Each year, many Bowdoin grads apply for and land jobs helping attorneys. These jobs may be called “legal assistant,” “project analyst” or “paralegal,” and they exist within big and small law firms, district attorneys’ offices, and federal government agencies (particularly the Department of Justice).
From the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor:
2016 Median Salary: $49,500
Advice From Alumni
Would you be a good paralegal? Would you enjoy the work? I reached out to some recent alums doing paralegal work and asked them to answer some questions to help you figure it out.
– S, Dept of Justice, DC area.
The day-to-day tasks of a paralegal, like most entry-level jobs, are not particularly glamorous. I won’t gloss over the fact that sometimes you will do extremely tedious tasks for hours at a time. This could be making a binder of all the correspondence related to a case, putting documents in chronological order, preparing documents to be handed over to government agencies or other related parties, or pretty much any administrative task you can think of. However, it’s the overall organizational scheme that matters. As a paralegal, you are in charge of making sure that everything is in order, every document is where it needs to be, and anything the attorney might need is available. You are the go-to person anytime an attorney needs something — you coordinate with different departments to make sure everything is done, ready, and perfect. You often know more about what information/documents the case has than half the attorneys, and they rely on you for that and to be able to find what they need using the resources and problem-solving skills you have. – M, Large Law Firm, NYC
I am the sole legal assistant / paralegal for a litigation lawyer in Boston. My daily work varies depending on what types of cases we are working on. I attend and help prepare for depositions, court hearings, and trials; conduct legal and factual research; summarize and analyze deposition transcripts; and type and format all motions and other correspondence to court. I love observing trials, hearings and depositions. It has been fascinating to see how the litigation process works. I do spend a good deal of my time going through boxes upon boxes of documents, which can be less than stimulating. – E., solo practitioner, Boston area
Being a paralegal gives you an inside look at the life of a lawyer — in my case, the life of a lawyer at a large, corporate, urban law firm. You see how a case progresses from start to finish, what the lawyers do every day, what they stress about, and how they approach a case. For one of my cases, I sit in on weekly team meetings where they map out where the different aspects of the case stand, their strategy, and what they expect the obstacles to be. It’s very interesting to to see exactly how they act and react as the case moves forward. I expected lawyers at large corporate firms to be balls of stress who never slept, lived on caffeine, and were perennially in a bad mood. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that most attorneys I’ve worked with have been extremely nice, likeable, and grateful. That isn’t to say that they don’t work long hours or get stressed out (they definitely do, to both), but they’ve never taken out on me, their subordinate. So I have learned that being a corporate lawyer doesn’t ruin your life. There are, of course, a few people who would be unpleasant in any job. Learning how to deal with difficult people is something you’ll have to learn how to do in any profession, and this one is no exception. However, I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of the attorneys I work with. I entered my job leaning towards law school, but unsure. My job has convinced me that I do want to go to law school, and that I do not want to be a corporate attorney at a large firm. To me, the biggest perks of being a corporate lawyer seem to be money and prestige, but the work the attorneys do doesn’t interest me very much. Having talked with current law students and lawyers, I know there are a million things you can do with a law degree — I’d like to check out public interest law, politics, and the rest of the spectrum. – M., Large law firm, NYC area
I wanted to work as a paralegal to make sure that law school was a good fit. My job surpassed my expectations in nearly all respects. I certainly have a much clearer understanding today of what being a lawyer is actually like.
– E., solo practitioner, Boston area
The greatest source of satisfaction from my job is when I play an integral part in project or obstacle for a case. Knowing I’ve helped move the case forward by making my attorneys’ lives easier, and knowing how grateful they are, is very satisfying — especially when it involves relying on your problem-solving, logic, and multitasking skills. It definitely doesn’t draw on the same brain cells as analyzing foreign policy or writing a term paper on ancient Rome, but it forces you to develop more real-world skills that will help you in any office setting. Being a paralegal might sometimes be boring, but it definitely turns you into a professional. The most frustrating part of my job is when attorneys ask me for things or ask me to do things without understanding how long it will take, that I need more information from them, or that what they’re asking just isn’t possible. It becomes a delicate situation to try to explain any or all of these things to them, since they can be under a deadline and don’t always understand what goes on behind the scenes when you’re completing assignments for them. However, you’re forced learn how to articulate yourself tactfully and diplomatically, another necessary skill for any job. – M, Large law firm, NYC area.
I like working in an intellectual field where research and arguments can have real-world effects on people’s lives. It is extremely satisfying to come across a key piece of information during research. Conversely, it can be unsatisfying to spend hours (or days) going through documents only to learn that they contain nothing of real value. – E., solo practitioner, Boston area.
To be a successful paralegal, the most important skills are attention to detail, organization, good communication, and problem-solving/logical thinking. A good attitude and a bit of perfectionism help, too. You definitely need to be willing to work overtime when called upon to do so (which isn’t every week). I realize that sounds like every job description of a paralegal you’ve ever read — that’s not an accident. They’re pretty accurate. I wouldn’t advise becoming a paralegal if you’re not particularly patient, organized, or if you get frustrated by things that seem unnecessarily complicated or useless to you (attorneys sometimes just want things the way they want them, even if that creates extra work for you). If you don’t like working on a team, this also isn’t the job for you. – M., Large law firm, NYC area
If you like research assignments, analysis, and forming and defending arguments in your academic courses, you may be well-suited to paralegal work. If the idea of spending hours reading, analyzing, and summarizing large groups of documents sounds dreadful to you, don’t be a paralegal. – E., solo practitioner, Boston area
Firms hire paralegals either unpredictably (someone quits or retires, or the firm grows), or on a cycle to replace paralegals who depart to go to law school. That means those jobs become available in the spring and summer, as departing paralegals choose where to attend law school, send in their deposits, and decide whether to stay and work or quit and take some time off before law school. The best time to look for paralegal jobs is between January and May — with the bulk of positions available to graduating seniors appearing in March and April.