Are you a paralegal Who’s wondering if you should go to law school? I get that question all of the time. Should I take my paralegal career to the next level and go to law school? Do you want to know what a path from paralegal to lawyer can look like?
Now I’m not the right person to answer that question because the only time that I contemplated going to law school was when I was in a job that I didn’t like.
I started the process, then went to work for a law firm and a team of lawyers that had me sitting second chair at trials, and they paid me very well. And at the time it was pretty much mandatory that you did not work, at least for your first year of law school.
And I loved my job and the work that I was doing. I just didn’t wanna give it up, so I put it on hold, never to be approached again. All that is to say if you’re a paralegal, wondering if you should go to law school. I have no idea, but we’re interviewing someone who does.
In this blog, I’m interviewing Sarah Riley Mohr. She’s an associate Corporate council at Amazon. She started her legal career as a legal assistant and then worked for several years as a paralegal at Georgia Pacific. While working there, she chose to take the path from paralegal to lawyer and attended the part-time law school program at Georgia State University.
After graduating from law school, Sarah worked as an attorney at Georgia Pacific. And then Novelis Corporation in Atlanta before joining Amazon in Seattle in August of 2021.
So let’s interview Sarah and find out: Was it worth it? How did she do it? And what important takeaways we can get from her experience.
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Before we talk about how you did it and whether or not it was worth it, I want to ask the burning question out there that all paralegals have when I get an attorney on the show. And I think it’s perfect that you were a paralegal before becoming an attorney.
So the question is, what do you think are the top traits or traits or a skill that paralegals have that set them apart from others that make them a great paralegals?
I’m going to say, and this is advice that was given to me when I was a paralegal and had just started law school and was reviewing the contract and went to the attorney who assigned it to me and said, “Hey, I have all these questions.” She looked at my markup, said, “Hey, these are great questions. I don’t know the answer. Go figure it out.” Which on one hand seemed a bit harsh at the time, but it taught me to work to find solutions, and this is a trait that I appreciate when working with current and past members of our legal support staff.
1. Be the Problem Solver
It’s important to be able to spot issues and ask the right questions, but it is even better if and when you’re issue spotting, forming your questions, and ready to present to whichever attorney you’re working with, to also demonstrate that you’ve put some thought into a proposed solution.
An example of this would be, “Hey, I see this issue or I have this question. I think that we should handle it by doing X, Y, Z, or, you know, A, B, C.” That to me shows that you’ve not only been able to appropriately spot an issue and raise it appropriately to the attorney you’re working with, but also you’ve taken the next step to problem solve and propose a solution. That to me, says that you are thinking about things correctly and wanting to do additional substantive work.
That is quite frankly one of the best traits and skills that a paralegal can learn because it will tell the attorney you’re working with that you are open to and ready for more substantive work, you can handle more substantive work and you’re thinking about things in the right way.
Again, that was learned from having a lawyer come to me and say, “Hey, great job marking up this contract. I don’t know the answer to these questions any more than you do, go figure it out.”
That taught me to take the initiative to say this is what I’ve done, this is what I’ve figured out. I’ve hit a roadblock, but this is how I would propose handling it. The more you do that and the more you figure out, the more you’ll know what you’re doing, and the person above you will begin to trust that.
It’s a fantastic way to demonstrate your ability, and your skills with the attorneys you work with, and then earn additional trust to be able to do more substantive work and more on your own. That would be the best trait for me.
Learn how to be a problem-solving paralegal.
2. No Task is Beneath Anyone
Another is knowing no task is beneath anyone. I always project this on myself because I’m a former paralegal and former legal assistant. I prepare my own executable contracts. I have no problem looking things up or filing things away, so I also appreciate the attitude of this isn’t my job, but it has to get done.
I really think that no task is beneath anyone, despite the attitude of some lawyers and some legal professionals. But at the same time, that can be taken to an extreme. I’ve received feedback from my superiors, “Hey, we think it’s great that you’re willing to pitch in and do these tasks. At the same time, you have to be able to delegate effectively if there’s time and if it’s appropriate to do so, to be able to focus on more high-level work.”
From paralegal to lawyer, I’ve reminded myself that no task is beneath me. If it has to get done, I remember to be ready to pitch in, dig in, and help get something across the finish line. But there is a fine line. You have to be able to balance, being willing to help and pitch in and do all of these things, while recognizing if your skills are best suited for the task or if it can be delegated effectively given the time and the time crunches in the field.
Read about why the scarcity mindset isn’t good for the paralegal profession.
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I like both of those and everybody reading: If you go to that first one, you’ve heard me say it on here before. Be the problem solver, not the problem reporter. Now that you were telling that story. I remember back when I was a brand new paralegal and I brought the attorney that I worked for a notice of deposition and I asked him a question that I had on it, and his response was, I don’t know, Ann, what do the rules say?
I’m like, I don’t know. And he said, well, you better go read ’em and figure it out. And I did that a couple of times, and by the second time I realized, okay, I need to figure this stuff out. I can’t just walk in and expect him to give me the answer. Even though he knew it, he knew what the rule was and he knew what the rule said, but he was making me go figure it out. That’s great.
Alright, so you were working as a paralegal years ago. You’re in-house at Georgia Pacific, which is known for being a great place to work as a paralegal in the Atlanta area. So what makes you decide to go to law school? Can you give us a little bit of background?
Sure, I have to admit this is obviously very, very personal and unique to the role that I was in and the roles that other legal professionals are in.
I worked with attorneys, and again you’re completely correct, Georgia Pacific is a fantastic place to work. I spent, you know, nine years in their legal department, but I worked with a lot of attorneys who kept telling me, “Hey, you’re doing a great job. You know, we think you’re really smart. You’re very capable. Have you considered law school?”
Of course I had, but it costs a lot of money to go from paralegal to lawyer. It’s a huge time commitment. Like you, Ann, I really loved my job. There were also considerations about where I could possibly attend law school without sacrificing a career path that I was very committed to.
But fortunately, Georgia Pacific is located in downtown Atlanta, as is Georgia State University. And Georgia State is the only university in the state of Georgia that offers a part-time program, which is intended for students who either have full-time jobs or families, etc.
I was able to talk with my employer, talk with my manager, and say, I would like to keep my job here as a paralegal – because again, I loved my job and was very committed to staying – are you at all concerned if I enroll in law school and do this at night?
I just wanted to make sure that my work product was not going to suffer. I essentially went to my manager and was like, Hey, what do you think? And the response I received was why did it take you so long? This is fantastic. It was very much due to my own desires.
I was also encouraged by the people I was working with to do more. They said if you want to do this, you absolutely should and you have our full support. So it was almost very easy for me given the fact that I had a very supportive employer. Other employees and attorneys I worked with were also very encouraging.
And just given, the proximity of my office to a university that offered night classes for law school. It was something that I kind of, at the end of the day was like, how do I not do this?
Being a paralegal was fantastic. I loved the autonomy and the ability that I was given to work on high-level substantive work. But as everybody knows who’s been a paralegal for any amount of time, you kind of hit a ceiling in the type of work and level of work that you can do without taking that next step and going to law school. So I hit the point where I either needed to rip the bandaid off and do this, or commit to being the best paralegal I can be.
I made the decision to enroll in law school at Georgia State and take the path from paralegal to lawyer. I was very fortunate to have managers and an employer who was very, very supportive of that.
Read about paralegal career growth – from receptionist to director.
Do you think that you would’ve done it if you had to go full-time and it wasn’t walking distance from the office?
That’s a tough call. I was in a very fortunate situation where I did not have to quit my job in order to go to school. From a financial perspective, the financial investment in law school was less of a burden because I was still working full-time. It’s easy to look back now because I like being an in-house lawyer and being a lawyer in general is probably my favorite thing in the whole world.
I love it so much and I’m so glad I did this. It’s very easy for me to look back now and say, yeah, I probably still would’ve done it, just quit my job, gone to law school. However, I do think that it’s a tough decision because that would have been a situation where I was a full-time student and not working and would have taken out a larger amount of student loans and incurred some debt.
I will say that for me now it was completely worth it to make the move from paralegal to lawyer. I love what I do, and I could not imagine not having gone to law school, but whenever someone comes to me and asks me the same questions you’re asking Ann I tell them, for me, it was completely worth it.
I love what I do. I wouldn’t change a thing, but it is of course, a huge commitment both time-wise and financially. You have to decide if it is something you really, really want to do. Or is it more kind of a for better or for worse, people treating paralegals with less respect than they do attorneys.
Is this mostly about wanting a better title, more pay for for the same, or slightly the same work? I would just say make sure that this is something you truly want versus just something you feel that you should do as like the next step in your career. Because I will tell you right now, I’ve worked with paralegals that are brilliant and I could not do my job without them.
I tell them please don’t go to law school because what would I do without you? Of course I’m joking. If they wanted to go to law school, I would be completely supportive of that. But I just want to make sure that when you go to law school, you go in with your eyes open.
What is this going to mean for me financially? If I do quit my job and go to school full-time? What am I gonna do for work afterwards? Have you spoken to your employer? Are they open to potentially bringing you on in the summer as an associate? Are they open to hiring you as a lawyer when you graduate? Is that not an option? Do you have other options?
That was a very long way of saying yes. I probably still would’ve done it, it just would’ve been a very different career path post law school than I have right now.
Know your why if you do decide to go to law school and also be ready for the consequences of going.
It is a big time commitment. It is stressful. It is a lot of work. You may incur some debt depending on what you do. And these of course, are trying economic times, so it may be worth it just to take on that burden and understand that when you graduate you’re eligible for higher pay, better benefits, all of that stuff.
For me it was worth it. But know your why when choosing to go from paralegal to lawyer and make sure that if you are taking on that level of a commitment, you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Good advice. Do you think that having prior paralegal work experience helped you get through law school?
1000%. I remember in my first year contracts class, the 50% of our grade second semester was going to be actually drafting a contract.
This was the best news I’d ever heard. That was what I did every day in my job. Some of the full-time students who were just enrolled in a nighttime class were like I don’t know how to write a contract. Where do I even start?
I was on an email chain with other students and somebody found a random contract on Lexus Nexus and just were sharing it around saying we could use it to start. And I was like, this is terrible. I can do better than this. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my experience as a paralegal.
Aside from that specific example, if you’re a litigation paralegal, that might have been a different experience. When you’re in law school, you’re learning the law academically. You’re reading case law and thinking about it as it should be.
From a very academic perspective, anyone who has worked in the legal field understands that there’s a difference between the academic side of the law and how it works in the real world from a practical perspective. It almost kept me in good stead. Going from paralegal to lawyer gave me a good perspective on what I was learning, how it works in the real world, versus just kind of looking at the law within the four walls of law school. That to me was incredibly helpful as I went through law school.
Interesting. I probably already know the answer to this one. In your experience in going from paralegal to lawyer, do you think that being a paralegal helps you now be a better lawyer?
Yes, completely. This is almost a softer skill, but I know a lot of the lawyers I work with and have worked with in my career are attorneys that have come from Big Law firms. They are used to having either a legal assistant dedicated to them or a paralegal that works for them and can handle everyday tasks and look up documents and handle all these things.
Going from paralegal to lawyer has really made me almost more self-sufficient because I can find things. I know how to look. I can manage and look something up. I’ve done it for years and years. It also enables me to move a little more quickly.
I’m not waiting on support staff to handle things for me. I can create my own executable contracts. It is not a problem. That being said, as I mentioned earlier, are there times when I do things that I should be delegating? Absolutely. So it is a fine line between, I can do this, but should I be doing this?
But regardless, moving from paralegal to lawyer has made me from day one more comfortable starting off as an attorney. I’m doing the same work. I just have the ability now to do higher level work and put my name on things. To some extent that’s a little bit scary because as a paralegal you’re doing work, you’re sharing it with the attorneys you’re working with, and there’s almost kind of a security blanket there where you do the work. I think I did a great job.
The attorney reviewed it, signed off. But you still have that level of security of like, yes, I did this. It’s going to be filed, it’s going to be sent to a third party, like a contract that’s going to be sent to a third party for review. This is a huge deal. But you have that additional level of security where an attorney is going to look at it and make sure at the end of the day that everything looks good.
When you move from a paralegal to lawyer, there’s kind of a moment of panic, like, oh my gosh, I’m now the person I used to come to with questions. I’m now the person who’s supposed to know this. And my name is going on this. I experienced a little bit of panic, what have I done? This is crazy.
There is a bit of a shift in your mentality when you go from being a paralegal to lawyer. But at the same time, you kind of have to trust your skills. For example, I know contracts. I know how to look at this. I know how to draft this motion.
It is helpful, but you have to be able to adjust your mindset when you transition from a paralegal to lawyer to be able to do your job effectively.
Listen to 8 Mindsets That Could Be Hurting Your Paralegal Career.
Transitioning from Paralegal to Lawyer
I love that. That’s great information for everybody to have if you’re considering going to law school and transitioning from paralegal to lawyer. It could make it easier getting through law school with your work experience and make you a better lawyer when you do graduate. But Sarah that got me thinking about something else that I wonder because when you went to law school, you were working at Georgia Pacific as a paralegal full-time.
You get your law degree and you pass the bar. Now you’re working as an attorney at the same company you were working at as a paralegal. Can you tell me a little bit about how that transition from paralegal to lawyer at Georgia Pacific went?
Yes. So going from paralegal to lawyer at the same company was both a good thing and a bad thing. It was great in that I was working with people for years who were well aware of my skill level, trusted my skill level, and were ready to treat me not just as a first year attorney.
You’ve got your law degree, you’ve passed the bar, we’re ready to give you higher level work than we would a traditional entry level attorney. But on the flip side, it was very difficult to get some of the attorneys I worked with to treat me as a lawyer, when they knew very well that I had been paralegal first.
I worked with a couple attorneys who I would send them something for a review. They would mark it up or come back and talk to me about it. And if I had a nickel for every time I heard if you had worked at a law firm, you wouldn’t use passive voice. I understand that it was being offered as there’s value in working at Big Law in terms of the quality of your work and your drafting styles.
But it was very frustrating for me because my background was a fixed commodity when I was going through law school and when I was starting as an attorney at Georgia Pacific. At the same time it was condescending. Yes, I understand I did not work at Big Law like most of the attorneys do before they go in house.
But at the same time, I’m very receptive to your feedback. My background is non-traditional, but I didn’t want that held against me. That was not my experience with every attorney I worked with. I know it was coming from a place of we’re trying to make you better.
But at the same time I realized there might not ever be a point where I wasn’t seen as someone who went from paralegal to lawyer. I didn’t know if I was ever gonna be able to shake that image of myself. Was it going to affect my compensation? It was very challenging in some aspects.
Moving from paralegal to lawyer set me up for success in a lot of ways. But a lot of folks in the legal field are very old school and having a non-traditional background made things a little more challenging. Which is why I made a career change after nine years at Georgia Pacific and eventually ended up here at Amazon.
Well, let’s talk about that because I don’t know that we talked about what area you practice in or what you do at Amazon as council there. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
My whole career has been transactional in nature from paralegal to lawyer. I worked at Georgia Pacific on the Consumer Products team and heavily involved with contracts, helping people buy and sell things. That’s what I did at Novelis as well. And then I currently work for Amazon Web Services and their sales and marketing capabilities.
So completely on the sales side. But it is still very heavily contract-based, which I love. I love contracts. They’re like puzzles as opposed to litigation – and I have friends who are litigators and they absolutely love it. But what I like about transactional work is that both parties want the relationship to happen.
Yes, we’re fighting over these terms and we completely disagree on certain things, but we both want this relationship to move forward. I have the mentality there’s always a way to make this work. Do we need to get creative? Do we need to escalate things?
I’ve enjoyed transactional work a lot because it’s always very satisfying for me to see a deal get done and the relationship between my employer and whatever third party is involved there. It’s very gratifying to see that move forward and know that I was a part of that.
Hopefully the contract I’m working on with a third party is not going to end up in litigation because at that point something is broken in the relationship. You have disputes constantly between two parties and you want to make it work and can usually resolve it through commercial means, without resorting to the rules, without resorting to litigation. But once something’s in litigation these are contentious negotiations. We still all have the same goal of trying to get this done and trying to move forward and work together.
Here are some tips for planning your contract management system.
I love how you described that. You know, I only ever worked in litigation, but then as a paralegal manager, I did manage real estate, corporate, and immigration paralegals, so I got to know a little bit of the behind the scenes, but I’d never heard it described like that before. All the parties want to make the deal happen. That’s a great way of describing it, compared to litigation where nobody wants anything to go smoothly for the other party.
Well, one thing that people are going to be asking is if you have any advice for someone who’s contemplating law school or currently working as a paralegal or a legal assistant?
Yes. I want to double down on what I said before about making sure that when you’re considering going to law school and making the move from paralegal to lawyer that you’re doing it for the right reasons. I would also recommend practically thinking about how your law school experience is going to look.
Are you going to resign from your job? Are you considering a part-time program? That sort of thing. One of the things that I realized very quickly working a full-time job and going to law school was that I couldn’t excel at both. At least not while keeping my mental sanity.
I could either excel at my job and do passively well at school or I could focus on school, excel at school, and kind of decrease my workload at my job.
There’s only so many hours in a day. I think for me it was difficult for me because I think most people who are paralegals who go to law school are ambitious, hold themselves to high standards, are slight perfectionists, you know, that sort of thing.
It was very challenging for me to say, oh my gosh, am I gonna do something and not do it amazingly, and that’s not to sound arrogant, it’s just, kind of the pressure I put on myself. But it was. I can’t do both. I cannot crush my job and I cannot kill it at school without losing my mind or just being completely burned out by the end of the experience of moving from paralegal to lawyer.
For me, my goal was to get an attorney role at Georgia Pacific after I graduated. I knew I had to do an amazing job work, and I did the best I could at school, but, if there was a conflict I wanted to make sure that my employer valued me and believed I could take that next step and contribute as an attorney.
And I ended up graduating with decent grades. I was certainly not in the top 10%. And my grades were not good enough objectively to get into a King & Spalding, or a Troutman, or a Jones Day. But at the same time because of my work experience, no one ever asked to see my grades.
I have never had a job interview or applied for any job where someone has asked to see my grades in law school. The more valuable commodity at that point is my experience. You look at my resume and you can see I did all this work as a paralegal, then as an attorney and for me that was the right decision.
But for some people, if you are quitting your job or you are at a job that is perfectly fine, but you would like to go to law school and then get amazing grades and translate that into a Big Law career or a clerkship or something like that. Then the right decision for you may be to focus on your grades, versus, doing an absolutely fantastic job for your employer.
I would say when you’re considering law school, think about what your end goal is and that should help you prioritize as you begin your law school career.
Ann: I love that. And I love that you were planning ahead to know that because not a lot of people would realize that. You already have a great job, but if you had messed that up, and then also only done kind of good at law school, then you’d be out of a job at Georgia Pacific.
After having spent my entire career in Big Law, I saw it firsthand. If you don’t currently work in what we would call an Am Law 100 firm, you might not know that you don’t get a job in an Am Law 100 firm unless you graduated in the top 10% of a top 10 school.
The figures or the salaries that you see out there that first-year associates are making, they’re only making them because they did that and they’re at a big firm. There’s a big difference between that and the Am Law 300 firms.
Here’s advice for starting your paralegal career today.
Sarah: 100%. I love speaking with people about my experience and I always want to encourage people, whether it’s law school, or an additional certification, that you are never going to suffer trying to better your education or yourself.
For anybody who’s reading, if you would like to reach out to me personally on LinkedIn, I am more than happy to speak with anyone who has any additional questions, either about law school generally, or about my experience.
Meet Our Guest
Sarah Mohr is currently an Associate Corporate Counsel at Amazon, and is based in Seattle, Washington. She’s originally from Atlanta and began her legal career as a legal assistant, and later spent several years as a paralegal at Georgia-Pacific.
Sarah received her undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia, and then attended the part-time law school program at Georgia State University while working full-time as a paralegal at GP. Following graduation from law school, Sarah worked as an attorney at GP prior to a brief stint in the legal department at Novelis Corporation in Atlanta before joining Amazon in August of 2021.
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