Today’s guest post contains great tips for paralegal job security. I know these tips are valid because I have personally experienced the rewards of applying these practices. I might add that they apply to traditional paralegals, freelance paralegals and virtual paralegals.
Thanks, Seth, for reminding paralegals of these important facts!
7 Ways for Paralegals to Become Indispensable to Employers
By Seth Davis, ServeNow.com
The paralegal profession is bucking the roller-coaster trend of the rest of the labor market and heading sharply upward. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of paralegals and legal assistants will grow 28 percent between 2008 and 2018. The good news for paralegals is that the profession is booming. The less-obvious downside is that more people joining the paralegal ranks means more competition for open jobs.
If you’re a paralegal, now is the time to bring out your competitive side; you need to separate yourself from the pack and make yourself indispensable to employers. We have gathered a list of ways that you can increase your value as a paralegal, with some great advice from former National Federation of Paralegal Associations President Georgette Lovelace, RP.
1. Take Your Education Higher
College degrees have become more important than ever before in employers’ eyes. Paralegals once were able to jump right into jobs without having associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees, but modern employers have begun to ask that paralegals furnish a degree as a prerequisite of employment.
“When I became a paralegal, I went to school to earn a bachelor’s degree and that was 30 years ago,” Lovelace said. “At the time the paralegal profession was new and not many people went to school for legal studies. Nowadays it’s almost required.”
Lovelace explained that there aren’t many places in the country where paralegals can get by without higher education, and that some states are creating regulations that require it.
“We’re approaching the time when employers won’t hire a paralegal without formal education,” she said.
2. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels After Earning Your Degree
Employers like to see that paralegals are on a constant quest for self-improvement through learning. Paralegals have access to many continuing education courses and can work toward various voluntary certifications, and pursuing these options can be the extra step that boosts your resume above another.
When discussing voluntary certifications, Lovelace said, “I think it’s important because individually it gives you a sense of accomplishment. And employers in some areas are starting to require it and list it as a preferred component. It demonstrates the importance of paralegals in the industry, demonstrates professional and personal growth, and demonstrates commitment to your chosen profession.”
Voluntary certifications can take the form of NFPA’s PACE program that leads to the status of Registered Paralegal, National Association of Legal Assistants’ certification program that leads to Certified Legal Assistant/Certified Paralegal status, and National Association of Legal Secretaries’ three levels of certification. Many or all of these programs require paralegals and legal assistants to maintain certification by taking continuing education courses.
If you’re new to the paralegal industry, Lovelace shared that NFPA is developing an entry-level exam for paralegals called the Paralegal CORE Competency (PCC) Exam. CORE stands for Competent, Organized, Responsible and Ethical, four elements that NFPA has identified as essential qualities of a good paralegal.
3. Become a Well-Rounded Paralegal
The Bureau of Labor Statistics asserts in its 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook that, “Employers are trying to reduce costs and increase the availability and efficiency of legal services by hiring paralegals to perform tasks once done by lawyers. Paralegals are performing a wider variety of duties, making them more useful to businesses.”
Because today’s paralegals are expected to possess comprehensive skill sets, the catch phrase of any paralegal when assigned a new task should be, “Yes, I can.” Through a mixture of volunteering for new responsibilities at work and participating in continuing education, you can fill in any gaps in your array of skills and become any employer’s dream staff member. According to Lovelace, paralegals should be able to handle any task that lawyers perform, with the exception of representing a client in court and giving legal advice.
“I think the role of most paralegals is to perform ‘substantive’ legal work, which includes duties that are typically performed by attorneys,” she said. “Substantive legal work consists of responsibilities such as legal research, drafting legal documents, interviewing clients and witnesses, analyzing and summarizing documents in a legal matter, etc. Paralegals can’t go to court or give legal advice, but they should be able to do anything else if adequately trained.”
4. Save Time and Improve Processes
Whether it’s finding ways to reduce paperwork or streamlining the phone system in the office, you can impress employers by implementing changes that produce noticeable improvements. Lovelace used ServeNow.com – an online trusted network of local, pre-screened process servers – as an example of something that frees up time for other important duties.
“Learning how to do anything including services available on the Internet such as ServeNow.com helps to get things done much more quickly. If you’re looking for a process server in another state, you can get on the Internet and plug in information and find a process server in minutes instead of making six phone calls. Employers are always looking at the bottom line, and with this you’re saving them time and money,” Lovelace said.
5. Decide Whether to Specialize or Generalize
The Bureau of Labor Statistics also mentions that many paralegals are beginning to specialize in niche practice areas such as real estate, bankruptcy, medical malpractice and product liability because they are growing quickly. This strategy can lead to increased employment opportunities, so you may want to research the benefits of becoming specialized, but Lovelace cautions that specializing in one area can limit you professionally.
“I think specializing in certain areas is fairly common now. It gives an applicant an advantage over a paralegal who only has minimal experience in the same area,” she said. “On the other hand, I think it’s important to have diverse experience. It can limit you if you’re too specialized.”
Lovelace said she made it a point to gain experience in several different practice areas so if she was applying for a real estate position, she could emphasize to the prospective employer her relevant experience in that sector.
“I would encourage paralegals to become more generally experienced because it can help you find the practice you’d like to spend the next five to 10 years in,” she said.
6. Become the Office’s Technology Guru
Staying on top of new software programs and learning to use them will elevate you quickly in employers’ eyes. Lovelace shared that she took the initiative to learn Adobe Pro and soon became the go-to person in her litigation department whenever someone needed to manipulate PDF files. Many software companies also allow you to download free trial versions of their products and participate in their educational tutorials or free webinars.
If you’re looking to bring your firm up to speed with the latest programs and technology, consider technology such as:
- ServeManager – Web-based application that enables you to assign, track and manage your service of process all in one place.
- Google Docs – A free web-based word processing tool that enables people to collaborate on documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more.
- Online hourly billing software – You can use these secure, web-based programs for invoicing, time tracking and billing.
- Imaging software – Paralegals can use this software to scan images into databases.
Becoming proficient in the latest technology is wise because as Lovelace points out, “Attorneys are far more interested in law than learning mechanics and making something work on the computer.”
7. Maintain a Smoothly Running Schedule
“Setting deadlines for yourself and tracking deadlines for your boss is essential, not only because missing a deadline could result in a malpractice suit, but also because it helps everybody stay on task. You become very valuable to your employer when you can keep track of all those deadlines,” Lovelace said.
Some of your free and paid options for tracking deadlines include Google Calendar, ScheduFlow Online and VueMinder Calendar Lite. Lovelace uses her Outlook calendar as her scheduling system, but you can explore other programs and methods to figure out which is most effective for you and your employer.
You can position yourself to ride the wave of increased employment opportunities in the paralegal profession all the way to the top. Use the above tips to get you started and always be looking for new ways to increase and showcase your value to current and potential employers. And remember: The end goal is to be able to say, “Yes, I can!”
Seth Davis is the content manager for ServeNow.com, which is a trusted network of local, pre-screened process servers. Visit www.ServeNow.com for more information.