Entering any new industry when you have little previous experience in it is challenging—breaking into the legal industry as a paralegal exceeds the definition of challenging. Let’s just say it’s difficult.
No one knows this better than Katie Jendro, an attorney at Hess Law Office in Elk River, Minn., and a community partner to Minnesota School of Business-Elk River.
Jendro broke into the law business straight out of law school in her 20s and hasn’t looked back since. She knows what a good paralegal looks like and how important they are to the overall success of a law firm.
Check out Jendro’s 8 Tips to Break Out as a Paralegal:
- Network, Network, Network – Many of the paralegals I know got their big break through word of mouth. Search your newspaper for local networking events like those hosted by the Chamber of Commerce or Business to Business groups. Try a list-serve. Many local and state bar associations offer list-serves for specific areas of the law. The list-serves offer practioners a place to ask each other questions and network. Getting to know the concerns of the attorneys you want to work for gives you a step ahead of the rest as you are able to address those concerns in interviews and on the job.
- Become an Expert – Find an area of law that particularly interests you and fine tune the skills necessary to succeed in that area. Sign up for legal education courses, contact your law library, or court administration. For example, the Bankruptcy Court often offers free courses to train paralegals in bankruptcy court procedures. If you can fine-tune your skills in a particular area of the law, you become extremely valuable to law firms who do not have as much time as they would like to train. If you show up to the job with specialized skills, you are sure to impress.
- Be Organized – Attorneys are extremely busy. Attorneys are looking to you to help them save time and money for the client. Time is money and saving time for yourself and the firm will demonstrate your understanding of how the business of the law operates, will increase productivity and decrease client charges—making everyone happy.
- Anticipate Problems – The law is never perfect, and you cannot be perfect every time either. Create systems and checklists that will help you avoid making the same mistake twice. For example, in a divorce law the same documents and procedures are necessary for each divorce. Create a checklist to be placed inside the file to assist you in recalling the status of a project. Also, get to know the people at court administration—they will often catch problems for you before they become major, may help you call in a favor in a pinch, and they could help you get the dream job you are looking for as they are the first line of communication for attorneys. Finally, make good use of the calendaring system. Place all deadlines on the calendar and update your task list frequently.
- Think for Yourself and Give It Your Best Shot – You are smart and capable or you would not have been hired. Put yourself in the attorney’s or client’s shoes and consider what you would want a document to look like if you had to sign it. Attorneys don’t often know exactly what they are looking for and may want to have a draft of something to modify to fit their needs. When you receive an assignment, take notes and listen carefully. Then, give it your best shot.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions – Many attorneys would much rather have you ask questions than have you spend hours of time pouring over a project without the correct direction. You will need to become a little bit comfortable with uncertainty. Oftentimes after you spend time with a file, the direction the attorney is looking for will become clear. However, be mindful of time constraints, make a list of questions and ask them all at once so you can make the best use of your time on the project.
- Prioritize Your Daily Tasks – Law firms are busy places, and you will often feel like you are being pulled in many different directions. Every morning you should look to your client files and determine what your priorities are for the day. If you have trouble determining what should be handled first, speak with your supervising attorney for direction.
- One Team, One Goal – The ultimate goal of any law firm is to meet the clients’ needs. You are one part of that team. Don’t forget that office assistants and legal secretaries are also very valuable. These seasoned co-workers often know more about the firm, procedures and the law than you do. Interoffice politics only cause drama and detract from the goal at hand. Make the office staff your ally, respect them and work together as a team to complete the firm’s projects in a timely manner. Help other staff when you can, and they will help you out in a pinch.