Bridging the Gap
Former students offer practical advice on
how to overcome employment obstacles.
By Susan Howery
May/June 2001 Issue
As a paralegal 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 students for everything they will encounter in the legal
The survey results are somewhat revealing. But to really
know what is needed to bridge unforeseen gaps between academia and the working world (see January/February Legal Assistant Today),
I interviewed some of my former 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
Courses Needed to Cross the
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
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
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
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.