In our latest podcast episode, I interviewed Kim Barrett who started her career as a part-time law firm receptionist and is now the Director of Paralegals and Legal Professionals at a Global Law Firm. Whether you’re a new paralegal, struggling to break into the field or an experienced paralegal who thinks there’s no such thing as a career ladder for a paralegal, Kim’s story will inspire you in your own paralegal career growth.
If you’ve ever wondered whether or not you should take that receptionist or file clerk position, just to get your foot in the door, Kim’s story will confirm that you don’t need to start out with two master’s degrees and a list of credentials to be successful in the legal industry. Kim has an impressive resume now, but it’s important to remember she earned those along the way. This interview will help you realize just how much control you have over your own paralegal career growth.
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How did you get started in the legal industry?
I got started in the legal industry because a friend of mine was working at a large law firm. And knew the solo practitioner who was subleasing space from that law firm. He was looking for a secretary and I was looking for a job. I was working at a large corporation at the time and was not happy so I interviewed with him and was offered the job.
It was a great experience because it was a very small firm with just three lawyers and two secretaries. And I was one of them. We had to do everything so I learned a lot. Unfortunately, when he downsized, I was laid off and had to get back out on the job market, but that’s pretty much how I got started in the legal industry.
After I got back out on the job market, my friend who was at this large global law firm, let me know that there was a receptionist role open and so I applied. It was a night receptionist role with a few hours, Monday through Friday in the evening, just to cover the phones at night. I was offered the job.
After a few months, a secretarial position opened up in the firm and so I applied for the secretarial position and was moved over to that role where I was working for someone who was helping manage the paralegals in that office.
When I found out that there was a paralegal role open, I went to him and simply asked for it. I was nervous I didn’t know what he would say. I didn’t know if he would give me a chance, but I had been working for him for almost a year and had proven that I was reliable and smart. Then he started asking me questions about my level of experience and I was answering no to each of the questions he asked – it was sort of an impromptu interview right on the spot.
And I just stopped him and said, “Listen, I’ve been working for you for almost a year. I can do this job. I think, you know, I can do this job. I just need a chance. Just give me 30 days. Just give me a chance to prove that I can get this work done.” He agreed. After that, I went to all of the other paralegals and I said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I just got myself into, but I need your help.”
They were gracious enough to help me learn about preparing pleadings and discovery, just some basic knowledge about being a litigation paralegal. That’s how I got started. I moved up in the ranks of being a paralegal at the firm, and then eventually went into management.
When you went and asked for that paralegal position, did you have a paralegal certificate or college degree?
I had an associate’s degree in paralegal studies at the time.
I was still going to school at night, even while working full-time. So I had not finished my bachelor’s degree yet, but I did have an associate’s degree when I asked for the job and I had no idea how I was going to balance. Working as a paralegal is not a typical nine-to-five job. I didn’t know how I would balance that with raising two kids and going to school at night, but I figured it out. It was tough. There were a lot of sleepless nights, but I forged ahead.
Get more career tips from Ask Me Anything – Paralegal Career Edition.
What advice would you have for someone who took a position to get their foot in the door? For someone who takes the receptionist role or another position, but really wants the paralegal position. What advice would you have for them to actually get that paralegal position?
I would say to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities.
People come and go all the time. If you know, there’s growth happening, inquire about that growth, it can be a bit intimidating to approach your supervisor, to tell him or her that you want a different role. But if you don’t ask the answer will always be no, you really have to advocate for yourself and let people know what you want. This is imperative for paralegal career growth.
You also need to be willing to learn all aspects of the new role that you’re interested in, not just the glamorous parts. You can’t only want to go to trial. You have to be willing to do the trial prep. And that means working 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, probably for weeks at a time. Talk to people and let them know what you’re interested in. You’d be surprised by the number of people who will help you and support you as you move forward in your career. But if you don’t say anything, if you don’t let people know what you’re looking for, then it will never happen.
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So initially before you became a Director, you were a paralegal manager. How did you transition to that paralegal manager role?
I asked for the opportunity again. There was an opening and I went to the person who was involved in the hiring process and told him that I wanted to apply. It was a grueling interview process because they wanted to make sure they had the right person. It took a couple of weeks to get through the countless number of interviews. 23 interviews.
I met with people from different practice areas and business units, and I was eventually selected for the role. I do feel fortunate to have been chosen for the role because it could have been anyone else, but they trusted me to take on this role with very little management experience.
During the interview process, I think my explanation of understanding how the paralegal program could and should grow really helped put me at the top of the list before getting the role. I knew that I wanted to one day move into management so I educated myself and read articles on what it took to manage and lead paralegals.
I also thought about the kind of manager I would want as a paralegal. I thought about managers I’ve had in the past, over the course of my own career, and took pieces from each of them and described that as my goal for leading a paralegal department. It seems to me that they also thought it was a good idea because they picked me to take on the management role.
It’s not like they just handed this role over and said, yeah you’ve worked here for a few years. We’ll let you have it. No, it was a real interview process as if I was coming in from the outside. I appreciate it now that I’m on this side of the fence as I can see why they were so selective and put me and the other candidates through the process.
So you mentioned something and I totally agree. I was the same way when I was a paralegal manager. I managed in the way that I would want to be treated as a paralegal working for someone else. And I think that was really critical. I think it’s great when a paralegal can take that role instead of someone else. Do you think that your paralegal experience, besides knowing what a paralegal does, helped you in that first management role?
Definitely. I am able to relate firsthand to the experiences that the paralegals have because I’ve done the job. I know what the challenges are. I can empathize with them when they’re dealing with a difficult supervisor. I can celebrate with them when they are a member of a team that just won a trial or closed a large deal.
I know how common it is to work 12 hours on a Tuesday, but only have four hours of work on Wednesday. You know, that’s not uncommon in this line of work. Because those that I lead now also know that I’ve done the job. They know, I understand their frustrations and can also celebrate their victories.
I’ve been there. I know what they’re feeling. I know what they’re thinking. I know what they have to do. I think that it has absolutely helped me better relate to the people I’m leading and it has helped them better relate to me because they know that I’ve experienced what they’re going through at this time.
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You have an MBA and a Master’s in Paralegal Studies. Did you have to have that MBA in order to move into a management role?
No, I did not. In fact, after I completed my Master’s in Paralegal Studies, I thought to myself that I was done with school. I had an advanced degree. I don’t need to do anymore schooling. There was no sense in me going into a Ph.D. program, not in this line of work and I didn’t plan to teach at all. So I was done. Working full-time and going to school is hard and I was finally finished, I completed that Master’s degree! And I figured at this point in my life, I can enjoy my evenings now without worrying about homework.
But then after I moved into the management role, I realized I had no business knowledge and no business training. I needed to figure out how the business side of things worked at a law firm. So I can better manage the department and not just the people.
I happened to mention that to a friend of mine. And stated that my kids were both grown now and I didn’t know what I would do with all the extra time on my hands. She suggested that I look into an executive MBA program and I didn’t really know what that was because again, I had no business training. She actually got the information for me. And after doing some research and taking that information and looking further into it, I realized that an MBA would be just what I needed to help me fill in gaps and would make me more valuable to the firm. So I enrolled and went back to school and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
It’s not like anybody at the firm was saying we’re going to give you this Director position, but you really should have an MBA. They knew that I had a Master’s in Paralegal Studies and that I had the experience as a paralegal and could really relate to the paralegals under my charge.
I do work for very supportive supervisors who were more than willing to help educate me on the job with the things that I needed to learn. But I just thought that if I had a formal business education and learned the lingo and learned the business side of things like knowing the difference between selling widgets and selling professional services, it would help me fill in the gaps.
I thought for me that would be more valuable and help me better understand what I needed to do. I didn’t know how to strategize. I didn’t know how to manage a budget and all of these things I learned during my MBA.
Because of this experience, I even told my younger son who just graduated college last year, as he’s now going out into the business world, that he really should get an MBA because it will definitely help him down the line.
Want to know more ways you can expand your education? Read 6 Ways to Expand Your Paralegal Education.
If someone’s a paralegal with 10, 15, or 20 years of experience and they’re thinking that the role of Manager or Director is what they want, what advice do you have for them to be able to transition from Paralegal to Director other than obviously asking?
I would suggest that they do some research and find out what it takes to be in management. Look at different job descriptions that are always posted. You can check LinkedIn, Indeed, and other major job sites. They post Management roles all the time. See what these roles are requesting candidates have and see if you fit that bill. Read articles and if necessary, take classes to find out what it is that you need to learn to transition from actually practicing to now managing because it is a transition.
It’s not seamless and a lot of people in my experience, and I speak to a lot of people at lots of different law firms in the legal industry, they’ll know how to do their job and do it very well, but they’re not very good at managing. They’re not very good at mentorship. They’re not very good at training.
That’s where the difference is. You have to have the patience to deal with people. It’s easy to manage a case or deal because the paper doesn’t talk back, but people do. People have requests and they have feelings and they get frustrated. They need to vent and they have emergencies. There’s a lot more to management than just doing the job.
You’ve been in the legal profession, in these several different roles throughout the last 23 years and you’ve seen a lot of changes in that time. What kind of positive trends are you seeing in the paralegal profession right now?
I think paralegals are becoming more educated. They are specializing, they are moving up and doing more. They are using more technology to make their jobs easier. If that’s even possible. Being a paralegal is not as easy as some people may think it is. It can be tough sometimes, but I think with the advancement of technology and more people realizing the value that paralegals bring to cases and deals and their law firms, in general, it’s better for paralegals to enter this career path and enter the legal industry.
There are plenty of law firms that have a career path for paralegals, and you can really have a very rewarding and lucrative career as a paralegal without having to go to law school. That’s not a dig against lawyers because if you want to be a lawyer, then by all means go to law school and be a great lawyer.
But you can be a very successful paralegal in this industry. There are so many different kinds of work and experiences you can have with a paralegal degree. These skills are transferable to a lot of different industries because you do have to be nimble. You have to be agile. You have to think on your feet and think ahead to anticipate what your attorneys want and need even before they do.
You’re able to use these skills in a lot of different industries and a lot of different jobs, even if being a career paralegal is not what you want later on. I think a lot of the positive changes come from making a career out of it and not treating it like a stepping stone.
If you could pick only three traits, that a paralegal needs to succeed – what would the top three be for you?
I think one is having a strong work ethic. Legal work, ebbs, and flows.
There could be days where you have 10, 12, or more hours of work in one day. And the next day you work three or four hours. Sometimes you need to work late nights. Sometimes you need to work weekends. So I think a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility are very important.
I also think being able to anticipate what someone else needs is also very important because you need to stay a step ahead of the attorneys that you’re supporting. A lot of times, especially the more junior attorneys, don’t realize what they need. They don’t know the intricacies that go into a project, putting a witness binder together is a lot more detailed than it sounds. A lot of people don’t realize that. So you have to be able to anticipate their needs.
And I think one of the most important things, which doesn’t get a lot of attention is attention to detail. In the legal industry, having a comma in the wrong place or having the wrong number on a legal site could be detrimental. Just like not paying attention to timing or the calendar and not reading in order from the court properly. Not realizing a hearing date has changed or a response date has changed, could also be detrimental to your case. You really have to have very good attention to detail.
So whether it’s for someone who’s brand new to the industry, trying to get into a paralegal position, or someone who’s experienced and maybe wants to transition into a manager role or something like that, do you have any actionable strategies that you could share?
I would say talk to people. You have to connect with colleagues in the industry. Join an organization or your local paralegal organization and connect with people, speak to people.
Ask questions. Don’t take no for an answer. If this is really what you want to do, it may not be the right place at that time, but continue pushing forward. Continue to stay connected to your colleagues within the industry, not just at the firm that you are working at, but within the industry as a whole. Connect with people at other firms and learn what they’re doing to make them successful.
Those are things that I’ve done. Those are things that I know other people have done. I stay in touch, even at this level, with other Directors and Managers at other firms, and we’re always learning from each other. We always exchange information with each other. Before the pandemic, we had in-person meetings every couple of months, but we’ve been doing that on zoom recently just to stay informed and make sure that we don’t get stuck into our own silos within our own firms.
The legal industry is a big industry, but it’s also sort of a small world. Everyone knows everyone else, or everyone has heard of everyone else, especially when you’re talking about big law. The global law firms all operate with the same kind of mindset. You have multiple offices across the world and you have people in each of those regions that you can reach out to for information.
I would say if you’re going to do anything, it’s talking to people, asking questions, and continuing to educate yourself. There are tons of great articles out there that can really help you learn and move forward and stay on top of changing trends.
And remember if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.
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