We all start with reflection and goal-setting at the beginning of the year. Thinking about how the last year went, what we wished we did differently, or what we want to accomplish in the new year.
So I thought sharing what I would do differently if I were starting a new paralegal career today would be a good topic to discuss in the first month of the year.
Listen to the podcast episode
Let’s face it, It’s always easy to look back and say, “I should have done this instead.” You know the saying, “hindsight is 20/20.” So I was thinking, what lessons did I learn that I could pass along to others, so they don’t have to wait for hindsight? Maybe it’s something that gets you thinking before making an important decision. Or maybe you know a paralegal who is new to the paralegal profession that you can share this blog with.
1. Invest in your paralegal career development
If I was starting a new paralegal career today, I would invest more money and time in my career development, especially in those early years. It’s one of the topics I talk about a lot here, and that’s why I talk about it so much.
It’s especially important now as I’m looking at my end-of-the-year numbers from the bookkeeper and the dollar number next to professional development is higher than it’s ever been. And I’ve been in business for 12 years! I think to myself, I should have done more of this earlier in my entrepreneurial journey, and I could have saved myself some headaches.
But when we’re just starting out, whether as a new paralegal or a new entrepreneur – we’re just trying to keep our heads above water, and we don’t have time for that “fluffy stuff” when we’ve got all these deadlines.
When I got my first paralegal job, I was still in college. They let me work 25-hour work weeks so that I could finish out my last semester. And that was one hard semester taking evening classes and working during the day, even if the day was a little shorter than your typical work day. By the time I finished school, I was sick of learning. Well, not sick of learning. I was tired from running home to change, grab a bite to eat, and drive to a class that didn’t end until 9 p.m. It was rough. So when I graduated, I said I needed a break. I needed a normal schedule for a while.
The problem is that break lasted for a few years. I told myself I didn’t have the time to attend that conference or that paralegal association event. I placed everything above my career development and seeking out additional paralegal training outside my certificate program.
Now, I will say that it wasn’t as easy back then as it is now. There was no such thing as Google or YouTube. Back then, and mostly through much of the 90s, the only way to take a class or a course was at your local college or when there was a paralegal conference that would come into town – maybe once a year if you were lucky. And what do you suppose the likelihood was that the one day that conference was in town coincided with a slow work day when you could attend it?
I’d also add to that – once I did start taking it more seriously, I should have included attending events that were outside my specific skill set. For example, I was a litigation paralegal who started doing securities litigation. I could have easily found a local college class on securities. I think. I guess I don’t know because I never even looked. The same with when I went from doing antitrust to construction litigation. It was at the same firm – so you rely on the attorneys to school you on just the important aspects that you need to know to do your job. But what about doing your job at the next level?
Here’s a perfect example of that. If you’ve read our blog before or listened to some of the podcast episodes, you may remember the story of the construction litigation paralegal who went from in-house paralegal to the executive vice president of the company. She did that because, throughout her time as a construction litigation paralegal, she took classes on project management, construction project management, construction budgeting, and things like that. Instead of being paralegal-focused, she was construction-focused. Part of that was because she had a career plan when starting a new paralegal career. She wanted to move out of the traditional paralegal role.
You might already have a copy of the Paralegal Boot Camp’s Career Development Plan template, but if you don’t, you can download it below.
2. Don’t worry about what others are getting paid
If I were starting a new paralegal career today, I wouldn’t have asked the other paralegals how much money they make. Well, I don’t know if I came right out and asked them, but at some point, they told me – whether it was during lunch or some other conversation. I don’t remember the exact circumstances because it was almost 30 years ago. I don’t even remember when it was. But I remember how it made me feel and what it made me do. It made me dislike my job because I had the attitude that I was being underpaid. It made me want to leave the firm. And this was a job I otherwise loved.
Now, keep in mind that this was VERY early in my career, and being that young, I didn’t take the time to think about how they had more experience than me and how they’d been at the firm longer than me. There were many reasons why those paralegals were being paid more than me. But in my 20-something mind, none of that mattered.
Here’s why I want to bring this up – because I see this on social media all the time. Someone posts and says they’ve got X years of experience, and they’re working at a small firm in Florida, and they want to know if X is a low salary because they feel like they are being underpaid – but they are happy with the attorney and the firm.
It’s all relative. There could be another paralegal in that same small town, maybe even working in a law firm right down the street, who makes $10,000 – $20,000 more yearly. But they’re working in high dollar complex litigation, and you’re working in insurance defense, and the firm’s clients limit how much the attorney can bill for your time. They’re a business. That law firm has to decide on what they can afford to pay you by factoring in what they can bill out your time on an hourly basis.
Or maybe on that same street in that same town, a paralegal is working on the plaintiff’s side of personal injury, and she’s making around the same salary as you – the one that you feel is low and now that makes you feel better because others are being paid the same. But what you don’t realize is that the other person doesn’t have nearly the same benefits package that you do. And you might be in for a big year-end bonus or even a mid-year bonus.
That’s why I say – don’t ask others if your salary is fair. Ask yourself. If you’re new to the field, is it something you can live with for a couple of years? Because it will start to increase after year two. But here’s the thing. Do not accept a job offer for a salary that you know is not enough to live on, hoping that you’re going to be able to get a huge raise in 6 months. If you get a job offer for $35k and you know that to pay your rent or mortgage, and utilities, and daycare – all of those things – to get by you will have to get a 2nd or 3rd job to make ends meet – then tell the employer that when they make the offer.
If you want the job, and you’re willing to sacrifice to take it, then say, “at that salary, it’s going to require me to drive for Uber on nights and weekends to make up the difference in what I need, which I’m willing to do if I have to, but I want to make sure you’re okay with me working a side-job to make up the difference or don’t accept the job. But don’t accept the job and stew about the low salary and hope that someone gets the hint eventually.
3. Reconsider Making the Move to BigLaw
I would have stayed at small to mid-sized firms instead of moving to BigLaw.
You might be thinking, WHAT? That’s why you are where you are because you had the opportunity to take that management position at BigLaw. No, I am where I am today because it’s where I was meant to be. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed every minute of my paralegal career. We’re talking about before I moved into management. I’d gone from a litigation paralegal at a 20-attorney firm to a litigation paralegal at a 1,500-attorney firm. But the whole reason I was successful was because of the experience I got at that small firm. I had more trials and drafted more motions for summary judgment in my first few years than most paralegals get to do their entire career at a big firm.
The other reason I would do that differently is now, after all of those years only being exposed to BigLaw firms – because here’s the thing, when you work on the defense side at a goliath law firm, your only exposure is to paralegals and lawyers at other goliath firms. It’s almost like you’re living inside a bubble.
Do you know why I wanted to list that as a thing I would do differently? Because over the past 12 years of being in business, I have been exposed to and done work for those small to mid-sized firms, and there are some tremendous firms out there doing great things for their employees. Every week I interact with these firms and see what some of them are doing for their paralegals. I say to myself, if I were still a paralegal, I would love to work at a firm like that.
Learn more about the Pros and Cons of a Solo vs. a Large Firm.
Hopefully, this blog gave you insight if you’re starting a new paralegal career today or if you’ve been in the field for a while; it got you thinking about what you’d do differently. Share it in the comments, or share it with that new paralegal in your office. You could make that person’s day by sharing your insight and perspective with them!
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Meet the Author
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. Her 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.
When Ann is not working, you can usually find her somewhere near the ocean, either boating, scuba diving, or rescuing sea turtles.