Don’t Work For Free in These 3 Key Areas During Your Paralegal Career

Have you ever been asked to give a presentation to other paralegals or legal assistants? You know, one of those CLE companies calls you or reaches out on LinkedIn and says we would love to have you do a training session on a litigation or real estate topic.

In this article, I’m going to be talking about 3 areas I see paralegals working for free that they shouldn’t be. Because let’s face it, our time is the most valuable thing we have, so don’t work for free.

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When I was a paralegal, I was asked to give a presentation a few times. I was honored. Wow! They want ME to present at this live paralegal conference on trial preparations. It was an all-day CLE conference, and attendees paid $300 to attend it. They don’t pay the presenters, except maybe a $50 honorarium fee or something. But that’s okay, my employer supported it, so I was on the clock when I gave the presentation. But not for those 5 or 10 hours coming up with the presentation and practicing it.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I get a call from one of those companies asking if I’d like to present a 60-minute webinar on a litigation topic. I asked if he knew I was the owner of the Paralegal Boot Camp, a training company that provides online courses for paralegals. He said that was why he thought it would be a great fit for me to present the webinar.

Out of curiosity, I asked how much they paid paralegals to present a 60-minute webinar.

He said nothing because paralegals do it because they can put it on their resume.

As a former paralegal manager, I never made a single hiring decision based on whether or not a paralegal presented a CLE to a company like this.

He also said it gets your name out there.

I laughed. My name is already out there. So I asked, “Why in the world would you think I would work for free so that you can sell that webinar for $199 to paralegals?”

He finally caught on that this was not going anywhere.

And then it came up again recently with another one of those companies. They have built their entire business model relying on people like you and me working for free so that they can charge others $199 for it and tell you that it’s good for your career. If you plan to quit your paralegal career and open a training company, then sure, those presentations might come in handy to show a potential future client that you know how to do it. But otherwise, don’t work for free.

don't work for free

1. Don’t give away your knowledge for free to a for-profit company

Look, I’m not saying don’t ever do something like teach a program for free. But ask yourself: Who is going to benefit the most from this?

If it’s for your local paralegal association or a national one like NALA or NFPA, then yes. Absolutely. I do. At least 5-6 times per year, I present live training programs to a paralegal association. Now, you might say, “Wait a minute, Ann. You’re giving away your time for free!” Yes, I am. I’m giving it to a non-profit organization that benefits its members – paralegals and paralegal students. It’s not benefiting a for-profit company that will take that one-hour presentation and put the money in their pockets. Whatever the paralegal association charges for it, that money goes back into their association to benefit local paralegals.

That’s why I also don’t ever ask anyone to do that for the Paralegal Boot Camp for free. I teach all of the Paralegal Boot Camp courses. I design them. I develop the content for them. I teach them. If I ever had someone who wanted to develop a course that was a boot camp course on a topic I don’t teach, I would pay them, or I would give them a share of the revenue.

In fact, our blog has guest blog writers who are fellow paralegals. They don’t write for free. Our guest blog writing program is set up so that you can submit a proposed topic, we approve it or not, you write the article, and if it’s approved for publication, you get paid. And that’s because I don’t think you should work for free.

Now, those blog articles are read by tens of thousands of paralegals every single month. In one year, it’s read by more than 100,000 people! Other blogs would say, hey…write an article for us, and if it’s published, you’ll get exposure to hundreds of thousands of readers. Wow!

But what does that do for your paralegal career? Is your employer going to give you a raise because you got a blog article published on the Paralegal Boot Camp’s blog? No. Is some random lawyer going to read that blog article and reach out to you with a job offer? No.

So who benefits from you writing that blog article? The paralegals reading it will benefit from it. If it’s for the Paralegal Boot Camp, I benefit from it because it’s one less article I have to write. And it’s usually on topics that I might not otherwise write about, so I think it adds tremendous value, and that’s why I pay our guest blog writers.

2. Avoid Unpaid Internships

These are not as common as they used to be, which I’m happy about. Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, Ann! Don’t say that. How can I get that coveted experience that every employer is insisting on?”

Don’t get me wrong. I think internships are great. Paid internships are great. Not unpaid internships. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of pay. It could be just a minimum-wage paid internship. But not an unpaid internship. Too many of those that I’ve seen are just solo practitioners getting free labor.

Here are two reasons not to do unpaid internships:

  1. Even as an intern with no experience, you still bring some value to the organization. Maybe you spend half your day shadowing a senior paralegal and the other half filling in for the receptionist at lunch and assisting others in the office.  In other words, you are doing actual work for part of the day. You’re not spending all day every day getting training on how to be a paralegal.
  2. Law firms don’t bring on their summer associates as unpaid interns. In fact, most of them pay them a monthly salary equivalent to what they’ll be making when they’re hired as a first-year associate. And I’ve seen what those summer associates do regarding actual work.

Be sure to listen to one of our recent podcast episodes about how to turn your paralegal internship into a job offer for some great tips!

don't work for free

3. Stop working off the clock

Please don’t do this. I hear this more often than you’d think. And more often than I’d like to hear.

I usually hear it from someone new or fairly new to their paralegal career. Some things are taking longer than you expected. Maybe someone even told you it’s taking you too long or you billed too much time for a particular task or project.

So you fix that by clocking out at 5, but you stay to finish that project, leaving at 6. But you keep that hour off the clock, so they don’t know it took you as long as it did to complete that project.

You can’t fix the problem by covering it up.

First, it will take you longer to do things as a new paralegal. No one expects you to be able to do things at the same pace as a senior paralegal who’s been there for 10 years.

The second reason you don’t want to work off the clock just because it seems like it’s taking you too long to complete the project is that maybe the time estimate that the attorney had in mind is wrong. Maybe they’ve always assumed it should take one hour to do XYZ, but no one has ever completed XYZ in one hour, regardless of their years of experience. Someone needs to know that. 

What if the team you’re working on is trying to land this big client, and to do that, they will take on their work on a fixed-fee basis? In other words, it doesn’t matter how long you spend on something, the firm makes X dollars. When they do that, they estimate each project and task that will need to be done and how long it typically takes someone to do it.

If you’ve only ever billed 1 hour for something that takes 2 hours, but you’ve been off the clock for 1 of those 2 hours, the attorneys assume it takes 1 hour.

You could even unknowingly be putting other people in a bad position. What if it’s always taken everyone 2 hours, and someone needs to understand that? But they don’t, so when another paralegal does that same task and doesn’t work off the clock, they bill 2 hours for it. Now someone might think, well, that paralegal is inefficient. When in reality, it takes everyone 2 hours, they just think it only takes one hour.

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When we don’t work for free, we protect ourselves and others in the paralegal profession. We help those around us realize our value and the efforts we put into things are worth more. Your time is valuable, and you should be compensated for it.

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