Bad, Bad News for Paralegals
For years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that the paralegal position was one of the fastest growing fields. In fact, as recently as 2011, the BLS predicted that from 2010 - 2020, paralegals would have an 18% growth rate (average). No longer.
The position is being obliterated by technology according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press. "Year after year," the analysis states, "software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done. For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines." Here's a great example: travel agents - similiar to paralegals in that it is a "helping" position. Now, gone due to technology.
Unfortunately, paralegals are included in the millions of middle-class paid jobs vanishing, the most vulnerable being those jobs that are "routine and repetitious." That particular phrase was actually in the ABA definition of a paralegal some years back. How little we knew.
"There's no sector of the economy that's going to get a pass," says Martin Ford, who runs a software company and wrote "The Lights in the Tunnel," a book predicting widespread job losses. "It's everywhere."
Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What's more, these jobs aren't just being lost to outsourcing and they aren't just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.
They're being obliterated by technology.
What is effecting the paralegal field in addition to technology? Law firms today are seeking highly sophisticated and experienced paralegals. Those without technology knowledge and ability are at the highest risk. Those who are not updated on the latest laws, procedures and who are not innovative or motivated are also at a very high risk.
Additionally, the five-year recession has seen associates dropping their level of assignment to cover paralegal duties in order to put forth enough billable hours. Rocky law firms, rather than see paralegals as cost-efficient and saving attorneys time, view the higher associate rates as more beneficial to the firm despite the fact that paralegals cost less and are frequently more profitable. It can make the top line more impressive resulting in the potential for higher bank loans, revolving credit lines and more.
What can paralegals do to reverse the trend? Maybe not much given the trend affects just about every service and manufacturing position. However, you can leverage your paralegal background and propel yourself into new or hybrid positions. Here are just a few:
- Become a technology wiz in your specialty. Software programs come and go and are updated frequently. Being a wiz also means you are on the prowl every day for the latest trends and new programs.
- Hot jobs are hot as long as the economy holds up, the specialty doesn’t cool down or schools do not answer the call to churn out trained candidates. How familiar are you with the future of your specialty? If you were previously an ERISA paralegal, chances are you no longer hold that position. Mergers & Acquisitions specialists were big losers in the recession. If you were in M&A, did you prepare for an upcoming recession with a second specialty? Cross training is one way to make yourself more valuable in a firm. You may be the best paralegal the real estate department has but if that entire department is being shutdown, it won’t matter. But if you are also good at litigation, you may find yourself being moved into that department. If not, you know why you may have been out of work for a long time.
- What transferable skills do you have? Take a good, hard look at your background. Medical background? Construction? Insurance? Teaching? Police? Accounting? How can you combine your skills and leverage that background - even in a different field.
- Use social media to get your reputation well-known. We've said for years: network, network, network. Use LinkedIn. Make sure you have tons of connections. You just never know who knows what and where.
- Expand your skill sets. Are you a litigation paralegal without comprehensive eDiscovery knowledge? You're on the target list, believe me. I have listened to many, many paralegals declare that their firm does not "do" eDiscovery, so therefore there is no urgency to learning about it. These buggy-whip, short-sighted paralegals are in for a big surprise if their firm starts losing business as a result and they are the first to go. (BTW, the Organization of Legal Professionals, OLP, offers many online courses in eDiscovery and Litigation Support: www.theolp.org).
- Be prepared to move into a different position all together. For example, the Litigation Support field has a shortage of professionals schooled both in law and in technology. Who better than a paralegal to move into a Litigation Support position? The pay is excellent, the opportunities for the future very good. The field will eventually evolve into something that we probably have not even envisioned, particularly since the legal field was one of the last to get on the band wagon.
Don't be short-sighted. Change is here to stay and in this century, most of us are not prepared for how fast it is happening. My strongest suggestion is to ride the horse in the direction it is going. You'll be glad you did.