Dear law student. You asked me the other day ‘Should I get a paralegal job?’ It is one of the most common questions I get from law students.
I know from talking to law students that you tell one another that you have to get a job as a paralegal during law school to even think about getting a job at graduation. I’ve read r/auslaw and r/LawSchool on Reddit. I know it’s a common argument.
Distressingly, when I ask law students where this idea comes from, they usually say ‘My friend/partner/friend’s friend/friend’s partner’s friend [or pick any combination of these] said…’. I know it sometimes comes from a shiny new lawyer at a careers day at the law school. They may or may not have gone down that path. But it’s a truism that a single experience can’t be translated to a whole cohort. So, to use a law-ism, it’s circumstantial evidence at best – give it the appropriate weight.
I realise that the fear is that by not having (or keeping) a paralegal job, a graduate job is almost impossible to get. I believed that too when I was a law student. But my undergraduate degree is now 20 years old and I had a paralegal job – it didn’t help with my first graduate job at all (but, again, truisms and all that).
Prospects aren’t bad
It’s also just not consistent with what we know happens to law graduates. Australian law schools produce about 7,500 graduates like you each year. But that doesn’t mean every single one of them will be looking for a job as a law graduate. We know some of you will have decided not to be a lawyer at some point in law school. Some will have decided not to be a lawyer after they graduate.
We also know that the employment prospects for law graduates are good. The 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey tells us that more than 75% of the most law and legal studies graduates had a full-time job within 12 months of graduation. It also tells us that more 90% of graduates in 2016 had full-time jobs by 2019 with 80% in roles that need a university degree.
I know, that might sound like cold comfort. I can imagine you thinking, ‘But what if I’m one of the 25%? Or even one of the 10%? And how many of that 75% didn’t have a paralegal job?’
That’s all possible. And work experience is always useful, regardless of whether you want to be a lawyer or a circus performer. But before you join the paralegal parade, here are some things to think about.
Being a full-time law student is hard work
I’m not really telling you something you don’t already know. Most universities tell you that you should be spending three hours studying for every one hour of lecture or tutorial time. A quick calculation means that your law degree (or both degrees if you’re ‘doing a double’) should take up 36 hours a week.
Yeah, I know. Stop giggling. That’s the ideal. But even if you spend half that time, that’s still the same as a part-time job. You could fill the other half of your week with a paralegal job. But that assumes you do not also have to work to pay the rent, put food on the table, fill the car etc etc etc. Ramen is OK. But ramen every night?
That’s your work commitments. But what about your social life? What about family life?
… and we need you to be healthy.
Existing on ramen and Red Bull isn’t going to do much for your physical health. But your mental health is important as well. Connecting with family, friends and outside interests is a way of keeping mentally healthy.
It has been more than 10 years since Courting the Blues on mental health among law students and in the legal profession was published. It found ‘high levels of psychological distress and risk of depression in the law students and practising lawyers who participated when compared with Australian community norms and other tertiary student groups’.
There has been lots of good work since then. But the high-pressure nature of the legal profession means that it’s still a risk. Going out into the profession while you’re already under pressure and feeling stressed puts you at risk. And adding another distressed lawyer to the profession isn’t the best outcome for anyone.
So, before you go looking for a job, stop and think: Can I fit it all in?
Be clear about the objective
But, I can understand why you might want to get a paralegal job. And, again, it can be advantageous. So, before you start applying, here are some things to think about.
What do I want out of the experience…
This is really important. Getting a job on your CV is not the answer.
Being clear about why you are looking for a paralegal job can help you, and a potential employer, in a lot of ways.
There are some niche areas of the law where there is only a small number of roles. If you can explain your interest and how a particular employer fits within that, then it can help build a CV to support you getting into that area of practice. Having that clear statement of intention also helps with writing a kick-ass covering letter that can help an employer to see how you might fit in their practice.
Not having an area of interest, or not finding a role in that area, aren’t barriers though. Gaining exposure to legal practice have help with deciding what it is you are interested in. If you’ve never worked in that type of environment before, it’s also a valuable introduction to more general professional skills. Things like client communications, managing clients, practical legal writing, time-critical research, and practical procedure.
But remember: These are things that require time, training and motivation. You need to ask questions. You need to look out for opportunities to learn. Warming a seat in a law firm just to get the job on the CV is not going to assist anyone – including you.
… and where is it going to take me?
Your first job is never (and shouldn’t be) your last job. The world changes. You will change. This is the first step in a career, not the finishing line for your studies.
Being clear about what you want from the experience can help with identifying where the experience is taking you. It can also help you set some time limits and goals and to check-in regularly with yourself about whether the job is getting you there.
Loyalty is a valuable resource. Spend yours wisely.
So, you’ve planned your time and your objectives. You’ve got your paralegal job. Congratulations! You’re conscientious and keen. You want to make a good impression on the firm that is employing you. If you have a clear picture in your mind about the objective in applying to, and working for, a firm then making a good impression is essential.
But, unfortunately, things don’t always pan out the way we hope. Having a role that isn’t getting you closer to your goals is a danger. Being conscientious though, you feel you need to stay or risk getting a bad reference.
But, in the words of a very old song, you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run.
So here are some questions to keep asking yourself.
Am I learning anything?
Remember, having a paralegal role is about gaining experience that will help you find the job you want after graduation. It’s like an apprenticeship. If you’re not learning anything, why are you there?
There might be lots of reasons why you’re not learning anything. Some of them are understandable. For example, maybe you work in a busy firm and the principal doesn’t have time available to work with you.
But I’ve also seen paralegals working in purely administrative roles: answering phones; internal filing; picking up drycleaning; buying stationary. I love a trip to Officeworks as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t say it’s building professional skills.
You might hear people say ‘Oh well, that’s what paralegals do. We all had that experience’. No, it’s not. And no, we didn’t. And if we did, then we got the wrong experience.
Sure, the snazzy firm merch might be attractive. Sure, the buffet might be a highlight. But remember, this is your career we’re talking about.
But before you answer ‘no’ to this question, take a minute to think about why you’re not learning anything. Have you checked your objective? Have you focused on the right thing?
You might find, for example, that you have learned a lot about personal injury law. But that wasn’t your objective. Law school has trained you to focus on substance. It’s really easy to get caught up in the substance of what you’re doing. If your objective was to learn skills, is that where you put your focus? If not, stop and reflect on whether there might be something you can do to change your focus.
Is this taking me anywhere?
One of the things that law students often say is that they took a paralegal job because they thought it would lead to an offer of a graduate job. But, like any job offer, think about if the firm you are working in is really somewhere that you could see yourself working in one, two or three years from now.
If it is, great! But you might want to check that your assumption about what will happen in the future is right. Your loyalty is valuable. If you have decided that this might be the firm for you, it might be a good time to think about sitting down to talk to your principal about what might happen in the future.
That can be confronting for both you and your principal. Don’t spring it on them one day in the lift. Think about making a time and forewarning them that this is a question that you’d like to ask them. It is an excellent opportunity to get feedback on how you’re going and things that might be worth focussing on.
And what’s the worst that can happen? Finding out that there might not be a job at the end is valuable information to have as early as possible to allow you to do some future planning.
Am I fitting it all in?
Remember we talked about being healthy? And about how being a full-time law student is hard? As a law teacher, I can tell which law students did their assignment at 3.00am in the morning. I can see law students falling asleep in a lecture theatre. I can also tell which students are stressed.
To put it bluntly, if your paralegal job means that you fail classes, what was the paralegal job for?
It’s time to go
Asking yourself these question at the start, and during, your paralegal experience can help you to plan some milestones. But it also might bring into sharp focus some things that are really making you uncomfortable.
I often have law students tell me that they can’t leave, or can’t go without having another paralegal role lined up. ‘The legal profession is small, and it will look bad!’, they say. But if it’s not meeting your objective, isn’t teaching you anything and isn’t taking you anywhere, what are you doing?
In another professional life, I read CVs, and I interviewed graduates. Yes, the profession is small. That means your potential employer also probably knows who you worked for and can probably guess why you might have left.
But even if they don’t, being able to explain your objectives, what your experience taught you, and how that has lead you to apply to them makes for an impressive interview.