Thursday, August 18, 2011

Paralegal Careers: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

As I was working with a paralegal during a recent strategy session, she mentioned several times that she’s not where she wants to be in her career and she doesn’t see herself getting to "where you are”.

To get past this feeling of “not good enough” we worked on her specific concerns. She now has goals, a time line for her career, and an action plan – all of which suit her and no one else.

Still, her question made me think. How many other paralegals have similar thoughts? How many other paralegals let those thoughts hold them back?

It’s important to note that successful paralegals, me included, didn’t wake up one morning to a successful career. There are always tough times, everyone makes mistakes and — this is key — you learn from them.

Here’s a sampling of the frequent career mistakes I’ve seen over the years and the lessons learned from them:
  • Mistake: Comparing yourself to others.
Lesson Learned: You have no idea what’s going on with anyone else. You don’t know their personal circumstances, values, background, etc. Their journey isn’t yours. Stay focused on your career, your goals and your ambitions.
  • Mistake: Thinking you have to reach the same level as someone else. You want your career to be just like his/hers.
Lesson Learned: If they can do it, you can do it. However, there is no cookie cutter for career success. Success for one paralegal does not necessarily equate success for another. Don’t pattern yourself after anyone else. Instead, decide what you really want in the way of career success and develop your own pattern.
  • Mistake: Assuming you don’t “need” to belong to a professional association – you have all you can handle just with your job and your personal obligations.
Lesson Learned: Actually, you’re correct – you don’t “need” to belong to a professional association....unless you don’t think you need to network with other paralegals, keep up to date with the latest trends and systems, and know first-hand about changes in the law. The time you invest in a professional association (on the local, state and national level) will bring you immeasurable returns.
  • Mistake: Thinking someone else  or something else is holding you back from career success.
Lesson Learned: So you think your spouse, your boss, your family, where you live – you add anything here you want – won’t “let” you succeed? Wrong! In the end, it’s your career and you alone are responsible for its success. You have to set goals, make plans – and then forge ahead to make your career all you want it to be.
  • Mistake: Hesitating to write an article or speak at a seminar because the very thought frightens you.
Lesson Learned: Get over it! Moving out of your comfort zone is the best way to stretch and reach your potential. 

Everyone has second thoughts about writing an article – do you really have anything significant to say/know enough/have enough time? And everyone gets nervous when they speak before an audience.

Guess what? Everyone survives and they’re glad they took the risk. Writing and speaking are two of the most important steps toward career success.
  • Mistake: Hesitating to take a certification exam – no time, don’t “need” it, blah blah blah.  
Lesson Learned: Again, there’s nothing you “need” but when taking a certification exam moves you off the level playing field and sets you apart from other paralegals. It is also good for your ego and adds to your credibility.  

There are several other mistakes I’ve both made and witnessed I’m sure you can add your own to the list.

Remember: The mistake isn’t what’s important — it’s how and what you learn from it.

Your Challenge: Please leave a comment sharing what you’ve learned — it’s a great way to give back and help others while recognizing just how far you’ve come.


Amicus Wapiti said...

Mistake: Assuming that my attorney knew how to work with a paralegal and that my substantive legal skills would be used.

Lesson Learned: After realizing that my tasks did not include much substantive legal work, I took a proactive approach. I anticipated what a project's next step would be, and began drafting or reviewing documents as called for while he was focused on a different project. When he realized that 1) I was picking up clues from the caseload and acting on them, and 2) I was competent at drafting and researching information to include when drafting documents, he began relying more and more on my skills. I now primarily work on substantive legal elements of a project, which allows me to use my paralegal skills and be more of an asset to the department and corporation.

Equus Spirit said...


I'm coming to this field from a previous full career in a totally different area-and I've learned a bit bit from that. Allow me to share-

Mistake-thinking that I was going to graduate from school one day and walk into a job the next week.

Incredibly wrong. The only thing school/certification/degrees prepare you for is the ability to walk into an office and say, "I'm ready to learn YOUR WAY OF DOING THINGS." The reality is-you don't know beans. Furthermore-those offices KNOW you don't know beans-and they know they're going to have to watch over you like hawks for about the next three years because of the mistakes you'll be making. That's why all the ads you read in the paper or on the job boards say "3-5 years of experience". They want somebody who has gotten the "green as grass" off of them!

Don't despair, however-all is not lost. The smaller firms frequently will do the training because they need the help-and, as a bonus, they usually allow a wider range of experiences. Plan to stay for 3-5 years.

Mistake-assuming that every position is going to be your "forever" job.

If it is, great. But chances are, it won't be. Keep that portfolio polished and your resume updated. I've had positions where I was just called in one day and gotten a "pink slip" and never saw it coming. You don't know-and may never know-what the financials are. Protect yourself always.

Mistake-neglecting your networks.

Do this at your own peril. Believe me-from the time you are in school and can join at a discounted student rate until you retire, you need to be an active member of your professional organization. Those people at other firms-if you are suddenly let go-can be your "lifeline". I know-too well, I know!

Mistake--not volunteering in your community.

Say what? It goes back on your resume and on your pro bono credits, folks. Besides, it is immensely rewarding and soul satisfying. I've never regretted a minute.