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