It’s that time of the year. You have received your raise and have politely waited a month or so after receiving your bonus. You have looked grateful and appreciative (all the while thinking, you’re giving me this after I worked that?) and now, frankly, you’ve been circling Indeed and quietly checking out job listings. But this time, you are thinking, “You know, am I going to find another job doing the same thing, or am I going to get something different?”
The Paralegal career is a terrific career. But let’s face it. For some, it has limits. You aren’t ever going to make partner. (For those who are just hearing this for the first time, I apologize.) And, there are some salary caps. On the other hand, if you zig and zag, you can create an unlimited career path. It may look like you have to leave the title “Paralegal” behind. You may have some regrets or misgivings. Frankly, I wouldn't have regrets. Think positively.
Some call this action, “Alternative Careers”. I call it leveraging your career. Where, in the Big Book of Careers, is it written that you always need to possess the title, Paralegal? Look at it this way: maybe Paralegal is a journey to new career paths and not a road with a stop sign.
This is not the career I signed up for.
Are you bored, fed-up, lost, or otherwise unhappy in your current career? Are you facing a crossroads at which you need to decide between staying in your current field or moving to a new one? Do you have skills that you are not using in your current career? Have you been promoted to a point where you are no longer doing what you love?
If changing careers has become an issue, you must make a distinction about the real reason behind your thinking: Are you changing your path because a) the career is not for you or b) the job you are in is not right? It is so important that you distinguish between the two because you can be making a very serious mistake if you abandon a perfectly good career simply because you are in the wrong job, not the wrong career. Whatever you determine, it’s best not to leave your job – if possible – unless you have a plan. Ask yourself: When I go to work:
• Do I like my manager? If not, the job is not for you. Or,
• Do I like the work itself? If not, the career may not be for you.
• Is the environment unfriendly, hostile, stressful, boring? The job is not for you. Or,
• Am I truly uninterested in what I am doing? Am I in over my head? Are my eyes glazing over? Do I have little interest in what goes on around me? Sort it out, piece by piece. It could be a mix of the specialty, the job or the career.
If you are just starting out, chances are, you are not seeking an alternative career. However, at the mid-or senior level, many paralegal jobs may have become routine and repetitious. Routine and repetition can lead to burnout. It may be that a little “spice” is what is in order. An alternative career could act as an extension of a paralegal career – not the end of your career.
Now is the time to leverage your paralegal background. You don’t necessarily have to start from the very beginning. Take what you have accomplished and propel transferable skills into a lateral move or climb up the career ladder. You may have to take a salary cut but chances are, if you are skillful, that won’t happen.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to attempt to change careers without a plan. A successful career change can often take months to accomplish when you have a strategy, so without one, you could end up adrift for an even longer period. A detailed action plan includes strategy, a look at finances, research, and more education and training, if you want to further your success.
Don’t trip and fall flat on your bottom over there on “I Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda Lane” by denying that you need more training. Employers do not have imaginations. If they cannot make the connection as to why you should say, move from a litigation paralegal into HR, they simply are not going to bite. However, if they see that you have completed an HR certification course from the Association of Legal Administrators, they may be more inclined to consider you.
Where do I start?
Here are just a few alternative careers to consider. Bear in mind, to reach the top salary levels mentioned, you need years of experience. However, these are great goals to aim for!
There just isn’t anything hotter for paralegals. These positions include:
• eDiscovery Manager
• Case Managers
• Project Managers
You must have a solid background in litigation and eDiscovery, know Relativity and other software packages. You must also have excellent project management skills. Salaries range anywhere from $60k to over $175,000 for experienced eDiscovery Managers in major metropolitan cities.
2. Litigation Support:
This is the technology end of litigation. You need to know more than eDiscovery i.e., a host of software packages, plus complex technology. Salaries run the gamut from $65,000 to over $185,000 for top Managers in major law firms in first-tiered cities.
Just a few positions:
• Litigation Support Managers
• Litigation Support Analysts
• Project Managers
• Case Managers
3. Contracts Administrator:
Love contract writing? Narrow your focus. Responsibilities include preparing, analyzing, and revising contracts regarding any assortment of subjects from the buying and selling of goods and services. Managing the acquisition and storage of equipment is also important.
4. Law Firm Administrator:
Have you managed other paralegals, case clerks or supervised others? Do you have any accounting background? HR duties? MBA? Have you worked in labor or employment law? Here is where you can leverage that background. Small firm administrators can start at $75,000 to well over $250,000 or more in major firms or in-house legal departments.
5. Social Service Agent:
Here is an area for those interested in the social welfare system, criminal justice system, or immigration services, to name a few. Many positions are not listed as a paralegal job but a review of the description shows assignments are essentially paralegal work. For example, a position within a so¬cial service organization that assists immigrants may be listed as “Immi¬grant Specialist.” That individual may serve as an advocate for immigrants in court and have interaction with clients but the skills required are basically those of a paralegal.
6. Legal Sales:
Vendors love paralegals. Legal sales can be a particularly appealing field if you want to take on a social, flexible, and heavily client-facing role. You’ll engage with attorneys, legal professionals, HR directors, litigation support professionals and other paralegals. Products like Lexis, Bloomberg Law and Westlaw often require salespeople who know the legal field thoroughly and have excellent communication and persuasion skills. You can work for eDiscovery, outsourcing, litigation support, corporate filing companies - you name the vendor! What interests you? Salaries are generally very good if you have a lot of tenacity.
7. Banking and Finance:
The banking and finance industry involves complex legal, regulatory and compliance issues. Paralegals, particularly those with backgrounds in finance, banking, securities, and tax, can leverage specialties into lucrative positions in the finance industry as escrow agents, compliance specialists, bank probate administrators, funds administrators, insurance, risk managers, brokers, trust examiners, and other related positions. Your new job will not be listed as a paralegal but the duties may be similar to what you are doing now.
8. Education and Administration:
Another worthy career alternative is in legal education or academic administration. While the path to the ivory towers of the nation’s elite law schools is steep, teaching opportunities in paralegal schools and continuing legal education organizations exist. Legal education institutions hire individuals with legal experience to work in career services, law libraries, alumni relations and admissions
9. Marketing Director:
You will lead the marketing team, control marketing budgets, plan activities, and strategize on how to create visibility. You need to know PR, websites, social media, event planning, and all aspects of marketing the firm’s business. Start out by assisting your marketing director in your current firm. Add that to your resume and move into a full-time marketing position. Salaries start low but good marketing directors at major law firms can earn over $200,000 per year.
10. Legal Recruiter:
Legal recruiters are the human resource professionals of the legal world. If you enjoy helping others land a job and want to help legal professionals succeed in a difficult market, giving hope where hope has been wanting, consider being a recruiter. You need to learn how to recruit clients, interact with firms, and work well with employees. You could work with firms, in-house at a corporation or with recruitment companies. Some recruiters at staffing companies work on a base salary plus commission; some are on straight commission. Recruiters in corporations are usually salaried. Income is all over the board, starting around $60,000. At this writing, one staffing company advertising on Indeed, is seeking an attorney recruiter and states the position can earn up to $250,000 per year.
11. Legal Publishing:
As a paralegal, your research and writing skills are tops. Put those skills to use as an editor, writer or web content manager. The expanding legal field has sparked the birth of a diverse range of publications for lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, court reporters, litigation support professionals, and other legal professionals. Every legal professional has its own series of niche publications that seek skilled writers. Start out by writing for paralegal newsletters so you have a portfolio.
12. Pricing Strategist and Analysts:
Here is a relatively new position created in the past 5-7 years. Duties include formulating pricing strategies and managing legal spend against client expectations. In this role, you create budgets and forecasts and respond to competitive requests for proposals, develop pricing tools and templates to utilize technology. Analyst positions can go anywhere from $90 - $100k. However, the top, top positions in major law firms in New York are paying $300-$400,000 per year. Oh, yes! It’s highly competitive and you need to be very qualified.
13. Compliance Specialist:
Compliance specialists work for corporations, law firms and consulting firms, coordinating and monitoring the myriad of governmental, regulatory and compliance documents required by new changes in federal law. Recently, law firms have begun to bring compliance specialists in-house to work specifically for the law firm to review its own contracts for vendors such as IT and litigation support companies, something paralegals know a lot about!
14. Training and Development:
Large, mid-size firms and in-house legal departments seek good software trainers. They also want Continuing Education Program Developers to set up in-house CLE programs. If you are training others now, here is a great career path.
15. Government Positions:
Have you considered positions in agencies such as the FBI, CIA or Homeland Security? Paralegals have interesting and exciting positions. Though you should not expect the job to live up to the romanticized portrayal in the movies, working with the FBI can be rewarding.
There are many roles with the FBI, but whichever role, you are expected to be excellent. You will be working as national level law enforcement, and ensuring the nation is secure from threats. Some of these threats will be full-blown such as the 9-11 attack and the Un-abomber, while others will be comparatively smaller.
16. Attorney Recruiter:
This position recruits attorneys for law firms within the firm. You will recruit first years and laterals. You must know how to recruit on campus, set up the summer associate program and events, understand law schools, book travel, interview and follow-up. The position pays anywhere from $80,000 up to $160,000 in major firms.
17. Docket Clerk:
Many paralegals already deal with the docket and calendar. If you enjoy this part of your job, narrow your focus. You’ll deal with litigation deadlines and other specialties such as patent and trademark. Sr. Docket Clerks can get around $90-$100k.
Final Thoughts on Alternative Careers
Remember, the term “alternative career” really means leveraging your paralegal career. Take what you have accomplished and apply it to your new career moving forward. Analyze your transferable skills: communication, writing, research, calendaring, recruiting, management, litigation, contracts, corporate, investigation, and so many, many more that we have talked about and many we haven’t even mentioned.
Write your new alternative career resume to reflect those skills first. Don’t just write your resume in the “normal” traditional manner. Write it to reflect the career you are aiming towards, not the one you are leaving. Get the education you need. Above all else, keep moving. It’s what sets you apart, keeps you happy and motivated – whether you decide to keep the title paralegal or exchange it for something new! We’ll always have paralegal!
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is the CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and CEO and Co-Founding Member of the OLP, the Organization of Legal Professionals . She has written 10 books on legal careers and is a former paralegal administrator for two major firms, and an executive in a $5 billion company. She has been interviewed by Newsweek, LA Times, Daily Journal, Forbes.com and other prestigious publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report, has been around since 2005. She is an Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur or the Year finalist, LA/Century City Woman of the Year Award Winner and Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Recipient. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.