If you are considering embarking on a paralegal career, then there are numerous decisions to make which affect your career. This article lays out but three of the areas which are common to all paralegals and for which your actions can have a significant influence on your career. These pillars are: education, experience, and development.
Learning about the law and studying paralegalism is part one in your excursion into a paralegal career. Education is generally available in three ways. The first is a baccalaureate program in paralegal studies which yields a traditional four year degree. The second is an associates program, generally a two year commitment, less time commitment than the traditional college degree. And, the third is an accelerated program consisting of intensive immersion similar to a technical college. A program of this nature may be completed in less than a year’s time.
Online or distance learning is being offered by some education providers. The differentiator in paralegal schools is the coveted American Bar Association approval, known as, an ABA-approved program. In order for a school to be able to provide a curriculum and program of study marketed as ABA-approved, it must meet requirements set by the ABA and continually achieve those specifications and standards to maintain the approval. The current standards set by the ABA significantly limit online classes as the traditional classroom setting is preferred. Carefully learn about these programs to determine which is fit for your educational needs. Successful completion of a program earns the degree or paralegal certificate.
Newly minted, the next stage is experience. While an externship or internship may help, an interesting phenomenon in a legal career is the catch 22 (paradox) of needing legal experience to snare a legal job, while most often the paralegal graduate has little, if any, legal experience. This can be agonizing to a fresh job candidate, thus plan to overcome this paradox with strategic thinking.
While planning on school for this career, add the extra-curricular effort in obtaining experience. One way to achieve some hands on experience is through volunteering. The legal industry is replete with organizations, community outreach, and pro-bono services. Volunteer for the clinics or events such as elder law, helping the homeless, and intake and advice clinics where lawyers provide free legal consultation to the public. Explore temporary, entry level, and part-time jobs that a student can engage in on a limited and very entry basis. Every bit counts in highlighting experience and keywords in your media and resume with which to then market for full time positions.
Entering the field upon obtaining a full time, career role may give cause to pause some of your efforts on education and experience. After all, now your efforts are concentrated on practicing paralegal roles in law firms, corporations, and the public sector. A career in the law, however, is saturated with development opportunities.
Governing paralegal organizations, such as National Association of Legal Assistants and National Federation of Paralegal Associations, provide certification tracks in further education. Satisfying certain requirements like years of experience and other basics, a practicing paralegal can study for a certification and sit for an exam. Passing these comprehensive exams will enable the organization to provide a designation such as Core Registered Paralegal and Certified Paralegal among others. In addition, there are tracks for specialty areas of practice and Advanced Paralegal Certification. Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) are typically short one hour, half-day, or day long seminars on specific topics which attorneys are required to fulfill in their continuing practice of law. Paralegals also take CLE and certifications require a certain amount of CLE credits to maintain the designation. For the ambitious, a legal certification coupled with another certification, as in project management or e-discovery, can enhance your marketability. There are many other educational opportunities, for example, obtaining a master degree. Many paralegals have gone on at some point to law school and became lawyers.
In addition to CLE and certifications, most career relevant jobs have prospects for on the job development. A management system or human resources program may offer and sometimes require development of employees in the workplace. Depending on the availability, take advantage of all the opportunity available. And, do not forget to volunteer. Volunteering in the workspace for special projects, team leadership, or initiatives provides additional breadth to your career path.
Essential to career development is partnering with a mentor. We all teach and learn from each other, yet a mentor is skilled or experienced in ways that give you the chance to seek more knowledge. Attorneys are in the practice of law. A very great deal of your on the job training comes from interacting with lawyers and legal teams that have more knowledge or the experience to feed to you as you develop. Seek out instances where mentors can provide added guidance and expertise. Mentors also provide priceless practice tips on things such as ethics, client relations, negotiation, strategy, and other capacities stemming from wisdom.
Thought of strategically, these three facets – education, experience, and development – provide the essential elements to a long, successful, and satisfying career in the legal field. The more thought, effort, and repetition put into these actions will provide the bedrock necessary for these achievements.
© 2015 Neal Huffman all rights reserved