A few years back, when I was a Paralegal Administrator for a major law firm, the Director of Administration took me to lunch at the Yorkshire Grill. He plied me full of a pastrami sandwich and insisted that I order the potato salad full of creamy, yummy mayonnaise, a big kosher pickle and lots of salty potato chips. A diet Coke went along with it. God forbid I should get too many calories.
As we were walking back to the office, he said to me that if I wanted to succeed in the firm, I was going to have to lose weight. I remember exactly where we were, in front of what building and even the crack in the sidewalk I was looking down on when he said it.
“Are you calling me fat, Lou?” I shot back. Uh, oh. Probably not the best answer, I realize now, looking back on it. “Not exactly fat,” he said. Well, truth be known. I was kind of waddling down the street and those plus size suits were stretching just a tad. (I have since lost over 100 pounds. Yep. Feeling great here.)
Was he wrong? Oh, yes. Could I have handled that better? Oh yes.
Here are some career mistakes we might make along the way, some we can all avoid and at the same time, take a stab at strengthening our careers:
- Becoming too smug
I have a candidate who wrote to me from the Midwest. She said, “I can’t get a job because everyone here is envious of me. I have my CP and am technologically superior to everyone I come across. People are jealous of me.” Oh, yes. Those were her words. Wow, I thought. She must really be something. I opened her resume. She had Trial Director. OK. A lot of paralegals don’t have Trial Director. She didn’t have Relativity. Maybe they don’t use Relativity in the Midwest. However, while her skills were good (I wouldn’t call them “superior”), it was obvious that she wasn’t getting a job because of her attitude. I am quite certain it wasn’t jealousy preventing her from getting a job but her smug attitude that was coming across. Check it at the door.
- Aiming too low
Whether it’s salary, title, or type of law firm, people are too intimidated by superiors, the system, interviewers, and are scared of asking for what they want at every stage of their career or during the interview process, and suffer from imposter syndrome.
This is a direct result of decades of indoctrination by authoritative educational, parental, and societal institutions that tend to demolish your self-confidence in an effort to control you.
This persistent lack of confidence is the number one issue paralegals suffer from when it comes to selling yourself effectively. Re-evaluate the position. You haven’t arrived this far in your career based on luck. Believe me.
- Not exactly listening.
The other day, I sent a Paralegal/Office Manager on an interview for an Office Manager position. Her goal was to move up. We went over and over the interview process. The firm wanted someone who could handle accounting and HR and had a law firm background. We redesigned her resume to highlight the HR and accounting skills and de-emphasize the paralegal skills because she had both. I coached her to highlight just how strong the accounting skills and HR skills were.
I also coached her on how to dress for the interview. The firm, a real estate transaction firm, dealt with high-end clients. It was important that she dressed conservatively. I was very precise in my instructions. “Show up in a Brooks Bros. look,” I said. “No open toed or sling-back shoes.”
The managing partner called me. Not only was he passing, he was pretty upset. “How could I send someone who kept emphasizing her paralegal background,” he said. “This is an Office Manager position. And, why on earth did she wear tennis shoes?” Listen to what is being said. Read between the lines.
- Saying no to yourself
Because you feel that you lack the “qualifications” the job description asks for, you end up not going for the opportunity, whether it’s for a new job or a promotion. This continued lack of self-confidence through self-discrimination, combined with the obsession of fulfilling requirements down to the last detail, handicaps good paralegals from achieving career greatness.
Although job descriptions don’t matter, many candidates still try to play by the rules. They don’t understand that job search or a promotion is like war. The victor obtains the spoils. It’s every paralegal for themselves. I had a candidate call me to pull her resume because the job description said a BA was required. However, she had over 25 years of experience in real estate. Real estate paralegals are tough to find. The firm would definitely consider her.
There are no rules in moving your career along! This is why often liars sometimes get the best jobs and offers. They understand manipulation. Too often, the most accomplished candidates lose because they don’t know the song and dance that is job search or career success.
- Not understanding the modern job-search ecosystem and process
There are four major hiring entities that you need to know how to manipulate, maneuver around, and negotiate. The HR person, headhunter, attorney, paralegal manager or senior paralegal. Each person has a slightly different incentive, process, and interaction protocol. You should behave accordingly.
In addition, the process of the job search is no longer: look on the web for listings, apply to jobs that you like, wait for feedback, go interview. The new process is: create your marketing documents (including your resume, cover and thank-you letters), master LinkedIn networking, leverage the four hiring entities mentioned above, utilize the volume of interviews to your advantage, and negotiate throughout.
- Becoming a jack of all trades – not necessarily good
The most dangerous problem paralegals run into that seriously limits their market value and range of future career options is becoming a generalist. Law firms no longer value soldiers, willing to do any assignment for pay. They want specialists, professionals, experts, and true masters of the practice specialty.. They need experts to remain viable and stay ahead of their competition.
No longer is being eager and willing to work for a firm for the next 20 years a valuable trait. Firms want true leaders. If you have stayed at your firm for more than 10 years, you may have stayed too long. Have you updated your technology skills? Do you know what the latest trends are? If not, frankly, you are less marketable.
I have a candidate who applied for a highly sophisticated trial paralegal position. While she told me what she did verbally, her specific skills were not reflected in her resume and she refused to take the time to put change it. Yet, she wanted more money. I explained to her that the firm would probably not consider her. She thought I was unreasonable. You know the story. Submit resume. Reject resume. Hate to say I told ya so. Had she shown where she specialized in trial, she probably would have gotten the position – at least the interview! Specialization and experience within a niche skill are not only good to have, but must-haves to remain a relevant and desirable paralegal.
- Losing the passion
Most professionals forget that they work largely to make a living. Since most people accumulate worse spending habits every year, people rely on their jobs more and more to fuel their lifestyle. This dependent relationship on a job quickly spirals out of control once their house of cards experiences even the smallest tremor.
Because of your deep reliance on your paycheck, your emotions can run amuck when experiencing any type of career turbulence. But be careful not to let your emotions get the best of you. I am on a Board for a non-profit. In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, I re-evaluated my vote regarding a fiduciary responsibility. A Board member literally screamed at me at the top of her lungs to shut up. I looked around at the table. The other Board members faces were ashen. No one knew what to say. Never had I ever had that happen to me. I was literally shaken up. I apologized all over the place until I realized I wasn’t the one out of line. Upon reflection, I realized that at least this woman still had passion for her job. I guess that’s one way of looking at it.
Whatever you do, whether you are seeking a new job or a promotion, don’t lose sight of your passion for your job. It’s not always about the money. It’s about enjoying what you do, getting up in the morning and looking forward to another great day.
Careers will always have their little mistakes. The trick is to recognize them, correct them and get yourself pointed in another direction before they get to be those BIG mistakes. Because by then, well, it just may be just a little too late. If you know what I mean.....
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is also the President and Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals and CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute. She is the author of 10 books in the legal field, a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Recipient. She is a former Paralegal Administrator for two major firms, an executive in a $5 billion company. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Daily Journal , Above the Law, Forbes.com and other prestigious publications. Her blog The Estrin Report has been around since 2005. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.