What Was I Thinking? 10 Tips to Avoid eMail Disaster

EmailOne of the most significant ways we are judged today is how we write e-mails. No longer are we subject to scores of phone calls or face-to-face meetings. Technology has completely revolutionized the way we communicate. It’s an email world out there and how you present yourself can make or break your career.

While it’s a magnificent tool for communicating, email can be very damaging when used inappropriately. Too often we take the easy and quite candidly, cowardly, option of using email to avoid the emotional discomfort of a real time conversation. 

While it’s a magnificent tool for communicating, email can be very damaging when used inappropriately. Too often we take the easy and quite candidly, cowardly, option of using email to avoid the emotional discomfort of a real time conversation.
When it comes to communicating matters that can be uncomfortable or emotionally sensitive, nothing can ever replace a good old fashioned, face-to-face conversation.

To hide behind your computer screen, not only lacks courage and professional courtesy but can become very costly. Lack of sensitivity combined with misinterpretation can risk permanent damage to your career, not to mention damage to someone else. Time spent on damage control can be very detrimental. Often, we try dashing off a quick and often poorly worded written message trying to redeem ourselves. Trust me, the damage has been done.

Why do people use email as a method for “saying what they really think?” The more distance we have from someone, the more likely we are to make decisions in a cold, purely cognitive way. It’s easier than speaking to someone face-to-face. In reality, we think we will have fewer emotions to deal with.

A recent study out of University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that the farther away people are from the person they were communicating with, either physically or psychologically, the more apt they are to lie or exaggerate. Those communicating via email lied about five times more than those speaking face-to-face, whereas those using instant messaging lied about three times more than those talking face-to-face.

We have all been in situations where we get upset upon receiving certain emails; an incident occurs; we are angered or upset by someone’s actions. The tendency to dash off an email immediately is tempting. However, once you hit the Send button, you can never retrieve that email. No amount of deleting will help. Once it’s out in email land, it’s there permanently. Let us not also forget that the email is permanently on your hard drive. The email is discoverable. That is the essence of eDiscovery and computer forensics.

If you find yourself writing in anger, save a draft, go get some chocolate, and imagine that tomorrow morning someone has taped your email outside your door. Would your colleagues and supervisors be shocked by your language or attitude?

Here’s an example of the “Uh-oh” email:

“I was just made aware that John was promoted to Litigation Support Manager. While I am not offering up “sour grapes” because I did not receive the promotion instead (although as you know, I am very qualified for the position), I wanted to confidentially make sure you are aware that John has been fired twice off previous jobs.”

The damage to John’s career is horrendous. However, it can be nothing compared with the damage to yours. This is an email that should have never gone out.

Responding to angry emails.

When you receive angry emails, instead of responding in kind, take a rational approach.

From: James Jones
Subject: Ongoing document production
I have been trying to get in touch with you all day. I am having problems on this project. Don’t you check your emails? I’m not that well-trained here. The least you can do is explain in more detail how to do this.

If your recipient has just attacked you with an angry message, rather than reply with a point-by-point rebuttal, you can always respond with a brief note that:

a) Casually invokes the name of someone the angry correspondent is likely to respect (to diffuse any personal antagonism that may otherwise have developed) and
b) Refocuses the conversation on solutions and lessens the risk of escalating the situation into an all-and-all email war.

From: Jane Smith
Subject: Ongoing problems with document production

Since you told Sue you didn’t need extra training, I cancelled the Tuesday session. I can CC Sue since she will have to approve the training if we reschedule. In the interim, I can loan you copies of the manual or we can shift the indexing to someone else. Let me know your thoughts.

Three times you should never use e-mail.

1. When you are angry. Anger can trigger stress hormones and in turn, decrease our ability to communicate well. Never send an email when you are angry. Do whatever you need to get it out of your system. Just don’t hit “Send” while you’re still angry. Wait at least two hours to calm down, rationalize and see the whole picture. This gives you time to decide the most constructive way to convey that you’re upset. Emailing someone when you are raging is almost guaranteed to end in disaster.

2. When you are rebuking or criticizing. Too often we get a false sense of bravado and say things via email we would never have the courage to say in person. Delivering or receiving a rebuke or criticism isn’t easy for anyone. Save it for the face-to-face meeting or phone conversation. By providing feedback in person, you can read visual cues and immediately address any concerns the other person might have without things getting out of hand.

3. If there’s even a slight chance your words can be misunderstood. Emails can be interpreted in a myriad of ways – some of which you never would have anticipated. Your reader may be particularly defensive about certain issues. Save yourself time in damage control and possible lawsuits. Pick up the phone or meet them face-to-face to ensure that they hear your message in the most positive way.

Don’t have the conversation in a confrontational way, but in a way that says “you seem to be upset, perhaps we should talk this through." While not always comfortable, a phone call or face-to-face meeting provides an opportunity for meaningful dialogue that is difficult via email and could easily otherwise escalate the situation.

Don’t assume privacy or confidentiality.
Email is not secure. There is no such thing as privacy when it comes to email. A curious hacker, a malicious criminal, and your IT department can probably read any of your email messages in your work account. The email can be forwarded to others without your knowledge.

Show respect and restraint.
Many a flame war has been started by someone who hit “reply all” instead of “reply.” Most people know that email is not private. It is good form to ask the sender before forwarding a personal message. If someone emails you a request, it is perfectly acceptable to forward the request to a person who can help — but forwarding a message so that you can ridicule or humiliate the sender is just tacky.

Use BCC instead of CC when sending sensitive information to large groups. (For example, an employer telling unsuccessful candidates that they have been rejected for a position.) The name of everyone in the CC list goes out with the message, but the names of people on the BCC list are hidden.

10 Top Etiquette Rules

Now that we’ve covered writing emails in anger, let’s explore email etiquette that can help you get better responses and present you in a positive leadership role. Here are some guidelines to maintain good working relationships.

1. Keep the message focused using short paragraphs.
Why are you writing? It’s best to keep to one topic and use short paragraphs. Long emails with multiple topics are no longer taken seriously. Separate by blank lines. Everyone skims content these days. Most people find unbroken blocks of text boring or intimidating. Format your message for the ease of your reader. Remember that most email is read on mobile devices, Keep emails to five – ten sentences.

2. Stay organized.
Some readers will get partway through a complex message, hit “reply” as soon as they have something to contribute, and forget to read the rest. That’s human nature.

Number your points in more complex message. Split unrelated points into separate, purposeful emails. If you send all your readers a message that only relates to some of them, a good deal of readers waste time reading the whole thing to determine whether any part applies to them. Other people give up as soon as they find few details apply to them.

2. Use politeness.
My mother used to tell me “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” She was right. Please and thank-you are still important, but wordiness wastes your reader’s time (which is rude).

Indirect and waste of time: Hello Ron: I would very much like it if, at your earliest convenience, you could send the current password for the website. I look forward to your reply. Have a wonderful day!

Blunt and almost to the point of rudeness: “Need password for the website immediately.”
If you get a message like this, you might assume the sender trusts you and really needs your help. On the other hand, if you send a message like this, you are likely to appear needy and panicky. How do you want to come across?

Urgent, yet polite: The site is down. I can’t fix it without the new password. Can you forward it? Thanks.

4. Don’t send or forward emails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks.
You can put yourself or your firm at risk. You could be sued for simply passing something along, even if you aren’t the original author. Remember that company e-mail isn’t private. You have no legal protection.

5. Avoid attachments whenever possible.
Rather than forcing your reader to download an attachment and open it in a separate program, you will probably get faster results if you just copy and paste the most important part of the document into the body of your message.

Not good:
To: Everyone involved in Document Productions
From: Eager Paralegal
Subject: Helpful Handbook

Hello Everyone:
I’ve attached a PDF that I think you will all find useful. This is the fourth time I’ve sent the file – the version yesterday had a typo on page 215. Let me know what you think!

o Huge honking file.pdf (375 MB)
o Bigger cover letter

Okay, don’t everyone raise your hands – how many of you would read this or better yet, delete it without looking at any “attachments”? You betcha.

Hello Brenda:
I came across some tips on streamlining the document production process. Has anyone at your office volunteered to present at the paralegal workshop next month? If you’d like, I can do a 20 minute presentation. I can also send you the entire handbook if you would like.

Table of Contents:
1. Indexing documents
2. Notices to parties
3. Useful and effective software
6. Identify yourself clearly.

If you telephoned someone outside your closest circle who wouldn’t recognize your voice, you would most likely say something like “Hello, Jennifer. This is Chere Estrin from Estrin Legal Staffing.” A formal “Dear Ms. Green” salutation is not necessary for routine workplace communication.

7. Write a short and action-oriented subject line.
Never leave the subject line blank. Limit it to eight or fewer words. Mobile devices can cut off part of the text. Indicate if you need a response by a certain date, so your reader can prioritize the requests he or she is receiving that day.

8. Always include a signature line.
Frankly, nothing annoys me more than receiving an email without a signature line. The sender is assuming I know who they are by their email address. Are you kidding? Have you any idea how many emails I deal with daily?

9. Avoid jokes.
Because we're so accustomed to communicating via texts and social media, we might be less formal than we should in important emails. However, sarcasm can often be lost in email translation. Be careful not to include anything that can be misconstrued. Don't leave your message up for interpretation.

10. Make it easy to respond.
Remember that not responding is often a convenient alternative. While it is hard to force a response, at least you can prod. Make it clear, from the very first sentence, why you are writing and what you expect. You should not be writing mystery novels.

Make it easy for readers to respond by providing a default option. For example, you might say: “Unless I hear from you by Tuesday, I will assume that you want to proceed.”

Defaults are powerful because readers are not always willing to spend a lot of effort coming up with other options. The choice for the default option is especially hard to resist if you suggest that yours is the norm or recommended choice. If there are no easy options, you can specifically state that you expect a response. You can ask them to let you know what they intend to do, by when, and how. You’ll get better responses and start being viewed as a leader with solutions.

Above all, remember that you are representing the firm. How you write your personal emails is your business. However, it is incumbent upon you to represent the firm well, don’t shoot from the lip and above all, keep your emails clean, sweet and legitimate!

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing; CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals. She has written 10 books on legal careers and hundreds of articles and is a popular national seminar speaker. Her blog, The Estrin Report, has been in existence since 2005. Chere can be reached at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.



Sneaky Ways to Break Into the Legal Technology Career

DuckI can’t tell you how many legal professionals have asked me how to break into the legal technology career. Then they tell me all the reasons they can’t get into the field, usually starting with the old “chicken and the egg” story. You know the one: “I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience; I don't have experience because I can’t get a job…” I have another story for you. “If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, walks like a duck, it must be a duck.” Let me quack a bit here.

You need to understand the field. Then, you need to go after the job. But first, you have to look like you belong to the field. No one is going to take an outsider. It’s not going to happen.

Legal technology offers several different areas of specialty. You can go into litigation support, eDiscovery, IT, word processing, or utilize technology skills within your practice specialty such as estate planning or bankruptcy. You can find jobs in law firms, in-house legal departments, with vendors or start your own business. You don’t have to only be within the litigation practice arena. However, if you are a paralegal and not conversant in legal technology in some manner, you are probably going to be out of a job in a short period of time. It’s really that simple.

So how do you break into the field?

Let’s return to my duck story: If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, walks like a duck, it must be a duck. Let's think about why employers ask for "Three years' experience in a similar role".

They're simply looking for proof that you're the kind of person they're looking for.

They're looking for proof you're a duck. 

How to look like a duck
Search for educational opportunities. Based on your desired legal technology career path, current educational and professional experience, and available amount of free time, explore different online or on-campus courses and webinars along with various job descriptions to figure out which suits you best.  

To my knowledge, there are no degrees you can obtain in legal technology. However, the more courses you can take to list on your resume, the better chances you stand of breaking into the field.  Understand that there is no single educational path to a legal technology career. It's a broad field.  Your overall education may take anywhere from a few months to four years to complete. For example, if you want to move into IT and become a systems analyst, you may need a Bachelor's degree, but for a help desk position, you may only need experience or an Associates degree.

You may also want to explore positions in Litigation Support such as a Litigation Support Analyst or move into an eDiscovery Manager position that can be very lucrative and in some regions, pay six figures. However, if you do not have on-the-job training, you are going to need to take plenty of seminars and courses to bring you up to speed.

I spoke with Karl Kindt, an instructor at Southwestern Illinois College about what education paralegals need to enter the field. Karl has 22 years of experience as Litigation Support Technologist/Paralegal and is currently with Lewis Rice in St. Louis. Karl told me that paralegals, especially in smaller law firms, need to update these technology skill sets:

• PowerPoint
• Word macros and smart parts
• Access and Excel interaction with Access use of OLE and hyperlinks
• Trial Director
• Relativity and utility software like Hashtabs, ProDiscovery, MetaDataViewer.

“I teach two courses for Southwestern Illinois College,” says Karl, “and I teach these tech skills per my conversations with attorneys who also teach here. I shared with them what I thought the modern paralegal needs to know how to do with current and near future technology. Here is a link to two current courses I am teaching:

https://sites.google.com/site/235spring2018/01-syllabus-fall-2017 and https://sites.google.com/site/274spring2018/session-topics.

I have had numerous paralegals call me after they got their jobs indicating how these skills are being used big time in their work for lawyers. Here are the tasks that they are expected to do and their tech skills learned in the courses equip them to do:

1. Use PowerPoint to create timelines
2. Use gigapans to explore in detail objects, scenes, real estate, etc.
3. Extract still images out of videos
4. Present evidence in trial using Sanction and Trial Director
5. Create video/synched clip out of depositions and import these into PowerPoint
6. Create animations
7. Edit videos and enhance videos and create videos
8. Close up photographs and other photography skills such as use of Photoshop-like programs to bring out details from shadows etc.
9. Create pdf/a files for e-filing
10. Ascertain meta data in files using metadata viewer and other such programs
11. Create hyperlinked lists of files on disks/USB sticks and hard drives
12. Determine if two documents/images/or digital files are the same or have been altered using programs that can do this like Hashtabs
13. Generate meta data reports
14. Code documents using programs like Relativity
15. Create databases using Access including knowing how to use hyerlink and ole field types
16. Import data from Excel into databases and create comma delimited exports for importing data into other databases
17. Detect if a digital photograph taken by a camera has been altered
18. Detect if an audio file has been altered
19. Clarify an audio file using Audacity
20. Delete metadata out of digital files
21. Use cell phones with smart apps to scan documents and create pdf files
22. Create 3d /stereo images using cell phones and digital cameras when depth is important in a scene or image
23. Know the difference between a switch and a hub
24. Know how to make computers run twice as fast to get work done in a more timely manner
25. The way to recover data off of a hard drive that will not boot up in a computer
26. How to digitize 35mm slides and negatives using scanners and USB units
27. How to make a forensic copy of a hard drive
28. How the internet / worldwide web works and to locate physically where certain files are being stored on a computer
29. Know how to use utility 'thoughtware' programs designed to do things the major software programs do not do or do not do well such as how to quickly get a list of all the files on a terabyte hard drive and get this list into Word documents etc.
30. How to participate in an early e-discovery conference with an attorney to make sure that discovery agreements include clawback provisions and that the data is going to be produced and provided in proper file formats for reviewing software.

Paralegals can go far in legal technology if they know how to apply the right skills to the job,” he says.

If you are seeking to go into IT
Look into professional certifications. Legal technology needs systems engineers, analysts, help desks specialists, IT managers and IT specialists. HR managers find it difficult to get good candidates with law firm background, so paralegals who bring technology skills to the table are in demand.

An MCSE or A+ certification can gain you significant credibility. For most certifications, you'll study and review a certain narrow subject, then sign up for an online exam. There is usually a fee, but the exams are often quick and can often be done in your home.

Act like a duck
You need to show that you are in the community. Part of the problem candidates have breaking into the field is failing to show on the resume they have at least some experience. Candidates assume prospective employers think they have experience because “Relativity” is listed under Computer Skills.

Seeking to move from paralegal to an eDiscovery role? What eDiscovery projects have you worked on within your firm that qualify? Those projects should be highlighted in your resume. Don’t lead with “Prepare pleadings, summarize depositions, etc.” Lead with “Manage multi-million dollar, high-profile eDiscovery projects utilizing Relativity”.  Highlight where you want to go. Not where you've been that doesn't relate. 

Paddle in the Pond
It’s all in who you know. Many legal technology gurus love to assist people. If you’re just dipping your toes into the world of legal technology, investigate to see if you have someone in your friendly, professional, association or LinkedIn network who can tell you about the basics of your chosen field. People are willing to help you out and introduce you to others who can help you.

Go meet people at conferences, seminars and association meetings. For example: The Los Angeles Paralegal Association's 2nd Annual Legal Technology Expo is coming up on March 7th and is a great way to start! Go! Not only will you learn but you will make great connections with others in the field. In particular, meet with vendors who know what’s happening in the field. Never under estimate the power of a vendor. They have connections with law firms; they are on top of the latest technology and, know where the jobs are.

  •  LegalTech – This conference, is held annually and attracts attendees from all walks of the legal industry including attorneys, paralegals, IT professionals, litigation support professionals and others.
  • International Leadership Technology Association (ILTA) – ILTA provides educational content, peer-networking opportunities and information resources in order to make technology work for the legal profession. The ILTA conference is usually held annually in August.
  •  The Masters Conference - The Masters Conference, aims to provide corporate counsel, law firm attorneys and litigation support teams with practical information and tools regarding e-discovery.
  •  Women in eDiscovery – With more than 25 chapters worldwide, this non-profit organization brings together women in technology and law and offers them opportunities for leadership, education, and networking.
  •  Organization of Legal Professionals A non-profit organization that provides online eDiscovery training for attorneys and paralegals.
  •  Paralegal Knowledge Institute - An online organization providing webinars and courses in litigation, corporate, litigation support and eDiscovery. 

Have face-to-face meetings. We’re so heavily into social media that we’ve lost our ability to meet face-to-face. I have 18,000 followers on LinkedIn that have been extremely helpful. Connections are not to be overlooked in building your career. But truthfully, when I take someone to lunch, I have found that these amazing meetings are very rewarding and productive. People remember you and they feel like they’ve made a long-term friend. Well, the reality of taking 18,000 people to lunch might get a tad pricy….

Role models and faux role models. You’re always advised to get a role model. But frankly, how many role models go out on a limb for you? Really? I think you end up admiring most of them from afar. If you don’t know your career role model personally, that’s fine. Try looking at the LinkedIn pages of folks with jobs you admire. What sorts of experiences have they racked up? What do they emphasize about themselves. Look at their career path. Can you emulate it?

Start quacking
Become a guest speaker. Speak at a seminar or webinar. If you can talk about the subject matter, you must know the topic. Once it is on your resume, you are viewed as an expert. OK, so you don’t have the job yet. But if you can get on a panel, be a speaker, it can go on your resume and that gives you credibility.

Write an article or start a blog
Start writing. If you write, you must know the subject. If you start writing articles, your audience will trust what you write. You have credibility. Here is another great line on your resume to help you get a job. It shows you are an expert. You can also start a blog. Here’s a great way to get a following. Who can dispute the fact you are an expert if you have a following?

How else could you prove you are a duck?

Walk like a duck
Exchange time for experience. Maybe you can't get paid work for an established firm you want to move into. But there are likely to be plenty of ways you can do the same kind of work on an unpaid basis (or even for a small salary).

Contact associations and volunteer. You can work with associations such as Women in eDiscovery, work with your local paralegal association on a seminar, the National Association of Legal Secretaries, the Association of Legal Administrators, ILTA, the docketing associations and many more. You’ll get to know people and you’ll learn.

Offer to exchange time for experience on an intern basis. Find firms who will take you as an intern and exchange time for experience. It looks good on your resume. This may feel like it's only a route for those who want to move into the charity sector, but it's surprisingly easy to find people in any sector who would appreciate your contribution. It's usually easier to get your foot in the door with smaller firms or companies, so target small organizations that inspire you and tell them your story.

There may even be opportunities to gain unpaid experience in your current firm. For example, if you want to work in Litigation Support, how about offering to help out in the LitSupport department during your lunch breaks? See if they would be willing to give you some training or beginner's work assignments to give you direct experience right where you are. You can then add that to your resume. "Assisted the Litigation Support Department with assignments in......." Now, you have experience!

But what if your firm doesn't have a LitSupport department? Perhaps you can be the one who volunteers to step in and help out (or handle entirely) the LitSupport projects. Who is doing them now? Would they appreciate some help?

What projects could you do in your spare time to build up experience in your chosen profession? Just be sure there are no conflicts of interest with your firm or that your firm is clear and ok with what you are doing. Don’t risk your job!

Create a YouTube Video
But there's no need to wait for a firm to ask you for your story – why not share it with them in a captivating way? Why not create a YouTube video? Do a demo on a Litigation Support Project or eDiscovery project, or a PowerPoint demonstration. Point people to it in your resume.

Must be a duck
Once you get out into the community, make the right connections, get the education, write the right resume, get experience on the job, you can break into the legal technology field. You are now walking, talking, acting like a duck. Must be a duck. Hired!

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is a former Paralegal Administrator at two major firms; a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Recipient. She is a Los Angeles/Century City Woman of Achievement Recipient and she previously held the position of Sr. Executive VP in a $5 billion company. Chere is the CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association and The Organization of Legal Professionals. She has been written up in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Trib, Newsweek, Daily Journal, and other prestigious publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report has been around since 2005. Reach out to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.


Is it time for an alternative career? Lots of options, lots of choices.

Career changeIt’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!

1. eDiscovery:
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 chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.




The Next Illegal Question.....

Don't Get Asked and Don't Reveal.....

As of January, 2018, California employers will no longer be allowed to ask candidates for their salary histories. That’s right. You will no longer be required to disclose your current or past salary to get a job offer. A new law, AB 168, goes into effect designed, in part, to eliminate wage disparity in different races, sexes, or ethnicities.  

Woman.at deskThis law follows similar new laws recently passed in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Existing California law prohibits employers from paying employees at rates less than the rates paid to employees of the opposite sex for substantially similar work when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions.

AB 168 does not prohibit applicants from disclosing wage history information "voluntarily and without prompting."   

If candidates make a voluntary disclosure, the employer may use it to determine whether to extend a job offer or to decide what compensation to offer the applicant. However, such use is still subject to the Equal Pay Act’s caveat that prior pay cannot, by itself, be used as a justification for any disparity in compensation between employees of different races, sexes, or ethnicities.  

The law also does not prohibit obtaining or using pay history information disclosable to the public under  federal or state law.  

This prohibition is codified at Labor Code Section 1197.5, which also provides exceptions based upon various factors, including a seniority system, a merit system, or any other "bona fide factor" other than sex, such as education, training, or experience. 

Part of the rationale for this new legislation is an attempt to remove one more barrier to wage equality. The California Legislature found that the gender wage gap has not narrowed significantly in recent years and that in 2015, the gender wage gap in California was 16%. Wage inequality is even greater among women of color. Accordingly, the reliance by an employer upon an individual's prior salary to establish wage rates could perpetuate historical wage inequality. It’s not an overstatement to say that wage discrimination exists everywhere.  In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that female paralegals earned 94% of what male paralegals earned.

The new law was created, in part, to prevent employers’ salary inquiries from perpetuating any discrimination that women or people of color have previously faced. When employers ask candidates about prior salaries, they hear a figure that anchors them and offer wages that keeps candidates at a salary that is already too low.  Typically, employers are not motivated to offer a salary that brings a candidate up to market. They offer a certain percentage of the existing salary that may already be low.  This is part of what prolongs wage discrimination. Being underpaid should not condemn you to a lifetime of inequality.

What are you likely going to see going forward?

Firms may publish salary ranges more often. Or, they will interview you and at the end of your lively little talk, they will tell you, “This job pays, $xxx.” It will be up to you to say, “That does or does not fit my salary requirements”.

They cannot ask you, “What is your current or past salary?”  They can no longer judge you based on the percentage of salary increases you received in the past. They can't make up their minds whether you were a good employee by the amount of past increases you received nor whether they will give you an amount they feel you will be satisfied with simply because you were receiving similar increases in the past.

Furthermore, and most importantly, they can't keep you pushed down on the salary scale because you started out low and they won't bring you up to wage equality.  Nor, can they prompt you to reveal the numbers.  You can, however, voluntarily offer a figure. You might also answer, “I am looking for a salary of $xxx.” However, you do not have to reveal past nor present salary.

When you are working with a staffing organization, be open about what your number is. It’s very frustrating for a recruiter to present you with opportunities only to have you say, “No, that’s not it” while the recruiter presents job after job with the question, “Is this it?”, “Is this it?” I know few recruiters who will want to continue to work with you on that basis. They may ask you, “What salary would make you happy?” However, if you don’t give them a figure, they will simply move on to other candidates and not waste precious time.

Divulge Your Worth, Not Your Past

Know the market.  What is relevant here is finding an appropriate job against which to benchmark the open position. Find a market price for the job you're applying for, and determine how close to that median you should be paid given your experience and accomplishments. What you made yesterday doesn't matter - what your peers are making today does.

Once you've found what the job is worth to the market, save the information for the offer segment of the interview.  You'll be on solid ground if you negotiate from an informed position.

How are firms getting information as to what to pay?

Some firms are going to the associate compensation program, i.e., paying for years of experience in the field instead of paying for performance.  In the past ten years, the field was headed toward the pay-for-performance model and moving away from paying strictly for years of experience. Previously, firms modeled paralegal wages on the associate program – paying for years of experience. For example, firms pay the graduating class of 2008 xxdollars with no regard for experience. Positions should be paid on pay-for-performance. That is, what experience and education is brought to the table vs. what duties and education are involved.

How to get your offer up

Employers should pay for skills that match the job description and years of experience. Perhaps you are in a situation where you are earning substantially more than the employer is willing to pay.  Since you will no longer be required to disclose your salary, and if the salary offered is much less than you require, emphasize your expertise. Years in the field might not help you.

You may say, “I see that you require eDiscovery skills, expertise in Relativity and five years attending trial. Not only do I have all of that, I am also an expert in legal research, have drafted motions, pleadings and attended many high-profile trials for Fortune 1000 companies including……” Sell those skills.  You can still negotiate.

The reason years in the field might not help is that you may be a 10-year paralegal but performing at the 3-year level i.e., Bates stamping, organizing documents, summarizing depositions. This isn’t going to get you more money. It’s all in the skill level, even if you are earning more than the job is originally slated to pay.

It will be interesting to see how this works. It might cause some confusion in the beginning as employers may not be able to get a handle on what the market is currently paying. Guesstimates may occur but somehow, I have a feeling this is a good step towards an antidote towards wage discrimination. Let’s hope so!

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 has 3:00 - 5:00 a.m. on Sundays free and can be reached at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.

Are You Calling Me Fat? .....And Other Little Career Mistakes

Pinup girl

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

In conclusion:
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 chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.

"Girls" Just Wanna Have Funds......

"What’s your salary?” becomes a no-no in job interviews.

By Chere B. Estrin


IStock_000013170478XSmall[1]There’s a hot trend sweeping equal-pay legislation right now and some legal field industry leaders are not too happy about it.  New York, Massachusetts and Philadelphia have passed the country’s first law that prohibits employers from asking candidates for their current salaries or salary histories. This is a way to counter pay discrimination that can follow a woman throughout her career when the salary bump she gets with each job is based on pay that’s already lower than that of her male peers.

Think it doesn’t exist in the legal field, particularly in the paralegal field? Guess again.  In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that female paralegals earned 94% of what male paralegals earned. But there were only 30,616 male paralegals in the survey, while the number of female paralegals surveyed – 263,647. I was astounded. Thirty thousand male paralegals and on the average, they out earned over 250,000 female paralegals!!!!!! What??? All wages should be based upon job experience and education. No pay should be based upon race, gender or ethnicity. Ever.

The thinking behind the new law is that when employers ask about a candidate’s salary history, they can end up perpetuating any discrimination that women or people of color may have faced previously. When employers ask about salary, they hear a figure that anchors them and offer a salary that keeps candidates at a salary that is already too low.  Being underpaid should not condemn you to a lifetime of inequality.

At this writing, more than 20 other city and state legislatures have introduced similar provisions.  California is one of the states considering legislation and asking for salary history could soon be illegal in all fifty states.  Many employees, including paralegals, carry lower salaries for their entire careers simply because of wages at previous jobs that were set unfairly in the beginning.

Hiring managers often base their offers on your previous salary. They are unlikely to make an offer over a certain percentage of what you are currently earning.  This is how you arrive at the offer you get. However, that can change. I placed a candidate at a firm where hiring managers made an offer to bring the candidate up to market.  A candidate was in a litigation support manager position earning $85,000 in his/her current position. He/she was very much underpaid, given his/her years of experience and duties. The new position paid $110,000 and the firm brought the candidate in at what the position was worth, not what the candidate was previously earning. Kudos for the firm.

Candidates who negotiate and advocate strongly for themselves at the salary phase can wind up with a lower offer than someone who happened to earn more at an earlier position. In practice, employees who get lower offers are often women. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because women don’t ask.  However, they pay a higher social penalty when they attempt to negotiate. Making salary history part of the job interview process means that tomorrow’s salary depends on yesterday’s wages, making it harder for female candidates to get paid what they deserve.

Firms should price the position, not price the person. Employers are trying to fill a certain role. What firms should be doing is to understand the market rate for that role. On the flip side, many firms use salary history to set pay, manage costs and get information about market. It is very hard to figure out how to pay someone a fair amount. This has been a hidden form of discrimination that has followed women throughout their careers.  Many employers many think it is reasonable to ask salary history and may not understand the discriminatory effect.

What’s happening in California? AB 168, introduced in January by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, passed the Assembly May 22nd and currently sits in the state Senate. California employers would be prohibited from asking job candidates for their salary history and would be required to disclose the pay scale for a position to candidates who request it, under a proposal making its’ way through the state legislature.

How are firms solving the problem? Some firms are going to the associate compensation program, i.e., paying for years of experience in the field instead of paying for performance.  In the past ten years, the field was headed toward the pay-for-performance model and getting away from paying strictly for years of experience. Previously, firms modeled paralegal wages on the associate program – paying for years of experience. The firm will pay the graduating class of 2010 xxxx dollars with no regard for experience. Positions should be paid on pay-for-performance. That is, what experience and education is brought to the table vs. what duties and education are involved. Period.

The result of paying strictly on years of experience in the field can backfire and firms are going to have to find a way to combine experience, performance, education and responsibilities with market rate.  The problem with paying strictly on years of experience is overpaying for under performance. For example: employers can end up paying a ten year paralegal whose responsibilities have only been Bates stamping and summarizing depositions $100,000 a year while a five-year paralegal will earn $65,000 and but has experience drafting motions, preparing pleadings and attending trial. There’s inequity everywhere, isn’t there?

In the end, no matter the legislation, some determined firms will find ways to continue paying women less than men.  You can be a woman paralegal, negotiate a salary equal to a male paralegal and then find out later the male paralegals received higher bonuses. There’s no silver bullet. There’s awareness, education, outspokenness, and standing up for your rights. As long as everyone bands together and not allow inequity to continue, we can continue to fight for the right to be equal, fair and just. It may take a while and won’t happen overnight. But I’m not giving in. Are you?  

Chere B. Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a national staffing organization based in Los Angeles. She is a LAPA Lifetime Achievement Recipient and author of 10 books on legal careers. Chere is the CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute; President & Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals, a non-profit providing eDiscovery training, a former Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms and an executive in a $5 billion corporation. She has written her blog, The Estrin Report since 2005. She has been interviewed by Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Daily Journal, Forbes.com and other prestigious publications. You can reach her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.


How to Change Specialties: Getting It Right the Second Time

Many paralegals who want to switch practice specialties write their resume with exactly what it is they are doing now, send out a cover letter stating they have lots of experience in their current practice area and are “detail oriented, a team player and a quick learner”.  In other words, “here I am, take me as I am and, oh, please train me”.

And expect that will get them a new job in a new specialty with a new firm.

Woman.half face glassesYou have to be kidding.

Changing practice specialties is harder than getting your first job - much harder.  Your experience in one arena probably does not translate into another and budgets being what they are today, few firms want to train and pay you anything other than entry-level salary.

Given that people spend most of their lifetime at work, enjoying what you do is especially important. However, how you landed in your specialty is often by accident. It’s not surprising then, that many paralegals call me frequently seeking to switch practice areas.

Your ability to switch specialties depends upon your academic background, length of time in the field, the law firms you have been with, market demand, practice areas you want to leave and enter, skill set, geographic location, recent continuing legal education, contacts and just plain ole good luck.

Switching practice areas is not a decision taken lightly. The type of work you should be practicing should be a function of your strongest skill sets and interests more than anything else. You have to love it, otherwise, why do it? Simply switching firms to learn a new practice area may not always be appropriate either. For example, you may be able to switch practice areas within your own firm.

You may be in a practice specialty by default: it was simply, the best job you got after paralegal school. Sometimes, the condition of the legal market forces you to choose a particular practice area. For example during the recession because of weak market conditions, many paralegals fell into litigation or bankruptcy rather than corporate or real estate.

Why do you want to switch? Paralegals choosing to switch practice areas for the "right reasons" often do so because they realize that they are not suited for the practice area they are in. It is critical that you totally evaluate why you want to change.  Be realistic. Were you listening to colleagues boast about the mega merger deals they worked on, or the salary they command? Does a colleague work for a glamorous entertainment firm with lots of wrap parties and you’d like to be part of that?

Have you thought about whether you are seeking to change practice areas because you are unhappy with your current firm? In such circumstances, changing firms may ultimately be the right choice instead. Perhaps you just need a vacation after working for 30 days straight on a trial in the middle of nowhere eating junk food and soothing upset, agitated, grumpy attorneys.

Whatever the reason, you need to be clear and identify the reason you are seeking change. Make sure that your reason has been thoroughly explored and is compelling. You do not want to find yourself in a similar situation in another year.

What is the new specialty?  Sometimes it’s a matter of, “Just get me outta here!” Other times, you already know where you want to go. However, if you don’t, here are a few steps you can take:

  • Shed your preconceived notions. Many of us think we know all there is about various specialties. But if you’ve never actually worked in those areas or spoken at length with someone who does, chances are your perceptions are inaccurate.
  • Explore your options. Go to LAPA job seminars, find webinars, read articles, join LinkedIn groups, connect with paralegals on Facebook, attend association meetings.  This is a great way to find out what’s out there and learn more about different specialties. Read job postings.  Join practice specialty sections of your association.  Look up attorney and paralegal job descriptions. Attend lawyer association meetings and find out what lawyers do. They all need paralegals. Read journals. Google different specialties.  Take a paralegal to lunch.

Take steps to successfully assimilate. Once you’ve decided to make the change, immerse yourself in the specialty. Immediately join that specialty association. Get out to meetings, read journals, go to state and national conferences, and consider getting active by joining a committee. Many paralegals make the transition to a new area and then bail when they feel like a fish out of water. They don’t give themselves a chance to learn and grow into the new position or develop expertise.  Remember that it takes three to six months to master a new environment – sometimes longer, depending on the complexity of the specialty.

How to make the change. Once you have identified the reasons to change your practice area, are convinced that the reasons are compelling, have done a requisite critical self-analysis and examined your academic qualifications and experience, the next step is to plan how to proceed.

  • New projects: To make the transition to a new specialty, you’ll need a record of projects showcasing your new skills and definitely additional training. Even then, expect to start at the bottom, both in terms of pay and job responsibilities.

  • Transferable skills. The biggest mistake paralegals make is to assume employers will take them as they are. That is, they can simply go from one arena to another. Telling employers you are hard-working, can handle a large volume of work, and a quick learner means nothing. What skills do you have that are transferable? Are you a litigation paralegal seeking to become a corporate paralegal? Did you ever work on a case where you had to look into the corporate formation? Do research on the corporate structure? Those are the transferable skills.
  • Continuing legal education. You must take continuing legal education to show that you have the right skills. Are you a corporate paralegal seeking to go into litigation? Take  seminar/webinars in eDiscovery and state and federal rules. Put those courses on your resume. Now, you can show potential employers you have some current knowledge of the specialty. This is the most important step you can take to switch specialties. Can’t find a paralegal course? Take attorney seminars or webinars. You will gain a lot more knowledge than you realize.
  • Get cross-trained in your current firm.  The paralegal that brings the most value to firms today is one that is cross-trained. You may not have to leave your firm to learn a new specialty. Find out where your firm can use your talent and get cross-trained. You’ll bring added value to the firm and ensure better job security in the process.

Make an impression. During interviews, be the standout candidate by talking up the actions you've taken that prove your commitment to the field. Reveal your practice specialty knowledge, and mention events you've attended or associations where you volunteer. Write articles on LinkedIn, for LAPA or other legal publications that demonstrate the value you bring. You can even start a blog or utilize social media.

Your goal is to make potential employers see you as someone already in their industry and in it to stay, regardless of whether they hire you. Don't leave the impression that if they don't hire you, you will do something else.

Think small.
Bigger firms may offer a broader range of opportunities and even more money, but a smaller firm may give you the chance to work in a jack-of-all-trades capacity to develop skills outside your area of expertise. Also at smaller firms, job roles may be more flexible, thus allowing you to gain exposure to other responsibilities.

Change your resume.  Another common mistake is to use the same resume that worked in previous specialties when pursuing new ones. Instead, resumes should be reworked to emphasize key qualifications for new objectives. The best way to get started is to research the specialty you're trying to break into and understand what hiring managers want. Learn about the skills and other credentials that are important in your new career and put those skills first in your resume. Don’t assume employers will know you have those skills. They don’t.

It’s exciting and daunting at the same time to make a switch in practice specialties. Take the proper steps and don’t expect to make a change without some bumps in the road. It’s possible, it’s being done and you can do it. Just one more positive line on your resume on your road to paralegal success!

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is the author of 10 books on paralegal careers and a former Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms. Chere is the CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, the President and Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals and a former executive in a $5 billion corporation. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Forbes.com, Above the Law and other publications. She is a LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and national seminar speaker.  Reach her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com


Fifteen Cent Part

Covair2Long before paradigm shifts were in vogue, my dad taught me a good life lesson.  I was so young. It was the late 70's and I desperately needed a car. So, Dad and I went down to the local Chevrolet used car lot to pick out the vehicle that was to announce my social status to the world. We picked out a 1962 shiny red Covair with bright red interior and real leather seats (most of you may not have heard of this short—lived classic) for the great price of $400. It was a small car with the motor in the trunk and the trunk in the front.

“It’s perfect,” I sighed. “We’ll take it,” said my dad. “By the way, Bob,” he said to the used car salesman, with whom we were now best friends, “Just why is all that oil blowing out the back?”

“Fifteen cent part, Al,” said our new pal, Bob. “We’ll have it fixed in a jiffy.” (There was a time people talked like that.) They shook hands in that masculine way that men were used to doing in those days.

I drove away, excited, fully liberated, and loving every second of my new found independence. Driving down the street, I suddenly spotted a car right in front of me about to make a left-hand turn. I stepped on the brakes. Nothing happened! My heart beat rapidly. Thump! Thump!  I noticed my entire week flashing before me. Uh, oh. This isn’t good.  Two milliseconds later, I ran smack dab into the car in front of me. The Corvair, with the trunk in the front and the motor in the back, curled up and died in the middle of the street with the trunk in the front now smashed into the middle of the trunk of the car in front of me. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

After all information was exchanged, I hiked over to the nearest 7-11 to call my dad. (There were no cell phones in those days). Sobbing into the phone, I tried to grasp how the car I owned for a total of 16 ½ minutes was now a mere memory of itself. I felt terrible. Nothing could console me.

“Dad,” I wailed, while looking at this crumpled mess now attracting attention from the entire neighborhood, “I wrecked the car. I stepped on the brakes. It….didn’t stop! I rear-ended the car in front of me.”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. I could actually hear my father thinking. After a moment, came the astute wisdom of fathers. “Honey,“ said my dad, in that voice I shall never forget, “it’s not your fault. She was in your way.”

Thank you , Dad.   From the mouths of fathers come their lessons to daughters. 

Quit Kidding Yourself with Boring Cover Letters. Get One That Works.

Cover letterCover letters are usually boring, unimaginative or just not taken seriously because there is nothing new in the letter that makes the writer stand out. Typical responses from employers? “Same letter, different sender.”  Not exactly the let’s-jump-right-for-the-phone reaction you are seeking. In fact, with all due respect, I'll bet your letter goes something like:

“I noticed your ad for a litigation paralegal. I am a 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 candidate does not stand out from the crowd. He/she sounds just like everyone else. Let me just close my eyes, reach into the pile and pick one. I don't want that. What I want is someone outstanding.

Funny thing is, people don't think to change what they're doing. Instead, they tend to increase the volume of resumes sent expecting different results. Or, blame the market for lack of results. Career coaches tell you to send out 75-100 resumes to get one interview. I say if you send out a dynamic resume and convincing cover letter, you'll get the interview.

Here’s a little known secret: A resume only talks about 20% of the information you need to impart to get a job. It reveals none of the 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, style, work habits or critical thinking. Rarely, will a resume tell a hiring authority you are precisely the right candidate. Only a letter can start to reveal these things about you.

Here are some basic rules:

  1. Write a letter addressed to an individual. Call and find out to whom the letter should be addressed. I know, I 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 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. Frankly, “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 not addressing the pain that needs to be fixed or the needs of the firm are likely to come across as narcissistic. It comes across as “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. Employers can quote that book. Not a pretty picture for original thinking.
  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. It’s the quality of the cover letter and the resume.
  9. Use numbers or percentages where possible. Phrases such as number of billable hours, Fortune 1000 clients, and AmLaw 100 firms are impressive.

Here are a couple of samples. Use your own tone and style. (Don’t copy. Employers will only see the same ole, same ole once again.) You are going to use four topics: opener, your passion, action, and hot closer. That’s it.

#1.   Re: Corporate Paralegal Position: I am a certificated 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 I take.  My greatest asset is my enthusiasm to become a top-notch and committed paralegal with a firm such as yours.

(YOUR 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 I am hired, this fact will give me a great opportunity to incorporate my extensive product manufacturing skills along with my personal goals of becoming a high-quality paralegal with those of Acme, Acme & Acme.

(THEIR 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 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.

(OPENER)  For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to become an expert in Relativity.  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. 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.

(YOUR PASSION)  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 working with a top travel industry client leading eight litigation teams, working on cases with over two million documents along with a 93% accuracy rate, I can help by 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.

(HOT CLOSER) The position of Litigation Paralegal/Database Coordinator is more than a job to me—it's my passion. 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.

(ACTION) I will follow up with a phone call in a few days to make sure you have received my resume as well.

#3.  Write the above and add: (Do not make cover letters too long. They will not get read.)
 "I took a moment to match my skills with your requirements.  You may find the following chart helpful in your assessment of my skills and abilities."

Job Qualifications


Experience with trial preparation, document organization, Relativity  

Full understanding and knowledge after working on many high-profile cases leading a team of 10 utilizing Relativity and other databases.

Preparation of subpoenas

Regularly prepared subpoenas both in the U.S. and abroad.


Ability to work overtime

Billable hours consistently exceed 1800 hours per year.

This unique Skill Matching technique has many excellent advantages to help get you that all important interview. It:

  • will get your cover letter and resume noticed quickly;
  • focuses the employer directly on skills with a brief and easy to read strong summary;
  • helps the reader quickly skim your cover letter;
  • 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 (even in an email). 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 and create each cover letter unique to the job advertised. Test market to see what’s working and what’s not. Above all, if something isn't working, change what you're doing. That's the best way you'll get results.

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing for legal professionals across the country, CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Co-Founding Member and President of the Organization of Legal Professionals. She is the author of 10 books about legal careers including The Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed. Chere is a national seminar speaker and a Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement and Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. She is a co-founding member of the International Practice Management Association (IPMA). Chere has been an executive in a $5 billion corporation and Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Above the Law, Forbes.com, Newsweek and other publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report, has been around since 2005.  She is free on Sundays from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Reach out to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.

Is Hiring a Virtual Assistant Right for You?

Here is an article that appeared recently in the Progressive Law Practice magazine.

"Virtual assistants are hot whether you are a solo practitioner or work in a major law firm," says Chere Estrin, president and founder of The Organization of Legal Professionals. Moreover, she adds, the more tech-savvy the attorney, the easier it is to work with a virtual assistant, also known as a VA.

All of this new-found convenience is due, of course, to the advent of technology and the internet. Lawyers chained to the notion that their assistant must be seated at a nearby desk, answering phones, transcribing dictation and keeping the attorney’s calendar in order for a law practice to run smoothly might be wise to consider the benefits of working with a virtual assistant before poo-pooing the idea.

The A, B, Cs of Working with a VA

There are numerous benefits of working with a virtual assistant versus an in-office employee. The first is the cost savings a lawyer can enjoy by working with someone virtually. It’s not that experienced, skilled VAs are paid less than secretaries. In fact, according to Trivinia Barber, CEO and founder of Priority VA, prized VAs can command upwards of $50 hourly. Instead, cost savings are realized because:

  • VAs are 1099 independent contractors, meaning the lawyer does not pay Social Security or state, federal or other taxes
  • The VA is responsible for their own computer and other office equipment, another money saver
  • The lawyer does not have to provide employee perks, such as medical insurance, parking, paid sick and vacation days

But that’s not all, says Barber. “There are many VAs who can work for as little as ten hours a week, meaning they are flexible. It would be hard to find a secretary to only work ten hours,” she says. Moreover, Barber contends many VAs are “pretty well versed in the online marketing world so their collaborative ability can be extremely helpful to the attorney.”

Eunice Clarke, the director of marketing for the International Virtual Assistants Association, was herself a legal assistant prior to taking on her full-time role with the organization, so she understands the role an assistant plays whether in a brick-and-mortar situation or virtually. Hiring a VA means “anything a lawyer would pay for if a secretary had to come in the office” is saved by hiring virtually.

"If you are a micro-manager, a Virtual Assistant is not for you."

Still not convinced? Hiring a VA who works in a different time zone than the one where a law practice is located can also translate into more work being completed by those VAs in their respective locations. Not only that, VAs can work any time, day or night, so they are not limited by needing to be in the office to complete their tasks.

And, while the VA isn’t taking up space in a brick-and-mortar office, their contact with the lawyer can still extend beyond emails. For example, VAs can tap into online tools such as GoToMeeting and Skype for communicating face-to-face with the attorneys with whom they work, says Clarke.

Of course there are also cons to hiring a VA. For example, says Estrin, if you need something done but your VA isn’t available at the time, you might need to come up with another option. “You don’t necessarily have a full-time word processing department at your disposal” when working with a VA versus an in-office assistant, she says. Another potential pitfall is determining whether the VA possesses excellent project and time management skills.

“Virtual assistants need to know how to be great time managers to impress attorneys how efficient they can make” a lawyer and their law practice, says Clarke.

Are You Right for a VA?

“If you are a micro-manager, don't use a virtual assistant,” cautions Estrin, because you'll never get control. One of the primary reasons people opt to work as a VA is so they don’t have someone looking over their shoulder.

Another type of attorney who probably would not enjoy working with a VA is someone who likes to have a person greeting clients as they come to the office. Moreover, if face-to-face interaction is critical to your law practice, a VA is probably not a great option. If you rely on your employees to help build trust and credibility with clients, then working with someone virtually is not a good choice.

Also, if trusting others is an issue, then hiring a VA may not be a good idea, says Estrin. “Trust is something that people do not consider when hiring a virtual assistant. This issue relates to hiring tech people to work on your system remotely. Ask yourself if you are truly comfortable letting a stranger do work for you when they have access to some of your computers or data. If the answer is no or you’re not sure, then you may not be compatible with a VA,” she says.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with not feeling comfortable about giving someone remote access to your client’s files, but it is a critical question to answer before venturing in the VA market, she says. If you determine you want to dip your toe in the VA pool, there are at least two ways to find one. Not surprisingly, Barber suggests hiring an agency, such as hers, to help match the right VA for the job.

If the lawyer opts for a direct hire, there are specific questions the attorney should ask to help determine if the VA is right for both the job and the lawyer. Among them are to ask:

  • The candidate’s goals for their VA career to ensure they align with the attorney’s mission and vision of their law practice
  • What the VA knows about the lawyer and their law practice. Barber says the response demonstrates whether the VA researched the lawyer and their practice. If they did not, they might only be looking for a job, rather than a long-term professional involvement
  • Specific questions relating to the types of marketing campaigns they have been a part of, if marketing is one of the duties the lawyer wishes to assign the VA
  • Scenario questions to determine the VA’s temperament and ability to work with the clients served by the law firm.

If employee loyalty is a great concern for you, be aware it may not develop with a virtual employee. However, the same can be said for brick-and-mortar staffers, too. “There are virtual assistants who will give you the dedication and loyalty of a 20-year employee. Find out early on who you are dealing with,” says Estrin.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

Reprinted from Progressive Lawyer.