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Top 10 Paralegal Career Takeaways from 2023

These were the top 10 paralegal career takeaways and actionable strategies from 2023.

1. How to Take Charge of Your Paralegal Career

Instead of waiting to see what your company will do for you, ask, “What will I do for myself?”

The answer, make a career development plan and put it in writing. I think it’s one of the best investments you can make in your paralegal career.

I want to share a quote from Earl Nightingale with you.

He said, “The driving force of a career must come from the individual. Remember that jobs are owned by the company. You own your career.” 

Owning your career means that you invest in that career. You’re going to get what you put in. If you graduate with just a basic foundation and never make any other investment in your development, you will stay in the same place you were when you graduated.

It’s where we all are when we graduate from our paralegal programs, walking into that first paralegal position, looking around and wondering, what in the world am I supposed to be doing here? 

They taught me how to draft a legal research memo using the IRAC method, but no one’s asking me to draft a legal research memo.

They taught me all about wills and estate planning, but I got hired as a litigation paralegal.

Look, you’re not alone. Every one of us sat at our desks on that first day, wondering the exact same thing.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

2. The Impact of the Scarcity Mindset

There is this weird scarcity mindset in some paralegals. It shows up as them not wanting to share their knowledge and skills with newer paralegals because they think they won’t be looked at like they’re the top dog anymore.

This is done to the detriment of the firm and the paralegal profession. Why would you want any lawyer to look at any paralegal and think they’re not very good at their job?

It brings down the entire paralegal profession because, pretty soon, that lawyer thinks you are the only paralegal in the world who’s competent.

When that lawyer eventually leaves the firm and works at a new firm with ten other new paralegals, they’ve never met, and that have never met you, they come into it with the mindset that there are no other great paralegals out there.

This creates a distrust in the paralegal role itself and drives them to use the associates to do their work, causing even more harm to the profession and limiting growth. Knowledge sharing should be seen as an opportunity to mentor and support the important work we all do while advancing the profession for us all.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

3. Build Your Paralegal Success Portfolio

I recommend saving all those “kudos” emails and voicemails from clients or your attorney that you receive in one folder. 

The calls and emails sharing a thank you for a great job on a project.

The voicemail from your attorney thanked you for working all weekend and getting that transaction closed. 

Save them throughout the year because you’re not going to remember them all, especially if they happened early in the year and your performance review meeting doesn’t happen until December.

What else could be in your brag folder?

  1. Courses you’ve taken;
  2. Courses you’ve taught;
  3. Projects on other teams that you’ve pitched in to help on; and
  4. In-house training that you’ve attended or taught.
paralegal career takeaways

Now take it one step further and every year, put them into an ongoing career journal for when you want to update your resume.

Some employers have self-evaluations as part of their performance review process.

If yours does, then that’s the opportunity to pull out that brag journal and start writing that stuff down on your self-evaluation form.

Back in the day when I was a paralegal manager, the firm had the paralegals complete a self-evaluation form that was the exact same evaluation form that the attorneys were using to evaluate the paralegals.

It was like ten pages of questions. Truth be told, I think it was an utter waste of time to make them do that.

What I would have preferred was just a few long-form questions so that they could actually do some self-reflection.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

 

Year-End Self-Reflection Questions

You might want to ask yourself:

What went well this year?

What could I have done better this year?

Did I achieve the goals that I set for myself last year? If not, why not?

What goals am I setting for myself this year?

How do I plan to accomplish those goals?

These are questions you can ask yourself, regardless of whether or not your employer has a formal review process or a self-evaluation form.

If you do have a formal process, when you answer those questions honestly, they make for really good talking points for you to bring into that meeting with your supervisor.

Imagine how productive of a conversation you’d be having if you were prepared to talk to your supervisor about how your year actually was.

You’ll have a paralegal success portfolio of your accomplishments that they might not know about and be able to map out a plan to improve your weaknesses.

👉  Get more tips on turning your paralegal performance review into a career development opportunity.

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4. Negotiating for a Higher Salary

If you’re a paralegal reading this, you may be thinking I’m preaching to the choir because everyone wants to see a pay increase.

Part of this will fall on paralegals because if you want to see an increase in salaries, you’ve got to stop accepting positions that you know are below what you want or need to be making.

Let’s say that a recruiter calls you on the phone or messages you and says, “Hey, are you open to this new opportunity?”

You tell them that you’re open to hearing about it, and their first question is, “What are you making now?”

Your answer should be this is what I want to make for a salary to consider moving from my current firm to another.

Be honest and make it a big number. Because what you’re making now is irrelevant.

Maybe you’re being underpaid right now, and it wouldn’t take much for you to want to make that move. Don’t be afraid to ask for a big number.

Just remember to consider all factors because I don’t always necessarily recommend that you leave. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and salary is just one thing to consider.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

5. Master Your Autonomy and Overcome Limitations

You cannot put control of what you do and how you do it for your paralegal career into someone else’s hands.

If someone is preventing you from doing the best possible job that you can do, come up with a workaround because this is your career and your reputation.

👉  Here’s how to find your confident voice as a new paralegal.

Let’s say you don’t like how the files are organized, but that’s how they’ve been doing it for years.

If it’s something that’s preventing you from doing the best possible work and supporting the attorneys in the best possible way that you can, then change it.

Don’t let other people and their former systems dictate how successful you can be in your career.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

paralegal career takeaways

6. Be an Efficient Project Manager

Here’s an example. If you’re working on a bunch of witness notebooks and you’ve got 20 witnesses, after you finish the first two notebooks, estimate what each one will take on average. In this case about 3 hours from start to finish because 1 of them took 4 hours and the other 1 took 2 hours. 

You can assume that half the remaining ones might be as complex as the 4-hour one and the other half as complex as the 2-hour one.

Go to your attorney and let her know that based on what you’ve done so far, you estimate that the project will take X amount of hours to complete.

You’ve completed 2 of those 20 notebooks, and you’ve got 18 left, averaging 3 hours a notebook. This is how you can explain to them how you calculated the time estimate.

You estimated how long the project was going to take to ensure it was what they had in mind for the project budget.

Another thing I might suggest is if you’re told in advance that this project is only budgeted for 3 hours, when you get to the one-and-a-half hour mark or the 2-hour mark, and you’re not even halfway through the project, say something.

Go to the attorney to update them on the project status and how much longer you anticipate it will take you to complete. This is where you’d want those metrics to be able to estimate.

👉  Learn what one skill can make or break your paralegal career.

Continuing with this example, let’s say you’ve completed half those notebooks, which takes you two hours. It might be tempting to think to yourself (we’re all guilty of this) I’ll just work harder to try to finish it within that 3-hour timeframe. I’ll work faster. I’ll work harder, and I’ll be able to get it done in 15 minutes.

Be careful with this mindset because the only statistics you have so far is that half the project has taken you two hours. Why would you think you’d be able to finish the other half of the project in half the amount of time? Luck? Cutting corners?

It’s probably not going to happen unless you cut corners, which then puts you in a position where you might make mistakes because you don’t have enough time to do a quality control check before those notebooks go out the door.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

7. Focus on Career Security Not Just Job Security

You’re like, wait, what? I can’t lose my job. Of course not. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m just asking you to plan your future and not just think about where you’re at today. 

What’s the difference between job security and career security? 

What is job security?

Job security is pretty self-explanatory. Feeling more secure that you’re not going to lose your current job. If you work in a large defense firm with a billable hour requirement, that might look like making sure you’re exceeding that billable hour target each year.

If you’re working in a plaintiff’s personal injury firm, it might mean being able to effectively and efficiently manage 50 to 100 or more files without letting anything slip through the cracks.

Job security is important. I’m not in any way saying that you shouldn’t care about your job security, but how often do you ever focus on your career security?

What is career security?

It’s when you’re consistently doing things that move your career forward, and that will provide security for you regardless of what happens to your current job.

You’re adding value to your career so that if you got fired tomorrow or laid off next month, it would barely be a bleep on your radar screen because you have the valuable skills and certifications that other employers are looking for.

You have that awesome resume that you continually update every year and the connections that you’ve made throughout the legal industry and beyond.

Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

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8. The Impact of a Challenging Legal Environment

New paralegals know and believe that they’re cut out for it when they go through their training. They’re excited about the job, the work, and what they get to do. But depending on what industry and area of law they go into, the legal environment can defeat and deflate them.

In my experience, it starts with the communication with the attorney or the law firm when they get in there. The attorney assumes things about the paralegal’s capabilities, but in reality, the paralegal is properly trained since they’ve done what it takes to become a paralegal. It’s certainly no small feat. 

But then they get into a law firm, and there’s chaos or a breakdown in communication with a lack of direction, coaching, and leadership. These attorneys and law firms hire these paralegals, throw them in the back room, and dump the bankers’ boxes of files on their desks with little to no direction, and things start to go south.

They even get blasted with harsh words like “you’re incompetent,” which could not be further from the truth. They get disheartened and get beaten up unnecessarily.

Everybody’s too busy to really stop and give the proper time, attention, and feedback. No one is reviewing their work, giving them coaching and the leadership they need to succeed.

This is where many get to a place where they believe that they’re not cut out for that area of law because of the energy and intensity – the chaos that occurs unnecessarily in law firms.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

paralegal career takeaways

9. The Gap Between School and Practice

I remember in my paralegal certificate program, one of the things that I enjoyed the most was this moot court competition that we did.

We were arguing an appellate brief in front of a few professors who were the judges. That was after researching, writing the briefs, and then arguing the briefs in front of them. It was the whole class.

Do you know how many times throughout the last three decades I needed to know how to argue in an appellate brief? None.

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy that moot court competition, but maybe all of the time that we spent playing acting could have been spent teaching me how to put together a trial notebook or what a paralegal actually does in the courtroom.

🔊  Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

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10. Embracing Continued Education

You are not learning the skills that it will take to be a great paralegal in school. What you are learning is the foundation, the terminology, and the theory.

You’re memorizing the civil rules of procedure and what the definition of a subpoena is. But you’re not learning what you’re going to be doing on the job. Now in the school’s defense, this is no different than any other career that’s out there.

When a lawyer graduates from law school, they don’t know how to do everything they’re going to be doing as a new associate. When your friend graduates from college with a business management degree, it doesn’t mean that he or she knows how to open and run a successful business. They have the foundation to get them started.

It’s the same with new paralegal program graduates. If you’re new, just starting, getting your certificate, or even close to graduating, I’d highly recommend doing a career assessment, and planning out how you will continue your education to help bridge the gap.

Don’t be hard on yourself as you navigate the jump into your paralegal career. It’s happened with every single paralegal who’s graduated. It’s not that your paralegal program is any better or any worse than any of the others out there It’s just that they don’t cover the on-the-job training you need.

Listen to the podcast episode around this paralegal career takeaway.

It’s why I created the Paralegal Boot Camp. Our programs provide you with the tools and know-how for becoming a rockstar paralegal. You can learn more about our offerings here. I hope these 10 paralegal career takeaways help you prioritize your focus in the new year to fast-track your success! 

Meet the Author

A portrait of Ann Pearson for the Paralegal blog.

Ann Pearson is the Founder of the Paralegal Boot Camp, and host of the Paralegals on Fire! Podcast Show, and passionate about promoting the paralegal profession.

Ann spent 20 years working as a paralegal manager and a litigation paralegal before opening the Paralegal Boot Camp in 2010. 

Ann’s training programs focus on adding immediate value to a paralegal’s career and bridging the gap between what a paralegal learns in school and what they actually do on the job.

Visit the About Us Page to learn more about why Ann started the Paralegal Boot Camp.

Connect with Ann on LinkedIn

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