledgeable paralegals that are more than willing to help!

Yakov October 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Hi Jan! Really good advice! How do you think it will be more difficult for a lawyer who graduated and worked several years abroad to get a job as a paralegal or legal assistant in the U.S. than an ordinary American graduate? It will be valuable to hear your opinion about that. Thank you. Yakov

janmhill February 28, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Hi Yakov- I think it would depend on where you worked abroad and how familiar you are with American law, both federal and the state in which you live, although there is definitely a market for lawyers and paralegals who are educated and skilled in international law, especially in business and corporate law. Good luck to you!

Jan Hill, paralegal by day and freelance writer the rest of the time May 5, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Hi April,

I probably interviewed seven or eight times before I got my first job. I was pretty sure it wasn't going to be my forever place but it was a good place to start. I got excellent experience there and stayed at that firm three years before deciding to go to work for a state social services agency. After two years, I missed trial work, and accepted what I thought was my dream job: a paralegal for a sole practitioner who practiced almost entirely in personal injury. About that time, the recession hit. When I'd been there about a year, my boss told me that he could no longer afford me, and I was laid off within a month. Yikes! I worked at home as a full-time freelance writer for four months before my current position became available. I debated as to whether or not I wanted to continue freelancing or go back to corporate America, and finally decided to work full-time for the university and continue freelance writing on a part-time basis.

I guess that's three frogs!! You never know what direction your journey might take–just do you best work and doors will open for you. Thanks for your interest in my post!

April May 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Hi Jan! When you were talking about going through the other jobs before you found the right one for you, do you mind me asking how many years that took to kiss all those "frogs?" (haha!) Thanks so much! And thanks for writing this article…it helps with a lot of the frustrations I currently have after graduating w/my certificate in December. : )

Jan Hill, paralegal by day and freelance writer the rest of the time April 27, 2011 at 1:40 am

Hey Jen,

Thanks for the kind words. When you start job hunting and need help, let me know!

Jen April 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Great advice! I am two quarters away from getting my paralegal certificate. Of course I hope to land a fantastic, dream job right away, but realistically I know that's not likely. Thanks for such an inspiring, but down to earth, post!

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