Sometimes it’s hard to fathom that a paralegal can get promoted. Law firms generally offer a horizontal career path for paralegals rather than vertical. In other words, your assignments get more sophisticated by moving outward, not upward. But let’s face it: you are not exactly going to move up to partner.
There’s a lot of new movement going on these days that can allow you to move up. Major law firms are putting paralegal managers into a hybrid position: Manager of Paralegals and Other Departments. Some firms call this new position the Practice Support Manager. The manager can be in charge of paralegals, litigation support, records management and other departments.
The good news here is that firms have finally recognized that paralegals are, indeed, more capable of routine and repetitious tasks. They don’t need to remain in stagnating careers going nowhere except to be recognized as entry, mid and senior level – all factors for promotion based upon years in the field rather than skills. In fact, paralegals have tremendous leadership abilities along with the necessary team building skills it takes to remain in the law firm. An organization, mind you, whose hierarchy is made up of equal partners and committees, rather than the straight up and down corporate world where the buck stops with the CEO.
On the other hand, and not so great in my mind, smaller firms are pushing paralegals backwards by also utilizing the hybrid position. Only this hybrid position is an insult to the field. These firms combine the paralegal/legal assistant (or legal secretary) positions. This move pushes the paralegal field down and demotes the paralegal by adding responsibilities that are better delegated to a lower competent level. If you are in an interview and asked, “How fast do you type?” beware! You’re most likely going to be expected to perform secretarial duties. Let me ask you: Have you fought your way through your career to get more sophisticated responsibilities only to be asked to have half your job duties coming from the spot on the org chart below you? I think not.
How do you combat being placed in the paralegal/secretary position and how can you ensure you get promoted into Practice Support Manager? Think like attorneys think. When an attorney meets another attorney, what is the first thing that is likely asked? Where did you go to school. When major law firms hire attorneys, what qualifications do they seek? What school the candidate went to and whether they placed in the top 10% of the class. Attorneys frame and place their certificates on the wall. No, not the certificate that says they passed the bar. The certificate that shows the schools they attended. How do attorneys think? They think in terms of education.
That’s why I’ve been excited about George Washington University’s Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies program and their Law Firm Management graduate program. No, this isn’t an advertisement. It’s a strategy. That is, a strategy to keep you out of the paralegal/legal secretary position and propel you into the Practice Support Management arena. Few firms are going to want to demote you – even half of your job – if you’re walking around with a Master’s degree in Paralegal Studies. A ton of firms are going to consider you for a promotion if you have a graduate degree in Law Firm Management because you can combine the paralegal position with the next position up – management – not fall back into the next position down – secretarial. Who demotes someone with a Master’s degree? (If they do, it’s time to beat feet from that firm, believe me.)
The Paralegal Studies Master’s degree gives you in-depth studies in government law, intellectual property law, and international law, business entities and more. It’s far more advanced than the paralegal certificate offered at most schools.
Or, you can opt for the Master of Professional Studies in Law Firm Management, a 30-credit program that can be completed in 18 months. The program is specially designed for people working full-time, with a combination of Distance Learning and Short-Term Residencies at the GW Alexandria Graduate Education Center. The program begins each summer.
Here are some other advantages:
- Your degree puts you on equal footing with others who have advanced degrees, thus graduates tend to gain a stronger voice within the firm.
- Your studies give you a managerial perspective and a birds-eye view impossible to gain in the field day-to-day.
- Your increased understanding of the business of law means you can become integral to your firm's growth and success.
The biggest objection I hear from paralegals about getting continuing education is they don't have time. While the desire is there, the ability to implement a plan of action is not. I am working with a career coaching client with 15 years of experience who is just dying to do something else. Her complaint is she doesn’t have the time to study. By the time she gets home at night, cooks dinner and tends to the family, she’s beat. I asked her what she did on Saturday mornings. She did the laundry, took her 15 year old son to sports and rode her bike. I told her to get into a car pool for the kid, do the laundry later in the afternoon and take the bike ride on Sunday. That way, she can block out 9:00 am to 1:00 pm on Saturdays strictly for her. Tell the family she is not available during those 4 hours. Get into an online program and take action to move her career forward. Funny, how she suddenly found herself with an extra 16 hours a month or 200 hours a year to get a better job.
There are strategies you can develop to get ahead. Rarely, does a firm come to you and say, “Hey, Sue, wanna get promoted?” Hardly. In the real-world, you have to do the work, push yourself forward (without waiting for your firm to do it) and go out and get recognition for your skills and abilities. That’s how you get promoted – not demoted. Remember, attorneys are most impressed with education first, experience second. It’s just the way of the legal world.