Once the initial shock wore off, Chance, a single parent, said her first order of
business following the layoff was to cutback on her spending. Without a new job on the
near horizon, she had to make sure she could survive financially until an employment
opportunity came along. In addition, she joined an impromptu support group, consisting of
many of her paralegal colleagues who were also out of a job. The group shared stories of
frustration, along with the efforts and avenues each member had pursued to find a job.
Having faced and survived a similar layoff situation 14 years before,
Chance knew that determination and a positive attitude were her best resources for getting
back on her feet.
“You have to believe in miracles for a miracle to
occur,” Chance said.
And it did. By last spring, Chance was again working as a
paralegal, this time with another large San Antonio litigation firm.
When You See It Coming
Like Chance, many paralegals are not privy to the decisions of firm
management until after the decisions are made. During a recession, management often
re-evaluates costs by taking a hard look at staff, which can cause panic and stress among
employees if word gets out. Just a hint of a cutback, hiring freeze or layoff could send
shock waves throughout a firm, and lead some employees to quit. The best thing to do if
rumors of cutbacks are circulating, according to Amanda B. Sheeren, a legal placement
consultant with Update Legal, is to be calm, think clearly and offer to do extra work.
“If you have the opportunity to work in different
areas and you have some free time, offer to work in other divisions,” Sheeren said.
“A manager is less likely to cut someone who can move into another area. Those people
are more marketable.”
Sheeren, a former legal assistant with 16 years
experience, started out in real estate transactions but ended up in litigation after she
offered to help an attorney in the firm’s litigation division. She said her cross
training helped her survive firm mergers and layoffs.
In addition, paralegals should stay busy and work as
efficiently as possible to remain valuable to supervisors, Sheeren said.
“[Paralegals] think that if they’re not working
and are available, it will make it more desirable for an employer,” Sheeren said.
“It doesn’t. It creates a cloud around them that they’ve created
It’s also important for paralegals to know what type
of work they enjoy, enroll in as many educational courses as possible, network among
colleagues, join a legal association, and always search the job market, Sheeren said.
Many times the next job you land isn’t based solely
on what you know, but also on who you know. Keeping the lines of communication open both
in your local legal assistant association and with former co-workers and colleagues
exponentially increases your possibilities for finding new employment opportunities.
The Battle Ahead
“E-mailing friends has been good therapy for me,” paralegal
Julie Wenz-Ramirez said. “Sharing my feelings with former legal assistants that
I’ve worked with has helped me cope.”
Like so many others, Wenz-Ramirez didn’t see the
shadowy figure of unemployment standing in the distance until it was too late.
Everything seemed to have been coasting along for the
senior litigation paralegal. She said she was doing well with a large Washington, D.C. law
firm when management abruptly decided to downsize its paralegal program last year.
Wenz-Ramirez and a handful of other senior paralegals got the pink slip that July. The
layoff was a devastating blow, Wenz-Ramirez said, because she had a well-respected
reputation in the firm as a competent and hardworking employee.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow when you really
enjoy working for someone and then they let you go,” Wenz-Ramirez said. “I was
told it was strictly economics and it had nothing to do with my work. Not in a million
years did I expect this to happen. It hurts, but I think it’s their loss.”
As time goes by, however, their loss is also hers.
Wenz-Ramirez, who is currently collecting unemployment, said she is having a difficult
time finding a job that can incorporate her 18 years of paralegal experience and offer the
flexibility she needs to spend time with her children. She said she has sent out countless
resumés and had only two interviews since last summer. Part of the problem, she thinks,
is that she is overqualified. Combined with a tight job market and the desire of many
employers to keep costs low, Wenz-Ramirez is facing what may be a long battle to regain
control of her career.
The Psychology of
Not long ago when the economy was buzzing, corporations and law firms
alike were handing out incentives to lure quality employees, including paralegals.
Unemployment was its lowest in decades. Now, the job market, in the grip of a deep
recession, is tight — even in the legal industry. Job searches can be a long and
protracted quagmire given the economics of the moment. For paralegals without the
advantage of advanced warning, suddenly losing a job can be a harrowing experience.
Often the interview process is over before it begins when
potential employers sense a negative or defeated attitude from an employment candidate. In
economically lean times, Sheeren advised unemployed paralegals, more than ever, to
maintain a positive attitude and exude a glowing confidence, both in their search for
employment and during the interview process. That isn’t an easy task after a job
loss, which can stir a range of emotions and cause immediate panic, Sheeren said.
In order to keep the wealth of emotions related to job
loss from overwhelming you, psychologists and recruiters alike recommend incorporating
some diversionary practices into your schedule while continuing your search for a new job.
Daily exercise — which can range from a brisk 20
minute walk to a more involved gym routine — is a great way to take your mind off the
urgency of your situation, even if only for a short period of time. Gardening, leisure
reading and visiting friends are also ways to give yourself a mental break without taking
too much time away from your necessary search efforts. Ideally, a long weekend trip or
just an afternoon spent getting away from it all are excellent ways to decompress and
refocus your energies on the task at hand, Sheeren advised. While developing a hobby will
not find you a job, it will help you cope with the loss of one.
“Above all, avoid the empty hours,” King
advised. She noted that idle time spent on nonproductive or emotionally unrewarding
activities only allows you to dwell on the negative aspects of your situation and should
“One of the first things a paralegal should do when
they lose their job is limit the amount of news they watch and listen to,” Sheeren
said. “It can create a spiral of negative thinking.”
In an effort to boost confidence, Sheeren also
recommended doing “things you never had time to do,” such as painting the house
or planting a garden. “It doesn’t help with the job search but it helps you feel
better; that you are accomplishing something,” Sheeren said. And sometimes an
occasional and productive distraction is just what is needed to avoid excessive panic
regarding your unemployed status. Just make sure not to lose sight of your primary goal,
which is to rejoin the working world.
After the short break of a day or two (or more should your financial
circumstances allow for it), the job search should begin in earnest by first setting
financial and employment priorities, Sheeren said.
The first step is to cutback on personal expenses, set up
a daily budget and stick to it, she said, adding you should determine how long you can
hold out without a job or a paycheck. King called this process developing “a plan of
action,” that both establishes priorities and assists in boosting confidence and a
sense of achievement.
“If you get severance, don’t deplete it before
looking for a job because if the money runs out and you’re looking for a job,
you’re going to be overly anxious and it comes across,” Sheeren said.
You might also consider filing for unemployment benefits,
Sheeren said. The best way to determine qualification for benefits is to contact the local
unemployment office or your previous employer’s human resources department, she
Acknowledging that many middle income families might not
be more than two or three paychecks away from financial crisis, King advised those who
find themselves unemployed to carefully consider their financial situations as a first
course of action.
“If you think money is going to be tight, go to your
mortgage company and try to negotiate a lower rate or payment vacation. Mortgage companies
don’t want to lose money either, so they will most often work with you to help
protect their investment,” King advised. She also advocated contacting the Consumer
Credit Counseling Service, a universally accepted organization which works with those who
need to better manage their credit card debt, especially following a loss of regular
Above all, be persistent in your search and contact with
employers, King advised.
Call employers back to check on the status of your
resumé. Even if you have been turned down, ask permission to call the employer back in a
month or two months to see if other employment opportunities have opened up in the
Depending on your financial needs, and considering the current job market
situation, it might be necessary to work for a temporary agency or as a freelance
paralegal, Sheeren recommended.
Taking a temporary job might not have been necessary a
few years ago in a strong economy, but with a recession in full swing, jobs are harder to
come by, she said. The plus side is a temporary job will bring in a paycheck, boost
confidence and maintain your work skills, Sheeren said.
“Right now it’s better to look for a permanent
job while working as a temp because it will meet your financial and psychological
needs,” Sheeren said. “Taking a temp job should not hinder your search.”
When seeking temporary or freelance work, the best method
is to contact between two to four placement agencies that specialize in legal recruitment.
Many law firms and companies hire directly from placement agencies, which screen the
applicants. Legal recruiters are a good resource because they usually have a good
relationship with hiring managers and know a company’s needs and culture.
“Make sure you go to a reputable agency, and make
sure they call you before they send off your resumé,” Sheeren said. “What you
don’t want is three resumés sent to the same place. Then there are conflicts on
which agency represents you. It may knock you out of consideration because the firm
doesn’t want to get into the middle of it.”
Another key consideration is to determine what type of
job has similar requirements to your paralegal experience. Because job choices are slim in
a flat economy, it’s important to be creative and search for positions that might not
be in the legal industry but are conducive to paralegal experience such as an insurance
claims adjuster or a contracts administrator. Expanding a job search beyond the paralegal
position increases the chance of landing a desirable job, Sheeren explained.
A Proactive Response
Elonda Banks quickly found that if she was going to reignite her career
following a layoff, she would have to be more creative and industrious to cope with a more
restricted employment market. She also said she knew that the standard of simply sending
out mass resumés and calling old friends might not be enough in a down economy.
She had been working as a senior paralegal for a
Houston-based commercial litigation firm for about a year when, last August, management
called her and about a dozen staff members into the firm’s conference room. The staff
was told the firm was going to cutback because of the slowing economy. Some employees were
let go that day. Banks was laid off six days later with two weeks severance.
Banks said she was initially surprised, but not exactly
devastated. She said she strongly believed her skills were marketable, her resumé was
appropriately updated, and to top it all off, she had been looking for another job even
before the announcement.
After relaxing for about one week, Banks, armed with
three years of paralegal experience, planned a two-front approach in finding a job.
First, she contacted several placement agencies and
methodically compiled a list of top Houston law firms through the Internet, matching her
particular skills to the type of work the firms were doing.
Second, she broadened her search beyond paralegal
positions by considering jobs such as a human resource specialist, a labor relation
manager, public finance analyst or a lobbyist.
Banks said she also identified and researched companies
in several industries that she wanted to work in. She regularly visited the Web site, www.vault.com, which provides a type of
snitch line for employees to talk about their employers and share office gossip and
“It’s an awesome Web site,” Banks said.
“People were telling you what was going on in their company. You don’t want to
go into a war zone, especially in this economy.”
In the process of her search, Banks said she was offered
several permanent positions, but the pay was less than what she had made at her previous
employer. She was aware the job market that August was tight in Houston. However, shortly
after she was let go from her last employer, Banks sat down and carefully reviewed her
finances. She determined that her financial situation would allow her to go without a job
for a maximum of three months if she needed, thus affording her the opportunity to be
selective in her choices. She was so confident, in fact, that she decided not to apply for
unemployment benefits. In addition, she had a small severance to rely on. So she rejected
early job offers that didn’t fit with her exact career goals. Banks said her
rejection of less than perfect offers might not be an advisable approach in the current
“I would definitely jump a little higher if I were
out of a job [in Houston] now,” Banks said, noting the discouraging effects of the
Enron bankruptcy on the local economy in Texas.
But after her severance vanished in her third week of
unemployment, she said she got nervous.
“I got a little shaky,” Banks said. “I
knew that if you don’t toot your own horn no one else will.”
With nearly a month of joblessness almost behind her,
Banks said she decided to become even more aggressive in her efforts to find the right
job. She physically went to more than a dozen placement agencies to speak with placement
specialists. She continued sending a steady stream of tailored resumés by e-mail and fax.
In addition, she went to the companies she wanted to work for and filled out applications
on the spot.
She said she even sent a cookie in the shape of a shoe
with a note that read: “I got one foot in the door, can I bring in the other?”
Before the month was out, and after a meticulous and
creative job search, Banks accepted a temporary position as a senior paralegal with a
Houston-based energy corporation with the option of becoming a permanent employee in four
months. She said the new job is more challenging and pays better than her previous
position, where, ironically, she had also worked as a temporary hire before being hired as
a permanent employee.
“I think it absolutely worked out,” Banks said.
“I’m in a better position now than before.”
The layoff experience taught Banks the importance of
preparation, and that law firms and companies will cutback to protect “the bottom
“I think there are a lot of good companies out there
but when the economy gets bad the priority goes to the companies interest. That’s
business. That’s the way it goes,” she said.
Outlook For the Profession
While the long-term outlook for the legal assistant profession remains
bright, the more immediate impact of the economy and business adjustments clouds the
short-term forecast. Current predictions are at once positive, negative and downright
contradictory as experts grapple with a growing profession and the first recession in a
Paralegals are getting more substantive work because of
cost cutting measures, said to Camille Grabowski, marketing manager for The Affiliates in
Menlo, Calif. Law firm managers, sensitive to billing costs, are increasingly relying on
paralegals because their hourly rates are lower, she said.
“We’re seeing a shakeout with the
economy,” Grabowski said. “Our research shows that law firms are giving
paralegals more responsibility and substantive work.”
Heidi Gottberg, a placement specialist for StaffWise
Legal in Chicago, disagreed somewhat, noting there is still a demand for paralegals, but
warned the market could get more competitive. More colleges are developing paralegal
programs, and there is an increasing number of people switching careers and going into the
paralegal profession, she explained.
Because of a slowed economy, demand for paralegals has
leveled off in 2001 compared to the previous year, Gottberg said. The result is less of a
choice of paralegal positions.
“I think it’s still a good field to get into,
but I think a lot of people are trying to get into it and it could get saturated,”
Gottberg said. “[Fortunately], I haven’t seen that yet.”
While the difference of these opinions might seem grossly
at odds, there is some measure of acknowledgement for both positions from the U.S.
Department of Labor.
Notwithstanding long-term “faster than average”
growth projections for the profession through 2010, the Department of Labor has also
forecast growing competition for the positions that develop.
“Despite projections of fast employment growth,
stiff competition for jobs should continue as the number of graduates of paralegal
training programs and others seeking to enter the profession outpaces job growth,”
according to a report by the Labor Department dated Jan. 14, 2002.
The good news for the profession as a whole is it has
gained more legitimacy through national organizations and standardized certification
programs, which help foster the idea that paralegals are an integral part of the legal
profession, Sheeren said. Paralegal organizations provide guidance and training while
continuing education and certification programs create “a cohesive front to the
business and legal community.”
As a result, the profession has grown over the years
because attorneys and employers believe paralegals have measurable skills. And that growth
is expected to continue, Sheeren said.
“When a paralegal resigns or retires, employers no
longer think they can just ‘get by,’” Sheeren said. “They are
generally, immediately replaced. Perceptions aside, the profession would not have grown to
the mainstream if paralegals had not proven their ability to significantly contribute to
the overall effectiveness and profitability of the business.”
Although some firms have cut jobs or initiated hiring
freezes, many have set aside more money to pay for freelance work in order to control
costs, Sheeren said. In a slow economy, firms are more likely to outsource work to pay for
short-term projects, she said. That is good news for unemployed paralegals who have a
better chance of landing temporary work, and possibly getting hired by the firm once the
economy turns upward.
In the End
When all is said and done, you are not helpless in an unemployment
situation. Options abound, although in the thick of things, it may not seem so. A
willingness to accept a temporary or freelance position are just two methods among many
for coping with the loss of your job. Traumatic though unemployment can be, if you can
successfully resolve your practical and emotional issues and develop a plan of action, you
will regain the confidence you need to carry on.