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Scrapbook for Success
Start your professional portfolio while you’re still in school.
By Susan Howery

July/August 2000 Issue

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 internship.

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.

The Experiment
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 fun!

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 this one.

Susan Howery is the paralegal program coordinator for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. She held the same position at Davenport College in Kalamazoo, Mich., for several years. Howery also taught in both programs. She initiated and advised two student paralegal associations, and has been active in the state and local paralegal associations. Howery is currently on the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) Board of Directors as the representative for associate degree programs. She was the legislative chair of AAfPE and the 1998 annual conference co-host. She also hosted the 1996 regional AAfPE conference in Phoenix.

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