If you’ve recently finished studying to become a paralegal and have landed your first job, you’re well on your way to a rewarding career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegal jobs will increase at a rate of 15 percent through 2026, which is much faster than average. That’s good news. However, even with a strong legal studies foundation and a positive outlook, there are some things you won’t learn in school but still need to know.
Starting any job requires a bit of orientation and getting used to your company’s policies and idiosyncrasies. There are the basics – does the firm have billable hours, what is their computer operating system, do they use Cloud based storage or network server, how to enter the building before or after hours – but some things will be particular to your office. You’ll need to find out:
- How to use the phone system and log in to your computer
- How to correctly date-stamp documents and where, and to whom, they go
- How many attorneys you will support as a paralegal
- What the organizational structure is – the hierarchy of attorneys, the names of the managing partners, etc.
- How to address the attorneys and partners – by first name? Mr. or Ms.?
- What is the dress code?
Gathering your tools
Some tools and equipment will obviously be provided for you, but having some books, apps and software at the ready can help you out. Because paralegals need to stay organized, keeping a calendar can be a great tool. A digital calendar is good, but a paper calendar is easier to see at a glance. Use it to note court appearance dates, appointments, filing deadlines, reminders and phone calls. You may want to bring your paralegal program textbooks with you to refresh your memory on processes or legal terminology. It could be helpful if you make a personal resource guide that you can add to as you go along in your career. Perhaps make a list of legal websites and paralegal blogs that might be of use, along with information about your local courts, filing requirements, libraries, etc.
Working in the law firm
Depending on the size of the firm you’re working for, you may or may not have extra clerical duties. Unless you work for a fairly large organization, you may not have a secretary who can handle some of the workload. You may be expected to make your own copies and answer the phone (for your attorney or for the firm). If there are legal secretaries available, treat them well! A good legal secretary has vast experience and can be a valuable resource to you as you’re beginning your career – and can help you become a better paralegal.
Minding your manners
You’re bound to make mistakes; everyone does. There’s a difference, though, between not knowing how to stamp a file and spilling private information to the wrong person. Here are some things to know so that you don’t make a major faux pas:
- Never give legal advice. By giving legal advice, you are committing UPL and thereby breaking the law.
- Never violate confidentiality. That means you don’t talk about clients or attorneys outside of the office. You’re likely to hear some crazy stories, but as tempting as it is to tell your best friend … just don’t do it.
- Disclose any relationships or conflicts of interest. Are you dating a client or someone from another law firm? Let your firm know. Is your sister an attorney? Have you been in legal jeopardy? Get it out in the open.
- Don’t miss a deadline. Other people’s lives or livelihoods could be at stake. If you miss an important filing date or court date, it could be disastrous.
- Don’t misjudge potential clients. You may be empathetic to their story, but according to the Model Code, only attorneys may decide which case to accept.
- Watch what you file and where you put it. So often, a paralegal will need to access a document in short order. If you don’t have a good filing system in order or if you misfile a document, you could compromise the case or at least waste time finding the information.
- Avoid office gossip. Be friendly and professional and do your best to get along with everyone.
- Always dress appropriately and professionally. You represent your law firm, and your appearance is a big reflection on that.
Continuing your education
Just because you finished school doesn’t mean your education is over. Make sure that you are always in compliance with the state’s MCLE requirements for paralegals. A good paralegal keeps learning and stays up to date with the latest procedures and information about groundbreaking cases. Take your certification exams to increase your value to potential employers. Although they’re voluntary, taking them shows initiative. If you think you might need to work on any other skills – legal research, perhaps – make sure to brush up on them. Learning on the job is normal. Never be afraid to ask questions. If you can find a mentor – maybe a more experienced paralegal or attorney who is willing to help you – that’s a plus. Another way to keep learning is to join local paralegal associations and network so that you can get tips and advice from your peers.
If you haven’t yet begun your education and are considering a career as a paralegal, the MTI paralegal program, an ABA Approved program, can give you a good foundation. Once you graduate, you’ll have the minimum requirements needed to be a paralegal in California. In just two years, you can earn your Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies and be qualified to work in a law firm, government agency or corporate legal department.
Enroll now in the MTI College Paralegal Studies program for the education you need to get that important first job as a paralegal.