10 Ways to Sink Your Paralegal Career – Guaranteed

Surprise2It's a game, really, this business of careers.  If you think about it, every move should be strategic,  every decision made carefully, and  each accidental event acknowledged as it affects your outcome.  To top it off, the results are win, lose or draw. 

Why we make the bad choices we do can sometimes be thrown into the mystery category but other times, it's because we're just plain unaware that these actions (or non-actions) are guiding the outcome of our careers.

Here are 10 top reasons why your career may be stalled, dead-ended or become routine and repetitious:

1.           You Are Your Own Worst Career Manager

If you don't watch out for your career and goals, no one else will and you may become a candidate for right-sizing, downsizing, merging or purging. A critical task for all paralegals is to examine your current skills.  Check current job listings to find out what you may be missing. You must identify and evaluate your skills to determine if they are still relevant and in demand. If your skills are not relevant, are in low demand or if you have gaps in your skills, start making a plan to update them immediately.  Your action plan might entail self-education, classes or a new or additional practice specialty. Develop and implement this plan with realistic and measurable objectives that will solidify and enhance your skills. This holds true for professional knowledge as well. Read trade journals, paralegal publications (KNOW, the Magazine for Paralegals is a good one- www.paralegalknowledge.com), attend conferences, take online courses (avoid travel and expense), learn what new products vendors are offering; join your local paralegal association; attend office meetings, read law blogs, and join forums.   

2.         Breadth, Not Depth of Skills

You do not want to be a one-trick pony. In today's paralegal field, there is a greater emphasis on the breadth of your skills not just on the depth. Many new and emerging technologies and practice specialties have recently emerged.  Law firms expect you know in-depth about many things instead of the old, "knowing just a little about a lot of things."  Skills are now a blend of what were once separate and distinct. As an example, litigation paralegals are now expected to not only understand the process of litigation but to thoroughly understand eDiscovery and related technology.  In most cases, you cannot have just one skill. This means it is the breadth, not the depth of knowledge and experience that wins – or keeps – paralegal jobs. Ask yourself, “Why set myself up for extinction?”     

3.         Don't Be a SMEL (Subject Matter Expert on Life)

We all know these folks – the ones who have the answer to everything.  They’re annoying, really.  There is a vast difference between self-confidence and overwhelming arrogance; the former can be an asset, whereas the latter can be a career buster. If you are viewed as unable to work as a team player (either from your end or your colleagues refusal to work with you) you can be creating a Resume Generating Event (RGE)  and promoting yourself as a candidate straight into the career-ending avenue of the field. If you find that managers and coworkers are making excuses to avoid working with you, wake up!  Do not make a habit of claiming sole credit (or pass the blame on to others) for the success of an assignment. Make sure others are mentioned. Seek input from your team; your colleagues will not only feel as if they have contributed to the project but may surprise you with unique solutions.

4.         Not Being a Tall Tree

You want to be noticed in a positive manner. Do not try to blend into your paralegal department to avoid attention. Even though the economy appears to be recovering, layoffs have not diminished and consolidations, mergers and splitting up are still occurring.  Don't try to go unnoticed.  Even though it may seem to be a good idea; it most likely will backfire. Be noticed, but in the right context. Becoming more proactive, showing initiative, motivation and participation is important. Be positive. High-profile assignments at your firm can offer a prime opportunity to prove your value and demonstrate unique skills to attorneys and supervisors. Don’t be shy about acknowledging your achievements and be sure they are known by higher authorities.

5.         The Living Resume

You’ll hear over and over to keep your resume up-to-date. There must be a good reason. Your resume may be viewed by people who are not familiar with the paralegal position nor your specialty, so you need to sell yourself (and a resume is your sales brochure) in non-technical terms. Describe the scope and types of projects that you've worked on. While providing examples and quantifying the success of the project is a good idea, don’t go overboard!  For example, saying that you worked on a winning team in a $6 million award is one thing but  to claim victory as the sole hero is not too kosher.  

The accuracy of your resume is important. There is always the temptation to "enhance" your education, accomplishments, titles and roles. If a prospective employer investigates the veracity of your resume, you might have a potential career-ending situation. If you are not an expert on a particular skill as stated in your resume, you will have a hard time fulfilling that role once on the job.  Busted again!

6.         The Written Word (and Picture) Remains

What you write in emails and instant messaging can be used both for and against you. It is very easy to send a message, but will that message be received and understood by your recipient with the same intent you had sent the message? This message is a permanent record of communication, which may be archived under State and Federal mandates. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, all electronic correspondence can be used as evidence in legal proceedings, both for and against you. There is an assumption that electronic communication is private between you and your recipient, unless the recipient decides to forward on to someone. If you must discuss personal or confidential matters, this might be a time to use a phone or discuss it in person. Any inappropriate emails, texts or pictures (even if just forwarded) may become a Resume Generating Event.

7.         Don't Burn Those Bridges

What a temptation it is to “tell all” in the exit interview!  Telling your boss and colleagues what you really felt about them, particularly when you’re angry, is a potential future career buster. People talk to other people. Good references must always be available.  Bear in mind that the paralegal profession is a very small world. Any comments you Tweet, Blog or post on a Social Network site (positive and negative) are easily searchable. You don’t know when you will need a former boss or colleague to help you land a great position, so don’t alienate them. Your reputation is a precious commodity, one that you do not want placed in jeopardy.

8.         Don't Disconnect or Isolate

The reach of social networks and professional sites should not be underestimated – even for paralegals. Take a look at LinkedIn.  It is quite common for contacts to see if you are on LinkedIn or Facebook. There is some current controversy over potential employers who invite candidates for an interview and during the interview, ask for their Facebook password.  These potential employers want to see what you’re really saying now before you have a chance to cover up some of the not-so-great stuff. However, you are doing yourself a professional disservice by not creating an account on these sites. You do not have to be an avid Facebook or Twitter fan and create 5 posts a day. Besides, it cuts into billable time. You do need the visibility for your professional reputation. These sites are perfect for updating professional activity. It’s just no longer possible to remain a paralegal wallflower and advance your career.  That’s sooo ‘90’s.

9.         Technical Complacency, Ignorance or Denial

Never make the assumption that you have all the computer skills you need. New technologies are emerging at a furious rate and to remain relevant, you need to learn these new skills. The latest hot field is the Cloud (and also the Private Cloud) along with Predictive Coding.  Law firms are now clamoring for paralegals that have these skills. On the other hand, demand for support staff is rapidly diminishing as support for desktop OS is almost over. If you want to have a viable career and you do not want to worry about becoming extinct; find out what your firm is currently utilizing or find out from legal software vendors what is coming up. They have a handle on it. If you don't learn new skills, you run the risk of getting a reputation as technologically incompetent. 

Check out the Organization of Legal Professionals  eDiscovery certification exam and its upcoming Litigation Support Certification exam. Also, check out the Paralegal Knowledge Institute  for webinars and excellent online, interactive paralegal continuing legal ed courses.

10.       Lack of Soft/People Skills

In today’s market, paralegals that assume simply having updated skills will give them a ticket to career advancement, have their heads buried deep in the sand.  Today, the successful paralegal also has to have excellent people and communication skills. We all know of the paralegal that walks on water – can do any assignment, in fact.  But there are times when it is the paralegal that walks on the grass who is promoted over the water walker. This is due to soft skills. Paralegals with excellent communication skills, that interact with colleagues, clients and attorneys, are those in demand. If you want to move into the ranks of the MVPs (Most Valuable Paralegal), get involved in areas that emphasize your people skills in addition to your paralegal skills.

Above all, be responsible for your own career.  Being the master of your ship instead denying what’s going on at the helm, guarantees a move forward in a growing, changing and fantastic journey.

(With thanks to Randy Muller, MCT, MCTS, MCSE, CEH's for inspiration from his article.)