By Sheena Foley, PHP
The paralegal profession can be highly stressful and fast paced. The entire court system operates on strict deadlines and schedules that are mandatory in order for legal disputes to reach timely resolution. It is therefore no surprise that paralegals must possess the ability to control their time and work loads. This legal “calendar climate” is only one of many triggers that lead to a paralegal’s high level of career related stress.
Being a paralegal is not for everyone and it is certainly not for those who may be sensitive or unable to receive constructive criticism. Depending on the type of law firm a paralegal works for, there are many contributing factors with the potential to create a stressful work environment.
I have compiled a list of some of the most common contributing factors that often deter entry-level legal assistants or add stress upon experienced paralegals. I am not the type of person to only have complaints without solutions; so, I hope my list either encourages an “on-edge” legal assistant to keep pushing or educates an experienced paralegal to seek resolution to their work stress.
1. Job Titles and Job Duties
The paralegal title is used very loosely in the legal industry. While one attorney may hire a paralegal to handle both pre-litigation and litigation work, another may hire a legal secretary to handle the pre-litigation work and a paralegal to handle litigation. Often times, the title or position a paralegal/legal assistant applies for may not match their actual assigned daily job duties. Given this flexible sphere of legal titles and duties, a paralegal trained in litigation, pre-litigation and appeal may feel a way about receiving a legal secretary title.
Solution: Be clear with your employer about your job-title requirements and concerns. Be clear about your capabilities and provide clear facts and reasoning behind your request for a change to your duties or title.
2. Resume Fluffers Beware
A common mistake entry-level paralegals make is the “resume fluff.” Some people have a tendency to over-embellish their strengths on their resume to unsuspecting employers. However, in the legal industry, a hiring attorney can spot you coming from a mile away! If you have never drafted discovery or you have never drafted a legal pleading but your resume says you have trial experience, you will be found out sooner than later. This is not a “fake-it-til-you-make-it” industry. Either you have the juice or you don’t. Pretending to have experience will usually lead to a stressful work environment.
Solution: Highlight the experience you do have without providing falsehoods to a potential employer. If you are a fast learner, quick study and are eager to learn, express this in your cover letter. Many firms prefer entry-level paralegals that are trainable as opposed to seasoned paralegals who may be set in their ways.
3. Lack of Upward Mobility
Depending on the size of the law firm and structure of legal staff job roles, a paralegal normally has very little upward growth within a law firm. Outside of moving to firm operations, HR, marketing or becoming an attorney, there is very little growth available to most paralegals.
Solution: The legal universe consists of a plethora of different industries and specialty areas. There is contract work available for paralegals who may want to perform work outside of their everyday, mundane duties. The career possibilities are endless! Never limit yourself.
4. Tenure and Lack of Recognition
A paralegal’s work is never recognized because our only purpose is to assist the attorney. You could draft an excellent petition for damages but it would go unnoticed because we cannot practice law; so the attorney obviously receives the praise. Therefore, if a paralegal’s work is never recognized or commended within a firm, newer staff members may not be aware or have the appropriate respect level for your work or tenure.
Solution: When it comes to not receiving recognition for your work; that just comes with the paralegal territory. Our recognition and accolades are dependent upon the level of success reached by the attorneys we work for, period. If that is a deal breaker for you, this is not the industry for you. It is your employer’s responsibility to educate all staff of both successes and failures. This is what promotes your recognition within the legal community as well as your tenure within the firm. If you work for a firm that does not operate in this fashion… you have some decisions to make.
Bottom line, the paralegal profession is not for the weak-at-heart. We face extreme deadlines, heavy workloads and varying job duties. We work long hours and oftentimes find ourselves in difficult situations requiring free-style problem solving capabilities. This life is not for everyone.