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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Paralegal Specialization?

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

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

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

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


Disadvantages of Paralegal Specialization

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

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

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

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

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

If you are seeking to expand your career, you'll need to get continuing legal education. Nothing impresses attorneys more than plenty of quality continuing legal education. For more opportunities, go to the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, a well-respected training organization designed specifically for the paralegal assignment.

www.paralegalknowledge.com or contact me at chere.estrin@paralegalknowledge.com and let's chat about how to be in charge of your future in the paralegal career. 

 


They Shoot Paralegals, Don't They?

Working I was reading The Empowered Paralegal blog the other day and a paralegal was discussing the superior status she thought she had over paralegals who did not have paralegal degrees. In particular, she brought up the Erin Brockovich story and the subsequent movie that was made. Ms. Brockovich, she stated, was not a "real" paralegal because she did not have a paralegal degree.  She went on to state that the duties that Ms. Brockovich performed would never be tackled by a paralegal.  At least, she had never witnessed a paralegal doing what Ms. Brockovich did.

It’s very interesting to listen to the hot debate that the Erin Brockovich role has played over the years. I have heard more paralegals than not state how much they “hate” the role portrayed in the movie. Whether or not you choose to designate Ms. Brockovich as a “real” paralegal, it is very important that today's paralegals understand the history and development of the position.

In the '70’s and ’80’s and far reaching into the '90’s, anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal. At the risk of revealing that I am definitely a member of the Boomer generation, I personally came up through the ranks starting in 1981. There were few paralegal schools at that time. Becoming a paralegal meant, for most, that you would receive training on the job. It is true that some paralegals came through the ranks of legal secretary but those were in the minority. During those times, let’s also understand that certain states, such as California, did not require someone to go to law school in order to take the bar exam. You were eligible if you worked under a mentor but law school was not required. That may still stand today, I’m not certain.

Paralegal schools were also rare in rural areas. This is one reason NALA was formed – to provide education. There was no Internet nor online courses. Even in Los Angeles, a major metro city, there were only three primary paralegal schools for a very long time – UCLA, CalState L.A. and UWLA. Some “match-book” cover type schools popped up. But what was worse? Learning on the job or plunking down good money for a school that also taught you how to be a bartender.

In 1980, I started out as a paralegal in Seattle for $1500 a month. I did have some legal secretary training. I got my first job at a prestigious small firm. I was trained on the job like anyone else. The administrator hired me because, at that time, I was in the theatre. He happened to have seen one of my shows, so he hired me. True story. Later, I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a large, prestigious entertainment firm that handled the A list. Working with movie stars was an everyday and common experience.

In that role, I was very active becoming the firm’s first paralegal administrator. I recall that some of my assignments included meeting a cargo plane at LAX and working with customs to board the plane in search of fake ET dolls. (Really!) I was sent to the bottom of a famous L.A. hotel in search of evidence for a case. I waded through muck, spiders and ankle deep water in search of the “hot” documents. I went to Georgia to a carpet mill in the middle of nowhere in search of evidence. In Seattle, paralegals were allowed to go before the judge on certain non-contested matters. The first judge I went before put our case over when it was apparent the other side was not showing up. Apparently, the defendant’s counsel had decided to go moose hunting. The judge thought that was a perfectly good excuse not to attend court. Meanwhile, I was always taught by the best attorneys, attended seminars, read books, and learned my job as it pertained to the firms in which I was working. And that’s the key element here – education as it pertained to the firms in which the paralegal worked.

To put down those paralegals who literally blazed the trail for other paralegals while the education system was in its infancy is a travesty. Passing a paralegal course does not ensure that the paralegal will be a good paralegal. Passing the bar does not mean the lawyer will be a good lawyer. It only means that they have studied and should possess core competencies.

It is interesting that years and years later, I make my living in continuing legal eduation. I am a very strong advocate and a firm believer that paralegals should not be paralegals without first obtaining an education in paralegal studies. Good paralegals without the academic training came up the hard way - no schools available, on-the-job training, no real job descriptions.  They worked hard to make this new profession work. They took it among themselves to develop good assignments, they trained attorneys how paralegals could be used, they started paralegal associations (I was one of 8 co-founding members of the International Paralegal Management Association - IPMA); and they worked hard getting the word out about this new position. To discredit your history and those paralegals is a travesty. Remember, it took California 10 long hard years to get AB 6450 passed. That law now requires mandatory education for paralegals.  However, when it passed, it still grandfathered in those without the required education.

As for Ms. Brockovich, not once in the movie was she referred to as a paralegal. Was she rough around the edges? You bet. Was that taking literary license in the movie? For those of us who haven’t met her, we don’t know. Was she then and is she now called a paralegal? No. Was her purported $2 million bonus a “percentage” of the settlement and ethics violation as some charge? Now, we really don’t know, do we? In California in the ’80’s and decadent ’90’s, paralegals at some firms were given large bonuses. (The firm I was with in 1986 was giving out $20,000 – $30,000 bonuses – and that was 1986 dollars.) Truthfully, none of us know except Ms. Brockovich and her boss, Mr. Massry, what that bonus was based upon nor how it was calculated. We only know rumors. If there was any impropriety, I am quite certain the State Bar of California would have stepped in.

Some paralegals have made up a story about Brockovich, believed it and made it their truth. It’s not that this message is defending Erin Brockovich. It’s that those paralegals flouting their Masters, A.A.'s and B.S.’s in Paralegal Studies claiming they are better than those without have no respect for the trailblazers that came before them. It’s disrespectful and an arrogant slap in the face to the thousands and thousands of paralegals who came before them. Things have changed and improved but only very recently. Those paralegals without the schooling are the very same paralegals who pushed for more acceptance,professionalism, better training and education for all paralegals nationwide. The least we can do is honor them.


"Mock trial helps students learn more about the legal system"

This most gratifying article in the Jackson Hole Star-Tribune details how Wyoming paralegal students are showing fifth-graders how the U.S. legal system works:

"With a polite but stern tone, fifth-grader Jacob Colman interrupted Robert Novak, reminding him to just answer yes or no.

"Dressed in a dark blue suit like a miniature lawyer, Colman again asked the question to Novak on the witness stand.

"'Well...,' Novak said.

"'Just answer yes or no please,' said Colman, 11, once again interrupting the adult.

"The exchange Thursday was part of a mock trial Casper College's paralegal department held with fifth-graders from St. Anthony's Tri-Parish School as part of a service learning project. The students from both schools, parents and faculty acted out the case in U.S. District Judge William Downes' courtroom after a semester's worth of preparation.

"'You really learn by teaching,' said Mary Kubichek, who has been organizing mock trials for more than 10 years as director of the college's paralegal program."


ABA Reapproves Penn College's Legal Assistant Majors

This good news is reported in PC Today about the Pennsylvania College of Technology:

"The American Bar Association has granted reapproval to Pennsylvania College of Technology’s legal assistant majors, one of only 14 programs in Pennsylvania to be recognized in that fashion.

"The college’s School of Business and Computer Technologies recently was notified of the action by the ABA’s House of Delegates, which follows a successful site visit early last fall and a recommendation by the association’s Standing Committee on Paralegals.

“'This notification reaffirms the high quality of the instruction, advising, work-based experiences and job placement provided by our paralegal studies faculty and college for our certificate and associate- and bachelor-degree-seeking students,' said Edward A. Henninger, dean of the school."


"Report on Paralegal Education Programs in the US"

Very thorough survey [PDF link] of U.S. paralegal programs researched & prepared by LawCrossing:

[snip]

"In an effort to provide future paralegals with the information they need to choose a paralegal education program and to aid higher education administrators in evaluating programs, LawCrossing has compiled statistics on 36 paralegal education programs.

"The majority of paralegal students are career-oriented and outcome-focused. Because most students enrolled in these programs are studying for more practical or immediate reasons than a traditional liberal arts student would have in mind, our report emphasizes job placement [see #9] success rates. Unlike more traditionally academic subjects such as history and philosophy, paralegal studies offers a unique amount of opportunity for clinical work and internships that simulate a real-world work experience. Programs that require student involvement--such as legal workshops, pro bono work, and internships--offer students résumé-building opportunities as an enhancement to the traditional educational experience.

"Also, distance learning has emerged as one of the fastest-growing components of higher education, and many paralegal students are interested in these kinds of programs. Geographical distance from physical campuses, increased opportunities for student-professor interaction, and flexibility in time management have all contributed to make online courses an attractive option to many potential students. Still, many have concerns about how to appropriately balance convenience and quality in choosing a distance or online program."