As a paralegal, you are the oil in your law firm’s machinery. You are a master multi-tasker, go-to resource and skilled project manager with the ability to think on your feet. But although you love your current job, you may have a desire to get more out of your career.
The good news? There is plenty of room to grow in your profession, whether you want to work in a more exciting area of the law or hone your talents in a different type of setting (e.g., in-house versus a firm). The key is being prepared when professional opportunities present themselves.
Where Do You Begin?
The first step to professional growth as a paralegal is creating a five-year plan, which will serve as a roadmap for taking your career where you want it to go. To start, consider whether you are looking to move up within your current organization or embrace outside opportunities. You should also know whether you ultimately want to work at a firm or in-house (these environments differ vastly in terms of pace, culture, and billable requirements). It’s also beneficial to make a detailed inventory of any skills, experience and/or credentials (e.g., CLEs or a degree) that you want or need to reach your goals.
Once you have a clear career destination in mind—and a decent understanding of what it’ll take to get there—draft a plan with realistic goals and clear milestones you need to hit along the way. Having specific “checkpoints” will help you stay on track.
Advance in Your Current Organization
Getting that internal promotion is all about raising your visibility and developing your personal brand. This may involve stepping out of your comfort zone a bit. Here are a few pointers:
- Master your work product. Aim for excellence in all of your current duties. Being reliable, thorough and organized in your daily tasks will help you get noticed by your peers and superiors. It will also help ensure a track record of solid performance reviews.
- Build your internal network. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to attorneys and managers you don’t normally work with. Ask questions to learn about other people’s roles in the firm or company. Name recognition is key—and might come in handy for special projects.
- Join employee resource groups (ERGs)—or even better, create one. ERGs have traditionally centered on underrepresented groups in the workplace such as women or minorities. However, these groups can also focus on enhancing career and personal development in the workplace.
- Participate in mentor/mentee programs. Seeking the mentorship of an attorney or more seasoned colleague is a great way to demonstrate your ambition as a paralegal. A mentor can also introduce you to key people who can become an important part of your professional network. Alternatively, offering to mentor a less experienced co-worker shows your dedication.
- Volunteer for stretch assignments. Look beyond your daily tasks and determine how you can add value for other attorneys or departments. Seize any and all opportunities to cultivate valuable new skills. For example, if you’re a contracts paralegal, you might start to review leases to gain real estate experience.
- Never stop learning. Don’t let Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits fall by the wayside, as it’s a reliable way to move your career ahead. These days, you don’t even need to drive anywhere to earn credits. Many courses are delivered in an online, on-demand format, so you can learn when it’s convenient for you. Your employer may even be willing to cover the costs (don’t be afraid to ask!). Visit NALA.org to learn about CLE opportunities.
Discover New Opportunities in the Industry
Be Seen and Heard
While cultivating your personal brand is important for internal promotions, it’s even more essential when looking outside. Here are some strategies for getting noticed by the people who matter.
- Find and join local associations, groups, discussion boards, etc. Check out paralegal professional organizations in your geographical area like the Maryland Association of Paralegals, VALS and the National Capital Area Paralegal Association. Join paralegal Facebook groups. These collectives can help you form valuable connections and be privy to new opportunities.
- Write and publish industry-related articles. Authoring articles on various legal and paralegal topics can help you position yourself as an expert. LinkedIn is a great place to start. If your firm has a newsletter, talk to the person in charge and volunteer to write a piece.
- Participate in industry networking events. No matter where you live, chances are these events are happening all the time… from breakfast meet-and-greets and roundtable events to happy hour gatherings. Not every event is going to be worth your while, so choose carefully. Select only those that pertain to your specific career objectives. If you have your eye on a certain firm or company, attend events they are sponsoring or presenting at. If you're uncomfortable in large groups, start by choosing more intimate settings, such as local Meetup groups.
- Connect with recruiters. Even if you’re not actively looking for a new job, it’s a good idea to engage a reputable legal recruiter and start building that relationship. He or she can be your eyes and ears in the local market and help you create a competitive edge for getting ahead.
Don’t Shy Away from Social Media
While there’s been a lot of fearmongering about social media and the job search, having a polished online presence is actually a huge plus for making yourself stand out. If you’re only going to focus on one platform in your job hunt, don’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn. It’s an undeniably effective way to find open positions, research prospective employers, forge new industry contacts and enhance your personal brand. Best of all, it costs you nothing but time.
Although social media can give you a serious job-hunting boost, it’s still important to exercise caution. If you’re using other platforms (such as Facebook or Twitter), your profiles can sometimes be linked. It’s important to monitor your privacy settings.
It’s also a good idea to Google yourself from time to time and see what comes up, since you don’t want to get noticed for all the wrong reasons. Always keep your content professional and appropriate, no matter which social media platforms you frequent.
Don’t Forget Your Resume
Your resume is the first thing most potential employers see, which means it’s imperative to make a stellar impression. And as a paralegal, it’s even more important to make your resume shine. After all, performing meticulous, highly organized work is what you’re hired to do.
Here are some tips for crafting an attention-grabbing resume:
- Showcase your experience chronologically. The chronological resume is the most common format used today, and it’s the one preferred by employers. Detail your employment history in reverse chronological order so that your most current position is at the top.
- List your accomplishments—not just your duties. Be thoughtful about what you include. While duties such as drafting legal correspondence is significant, also include meaningful accomplishments, (e.g., “assisted trial lawyers during a high-profile criminal case”).
- Don’t just name—explain. Instead of a laundry list of skills, provide context by showing how those skills (e.g., communication or teamwork) helped you do your job better. If you have “bonus” talents—like you’re a technical whiz—be sure to call those out, too.
- Show longevity and upward mobility. If you’ve been with your current or previous employers for a long time and/or have climbed the ladder within an organization, highlight this.
- Use industry buzzwords. Weave in key terms when describing your skills to emphasize their relevance to the industry and current legal trends.
- Pay attention to formatting. You have about five seconds to capture an employer’s attention with your resume—so make it as “scannable” as possible. Formatting matters. Highlight your contact info in larger or different font so that your name is immediately front and center. Keep your paragraphs symmetrical and aligned. Emphasize key skills and experience with bold font or underlines. Lastly, don’t make the mistake of choosing a trendy font. Stick with classics like Georgia, Verdana or Times New Roman to ensure your resume is readable.
- Feel free to use a second page. If you’re a seasoned paralegal with sufficient experience and accomplishments to your credit, don’t omit anything for the sake of saving space. It’s ok to continue your resume on a second page. Be sure to include a header on that page with your name and contact information at the top, in case it gets misplaced.
Don’t feel pressured to tackle all of these steps right out of the gate. Instead, commit to two or three activities within a month or two (e.g. updating your resume, polishing up your LinkedIn profile and attending one networking event). Mark a target completion date so you have a set goal to strive for. Once you’ve hit those targets, set new goals.
Even as a busy paralegal, make it a point to set aside just a few minutes daily to fine-tune your professional “toolkit.” That way, you’re opportunity-ready when the moment is right.