Scrapbook for Success
Start your professional portfolio while
you’re still in school.
By Susan Howery
As a paralegal student, you must
always be aware of your ultimate goal — landing a job. And not just any job, but the
job of your dreams. You may spend two to four years (or more) embarked on a voyage toward
this end. Your professors provide the tools and training, while you absorb, learn and
fine-tune your skills. It’s a wonderful journey, but will it pay the bills? How can
you open the iron doors to the job market? There are many possibilities, such as
networking, volunteering and internships, and it doesn’t hurt to have an excellent
placement office at your college. But there’s something else you should do, too.
During the time you’re in school, construct a professional portfolio. It’s a
great learning experience and will enhance your self-awareness.
The Professional Portfolio
A professional portfolio is a collection of your work and accomplishments that’s more
encompassing than a resume or curriculum vitae. It should present your achievements and
what your intentions are for your career.
It should also provide you with a framework for thinking
about your work and your education. It’s a chance to reflect on what you’ve
achieved and on what you would like to achieve. Begin by asking yourself:
- What exactly are my academic and professional goals?
- How well am I accomplishing those goals?
- How do I know I’m accomplishing my career goals?
- How can I show I’m accomplishing these goals?
- How can I improve my learning process so that I can move
more quickly and steadily toward fulfillment of my goals?
Constructing the Portfolio
1. Write your own educational values statement (generally one page). It
should include your long-term educational and career goals, a self-assessment (your
skills, attitudes, habits and areas that need improvement), your short-term goals (and how
you will achieve them) and a reflection on how your short-term goals will help you achieve
your long-term goals.
2. Begin to collect and store in a safe
place documentation evidencing your work product. In a three-ring binder, keep projects,
writing assignments and any legal pleadings and other legal documents you’ve written.
You should begin by collecting everything you complete in your program, and then later you
can go through and decide what to include in your portfolio. Keep your selections brief
and concise — an employer will not spend hours pouring over your portfolio.
3. Reflect (in writing) on different
areas in the portfolio or on individual entries. You can talk about what you’ve
learned from the portfolio or how a document or statement fits into the larger portfolio.
You don’t have to reflect on all entries, and you may want to exclude the reflection
pieces in the interview process.
4. Make sure the notebook is neat, well
presented, logical and easy to read. You should have a table of contents and colored tabs.
5. Review the portfolio from
time-to-time. Consider what’s missing. You should begin this process during your
first paralegal course in your program. Otherwise, you’ll be missing valuable pieces
at the end of your program.
6. Use your portfolio regularly. For
example, you may want to share it with others as you progress. Or use it to measure your
progress toward your goals. Adapt it for special purposes, such as academic planning, job
placement and scholarship applications. Maintain your portfolio for the rest of your life.
Modify it as you grow in your career.
Part of the Program
Luckily, “portfolio” is one of the new buzzwords in the academic world, and many
colleges are introducing portfolio classes or requirements into the curriculum for
degree-seeking students. Yavapai College is one of the fortunate ones. Two of our faculty,
Dr. Kathryn Reisdorfer and Professor Carol Hammond, have been working on a portfolio
capstone course that is tailor-made for paralegal students. When students have completed
their studies in the paralegal program, they’ll be required to take the paralegal
portfolio capstone course, which will be worth one semester credit. Ideally, the student
will be taking the course just prior to or concurrently with his or her legal assistant
The student will be advised of this requirement during
orientation, and will be given instruction on how to proceed in building the portfolio
throughout his or her studies. All associate degree-seeking students (except for the
associate of applied science) will be required to take the course. The college has set
aside a block of funds for “portfolio readers” who will evaluate the portfolios
when they’re completed. The paralegal program portfolios committee will consist of
attorneys and paralegals who teach in our program.
Reisdorfer has been working for some time with students
on building portfolios at Yavapai College, and speaks passionately on the merits of a
professional portfolio. “Portfolios that end up being employability/professional
portfolios most frequently begin as collections of evidence about what students have
learned and what they have yet to master. By the time portfolios are completed, students
have an excellent product to show prospective employers. But they really have something
more valuable; they have acquired the habit of assessing their own work and their own
learning process. They are prepared for a lifetime of adjustment and re-education. They
are in charge of their own lives,” Reisdorfer said.
I experimented with this project last year in one of my classes, and it was a hard sell to
my students. First of all, we weren’t offering credit for the creation of a portfolio
— I was requiring it as a part of my Law 221 course. Students viewed it as more work.
So, to be fair, I built my own portfolio. I started
collecting things I’d written, awards I’d received and reflections of all of my
collections into a large shoebox. I finally put it together in a notebook, and I learned
something about myself. I made some real goals — not the kind you make for Lent or on
New Year’s Eve. I’ve actually been working toward those goals, and adding to my
professional portfolio as I move along. I also discovered that portfolio-making can be
And the experiment had a happy ending. Students used
their professional portfolios in their job searches. Employers were interested. Students
found jobs. Some students found the jobs of their dreams. I highly recommend that you try