PHILADELPHIA -- By Gailynne Ferguson from the Legal Intelligencer. Newly christened paralegals without direct law firm or corporate law experience face a challenging road when entering the profession, despite impressive skill sets and work experiences that were acquired in prior careers. Just ask any newcomer and the stories ring alike.
They may possess a bachelor's degree, a paralegal certificate or degree, and a solid work history, but are told that they "lack experience." Entry-level positions are denied due to the candidates being overqualified.
Think about this for a moment. Are hiring professionals trying to fit candidates within a small set of parameters, or are they looking for something unique to the legal profession? The answer appears to be yes on both accounts . . . yet with a little understanding of what is expected of them, those inexperienced paralegals can be successful in landing a position.
Frank Welsh [who now owns and operates FranklyLegal, an innovative legal staffing, consulting and workforce solutions firm, a nationwide staffing company exclusively used for the legal community] believes "Experience is very important and often misunderstood by both the client and the candidate," Welsh said. "The knowledge base of a paralegal gained from formal education can be markedly different from what they will gain on the job in an employer's system, by the practice and under the attorney's tutelage."
Although legal experience is what most employers look for, Denise Miller, administrator of Philadelphia-based Spear Wilderman, noted that hiring personnel "should also look for a solid background, common sense and technical skills."
Those who are charged with the hiring process should realize that paralegals presently coming out of a certificate or degree program are more focused on their new career and anxious to go the extra mile in the workplace environment to make a statement and leave a footprint.
Many articles and books have addressed career changes. Attorney Dena Sukol serves as a faculty member for the Community College of Philadelphia's Paralegal Studies Program. Her tutorial article, "HOW YOU Really Get That New Job," appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Legal and delved into the often-overlooked informational interview. Though this interview can be as short as five minutes, it affords the paralegal the opportunity to rehearse their interview techniques and gain invaluable information on the skill sets an employer deems valuable.
Real Resumes for the Legal and Paralegal Jobs, another resource to consider, was written by Anne McKinney, director for Professional Resume and Employment Publishing (PREP). This resource provides basic strategies for managing careers to clients worldwide. McKinney explains that "lack of experience is often the last reason people are not offered jobs."
If that is so, then just what are employers looking for in a candidate? According to McKinney, employers "look for personal qualities that they know tend to be present in their most effective professionals, such as communication skills, initiative, persistence, organizational and time management skills, and creativity."
From legal placement services to firm administrators to authors, the candidate's ability, aptitude, personality type, potential and talent seem to hold as much, if not more weight, than hands-on experience.
As a new paralegal circumventing that crossover to the legal community, I can attest to the difficulties faced during the hiring process. However, I don't buy the excuse of "lack of experience." I believe that it is more lack of knowledge by the candidate of the employer, as well as the employer's perception of what is driving the candidate.
An employer's position of unfamiliarity can stem from preconceived notions of personality traits believed to be common in a particular field. Combined with generic job descriptions, the hiring professional may not evaluate the whole individual, but merely look at a piece of paper and draw assumptions, isolating a potential employee problem. This is especially true when it comes to the number of positions previously held by a candidate.
In an effort to overcome obvious red flags, such as job changes or preconceived notions, Miller suggests that candidates "come prepared to an interview with reference letters from previous employers. This will provide supporting evidence as to the candidate's character, while also explaining reasons for job changes."
Candidates, on the other hand, need to understand that the legal profession is unique, and very different from what they may have been exposed to in their prior careers. It is a fast-paced environment that relies on the understanding of time constraints, detailed legal processes, and paperwork. It requires dedication to the tasks at hand, accuracy, timeliness, and, often, a sense of urgency.
Technology and learning must be embraced in the legal profession, not shunned. Confidentiality is imperative, for without it, both the paralegal and employer lose credibility. Through it all, paralegals need to exhibit a sense of humor because the real-life events that unfold when clients seek legal help can be hard to accept, at times.
Training for students or new graduates can be achieved many ways. However, because there is yet to be any nationally uniform certification or regulation for paralegals, not all candidates will receive identical educational opportunities. Those who are not required to perform an internship during their training are at a disadvantage and will often seek out any available position just to get their foot in the door. Some will seek out pro bono opportunities.
Though these positions may provide exposure to the legal field, they often do not afford newcomers the financial security to meet their obligations or the opportunity to learn the technical skills needed. I f they thought about freelancing upon graduation, they could find their career short-lived if found not to be working under the direct supervision of an attorney and engaged in the practice of law, a fine line that no professionally responsible and ethically charged paralegal wants to cross.
To have worked hard for so many years, gaining valuable experiences above their education, and then to be told there is a lack of experience when it comes to the legal profession can be hard for anyone to hear but it must be accepted and evaluated in order to move forward. Persuading employers of the importance of previous experiences may seem difficult, but it is not impossible.
New paralegals bring talent to the table in many forms, such as a documented ability to schedule and train, to meet urgent deadlines, to draft and proofread correspondence, policies or manuals. They understand legal concepts, terminology and technology. They know how to deal with various personality types and situations, all while looking at the big picture. They've learned how to bring closure to tasks and to regroup when something goes awry.
However, to Miller, as important as these are, it is the "technical savvy and research abilities that were previously utilized that administrators look for from professionals outside of the legal field, and the candidate must emphasize these capabilities during the interview."
Miller also stresses the need to understand the culture of the firm and the importance of relating the skills that candidates have obtained elsewhere by meshing them with the expectations of the position they are pursuing.
Start by evaluating the Web site. How is the firm presented? How are staff members addressed throughout their bios? The use of first names may reflect a more relaxed, confident environment. What are their practice areas and what cases have they tried? Once paralegals understand the culture, they should be able to convey their work history and accomplishments in such a manner that the interviewer will see this potential and set aside the notion of "lack of experience."
Welsh confessed that "legal positions can require a very unique skill set" and that, sometimes, paralegals may need to seek assistance to help pull these skills together for the prospective employer. This is where legal placement services can offer specialization and expertise. They work with legal professionals throughout the country to match candidates with employers and to help new paralegals identify their strengths and weaknesses as they embark on a new profession.
According to Welsh, "these services help paralegals become confident in their presentation skills while fully engaging each candidate on his or her life's path in an effort to appreciate the reasons and influences in a resume."
Some legal communities, however, have not fully embraced the paralegal professional, so to hire a recent paralegal graduate is not their priority, especially when secretaries are already familiar with the "culture" and "practices" of the firm.
Smaller firms often lack the time and resources to adequately train a new paralegal; any bad habits learned here may end up haunting them the rest of their career. To find adequate training, the "suburban" paralegal, for instance, must travel to a metropolitan location or county seat where paralegals are welcomed and the firms more suitable for training. Though some major firms are willing to undertake the task and responsibility of training a new hire, the extra expenses and travel time incurred by the paralegal may offset the benefits, thus providing a caveat emptor situation.
Employers need to look outside the box for potential and trainability of the paralegal. The paralegal needs to understand the complexities of the legal environment and its personalities. Different perspectives and experiences should not be overlooked by either, but rather embraced because what a better resource for a firm than someone who has truly experienced firsthand what the firm may someday have to defend.
GAILYNNE FERGUSON is a membership of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and a contributing writer to PAP'S quarterly newsletter. She also holds mernbership in the Chester County Paralegal Association. Ferguson has a B.B.A. degree from the University of Phoenix and a paralegal certificate from Villanova University. She provides executive support for Collinson Inc., reviewing state government highway construction bids, contracts, and insurance requirements throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Source: The Legal Intelligencer Online