Monday, August 13th, 2012

Are Paralegals Underrated or Just Misunderstood?


Good paralegals are vital to many law practices.

After 20 years in legal administration, I’ve read a lot of opinions about career opportunities in the legal world. The recent article claiming the paralegal field was underrated was titled correctly, but I took issue with the justifications in the article. And by took issue I mean I nearly spat out my coffee as I cursed at some of the outrageous statements supporting the key points.

Don’t get me wrong. Paralegal work can be rewarding, professionally and financially. It’s extremely important work. Good paralegals are vital to many law practices. Senior lawyers count on them to manage dockets and client deadlines. They are a godsend to the new lawyers who count on their institutional wisdom. Being a paralegal can be a wonderful career choice, but allow me to debunk some of the statements of the article.

“The job is also relatively low-stress.”

I can think of half a dozen paralegals who would punch me in the arm if I told them their job was low stress. Stress is a relative term. Nik Wallenda didn’t seem to be stressed when crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. People who can’t adapt to the high stress of a paralegal job don’t remain in the job long.

Successful paralegals must juggle a variety of projects from multiple supervisors, none of whom are terribly concerned about the conflicting deadlines that the paralegal must manage. While the work pace isn’t always frantic, paralegals frequently have to work quickly and accurately to get the job done. I’ve seen my share of late hour scrambling by paralegals racing against the deadline of the Fedex pickup.

“The job involves little contact with the public.”

This entirely depends on the type of practice that your firm supports. Paralegals frequently work closely with clients and manage many vendor relationships. While it is possible to find a back-house support assignment, generally speaking this is not a profession for introverts.

“I get to take vacations, leave work and have a life.”

Successful paralegals are notorious for working long hours. Paralegals are expected to put their personal lives on hold during busy times at the office. If the lawyers are working late preparing for trial litigation, paralegals can’t leave at 5:00 claiming life balance. Transactional paralegals can’t schedule a vacation if a major closing is pending. Paralegals can have life balance, but it often requires lawyer pre-approval.

Don’t forget that many paralegals have a billable requirement. They often compete with new lawyers for projects and occasionally encounter pushback when they try to bill their time. They have limited control over the workflow and zero control over rates, billings or collections – however they are often judged by these very metrics.

Paralegals are the unsung heroes, often toiling just outside of the spotlight. Pursuing a career as a paralegal can be a great choice, but those who pursue expecting a low stress, flexible job with life balance may be disappointed in the end.

Charles Gillis
Author: Charles Gillis
Charles Gillis is the Executive Director of a law firm based in Dallas. He received his BA and MBA from the University of Texas.
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