Issue Archive

E-mail Lists

News Briefs



Upcoming Events

Job Bank



Becoming a

Media Kit

Press Center  New

About Us

Contact Us


"I Want To Be Surveyed!"


logo4.gif (10052 bytes)

bar3.gif (1641 bytes)

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 compass.

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 explained.

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 destination.

“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 non-traditional fields.

“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 nationwide.

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 services.

Keep in mind, however, that not all methods are equally successful.

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 of success.

Classified Ads
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 article.

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 sails.

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 paralegals.

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 financial costs.

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. …

The Interview
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 articles.
  • 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.

Dropping Anchor
Regardless of the swells and low tides, keep going until you reach land and an offer of employment.

“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 really respect.

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.

Desktop Resources
These tools can come in handy for paralegals without their own professional networks or for anyone who gets tired of pounding the pavement. Most of these sources cover wider than the categories they’re listed in, so don’t be afraid to mix and match!

Dane D’Antuono is the associate editor of Legal Assistant Today. She can be reached at [email protected].

bar3.gif (1641 bytes)

| Home |
| Issue Archive | Listserv | News Briefs | Upcoming Events | Links |
| Becoming a Paralegal | Media Kit | About Us | Contact Us | Subscribe |

Updated 09/30/04
© Legal Assistant Today Magazine
[email protected]
(800) 394-2626