“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” – Nora Roberts
So, you know you want to land your dream paralegal job but exactly how are you supposed to do that when you have no legal experience?
If you haven’t noticed by now, most paralegal job openings require years of experience, even with a degree or certification.
Finding Your Place
Typically, you start as a legal assistant or legal secretary. You can do this while you are still working on obtaining the necessary education and/or certification you need. Once you have the education, training, and years of experience as a legal assistant, you can leverage yourself into the paralegal position you’ve always wanted and land your dream paralegal job.
Having a positive mindset can also help you achieve your goals. Be confident in yourself and know the value you bring to any office. Don’t be afraid to walk away if your value isn’t appreciated where you are.
There are better firms out there that will value and appreciate you. It’s like dating, sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs before you find “the one.”
Get tips on what to do if you just got fired or laid off.
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1. Getting Started in the Legal Field – Legal Assistant/Secretary
We all have to start somewhere. Whether you’re Elon Musk or John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, you have to start somewhere. To gain the real legal experience requirements you need to qualify for those paralegal job postings, you can start as an entry-level legal assistant or legal secretary. Even starting as a receptionist at a law office is a great first step in gaining the legal experience you need.
To start, you can apply for entry-level legal assistant/secretary positions through jobsites like Monster (https://www.monster.com/) or Indeed (https://www.indeed.com/). Even a position with a local court can give you great legal experience. You can search for job postings in courts here: https://www.uscourts.gov/careers/search-judiciary-jobs.
If you know you want to pursue a career in the legal field, whether it be as a paralegal or possible attorney in the future, you can gain great legal experience as a legal assistant while you further your education.
I was lucky enough to have a connection as a receptionist at a local law office in my small hometown in Manchester, Tennessee. I also did my fair share of going office to office with a printed copy of my resume as well because, at that time, people didn’t apply to jobs online as often as they do now (if you can even imagine). Don’t count out going to offices either though as you may be able to make some connections yourself with the right attitude.
Read about a career path from receptionist to director.
2. Further Your Legal Education
There are several routes you can take to obtain the necessary educational requirements to land your dream paralegal job. I recommend, at the minimum, obtaining an associate degree. If you think law school might be an option in the future like I did, then go ahead and go for a bachelor’s degree in pre-law and/or paralegal studies.
Most firms will require you to have a paralegal certificate of some sort. I’ve found working in medical malpractice defense, most clients tend to require paralegals to bill their time to have proper certification. This can be shown by way of an associate degree or by passing a certified exam such as NALA’s paralegal certification exam (https://nala.org/certification/).
Even if you already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, taking a certified exam such as NALA’s can help bolster your resume, credentials, and ultimate indispensability at any firm in the future.
Find out what you learn in school vs on the job.
There are costly fees associated with taking a certified exam, but don’t be afraid to ask your current firm and/or attorney if they offer to cover the costs of such an exam.
A good boss will appreciate your motivation and ambition. Employers value things such as this because it shows that you can be committed and follow through, which are essential qualities needed to be a successful paralegal.
Get tips on asking for your boss to invest in you.
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3. Kiss a Few Frogs
Finding the right law office or firm that is right for you can take some time. Don’t be discouraged if where you currently are doesn’t value you. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I’ve had my fair share of attorneys that felt as though I was only there to get their coffee – and sometimes I did have to just get their coffee.
However, I’ve always had the attitude that there is always something to be learned at each job I’ve had. Even if you know it’s not the one for you, take something from each job you’re at while keeping an eye out for other opportunities.
Employers will also look at how long you’ve been at each job so don’t give up so easily. Working for attorneys can be tough, but you can be tougher! Keep working hard and building your skill set.
Even if it’s not where you want to be forever, it can lead you to where you want to be and give you the experience you need to diversify your resume and make you more appealing to potential employers in the future.
One of my frogs helped me make a connection that led me to land the paralegal job of my dreams. So, don’t be afraid to kiss a few frogs. Learn from each experience and take that knowledge with you to the next pond you decide to dip your toe in.
Here are some tips for working for a difficult boss.
4. Positive Mindset = Growth
You’ll be amazed at what a positive mindset can do for you. Having a positive mindset means that you choose to see challenges and obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow. You have to change that voice inside your head from a negative to a positive if you’re going to land your dream paralegal job.
Repeat after me: “I can overcome any challenge before me; I am grateful for every opportunity I’ve been given.” Repeat this ten times a day until you start to believe it.
What you fill your mind with, you become. So, fill it with positive thoughts focused on self-confidence and growth. This can help you not only in your professional life, but your personal life as well.
Working as a paralegal, you will constantly be challenged. Having a positive mindset can help you overcome any obstacle you face. For example, if you happen to receive criticism from a supervising attorney, use it to your advantage. Listen to what they have to say and use it constructively to improve your skill set.
I’ve received criticism many times over the years. I was even fired from aforementioned first job as a legal assistant. Apparently, coming in consistently late was frowned upon. I was a naïve 20-something that had a lot to learn and thankfully, I did learn.
I labeled things wrong; I filed things wrong; I sent things to the wrong person, etc. Mistakes happen and everyone makes them from time to time. However, with each mistake I made and each reprimand I received, I learned from it and improved. I never let it deter me and kept trying to do better the next time.
Employers notice this type of attitude which aids your appeal as an indispensable part of the team. Ultimately, you want to be someone that is a team player, reliable, and self-motivated with a positive attitude.
Here are some paralegal professional development tips for you.
5. If You Don’t Ask, The Answer Will Always Be No
Once you’ve gained the legal experience and educational requirements you need, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Be confident in yourself and know what you bring to the table. Remember, you are smart, capable, and an indispensable part of the team.
If where you are isn’t where you want to be, start searching those same job sites for the paralegal position you truly desire. With your skill set, education, and attitude, any employer would be crazy not to hire you!
If you love where you are and don’t want to give it up just yet, try approaching your boss for an advancement opportunity. Start paying attention to areas in which you notice that your office may be in need of extra assistance, that you could clearly provide.
Know what you want before broaching any advancement opportunity, though. Preparation is key. Do some research on what types of duties you’d like to take on as well as salary rates for paralegal positions in your area.
Once you decide what you want to ask for, you’ll want to wait until the opportune time to approach the topic with your supervising attorney. This could be after a successful verdict you were essential in helping the team secure through your dedicated work, for example.
Once you’re prepared and feel as though it’s an opportune time, ask to schedule a meeting with your current employer on a date and time that is convenient for them. Go into the meeting confident. You’ve got experience, education, and training. You are a delight to be around and an incredibly valuable asset to any office. If your employer is smart, they will know this about you and won’t want to lose you.
Above all else, believe in yourself! You can land your dream paralegal job. Keep reaching for your goals and you WILL reach them!
Meet the Author
Rachael is a Certified Paralegal specializing in medical malpractice defense with 15 years of legal experience. She graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science with a concentration in pre-law and a minor in paralegal studies. Aside from her professional career, Rachael is a wife and mother of three, including a 6-year-old girl, 2-year-old boy, and 17 year old step-son. In her free time (if she has any), she enjoys going to concerts, going out on the lake, and kayaking.
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