Do you want to move into management? As someone who has made the transition in my own career, I wanted to share insights on the key differences between being a paralegal and a paralegal manager and how you can get started today on that transition if it’s something you hope to do in your career.
Let’s see if management is right for you after you hear the pros and cons.
Listen to the podcast episode
How I Became a Paralegal Manager
First, I want to tell you that I’m glad I became a paralegal manager because I would have never started my own company doing paralegal training. It was while I was a paralegal manager hiring new paralegals and training them that I realized what I wished I could do all day, every day was to provide training for paralegals, not deal with HR issues. But I couldn’t do that because there were all these other pressing issues every day that was part of my job as a paralegal manager.
In this blog, I want to share a quick story of how I became a paralegal manager because that’s connected to some of the pros and cons that I’m going to discuss. You know how they say good things come to you when you least expect it, or when you’re most happy and content, or grateful for what you already have? Well, that was me. It was 2004, and I loved being a litigation paralegal. I was doing work that was challenging and rewarding. I had earned the firm’s reputation as the go-to person for those monstrous cases with 5,000+ box document productions. Eventually, X Gigabytes of data or the ones that were going to go to trial with 3,000 exhibits, and the trial was expected to last a month.
It didn’t matter what office that case originated from. I was the one put on those cases. So I had spent the better part of 1999 to 2004 traveling from Atlanta (the office I technically worked out of) to the New York office, to the DC office, to Florida, you name it. It would be nothing for me to fly out on Sunday night to the New York City office, spend two or three days there, jump on a train to Poughkeepsie, NY, to the client’s office, a train back to the city, then fly home on Thursday night, have Friday in the Atlanta office, and leave again on Sunday.
I loved just about every minute. I loved being a litigation paralegal working on cases like that. There are always those times when you have a bad day, but I could never have imagined myself doing anything other than being a litigation paralegal.
And that’s when I got a call from a recruiter who said she had a position that she thought I would be perfect for.
It was a paralegal manager position at another firm in Atlanta. The first thing I said is I don’t have any management experience. I was managing two junior paralegals and a file clerk, but I wasn’t really in charge of them per se. I just assigned projects to them and managed those projects. She still wanted me to send her a copy of my resume. She called me the next day and said the firm wanted to interview me for the paralegal manager position. I hadn’t been on an interview in many, many years, so I thought, well, it can’t hurt to go for an interview, and make sure my resume is updated. So I did.
The funny thing is it was a position I didn’t think I wanted and didn’t want to leave the firm. I was happy where I was. I was comfortable and natural in that interview because I didn’t care so much about the management position. I didn’t have any stake in the game. In other words, I wasn’t attached to the outcome.
The interview was with several people from HR and then a couple of attorneys, and then the managing partner. In that interview with the managing partner, he asked, “After having heard what some of our challenges are, what would be the first five things you would do if you were brought on as our paralegal manager?” And so, I told him what those five things would be.
Keep this in mind. I told him very frankly what that would be with no management experience. I didn’t know the ropes of HR, like how to word certain things on what I would do. I just knew that if I were a paralegal manager, I would manage the way I would want to be managed. I gave him the list of things I would want to start with based on what I heard during the interviews.
It was more of a conversation than it was an interview. I can’t remember the list of things I told him would be my priority. But something on that list must have piqued some interest because two days later I got a call from the recruiter that they wanted to offer me the job.
Now, I’m not going to go into the details of all of the stress and the back and forth that my brain went into to finally come to the decision that I would go into that management position and leave a job I loved. But I took the job.
The Cons of Becoming a Paralegal Manager
I tell you that story of where I was, and how I was happy and content in my career because one of the first cons of moving into management is you won’t be doing the same work that you were doing as a paralegal.
1. Your Job Responsibilities Change Greatly
In a full paralegal manager position you’re not handling any caseload anymore, and you’re in charge of everything to do with the paralegal group, professional development, budgeting, hiring, and firing. You are now responsible for day-to-day management, payroll, benefits, performance reviews, etc.
There is a difference between a full paralegal manager role versus a working paralegal manager. The definition of a working paralegal manager is someone who, while they are a pure legal manager for half or 3/4 of the time, still do have some caseload. A small caseload (maybe), and sometimes a low billable hour requirement.
When you take on a paralegal manager role, whether working as a manager or a working manager. You’re not going to get involved in the cases, or if you’re a real estate paralegal, you’re not going to have time to do those closings. If you’re a corporate paralegal, those big M&A deals, you’re not going to have time for that. I struggled with this during my first year as a paralegal manager. I wanted to quit and go back to my old firm and be a litigation paralegal again. I did not like the HR side of it. I did not like all the politics.
If you truly enjoy being a paralegal in whatever role you are in, this change becomes a con. Just because you’re a great paralegal doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great manager, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to enjoy being a manager, so don’t always assume that the two things are equal.
I got through my struggle thanks to a really great mentor who was part of the IPMA (International Practice Management Association). I became a member of that, and they assigned a mentor to me. I had this lovely woman, Carolyn Hilgers, who had been a paralegal manager and then a paralegal director for many years. She gave me the best advice one time when I was telling her that I was struggling, and wanted to go back to my old firm and back to being a litigation paralegal.
She cautioned me and said, you know what? We all felt the same way. During our first year or two, we all wanted to quit and go back to being a paralegal, but give it a full two years and then make that decision. And so I did. I’m glad I listened to her because then I actually started enjoying it by my second year. But that’s a pretty big con on the con side.
2. Your Work Relationships Look Different as a Manager
There were several paralegals who I hired, and I got along with them really well. But because I had anywhere from 40 – 50 paralegals in 3 different offices, it would have been inappropriate for me to become friends with them outside the office, or be seen taking one of them to lunch. That wouldn’t have been fair to the other paralegals. Let me bring this con to a different level. See, I was brought in as the firm’s new paralegal manager. So those paralegals only ever knew me as their manager.
If you are a paralegal internally promoted to a management position, that’s a whole new spin. Because most likely, you probably already have a few personal relationships with some of the other paralegals in the office. And now you’re their manager. I know many people who were able to navigate that windy road. I’m glad I didn’t have to. Kim Barrett talked about that in her interview. She’s the firm-wide director of paralegals. She started out as a part-time receptionist and moved up to litigation paralegal, then paralegal manager, then firm-wide director, all at the same firm. If you haven’t read her interview and you’re thinking about a management role, you should read that next.
3. Having to Fire or Lay Off Others
The 3rd con, or not-so-positive thing about moving into a management role, is having to fire someone or lay them off. That was never easy. Even when it was letting someone go who deserved it. Whenever I knew something like that would be happening the next day, I’d be up all night, wide awake from the stress.
4. Enforcing Blanket Policies From the Top
Now, I didn’t have an issue with this when I was a manager because it was part of the condition of me taking the job. I said I wanted to report directly to the top. I didn’t want to be in the middle somewhere and just be someone who pushed blanket policies out to the paralegal group.
But from what I understand, it can be like that in many paralegal manager positions. What I mean by that is you have the title paralegal manager, but you don’t have the authority to make changes. The one thing I was adamant about when I was a paralegal manager is: I will manage them in a way that any professional paralegal would want to be managed.
One of the things that always bothered me about working at a big firm as a litigation paralegal was when they would send out those blanket rules or regulations, or policies to all staff members. Or those emails to “All Staff Members” reminding everyone about the dress policy when it was really directed at one particular person who was always dressing inappropriately. You know, the one who ruins the “Jeans on Friday” policy because they wear ripped jeans with tennis shoes even though it was clearly stated in the policy not to do that. And instead of calling that person to the office, the manager sends an email to 200 staff members reminding them to dress appropriately.
I knew for certain that I was not going to be able to work as a manager if that’s what they wanted me to do. But I know some paralegals who took positions like paralegal supervisor or paralegal manager, and one of their job duties was to make sure every paralegal was at their desk and logged in by 9:00 a.m. If they weren’t, she’d be sending emails to them. I was absolutely NOT going to ever be that type of manager.
The Pros of Becoming a Paralegal Manager
Okay, now for the PROS. The first one kind of comes off the back of that last con.
1. The Opportunity to Make Positive Change
If you choose the right paralegal manager position for the right kind of firm, you have a tremendous opportunity to make positive changes for the paralegal profession through your management style. Within a few years of making changes at the firm, I was able to recruit some amazing paralegal talent because they’d heard what a great place it was to work.
But it wasn’t just that…it was that the attorney’s perception of paralegals changed. They were now working with highly-skilled professionals. Rockstar paralegals. I’ve talked to a few of them since then who have gone on to other firms and said now that they know what it’s like to work with a rockstar paralegal, they look for those qualities and appreciate what a great paralegal can add to a team. That’s the kind of stuff that can add value to the entire paralegal profession.
2. Front Row Seat to Perceptions of Paralegals
The second pro is that you get a front-seat view of an attorney’s perceptions of paralegals. And, as I did, if it’s not a positive view, you can help to change that perspective. That doesn’t just impact the paralegals at your firm; those attorneys move around and go to other firms and carry that new perspective with them.
3. Better Insight into the Numbers
The third pro – assuming your role also includes the responsibility to increase the profitability of the paralegal group – you’ll have a better understanding of the numbers side of things. You learn how the firm looks at utilization, realization, and profitability. It was my role as a paralegal manager, and what I learned about the financial side of things that helped me develop the Billable Hour Boot Camp which is not just for paralegals. I have some law firms that enroll their associates in that course or have me come teach it as a live workshop.
But even with that, I’ve always thought, after those years of learning all that, if I’d known some of those things when I was a paralegal, I could have been even better!
So, if after all this you’re still thinking about moving into management, I recommend putting together a career development plan to help you get there.
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.