Working in a law firm in a role that is heavily exposed to legal services and client work can help someone determine if they like the day-to-day environment and duties of a law firm. Working in a law firm as a paralegal before law school definitely helped me realize that law firm life is a very specific experience and that I want to start my own law firm.
I am currently a freelance paralegal. I used to be a ‘regular’ paralegal/legal assistant a few years ago as well, but then I realize how frickin’ crazy attorneys are and working under one firm for my sole source of income is literal hell… But anyway I’ve been working in the legal industry in a support capacity for my entire professional – albeit short – career.
Plenty people may think that being a paralegal during the gap years in between college and law school may help with law school admissions or in preparing for the course work in law school. I’m not going to address whether working as a paralegal will help your chances of getting accepted in law school. I’m not sure if there is a demonstrable boost if you are a paralegal applying to law school just yet.
But if you’re wondering whether being a paralegal is a worthwhile job or not before you head to law school, continue reading my humble opinion on several factors that will determine if being a paralegal is worth it:
Your “Practice Area”
The type of law your firm or attorney practice in will have a tremendous effect on your experience and perception of the practice of law. The daily duties you and your attorney will execute vary widely from another firm if you are in entirely different areas or areas that relate heavily to each other.
For example, you can become a probate paralegal – that is, you’re a paralegal that supports attorneys who practice estate administration – and that’s the only area that you support. On the other hand, you could work in a firm that practices in criminal defense, family law, and personal injury. These practice areas are all quite different, and your daily duties may vary greatly.
This first-hand exposure can also help 0Ls figure out what areas of law they may like or dislike. Keep in mind that work experience doesn’t prepare you for the actual coursework of law school. Nothing but law school does that.
I learned that I do not like divorce and custody cases in family law. So much so that I had an agreement with an ex to constantly remind me to never go into family law when I go solo.
I don’t like the irrational and vindictive client base, I don’t like the heavy court schedule, and I don’t like how there are truly no winner in family law. Everyone – especially the children – lose in some form or fashion. These aspects of family law are not things that you learn in law school or even in clinics that could save you years of finding that out as an attorney.
Conversely, I’ve learned that I absolutely love Elder law. I love the client base, the value I provide to client’s lives, and the variety a different practices areas within Elder Law. I also learned that due to the client base, I won’t be able to become completely virtual and work on a laptop from a beach somewhere other other side of the world.
Those lessons I only learned by actually working in those areas before I went to law school. I won’t be wasting my time “trying” them out because I already know I don’t like certain areas, and I won’t be practicing them when I become an attorney.
Your supervising attorney and direct boss will also help determine if being a paralegal before law school is worth your time. If your boss is not fostering your growth, your job is a waste of your time. But if your attorney-boss is actively encouraging you to critically think about each case and take a lead on certain aspects of cases, this job may be worth it for you.
Your boss will control a huge aspect of your paralegal career and is the gatekeeper for how helpful your paralegal job will be for you. Working under a bad boss may not be worthwhile for some of you.
If you boss is a humongous jerk-off I’m sorry. You will probably thinks all lawyers are assholes (they are) or your bad boss may scare you off from going to law school. I’ve left so many clients in my paralegal business and several jobs as a paralegal because my mental health was suffering from working with some difficult lawyers.
However, Learning to deal with a difficult person may be worth more than learning all the legal stuff anyway.
Fun fact: there are GAJILLIONS of TERRIBLE attorney-bosses. The whole law firm culture is very attorney-centric and ego-driven. Law firm support staff endure a lot of responsibility and stress without getting half of the recognition and respect they deserve.
For me, I had to work under a bad boss in order to address my own terrible habits. I learned that I needed to become even more assertive and to actively advocate for myself from having one boss who would give me 4 different contradictory instructions, then forgot what she told me, and then blame me for not doing something she never told me to do.
I’ve learned to advocate for myself during my paralegal experiences more than I think I would’ve naturally learned otherwise. I also discovered that I am an entrepreneur at heart and that I enjoy being self-employed.
I’m so grateful for my good and bad bosses over the past 3 years because I’ve learned so much about myself socially that fundamentally affects how I will approach law school and life. I can’t imagine going on this journey without those life lessons. Becoming a paralegal before law school instead staying in school was the best decision that I’ve ever made simply because I learned how to work with attorneys, both good and bad.
Your Career Goals
When you are working as a paralegal before law school, your sights are set beyond that job. Funnily enough, you don’t want to do the work you’re being paid to do. You actually want to do what the attorney you’re assisting is doing
If you aspire for BigLaw, academia, policy, politics, or other alternative career paths that aren’t practicing law in a law firm, you may want to consider what benefit being a paralegal before law school provides. Most people who go into BigLaw don’t have substantial prior legal experience. Additionally, the economic model of BigLaw doesn’t really care or benefit from those who have more experience anyway.
BigLaw is a churn-and-burn model where they recruit law school graduates from top schools to initially perform rudimentary legal tasks. Academia, policy, and politics also aren’t all directly impacted by your prior legal work. Anyone can break into those fields with 0 work experience.
If you’re not actually trying to practice law ever, you can probably forgo practical law firm experience.
What I did that I suggest you and any other 0Ls do is seek opportunities to pursue all the practices areas your firm offers and take on projects that give you more responsibility and ownership over a case.
The most educational and beneficial work I’ve done in my career has come from me asking the lead attorney on that case straightforwardly, “Can I help you with anything on this case? I want to learn more about it.” Period.
My first attorney-boss hated my inquisitiveness and ambition. She told me I needed to just “do my job” before hoping around to other cases and learning other areas… And by “do my job” she meant emailing clients for the fifteenth time that week reminding them to fill out intake forms…
No bueno. Fuck that.
You will get our of your paralegal job what you are putting into it. If your goals were anything like mine (learn as much as possible), you need to be opportunistic with every unique case that comes to your firm. If you’re not that assertive, just remember that you may not be given those unique opportunities.
Your Actual Duties
Not all paralegal positions are equal. Some paralegals are only that in title and perform duties that are more akin to administrative assistants or legal assistants.
On one hand, your main duties could be calendaring, maintaining physical and electronic client files, answering the phones, and other administrative tasks. Some paralegals and legal assistants like this can also conduct intake, process billing, and maintain their attorney’s mailing and emailing system.
Your job is basically to take care of all the administrative and miscellaneous tasks that a law firm needs in order to run but doesn’t really touch on substantial legal work. You are an administrative assistant, receptionist, billing specialist, marketing assistant all in one. Because you take care of the firm’s business side, you may not be able to dedicate a lot of your times each week to your firm’s cases.
Now, everyone should know what the administrative side of a law firm entails. You should know how to send a fax, make a physical case file and trial binder, etc. There are a lot of attorneys who have never worked on the administrative side of any business and they basically depend on their support staff to do the simplest of tasks.
Don’t be that attorney obviously, but you should only spend as much time as you can to know how to perform administrative tasks in case no one else can do it. However, spending 1-4 years performing administrative tasks isn’t worth the stress, low pay, or time.
The Real Deal
You can be performing substantial legal work where you are drafting pleadings and legal documents. Also, you can liaise with the Court system and participate in case strategy. Paralegals in this category are not the main person answering the phone or returning client’s calls about nonlegal issues. Instead, the vast majority of their week is dedicated to their law firm’s actual legal cases.
The latter type of job is what you want in your pre-law paralegal career. You want to gain experience in actual legal work each day. You don’t want to be a glorified administrative assistant because that’s not going to inform your law school experience or your journey as a lawyer in a meaningful way.
Working as a paralegal before law school was the best decision I made in my journey to becoming an attorney. However, its not for everyone. That value depends on your actual duties, boss, career goals, practice areas, and ultimately your personality and what you make of that experience.