A Sea of Opportunity
All hands on deck for advice on finding a
job in the 21st century.
By Dane D’Antuono
January/February 2000 Issue
Job hunting can be compared to an arduous sea voyage. Preparation
and staying the course require stamina, endurance and skill. With expanding paralegal
roles, advancing technology, a low national unemployment rate and too few candidates to
meet the demand, the paralegal market is as vast as the ocean itself.
Paralegals are among the top 10 fastest-growing jobs for
the 21st century according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2006, labor department
officials estimate there will be 189,000 paralegals working throughout the nation (see
“Futurework for Paralegals,” page 15 of this issue).
Sailing in these unique waters doesn’t always come
naturally. Just like one must learn to tie a bowline before rigging a sail, job-hunting
skills must be learned, developed, practiced and refined.
Plotting Your Course
Leading paralegal headhunters advise job seekers against attempting to enter the
job market unprepared. If you’re unprepared, experts say you’ll have no more
success at obtaining a job than the sailor who embarks on a voyage without a chart or
To maintain an even keel on the open sea of employment,
paralegal recruiters recommended taking your time and plotting your course. Being prepared
can also help reduce the time you’ll spend scouting the legal seas and will lead you
into a comfortable port to hang your captain’s hat.
According to Chere B. Estrin’s book, “Paralegal
Career Guide: Take the Fast Track to Professional Growth and Success!” (Second
Edition, Wiley Law Publications, 1996), the best ticket to success is to be a
well-prepared candidate. How does one become a well-prepared employment candidate you
might ask yourself?
“Know thyself,” Estrin said. A well-prepared
candidate develops a strategic plan for success, according to Estrin. Whether you’re
a sixth-year paralegal at a corporate law firm or just coming out of graduate school,
knowing yourself is critical. To truly know yourself, you should begin by taking inventory
of every task you do in your current position, from clerical work to assisting the
supervising attorney with litigation support tasks.
Estrin, who is president of The Estrin Organization, a
Los Angeles-based legal staffing service, stressed making two important lists: one with
the things you’re competent to do, and another with the things you’re competent
to do but absolutely hate doing.
“The list just flows,” Estrin said of the
latter. “Everyone knows what [tasks] they don’t like.”
Tasks such as document numbering, document coding, Bates
stamping and summarizing depositions are just a few dreaded tasks that Estrin’s
clients have often mentioned. These tasks are what Estrin calls your “burnout
level.” This is what you’ll want to eliminate when considering your next job.
Next, Estrin said, you should revisit what drew you to
your current position. Was it a growth opportunity? Job security? Compensation? Also
explore why you want to leave your current job. Examining such factors will help you
determine what your expectations are for a new job.
Estrin recently placed a senior-level paralegal in a
top-five accounting firm’s litigation support division where she will earn $80,000 a
year, plus a bonus. But Estrin said that she was only able to do this because the two
strategized. They found a “perfect fit” by focusing on the client’s strong
abilities and likes such as trial preparation and litigation support.
Setting Your Sights
Dotty Pritchett, managing partner in the Atlanta legal search division of the Lucas Group,
suggested that you determine exactly what it is that you want from a new position, even
before making the first call.
Listing your career goals will help narrow the course of
your search even further. Where do you want to be five years from now? Would you like to
be an administrator in a law firm or a senior trial paralegal? If so, what jobs are going
to get you there? And what abilities or skills will qualify you as a cadet, mate, first
mate or even captain of the U.S.S. Perfect Position?
“Consider fewer hours, less stress, more challenging
assignments, more responsibility, a change in environment or personalities, a different
specialty, a larger or smaller organization, a more flexible schedule and better pay or
benefits,” Pritchett said.
This is the time to steer your career closer to your
goals. Most efficient sailors know that they have to learn how to be a deckhand before
taking the position of first mate or captain. The same applies to paralegals.
“If you don’t have the skills needed, then
retool,” said Anna Savic, director of paralegal placement at The Law Registry, a
Kelly Services company based in Hartford, Conn.
If you want to get into probate or fiduciary accounting
for example, take accounting or tax courses at a local college or start working toward
becoming an enrolled agent. In addition to continued education, cross-training in other
legal specialty areas can help you to fill the skill gap.
Most paralegal recruiters agree that it’s critical
now to possess basic technical knowledge of computers and the various software
applications used in most legal offices. Many suggested at least taking a class or
cross-training in database management, word processing and document preparation.
“A paralegal has to approach cross-training from a
business point of view. Say to your employer ‘By training me in x-y-z, I will be able
to bridge gaps more easily when we have maternity leave or vacations,’” Savic
said. “When making a proposal to your boss, demonstrate why it’s beneficial to
him or her, not just beneficial for you.”
One effective tool in cross training can be volunteering
to do pro bono work. Pro bono activities can open a wide spectrum of opportunity while
also fulfilling pro bono requirements.
Ports of Call
Short trips from port to port may provide you with necessary career retooling
opportunities. Sometimes making lateral career moves can make a tremendous difference in
your professional future. Just remember that not everyone can start off as captain of
their own vessel.
Estrin explained that it’s OK to take a transitional
job until you can obtain your dream job. “People seem to think that once a lateral
move is made, it is made for life.
“Jobs are not a marriage; they are a dating
relationship — meaning it’s over at some point, so it’s OK to move
on,” Estrin said.
Once the rigging is done, it’s time to set your
sights on the journey ahead and map out the course for a productive employment campaign.
“Decide your ultimate [career] goal,” Estrin
Your course should include: understanding the job market,
doing your homework, marketing yourself, writing a resume and cover letter, interviewing
and weighing the offers you receive.
Organization is crucial to understanding the job market.
You can’t just hoist your sail and expect the wind to carry you to your desired
“Finding a new position is a full-time job,” or
at least it should be treated like one, said Savic. She explained that understanding the
job market will consume a majority of your initial employment search hours.
Career experts suggest keeping a calendar or notebook.
Make appointments with yourself for informational job interviews, employment research
opportunities, strengthening your interviewing skills and performing other vital tasks.
You must be willing to put in the time needed to succeed.
Bountiful Seas Ahead
According to Kathleen Call, executive director of The Affiliates, a Menlo Park,
Calif., legal staffing service, the legal assistant profession is booming. Because
paralegal responsibilities are increasing, doors are opening in both traditional and
“We know the hiring has not slowed down,” Call
said. She explained that there is a window of opportunity in the field for paralegals with
three to five years of experience to move into higher positions, especially in the area of
intellectual property (IP).
A recent survey, commissioned by The Affiliates, shows
that IP is the fastest growing field of law (see “Intellectual Property Field
Grows,” page 16 of this issue).
“Anyone with an IP background — such as senior
trial managers who have prepared whole cases for trial or large database administrators,
or a paralegal who knows how to take the complaint process from inception to a verdict or
settlement — is in high demand,” Call said.
That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities
for the beginning legal assistant as well. Lighthouses burn brightly for those willing to
be aggressive and stay on top of the field.
In order to know what’s really happening in the
paralegal market and find a job to suit your needs, the following questions need to be
answered first: Who is hiring? What skills are currently in demand? What are the
entry-level salaries? Do your due diligence. Begin by researching the kinds of parlegal
positions available. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.
Pritchett suggested calling friends and former colleagues
or members of your alma mater who may hold down jobs in your area of interest.
“Investigate, investigate, investigate,”
Pritchett said, adding that now is the ideal time to use those interview skills by
conducting thorough informational interviews.
“Ask what do you like, what don’t you like,
what the position requires. Get the reality of the job,” Pritchett said. Talk to the
current and former employees of the employer you’re interested in — finding out
the scuttlebutt will help to dispel any myths.
Pritchett also advised a few words of caution.
“Don’t ask for a job. Rather, if you find out the job matches your criteria, ask
if they could suggest someone for you to talk with to explore possible options.”
Charting the Waters
Research skills are often the cornerstone of a successful legal assistant career,
Call explained. You can capitalize on these valuable talents in your employment search by
reviewing legal trade publications such as Legal Assistant Today, NALA’s Facts &
Findings, The National Paralegal Reporter by NFPA, The National Law Journal, local
paralegal association newsletters and hometown business papers, or by joining listservs,
reading classified ads, reviewing corporate directories, comparing recruiting services and
exploring the Internet.
“Trends in the legal field, management issues and
articles written on prospective new employers are now in easy reach,” Call said.
Company or firm directories are widely distributed and
can be found in law firms, academic libraries or law schools. Another source for finding
the inside track on a potential employer is the book, “America’s Greatest Places
to Work with a Law Degree: And How to Make the Most of Any Job, No Matter Where It
Is,” by attorney Kimm Walton. This book gives insider comments about companies
Many law firms also have their own Web sites. Using a
search engine such as Hotbot.com or Yahoo.com will usually produce helpful results. Other
Web sites, such as Vault.com, which was formerly known as the Vault Report (www.vault.com), provide inside information on just about
every major firm and corporation from the employees’ point of view.
“It [Vault.com] doesn’t say a lot about
paralegals, but it will give you the flavor of the firm,” Estrin said.
Listservs (e-mail distribution lists) also offer
day-to-day information about the field, ranging from staff gripes to practice issue
discussions. Listservs are for subscribers only — each provides directions for
subscription. Deja.com, (www.deja.com) formerly Deja
News, provides access to discussion groups and includes an archive of past postings. (see
“Feeling A Little Listless?,” page 42 of this issue).
Once you understand what’s in demand, it’s time
to identify your job options. Paralegal employment opportunities can be discovered by
networking, approaching companies directly, searching the classified section of the daily
newspaper, doing online research and by using professional recruiters or staffing
Keep in mind, however, that not all methods are equally
According to an article written by Susan Kligerman posted
on the National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ (NFPA) Web site, 66 percent of
most jobs are found through personal contacts, 15 percent through search firms and nine
percent through classifieds. The article doesn’t include online percentages.
Search the waterfront. “Networking is an excellent means of building business
relationships and advancing your career,” Call stated. “By continually
establishing new contacts and asking each of them for additional referrals, you can tap
the ‘hidden’ or unadvertised job marketplace.”
“Before a headhunter or HR [human resource
department] knows somebody is leaving, your best friend on the job will have that
information,” Estrin said. She suggested talking to everyone. “Everybody knows a
lawyer — your cleaners, your dentist, real estate agent, your doctor. Just ask for
the name of their lawyers. Then when you call, you can say ‘John Jones suggested I
give you a ring.’”
“It’s the good old girls’ or boys’
network,” Estrin confided.
Experts agree that the best way to network is through
your local legal assistant association.
Information regarding most local paralegal associations
can be found via the Web sites of both NFPA (www.paralegals.org)
and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) (www.nala.org).
To access some pages, organization membership may be required.
Approach Companies Directly
Not all ships are welcome in every port. Most employers don’t want you to
show up without an appointment.
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t mail, fax
or e-mail an unsolicited cover letter and resume.
“It works if you are very good at what you do,”
Pritchett explained. “Timing is the key.”
Recognize, though, that this option is low on the scale
Classifieds ads are the nautical charts of each local harbor. Employment ads
provide a quick way to get a sense of what employers are looking for and of the market
flow. When responding to an ad, make sure to write a cover letter and resume that matches
the employer’s specific criteria.
It is important to note that for every classified
advertisement placed by an employer, 1,000 resumes are received. For every 100 resumes
reviewed, 95 to 98 percent are screened out. And 85 percent of all employers locate
applicants through methods other than classified ads, according to Kligerman’s
Before you leave port, however, take note that there may
be unforeseen storms ahead — namely, problems inherent to responding to newspaper and
online classified ads.
“If it’s a blind ad [one not listing name of
employer, hiring authority or phone number], you may be sending a resume to your own
employer, or it may pass across your boss’ spouse’s desk at another firm,”
Estrin said. Be careful.
Uncharted islands and ports never before imagined can now be easily found online.
The best sites for an online search are usually the
paralegal associations’ Web sites, such as NFPA, NALA, as well as many local
association home pages, which can usually be found through both of the national
associations’ Web sites.
NFPA’s Career Center provides information on legal
assistant positions and potential employers. Specific positions can be found in the job
listings section, and there is also a directory of recruiters. NFPA’s site includes
additional career resources, such as articles on what salary you should be paid, how to
write effective resumes and how to attain career advancement through changing employment.
NALA members are able to utilize NALA Net (www.nalanet.org) to post both announcements and comments
through a public bulletin board.
Another job site available at the click of a mouse is
Monster.com at www.monster.com — more than 750 paralegal jobs were posted by
specialized title at publication date. A visit to Paralegal Classifieds (www.paralegalclassifieds.com) turned up
more than 1,000 employment opportunities from across the country, which can be accessed by
subscribers for a fee.
Drawbacks for using online sites include outdated
postings, the amount of time it takes to review large sites and the many sites out there
that are simply “here today, gone tomorrow.”
Professional Recruiters and Staffing Services
Recruiters can make your employment voyage seem like a sojourn on the Love Boat or an
ill-fated three-hour tour on the S.S. Minnow.
When choosing a headhunter or staffing service, be sure
to look for one specializing in professional legal placement. Generally, most services
collect a fee from the employer, but there are those that require payment from the
individual job seeker.
Savic recommended working with recruiters who have fairly
extensive legal backgrounds and experience. “They will better understand what you do
and the specialty you practice in. And that means they can better sell you to the clients.
For example, they may be a recruiter placing a lot of legal secretaries, [but] may not be
pushing for a true paralegal job.”
You should also be sure to demand confidentiality. Savic
said she believes there are a lot of unscrupulous headhunters out there who will send your
resume just about anywhere without your permission, or who might not release the name of
clients to whom your resume was sent.
“If they can’t trust you with the name of the
firm, then you can’t trust them back,” she said.
Remember that not all recruiters are equal in ability or
integrity. Also, it’s OK to work with more than one headhunter, as long as
you’re upfront and honest about it. This will ensure that efforts are not duplicated.
“Don’t blanket [employers with resumes]. If a
company starts receiving multiple resumes from multiple companies, you look
desperate,” Savic said, adding, “so know where it’s going.”
It’s also a wise move to provide your headhunter
with an updated and specifically tailored resume listing your specialties and experience
specific to that particular employer.
“If they don’t know you can do x-y-z, they
won’t call you,” Savic said.
Develop Strong Resumes and Cover Letters
While you may not have the ability to change the wind, you most certainly can adjust your
Call is surprised at how many experienced paralegals
— not to mention other legal professionals — know little about creating a strong
resume and cover letter. While these tools are only one aspect of the job-search process,
they represent your best chance to make a winning first impression.
The resume’s major purpose is to get a job
interview. It’s meant to highlight your strongest points and what you can do better
than anyone else. Remember to match your skills and abilities to the company’s
criteria, and use the vernacular of the legal field. Be honest. Don’t try to present
something that isn’t there. You want prospective employers to have realistic
impressions of your abilities.
Some types of resumes include:
- The chronological resume — lists your jobs in order
from most recent to earliest job
- The functional resume — highlights skills and
accomplishments, rather than work history
- The combination resume — combines the chronological
and functional resume styles.
In Estrin’s “Paralegal Career Guide,” she
wrote, “There probably isn’t a better written advertisement for past
achievements than the resume.”
Estrin devotes an entire chapter of her book to winning
resumes. Her book also includes other resume styles and worksheets tailored for
One vital aspect of a winning resume is the cover letter.
Choosing a proper cover letter is as important as choosing the name of a ship. Your choice
speaks volumes, as most passengers are more likely to board the Queen Elizabeth II than
the Exxon Valdez.
A cover letter’s primary purpose is to motivate the
prospective employer to read your resume. Try to catch the reader’s attention by
focusing on the needs and concerns of a potential employer. You should suggest ways you
can help the employer meet those needs. Include a few accomplishments that demonstrate
your ability to meet those concerns.
Cover letters should generally be no more than one page
in length. Use short words and paragraphs. Address the letter to a specific individual and
be sure to proofread it.
The illustration below provides an example of what Savic
considers a “standout” cover letter:
In your advertisement, you stated that project
management skills are necessary. While working at X Company law department, I coordinated
and managed several litigation-oriented projects.
The first project involved an automated discovery
consistency project, which required the collection and cataloging of outside counsel
briefs, discovery responses and depositions. Another project involved upgrading our
department’s litigation tracking system.
For this project, I was a member of a team that
included systems professionals. I convinced our team to bypass our current vendor and go
directly to the manufacturer, which allowed us to complete our conversion prior to
deadline and under budget. We were able to upgrade to a new system, conduct in-house
quality control testing and create 15 different reports to track litigation status and
In my previous position at X-Y-Z law firm, I set up
an expert depository with deposition transcripts, trial testimony, expert reports, etc.,
on potential expert witnesses in this field. To set up such a depository, I combed through
active and closed files and contacted other defense counsel for materials. …
You can’t interview for a captain’s job sounding like a deckhand. If
you’re expecting to interview for a job, Special Counsel, a Baltimore-based legal
staffing firm, recommended that you keep these points in mind as guidelines to help you
land the position:
- Maintain eye contact for at least 60 percent of the job
interview. “If you don’t maintain good eye contact, you could create the
impression that you are uneasy, not interested or have something to hide,” said Laura
Black, chief executive officer of Special Counsel. Good eye contact signals to the
interviewer that you’re candid, comfortable and sure of yourself. However, be careful
not to stare at the interviewer. “Proper eye contact should be practiced so that it
becomes second nature and doesn’t make you [appear] self-conscious,” Black said.
- Dress for a job two levels higher than the one for which
you’re being interviewed. “You only get one chance to make a good first
impression. The way you present yourself absolutely influences the decision to hire
you,” Black said. “Dress at a level of formality that shows you understand the
importance of the situation and respect the person you are meeting. This usually means
dressing more formally than you would on the job.”
- Only five percent of interviewees do any research on a
company prior to an interview, according to Special Counsel. “You can distinguish
yourself from other applicants by showing you know such details as the size of the
company, its age, its owner, what they do and their current needs and challenges,”
Black said. Some useful sources of information are annual and quarterly reports, 10K
reports, company publications, company Web sites and recent newspaper and magazine
- Prepare a personal ‘two-minute drill.’ “In
many interview situations, you may be asked to start by talking about yourself,” said
Black. The drill is a verbal resume that captures the listener’s interest and brings
him or her up-to-date on your background in a clear and concise manner. The drill should
address not only what you’ve done, but where you’re headed. Include two or three
key events from your experience and describing what you want going forward. “Two
minutes is just enough time to convey key … information without appearing to take over
the conversation. Revise the drill until it fits that time-frame,” Black said.
Regardless of the swells and low tides, keep going until you reach land and an offer of
“Believe it or not, it will happen … if
you’ve done your homework and interviewed well. One of your ‘possible
employers’ will make an offer,” wrote author and freelance writer Deborah Bogen
in her book, “Paralegal Success: Going from Good to Great in the New Century”
(reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall Inc.).
Bogen suggested that when the call comes inviting you
aboard, it’s a good idea to ask for 48 hours to consider it in most cases. A job
offer is a serious matter and deserves evaluation.
“Once you have the offer, you can ask a series of
questions that were not appropriate before, such as what benefits come with the job and
which attorney(s) you would be working with. … Because these are all part of the total
compensation, you will want details to make an informed assessment.
“If you think the firm is a good one and you want
the job, you have to analyze your bargaining power,” Bogen wrote. She also said there
may be limits to the flexibility available.
Prepare for discussions about compensation by researching
salary levels for similar positions in salary surveys published by paralegal associations
and Legal Assistant Today.
Bogen’s book states that if you’re at all
unsure about whether to accept a new position or not, speak with someone whose opinion you
And as many an old deckhand has said, if you don’t
like the smell of the ship, the whole voyage may stink.
Job hunting is a high-seas adventure. Many a sailor has
expertly circled the entire globe only to be swept away by unforseen storms. Only those
sailors who prepare for the journey will reach their port-of-call.