Where Do I Go From Here? Alternative Careers for Paralegals

Woman.capWhen I ask a paralegal “What's the next step in your career”, they inevitably tell me what they don’t want. “I don’t want a major firm.” “I don’t want litigation.” “I don’t want….” Rarely, can they tell me what they do want other than “a whole lot of money” or “I want to go in-house.” Sometimes, however, they tell me, “I want an alternative career.” Ok, I’ll say, “What does that mean?” And I get driven right back to the, “I dunno.”

The most important thing to remember when considering an alternative career is:

“By setting a timeline and creating a plan, you have a goal. Otherwise, all you have is a dream.”

What are the reasons paralegals start seeking an alternative career? Meeting billable hours, too much overtime, looming deadlines, need for bigger challenges, desire for increased salary,  stress, meeting unrealistic or unclear expectations or the all mighty, unspoken: dealing with attorney egos.

It’s entirely possible that you may be suffering from the little known R&RW syndrome– routine and repetitious work, a huge contributor to paralegal burnout. Sure, you may be working on different cases, clients or matters but underneath, the work is the same. You are executing the same document organization, drafting of pleadings or writing of minutes. The work is the same, only the client is different. Routine and repetitious work = burnout. That’s the biggest reason why paralegals scream, “Get me outta here!”

Here are a few ideas sparked by paralegals who have found careers inside and outside the legal field. Recognize that it’s not fault with the paralegal field. It could be the type of job that you have that no longer matches your expectations. Ask yourself: Have I defined my expectations?

Outside the Legal Field
A few months ago, we placed a litigation paralegal into one the top PR firms in the country as a Jr. PR Specialist. She leveraged her paralegal skills along with some PR project work she accomplished during college.  She had a strong desire to get out of the paralegal field and into PR. She became a paralegal because her family wanted her to be a lawyer or dentist and she was trying to meet their expectations.

She went to work for a one of the top PR agents in the country representing A-list celebrities. The PR agent liked her attention to detail, research and writing skills, ability to handle large egos and that she had to be smart to work in a law firm. She is one happy camper.

A litigation paralegal turned her artistic skills into her dream of becoming a freelance artist. How did she do it? She continuously participated in artist shows until she built up a clientele, website, following, and inventory. Gradually, she moved the number of days she worked as a paralegal down and the number of days she worked as an artist up. She didn’t just quit and try to make it as an artist. Now, she works full-time as an artist in Oregon. Her secret? She had a plan, took her time and worked the plan.

Positions where you can leverage your paralegal skills outside of the legal field include: escrow agents, compliance specialists, bank probate administrators, funds administrators, insurance brokers, trust examiners, real estate agents, risk managers, health care industry professionals, contract administrators, administrative in hospitals, non-profits and more.

Staying In the Field
Several months ago, we found a position for a real estate paralegal who claimed she was burning out. Why? No client contact. In every position she had, she sat in her office drafting contracts, purchase agreements, reviewing title reports and preparing lease summaries. This outgoing paralegal very rarely saw a client. She thought she hated the paralegal field. That wasn’t necessarily the case.  We proposed a new position gaining popularity around the county: the hybrid paralegal/legal secretary.  We took her out of the major firm and into a smaller, boutique firm. The position put her in a situation where she was face-to-face with clients every single day. The result? One happy, smiling paralegal. The fact that she is now making in the mid $90’s didn’t hurt either.

Raul Estravit leveraged his paralegal background into the managing principal at Encore Litigation & Trial Technology Services. He started out as a paralegal in a major law firm working on the world changing trial of MCI v AT&T. Raul was one of  the very first professionals in Los Angeles to employ Litigation Support in several large scale cases including The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.  His work on the Valdez matter became a focal point at the Senate hearings in Washington. His paralegal background has made him into a hybrid professional between the legal and technology worlds. Raul has "Hot Seated" and managed over 500 cases throughout his career.

Positions inside the law firm are too numerous to mention.
Here are just a few: Law firm administrators, hiring coordinators, professional development directors, training managers, eDiscovery professionals, litigation support professionals, docketing, marketing, facilities management, data analysts, technology, IT, HR, pricing analysts, purchasing, catering, event planning, PR, recruiting, paralegal managers, website management, newsletter coordinators, billing coordinators, accounting professionals, practice support managers.   

Outside But Inside
Recently, I became a Board member of a rural community center. I’ve had such fun and job satisfaction! The community center was a 501(c)(7) that is basically a social club. The center badly needed a roof, funding, and other things. The center needed to change its non-profit status to a 501(c)(3) in order to get grants, funding, and donations.  A retired paralegal is assisting in re-writing the bylaws and assisting with the changes.  While this isn’t another job, it is helping the community. Here is a way to find job satisfaction without changing jobs.

Vendors have fantastic positions, pay well and offer interesting careers. You can move up within the company, something you can’t always do in a law firm.  Not all positions with vendors are sales. There are research, analysts, management, recruiting, administrative, paralegal, document review, and a number of other interesting opportunities.

There are in-house positions such as this Director, Corporate Secretary that calls for a paralegal background. Here is the job description: “The Office of Corporate Governance supports the board of directors and committees for xxxxx and subsidiaries. It is responsible for legal and regulatory matters pertaining to public companies and financial services holding companies, and responsibilities of directors and officers. You will be responsible for governance matters for the Board of Board Committee meetings and coordinating governance-related initiatives.

Background:  Experience (6+ years) as a corporate paralegal. Paralegal certificate a plus.

Technology Careers
One of the hottest alternative careers for paralegals can be found in technology. You can find lucrative careers as a Litigation Support professional in Litigation Support analyst; project manager, eDiscovery project manager, eDiscovery consultant, forensics, case managers,  database managers, trainers, and more. These are high paying positions and well worth investigating.

Here’s a great alternative career! The majority of mediators are either lawyers or former judges. However, the field is open to non-lawyers who are entering the profession. At this writing, no formal licensing or certification exists for mediators. Training is available through independent mediation programs, national and local mediation membership organizations and post-secondary schools, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Colleges and universities are also beginning to offer advanced degrees in dispute resolution and conflict management.

Check out opportunities at your local college or online. There are teacher, program administrators, consultants, education coor­dinator for continuing legal education open in paralegal education. Check with local universities, col­leges, vocational schools online training organizations and community colleges for requirements. Many schools are in­terested in hiring part-time faculty to teach an occasional course. This could be an opportunity for you to see if you would like to work in the academic world. It is also a great addition to your resume.

How to Make the Transition
One misconception is that you can just throw your resume out there and employers will automatically assume you are qualified. Not so! In order to transition, have a plan. You may have to take classes, get cross-trained or write your resume reflecting you have the proper skills and abilities. Employers do not have the imagination to assume that you have the right qualifications. Furthermore, no one reads long, rambling cover letters explaining why you are qualified or want to transition. Two to five seconds is literally all that an employer will spend reading your cover letter.

Will you have to take a cut in salary? Possibly, yes. One unrealistic expectation is that you will make the same salary you are earning now. If you are not bringing experience, you cannot expect to get more money or the same that you are earning now. It is possible to earn the same or even more if you leverage your paralegal skills as in technology such as eDiscovery, paralegal management or HR skills. However, if you are seeking to move from litigation to trust officer in a bank and have no experience, it is unlikely you will get the same salary. You have to bring some experience to the table. Be flexible and open.

Tailor your resume specifically for each job. Do the work it takes. If you are transitioning out of the field, writing a resume that says, “prepared motions, summary judgments and trial exhibits” is not going to get you a position in an unrelated field. The resume might have to read, “worked with high-profile clients”, “prepared sophisticated documents”, “handled heavy correspondence” or whatever applies to your new job. Employers outside the legal field will not relate to specific legal assignments. They do not understand the legal field and are likely to reject the resume.

Finding an alternative career is exciting, challenging and motivating. You can leverage your current skills, find a way to utilize your work history and keep on going in this highly stimulating field that just keeps growing and growing!

Here’s to outrageous success!

Chere B. Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is a recipient of the LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award; President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals; CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute; a national seminar speaker and author of 10 books on legal careers. She has been written up in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Chicago Trib, Daily Journal and other publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report has been around since 2005. Chere has been a top executive in a $5 billion corporation, paralegal administrator in two major law firms and is a co-founding member of the International Paralegal Management Association. She is an Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist and lots of other stuff. She's free on Sundays from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.  Reach out to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.