One of the biggest mistakes you can make in your paralegal career is to not leverage your background. In fact, when faced with either entering the field or changing positions, the words "transferable skills" sometime seem to make a beeline for the exit as candidates get it into their heads that obscure skills in their past are not related to current positions. What am I telling you to do?
I have witnessed construction workers become litigation construction paralegals. Who better can read blueprints? Entertainers become entertainment paralegals. Who understands royalties better? How about travel agents, food servers, airline stewards (do they call them that these days?), hotel workers: all these folks enter the hospitality legal field and do quite well. Nurses become legal nurse consultants. Insurance workers enter defense or plaintiff insurance litigation or personal injury firms. I have witnessed UPS drivers go to work for UPS/FedEx or like legal departments. Transportation workers enter railroads, bus companies, airlines and other transportation legal departments. The list is endless. It all leads to one of my favorite cliches: Ride the horse in the direction it's going. Utilize your background.
A few weeks ago, I met a very interesting Law Office Manager from Colorado Springs, Chuck Smith. Here is a seasoned paralegal with 28 years experience who leveraged his paralegal and military career and moved it into a management position at a high profile, upscale firm. He oversees a staff of 12 in a boutique firm while enjoying tremendous job satisfaction, something that not everyone can claim. How did he do it? Yep. I'm just dying to tell the story.
CBE: Hello Chuck. You've been at Forbush & Goldberg now for nine years as the Office Manager. That's a long time. Most Office Managers turn over at the two year level. I am always amazed at someone who can maintain longevity in this 15 sound-byte day and age. Our audience would be interested in your background. Spill the beans, kid.
CS: I became a paralegal while serving in the Air Force in 1988. I have experience in Military Justice (criminal), claims (tort law and civil law (wills, POAs, legal assistance). I worked at a headquarters supporting paralegals in 15 separate law offices and have managed a law office at the US Embassy in Australia (international law, military operations law and tort law). I provided leadership/oversite to 77 paralegals at 8 law offices from Arizona to Florida
CBE: Holy, moly. That's quite a story. I'd like to hear about about your military background.
CS: I served in the Air Force from 1982 until 2007. I served in North Dakota for 10½ years; Hawaii 4½ years; Australia 3½ years; California 3 years; and Texas 3 years. I was a Security Policeman for 6 years and a paralegal for 19 years in the Air Force.
CBE: I have to ask the inevitable: What led you to become a paralegal?
CS: I knew that I needed to be challenged and becoming a paralegal seemed to be the way to go.
CBE: How did you become a manager?
CS: The enlisted rank structure has 9 levels. Once you reach the 7th level, you are expected to manage and lead junior paralegals in a law office setting.
CBE: What advice do you have for paralegals to enter management?
CS: You should love working with people. You should enjoy training and growing paralegals. Your goal should be their success.
CBE: What qualities do you look for in a paralegal?
CS: Easy! Loyalty, team player, hard worker, and have service in their heart. You can’t teach that, you can’t buy that. They must be the right type of person to be allowed to serve our clients.
CBE: What is one of your favorite paralegal experiences?
CS: I took an administrative technician, explained to her why she should become a paralegal. Fifteen years later, she was selected as the most Outstanding Senior Paralegal in the Air Force.
CBE: What do you think about certification, licensure or regulation in the paralegal field?
CS: I have been so unhappy with a large number of paralegals over the years who act like they are better than others. Because of that, I would much rather hire on non-certified person who exhibits the attributes listed above. Don’t get me wrong, if I found the “Right Person” who also held a paralegal degree or certification, I would definitely hire them.
Are you seeking to move up, out or over? What do you have in your background that you can leverage to assist you in a move? What transferable skills are you not utilizing? Your current skills are one thing, however, skills are like riding a bike. You can always get on and ride that bike. However, the one caveat is that you must keep skills current. Knowing HR skills is a valuable asset. However, not knowing the current laws is not……….Stay updated and leverage, leverage, leverage!
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing and CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute. She is one of the legal field's top legal job hunting coaches at Legal CareersRx. She holds the position of President and Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals, a prestigious online legal technology training organization for attorneys, litigation support and paralegals. Chere has written 10 books on legal careers and has been interviewed by many prestigious publications. She is a national seminar speaker and author of hundreds of articles. She has Sundays free from 3:00 a.m. – 6:00 a.m. Talk to her at email@example.com.