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How Much of a Career Risk Should You Take Switching Specialties?

Question.iStock_000011272724XSmallIt's a sure-footed, absolute and positive, no mistakin' it gamble. Switching specialties, that is. Bored with what you're doing? Fed up with a paltry salary? Peeking over the fence to see who makes more money? Seeking that enigma: better challenge?

Tonya Pierce addresses the topic today. She's making some good points. The main one being: THINK before you leap (and other relevant cliches). Enjoy!

The days of general practice law firms may have passed. Many attorneys are choosing to specialize to be more marketable. Law firms are following suit [pardon any puns] by specializing in one or two areas of law. An attorney who can advertise that he or she is an expert in a certain area has an advantage over an attorney who practices several types of law. In reality, clients who hire an attorney who specializes gets one that has the right experience and most likely, is on the forefront of current laws and trends.

Paralegals are following with some paralegals going into a specialty area directly from school. While this presents some benefits, I am glad that I did not. I worked for a general practice law firm that did mostly real estate and family law but took just about anything that came in the door with a few exceptions.

From working in a situation where I had to think on my feet, find resources, research various areas of law and remain calm while I had no clue what I was doing, I learned skills that have served me very well in my paralegal career.  Later, however, I specialized in bankruptcy law which I found to have tremendous advantages.

Why Paralegal Specialization?

  • Advantage over other applicants. When searching for a job, having a wealth of  experience in one area can give you an advantage over applicants with minimal experience. Attorneys love to hire paralegals who can walk in the door and hit the ground running with very little training. By working in one area, you automatically become a valuable asset to an attorney who is also specializing.

  • Becoming a Certified Paralegal. Several national paralegal organizations [such as NALA and NFPA] offering certification programs have added specialization certification. Achieving certification as a specialist demonstrates that you have attained a higher level of experience and skill giving you a distinct lead over other candidates. 

  • Advantage in certain areas of laws. Some areas of law are very specialized with fewer attorneys (i.e. bankruptcy or intellectual property). Therefore, there are fewer experienced paralegals. I can't even begin to tell you how desirable you become. 

  • Higher salaries. Just as attorneys who are specialists charge higher fees for their increased experience, paralegals who specialize can also earn higher salaries.

Disadvantages of Paralegal Specialization

  • Fewer job opportunities. Depending upon the area of law that you choose to specialize, you may have fewer job opportunities. If you choose an area that is highly specialized such as complex foreign litigation, there are simply fewer job opportunities than those more generalized because there are so fewer attorneys.

  • Disadvantage compared to other applicants. When an attorney is looking for a well-rounded paralegal, you may be at a disadvantage compared to that of a paralegal with experience in several areas of law. Here's where it backfires: You are not as marketable because you have limited your experience to one specific area.

  • Legal trends have a large impact on your career. If the specialized area of law experiences a decrease in business, your career is impacted more severely than a paralegal who has experience in several areas. For example, when bankruptcies dropped by 20% several years ago, bankruptcy paralegals had a very difficult time finding another job because staff was cut. Attorneys began to look for paralegals with experience in other areas to expand their practice.

Whether or not you decide to specialize, choose an area that you enjoy. Being a paralegal is very rewarding; however, it can also be very stressful. By choosing an area of law that you enjoy, you will find that during stressful moments you still enjoy your job rather than being filled with dread going into the office each morning. Doing something that you enjoy is much more fulfilling and sustains you during those days when you momentarily wonder why you ever decided to become a paralegal.

Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal). She regularly writes advice columns for AgileLaw, the industry leading provider of paperless depositions.

If you are seeking to expand your career, you'll need to get continuing legal education. Nothing impresses attorneys more than plenty of quality continuing legal education. For more opportunities, go to the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, a well-respected training organization designed specifically for the paralegal assignment. or contact me at and let's chat about how to be in charge of your future in the paralegal career. 


An Oh So Different Effective Approach to Strong Cover Letters

Cover letters are usually boring. About 98% of the time it’s entirely possible that your cover letter is just like the last one that the employer read. In fact, while not word-for-word, I'll bet it goes something like:



To whom it may concern: Stock-vector-business-background-with-resume-vector-183827471

“I noticed your ad for a litigation paralegal. I am an experienced paralegal with 10 years of experience. I have attached my resume for your review.

I am seeking a challenging position which offers me the opportunity for growth. I have extensive litigation experience and excellent skills: I have great attention to detail, am organized, an expert in research, and a team-player. I am seeking a position where I can utilize my background and skills.

I can be reached at (213) 555.1212. I will call you next week in order to schedule an interview.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

As an employer, here’s all I can say: Blech! This person does not stand out from the crowd. He/she sounds just like everyone else. (Let’s not even talk about the resume.)

Here’s a little known secret: A resume only talks about 20% of the information you need to impart in order to get a job. It reveals none of the remaining 80% of the information upon which hiring decisions are based. These decisions are primarily based upon emotion. Do I like this person? That’s the first thing that goes through an employer’s mind. The resume does not speak to your personality, creativity, work style, work habits or critical thinking. Rarely will a resume tell a hiring authority you are precisely the right candidate. Only a letter can reveal these things about you – and more.

Here are some basic rules:

1.         Write a letter addressed to an individual. Call, if you have to, and find out to whom the letter should be addressed.  We know, we know, you can't do it with a blind ad.

2.         Don’t use standard openings. “In response to your ad in the Daily Journal” gets a big ho- hum. Stand out from the competition! Weave information into the opening to suggest that the letter was written specifically for the opening at-hand.

3.         Don’t use legal terminology or try to sound “lawyerly”. You’ll sound silly instead. Using terms such as “this position is not de facto”, “Responsibilities include but are not limited to” are unlikely to impress the reader. Frankly, my dear, “tacky” comes to mind.

4.         Keep it brief. Three – four paragraphs MAX! Explanations as to what has occurred in your career are not necessary. Save that for the interview.

5.         Link your strengths and qualifications to the job. Do not leave out your passion for the field. Cover letters that do not address the “pain” that needs to be fixed or the needs of the firm are likely to come across as narcissistic. Me, Me, and more Me. Let the employer know you understand what it takes to fit the bill.

6.         Do not use standard cover letters right out of a book. Believe me, employers can quote the book you used.

7.         Make the letter easy to skim. No one reads anything thoroughly anymore.

8.         If it’s broken, fix it! Don’t use a cover letter over and over that is not working! It’s not the number of resumes you send out, despite coaches telling you that you have to send out hundreds. It’s the quality of the cover letter and the resume.

9.         Use numbers, percentages and revenue. People are much more impressed. 

Here are a couple of samples. Use your own tone and style. (Don’t copy! Employers will then only see the same ole, same ole once again.)

#1. Re:  Corporate Paralegal Position: I am a certified paralegal with excellent references!

(OPENER) I have been fortunate to have found the occupation I love – paralegal. Although I do not have extensive experience, what I do have has only furthered my commitment. As an entry-level paralegal, I have developed a skill for detail that incorporates a thorough, flexible work plan, along with a healthy dose of a see-it-through attitude. I am devoted to continuing my own education with the many seminars and webinars I take. I believe my enthusiasm to become an effective and committed paralegal is my greatest asset.

(PASSION)  One reason I have chosen to apply for a position at your firm is because it is rated in the National Law Journal as one of the top 10 firms in the country. If hired, this fact will give me a great opportunity to incorporate my personal goals of becoming a high-quality paralegal with those of the firm’s.

(ACTION) If after reviewing my resume, you believe there might be a match, please call me. I am available Monday – Friday at 213.555.1212. Otherwise, please leave a message anytime. 

(HOT, HOT CLOSER) Becoming a paralegal is more than a job to me. It’s a lifetime commitment to education.

#2        I'm available immediately and highly interested in the Paralegal/Database Coordinator position for Coffee, Coffee & Wine.

For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to become an expert in Recommind, Nuix, Nutcase and CompuLegal which I truly love. I am now looking forward to applying my skills and knowledge in a new setting with an established law firm where I can continue to meet new and different challenges. In addition to my skills, my fifteen years of experience with all aspects of the eDiscovery  life cycle will make me a valuable asset to both your firm and your clients.

After recently researching Coffee, Coffee & Wine’s vision/mission, along with your recent high-profile travel industry win, I believe that my abilities can make an immediate and positive impact on your bottom line. Particularly with my experience leading 8 litigation teams, working on cases of 2 million documents and above along with a 93% accuracy rate, I can help with providing value-added Summation implementation. I can deliver quality performances that will lead to success stories for your clients and additional business for your firm.

The position of Litigation Paralegal/Database Coordinator is more than a job to me—it's my passion in life. Understanding legal problems, providing recommendations for training non-attorney staff, creating improvements, and providing technology solutions that support your firm’s objectives is what I can offer Coffee, Coffee & Wine.

I will follow up with a phone call in a week to make sure you have received my application as well.

#3           "I took a moment to match my skills with your requirements. You may find the following table helpful in your assessment of my abilities."

Job Qualifications

My Skills

Experience with trial preparation, document organization, Recommind,
team leader.

I have full understanding and knowledge after working on many high-profile cases leading a team of 10 temporaries utilizing Recommind and other databases.

Preparation of subpoenas

I am familiar with and have regularly prepared subpoenas both in the U.S. and abroad.

Excellent oral and written communication skills.

I possess excellent and proven communication skills.

Exceptional time management, problem solving and analytical skills. 

I have outstanding time management, problem solving and analytical skills. My billable hours consistently exceed 1800 hours per year.

Use the Skill Matching Technique for its many excellent advantages:

  • It will get your cover letter and resume noticed quickly.
  • It focuses your set of skills into a brief and easy to read strong summary.
  • It helps the reader quickly skim your cover letter.
  • It helps your cover letter and resume get decided upon immediately.

It has been shown, believe it or not, that the color of your signature can improve the response. If possible, always sign your letter using blue instead of black. Be sure to make it legible.

There you go! Tweak these, use your own style, make each cover letter unique to the job advertised, and test market to see what’s working, what’s not.

Best of luck in your new adventures!

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute, providing training, staffing and career coaching specifically for paralegals across the country. She is the author of 10 books about the paralegal career including The Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed. and she is a LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune,, Newsweek and other prestigious publications. She has written her blog, The Estrin Report, since 2005. Reach her at


Ten Top Reasons Midsize Law Firms are Disappearing

Fear.MP900414034[1]Oh, for heaven's sake! First we read for years how the major firms are going to go under, disband or simply disappear and now we're reading out go the midsize firms. What's going to be left? Teeny, tiny little firms or solos? What does this mean for the paralegal?

Probably a lot. Already, a new trend is sweeping the country: the combining of the paralegal with the legal secretarial position. That means a new set of skills for paralegals. Does it mean more money? Not necessarily. Is it a downgrade or will the legal secretarial duties no longer be considered legal secretarial and merge with the paralegal? What about those admin duties you're not supposed to charge?

Will paralegals be expected to work longer and harder to meet billable requirements because now they are saddled with legal secretarial duties - i.e., non-billables - and to make up for it and be forever profitable, will hours and expectations go up? Readers, let me know what you think. I'd like to know. Chere

Guest Blogger: Brenda S. Edwards

Creating and sustaining a profitable midsize law firm is challenging, especially in 2015. With many firms shrinking, becoming unstable or simply shrinking, becoming unstable or simply dissolving, both clients and employees are pursuing stability.  While there are many pressures, the following ten reasons are driving forces behind midsize law firm’s financial struggles or failures. 

  1. Top heavy partnership agreements.  While this is not a new phenomenon, the timing of the maturation of these partnerships has exasperated the challenges of operating a law firm’s profitably.   The leverage pyramid has inverted.  Many firms have too many partners, not all of which contribute equally to revenue generation and firm management.  There isn’t enough profitable work to support the firm.  They either have too many employees or too many attorneys that are marginally profitable.  The reverse is also true, where support staff or attorney reductions have been too deep. 

  2. Partners not retiring.  While there is some alignment with the first cause, it may also be unrelated.  Because of the recession and slow recovery, attorneys may not be in a financial position to retire.  Instead they choose to continue working.  In the best cases, they are contributors, productive and profitable.  In the worst cases, they create limited value and profit, yet expect to maintain the same level of compensation. 

  3. Fundamental market shift.  This cannot be ignored.  Certain consumer market segments are gone or substantially reduced.  Simple estate plans are frequently provided by internet legal providers such as Legal Zoom rather than an attorney.  Business clients are leaner, have gone out of business, merged with a larger company or simply don’t have the cash to expend on preventative legal fees. 

  4. Clients requiring more and paying less.  Larger corporate clients continue to shift costs to their legal team.  Downward pricing pressure, fixed or flat fee work and third party billing review companies who are valued by the legal fees they save their clients.  Additionally, corporate clients are requiring that firms increase administrative staff to comply with more complex billing, reporting, and compliance requirements. 

  5. Market oversupply.  There are fewer students in law school and fewer graduates, yet the market remains bloated, especially in the second tier legal markets. There has been little improvement in the past 6 years and Bloomberg reported in June that only 64.4% of law school grads are working in positions that require a law degree.   Many recent graduates, unable to find a paid position either take an unpaid intern position or become a solo practitioner.  Ill prepared to run a business and practice a varied range of law, they undercut the market and become potentially difficult opposing counsel which can result in high legal fees which some clients are unable to pay.

  6. Chasing the same lateral partner.  While hiring a lateral attorney with a portable book of business can resolve some problems, it is increasingly difficult. Firms, anxious to make themselves sustainable, are frequently chasing the same lateral attorneys who have a portable book of business.   This is simply a market supply issue.  There are not enough attorneys with portable books to meet the needs of firms that are looking for them.  Once a lateral is identified, the compensation structure that they require may create new problems for the firm including over-compensating the partner or the inability to deliver the anticipated new business. 

  7. Lack of strategic thinking.  Continuing to think that the market will recover to pre-recession levels and not making decisions, in some instances, unpopular choices to create a sustainable firm. 

  8. Costs continuing to escalate.  Health care costs and increased regulation are just two examples.  For the majority of law firms personnel costs and then occupancy are their two most costly line items.

  9. Not hiring business people and if they do, not letting them manage the business.  Strong management will make the hard decisions.  While some firms have strong executive committees with strong business background, many do not.  The traditional “country club” law firm structure does not align with lean market driven management. 

  10.  Client Hoarding.  While potentially protecting a partner or practice group, it does not help the organization and makes that practice group vulnerable if there is a change in decision making for their client.

Firms can address difficult internal operational challenges.  External market factors will require thoughtful strategies and adjustments.  Law firms that are proactive, well managed and aware of the changing market will create both a profitable and sustainable future.

About the Author: Brenda Edwards is the Executive Director of Phoenix law firm Jaburg & Wilk.  She has expertise in business management and marketing of midsize law firms.