Do In-House Paralegals Get More Respect?

Man looking sidewaysAretha Franklin sang to the world about it. The subject is included when employees, girlfriends, wives, husbands, boyfriends, grandmothers and pets are asked how they want to be treated. I’m talking about respect.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Ms. Franklin would put it.

            In my travels across the country as a paralegal educator, speaker, author and staffing expert, I noticed a difference between the temperaments of law firm and in-house legal department paralegals. 

        Was I imagining it or did most in-house paralegals seem more at peace, less stressed, easier to get along with while law firm paralegals seemed tougher, ready for battle, and a tad more defensive, a bit more caustic?  Assuming my observations were on track, what propelled this subtle but noticeable personality variation?

            After talking with literally hundreds of in-house paralegals about their work environment, I realized they may be getting more respect. Why?  What could possibly be different?

            I went to several knowledgeable sources to find out.  Marnie Carter, a seasoned San Francisco Paralegal Manager, experienced in both in-house legal departments and major law firms, filled me in. “In-house paralegals do receive more respect from attorneys and staff in-house because the law firm hierarchy does not exist. The corporate environment is a division of management versus staff. Many of the paralegals are classified as "paralegal" but the delineation between junior, mid and senior is not so structured as in the law firm.  

            The elevated treatment is due to a better understanding of the paralegal's role. Attorneys leave law school and start work in a firm without exposure or training as to the paralegal's role on a case team. This lack of understanding of a paralegal's duties, can on many occasions, lead to an under- utilization problem without the advocacy of a paralegal manager. 

            Most in-house counsel previously worked at a law firm where they received paralegal support. They understand the duties and value a paralegal brings to the team. When the attorney transitions to an in-house counsel role, they are able to better leverage the responsibilities of the paralegal as there is an understanding of paralegal.

Michele Suzuki, an in-house paralegal at MicoVention, voiced her opinion based on her healthy experiences.  “I worked exclusively for law firms for 20 years,” she says, “and always felt that many of the lawyers treated their secretaries better than the paralegals.  I wondered sometimes if they felt like we were taking their billable hours away, perhaps feeling like they had to compete with us in a "dog-eat-dog" world.  When I switched to in-house corporate, I noticed an immediate change.  For one thing, corporate work is not a war between litigants, but rather people working together to make the corporate "machine" function effectively and efficiently.” 

            Ah.  The “for the corporate good” theory.   She may be on to something.  The usual set-up in a law firm is that each partner or team almost operates their own fiefdom whereas in a corporation, members of the team pull together for the corporate good, a critical factor missing in many law firms.        

            It isn’t always that way.  Peggy Williams, a veteran paralegal in Orlando, Florida and formerly with an in-house legal department of a national insurance company, was in disagreement.   “From my experience with working in an in-house counsel office, I receive more respect working in a traditional office. When I did work in-house, I was given traditional paralegal tasks but treated and thought of the same as a legal secretary.  The secretaries seemed to hold more rank and respect in the office.     One of the biggest differences is that we were not allowed to attend trial as a paralegal.  We were allowed to watch one day of testimony but give no assistance to the attorney.  At the firm I work for now, it is expected that I go to trial, assist in all preparation and sit at the table.”

            What about social interaction?  Personally, I recalled a terrible caste system within major firms.  Attorneys would work alongside with paralegals until 3 a.m. but rarely ask them to go to lunch. In fact, you could burn the midnight oil with attorneys but you really couldn’t eat with them.  This, in part, was due to perception.  If an attorney wanted to become a powerhouse, it was much better politically to be seen with a heavily influential partner or an up-and-coming associate rather than eat with the rank and file.  Was it the same in corporations? 

            Having more social interaction between paralegals and attorneys could be a factor of sheer numbers.  Beth King, RP, a senior paralegal at Vestas in Portland, Oregon, feels there are often more lawyers in a law firm, “so the lawyers talk more among themselves.  But, legal departments, with smaller attorney numbers, rely more on one another within the department for brainstorming and these relationships tend to build respect.  The lawyers actually get to know you better.”

            However, I still needed some verification, so I created a survey, “Do In-House Paralegals Get More Respect?”.  Over 550 respondents voiced opinions with 58.6% currently working at in-house legal departments and 75.9% having worked in both corporate legal departments and law firms.

            An overwhelming 49.5% stated in-house attorneys treated them with more respect.  Only 24.4% stated they were treated equally in both environments and a mere 14.1% said they were treated with more respect in a law firm. 

             Comments regarding how paralegals were treated by attorneys varied from: “Gained more respect with more experience”; “Experience varies from attorney to attorney; “There are varying degrees of "respect" to “There are more controls on attorneys with temper problems in-house than at a firm.”   And finally, the diplomat who stated, “As with all professions, there are people who treat you with respect; I don't find it tied to being in a law firm or an in-house legal department.”

              Given an opportunity to give advice to a job seeker, a staunch 42.7% said they would recommend an in-house legal department over a law firm or government agency.  A small 5.2% said they would advise someone to get out of the field.    

              And what do attorneys think?  I went to Kevin Cranman, General Counsel for Ericsson in Atlanta who said,  “A properly skilled paralegal with appropriate experience can compliment and support an attorney's practice – in law firm and in-house environments.  Just like any professional, the individual paralegal earns respect by doing good work efficiently. 

                Once the paralegal has proven herself, attorneys will trust that person to support projects and do sophisticated work. There is a time and place for an attorney to do 'XYZ' and paralegals do 'ABC' analysis, but a capable paralegal can provide great value to an attorney and an organization by providing good work product, handling much of the drafting and conferring with the attorney on specific issues, and permitting the attorney to leverage her/his time on projects or with clients better."

                I guess what Mr. Cranman is saying is that if you’re good, you’re good and that in and of itself should command respect.  Somehow, folks, I’m going to have to agree. 

            Chere Estrin is the CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute, CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing;  She is President & Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP). She has written 10 books about legal careers including the Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed., and hundreds of articles.  Chere has been interviewed by major publications such as The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, ABA Journal and many other publications. She has been an exec in a $5 billion Fortune 1000 corporation and Paralegal Administrator in two major firms. She is a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient and New York City Paralegal Excellence award winner; Inc magazine finalist and Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Recipient.; Co-Founding member of the International Practice Management Association. Check out her career coaching at Legal and You Tube Videos at Legal Careers RX.  Talk to her at