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Career - Paralegals - Are they half attorneys?

Updated on April 20, 2012

Career and Employment SERIES

25 years ago, I got an ABA approved certificate from Denver Paralegal Institute and wondered aloud whether becoming a paralegal, as a male of 35 years of age, would lead to an actual "career". Back then the young boomers with liberal arts degrees they had garnered in the 70's were wondering whether those degrees were going to be worth anything. So many of us were hoping that we could combine the degree with the certificate and actually have a working life in a true growing profession. Happily, most found that a working formula. I have worked as a paralegal for the last 25 years in various settings.

In 1995, 10 years later, I was working in paralegal education, was teaching, and wrote a textbook about the paralegal profession which Little Brown of Boston publshed. That very act itself said: "Yes, there is a place for men in the paralegal world, and yes, you can keep working in the profession."

Now in this present day, there is no doubt about its viability as a professional niche that thousands of people work in. A paralegal really does have a viable role in the midst of the Legal Fray.

A History of Morphing with Need and Technology -

As technology changed and the expansion of legal skill needs grew, a place for a paraprofessional to work "above" the legal secretary and "below" the attorney/lawyer became obvious in the 70's. Yes, it started as a female dominated profession, and it still is. But my fears aside, males have been come into this niche and establsihed themselves probably in a greater way than I ever thought they would. However it still is a young woman's profession. Are there still boomers working in it? Yes. There are 30 to 40 year plus paralegals in addition to all of the 10 year plus paralegals. Whatever your vintage, the TECHNOLOGY message has always been there.

How are you at Excel -- Word, Outlook, Power Point? Software programs and specialized proprietary properties are all there to be embraced, trained up on, and improved upon. Another warning. Don't overpromise your sophistication. Many electronic applications these days ask "just how good are you at" ----. It is important to know that these exist because there are vast areas of difference between a person who can handle EXCEL on indexes and informational spreadsheets, and someone who can handle all the formulas embedded in Excel. The specialized programs that now populate the world of Litigation are sometimes required of the applicant. Bankrupcy software -- EZFILING will be asked for and demanded of a beginner and semi-experienced paralegal.

Technology Rules The Day - "There's an app for that."

It used to be a question, especially for men, "Can you type? Are you sure you can type? I was always around 50 wpm, so it got me into that world. I won't bother you with the all the software programs and proprietary properties that the eager paralegal had to stay up with in the 80's and 90's and beyond. With the internet and software proliferation, and the BIG MOVE to PAPERLESSNESS in the law, the new and the old paralegal has to be ready, willing and skilled in specific requirements. EFILING is changing the whole legal world. This is a "goes without saying" aspect, but the aspiring paralegal has to realize more and more that if they do not have a specific technological program under their belts, they might not get the interview.

Willingness to Learn -

The watchword for paralegal character and skill profile is the willingness to learn. Adaptablie, trainable, teachable. These are all aspects to emphasize as you craft your resumes and prepare for your interviews. If you are pondering this profession, these wordprocessing and infomration processing talents are more of a natural for the younger applicants who have grown up in a new world of technology. However, the young may not be as prepared for the reality of pay and promotion.

Pay and Promotion - Upward and Onward?

Because the paralegal is sitting between the secretary and the attorney, the "upward and onward" part of the pay and promotion issue is special to itself here. Before I talk about the lows, I should mention that there are exceptional highs. I did make a very high paycheck for 8 years as a paralegal in a construction corporation. That was because I was working in the boom in a company in which there was no in-house attorney. That was a distinctive advantage. I was paid at the level of a new attorney. I bring this example up to show how the paralegal profession has become quite interesting OUTSIDE of the law firm. Inside the law firm pay has been respectable. The longer you work for a law firm, the more your pay will slowly rise. Larger firms do pay respectably, but the pressure is intense and the hours can be long and demanding. So pay is hard to generalize about without also talking about the exceptions.

At the lower end, pay can still be puny. Small law firms, sole practitioners and smaller companies can keep paralegal pay quite low. One can make $12 to $15 per hour very easily in many of those settings. $30,000 per year is a reach in some of these settings.

To be pointed about it, $40,000 to $45,000 can be considered quite high. Then mid 50's and even the 60's are attained by proven long term highly skilled and specialized paralegals. But this profession does not really have an upward and onward aspect to it. When you see requests for experience, you don't see ads that request 10 or more years experience. You can get 25 years of experience, but no one asks for it. "3 to 5 years" is what you see in ads. Why? Would they llike 10 years? Sure. There is just no pay for a 10 year paralegal. There is entry level pay, experienced pay and senior pay. Think in terms of $30K to $50K if you want a broad range - with outliers at both ends.

"Are You Headed For Law School?" -

For those who are not sure they want the law, as a world to work in, becoming a paralegal has been a way to test the waters without plunging in. A young person in their 20's can get a lot of learning done and decide things for themselves, and then NOT go to law school and still not have "wasted" their time. OR, they can go to law school and actually help themselves academically in law school and be much surer of their decision going forward. I have known many people who have done this and all have seen it as a real positive, no matter if the law school choice was a yes or a no.

I remember a woman in her 40's who after two years of paralegal work came into the Placements Office to say hello. She said, "Chris I am going to law school." I wished her well. then 10 years later I saw her being interviewed on a newscast for a high profile criminal case in Southern Colorado. So, the paralegal profession can also be a part of a lawyer's career path.

The Personal Relationship - The Career Housed in Professional Reliance

Many people are paid very well, and keep on getting raises because they have become a "part of the woodwork" at a small firm, or they are a key part of a litigation team at a large firm, or a Sole Practitioner relies COMPLETELY upon this certain paralegal. It is truly the dimension of professional and personal reliance that constitutes the level of their pay and the continuity of their employment. If you can develop a relationship in which the attorney thinks you "walk on water", then this can help give you long term stability.

A warning, because as the years go on, you can't keep on demanding more and more dollars just because of your seniority, the edge goes to the employer in these circumstances. As long as these employment relationships stay positive and non-abusive they can be wonderfully fulfilling and satisfying;. The way to keep these relationships positive is to take other benefits in lieu of constant pay raises -- more personal time, greater latitutde with hours, more vacation pay are ways to make your life satisfying.

Teams of Paralegals -

Contract Administrators and Legal Managers and other titles now fill corporate, business and governmental ranks. The word paralegal can really mean - "Nonlawyer specifically required legal work for the particular milieu that we deal with in this company". Yes, that's right, it's still MORPHING. Yet, what's nice is that everybody generally gets what everyone else is talking about. A paralegal is what a specially trained nonlawyer does here!

All those Practice Areas -

My resume contains work in the financial services world, title insurance, construction, litigation, personal injury, intellectual properties, domestic and bankruptcy. A paralegal should be happy to develop depth of experience, but always willing to branch out horizontally. The challenge is to do both as you work, branching out, but developing existing strengths. This is what is fun about being a paralegal. It is also what I was hoping for when I began. Well, actually, I was just hoping I could work for about 25 years and raise my 4 kids. I was also hoping it would be full of variety and stimulating. IT WAS ALL THOSE. I am happy to say, I became a kind of participant/observor of the professional evolution and development.

If It's a World That Appeals -

If I were counseling a young person, or a mid-lifer about getting into this arena, I would ask one first big question. "Does this world appeal to you?" If you hate lawyers, don't get into it. If you are constantly throwing off the world of order and rules, don't bother. If you have a sales personality and want to let your personality expand, don't get into it.

Some Negatives -

Since I have been basically positive about this profession, I will throw some warning signs at your feet. Lawyers, while not a homogenous group, and they are individuals, do have some common traits. Its not that they think they are smarter than you. Of course they think they are smarter than you. Understand that attorneys think they are SMARTER THAN EACH OTHER. But this high level self image is good for the work they have to do. They are not arrogant, like make-up that they put on every morning, they are supremely self confident about their place in the world; and if they are not, they know they must look like they are.

Its a self-image born not necessarily of brains, but of style. They just have this abiding sense of superiority. Paralegals benefit from this, so smile at this and enjoy it. Remember these people are the kids who went to school and did not want to be doctors because that was too hard, but they knew they were worthy, very worthy, even though they were not smart enough to be doctors. They also knew "All I have to do is get through LAW SCHOOL, then for the rest of my life I can say I am an attorney. THAT IS COOL."

Because of this sense of natural superiority, they have an inherent kind of laziness. Not a laziness of low energy lackadaisicalness, but of privilege. Some of the hardest working people in the professions are attorneys, but they can't believe they have to work as hard as many of them do. . They will also be upset that making money is as hard as it is. Then because it is the law, they will always be in a state of struggle. But stop and think. If you look at all of this positively, you will see the inevitability of the develoment of the paralegal profession in this context. Because they are so arrogant, there is so much work that is beneath them. Because they don't want to work as hard as they have to, they are happy to have paralegals help them with their work. Because they have to struggle to make money and are in constant conflict, anything you can do to increase their bottom line and lessen their struggle is appreciated. See its all natural. Look at the "BIG UNTALKED ABOUT" - the fact that you have to work with attorneys -- as a POSITIVE, A BIG WONDEFUL POSITIVE. If you can do this with a sense of enlightenment and non-bittnerness, you will have a productive professional experience and work in a very stimulating and challenging world. Attorneys are the reason for the work you do, so always keep that in mind and respect that process.

A Great Payoff -

Once you get all of these elements as a Picture that can be understood and appreciated, there is a great payoff. Its a fun world with challenge. The attorneys you end up working with will be the essential part of the world in which you labor and will and constitute the "flora and fauna" of the legal forest you are working and moving in. Its a truly fun and challenging professional status you can have. And guess what -- you don't have to go to law school to participate! Check out Christofer's new website at:


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    • Christofers Flow profile image

      Christofer French 5 years ago from Denver

      To be perfectly honest I was amazed that I, a male, beginning the career at 35 could have a 25 year career, which if I had wished to, I could still be working in today. Thanks for your comment.

    • Susan Starts Now profile image

      Susan Starts Now 6 years ago from California

      Good article for those considering becoming a paralegal. It remains to be seen what effect the economy will have on the need for paralegals and pay rates. There are many unemployed lawyers out there right now taking paralegal jobs to make ends meet.

    • Delilarose316 profile image

      Delilarose316 6 years ago from Maine

      I have worked as a legal secretary for 10 years now, and its a small firm. The paralegal working there doesn't make anymore than I do.

      Also the e-filing has changed a lot! And online case law reseach and statutes leaves the law library empty.

      It is weird but things change.

    • profile image

      NikiiLeeReyes 7 years ago

      Yes wonderful, I'm in school with hopes of becoming a legal aid. Useful information!

    • profile image

      Cayman Paralegal Jobs 7 years ago

      Jobs i can get by having a paralegal degree?

      and i mean non - paralegal jobs. would having this degree make me more marketable as a secretary?