As someone who helps graduates find employment, the one question I get asked the most by students is “How am I supposed to gain experience when most employers won’t hire without it?” Students in all schools face this dilemma when they near completion of their education. Even students in paralegal programs. So, how can you gain work experience when no one will give you a chance?
At Center for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS), students have the opportunity to complete an externship at a law firm or legal department in order to gain experience they can include on their resumes. But not all schools provide this experience. If not, don’t get discouraged. Stay positive and pro-active. Here are 5 ways you can escape the proverbial Catch-22 between experience and employment. (Note: this blog post is aimed specifically toward paralegal students/graduates, but can apply to all college graduates!)
1. Evaluate and Advance Your Skills
What are your strong skills? For paralegal students, are those skills transferable to the legal field? Knowing what skills you have will enable you to best present yourself during an interview. When you do not have experience, your education and knowledge is your best ammunition. For example, if you have a background in IT, then you can highlight those skills in your resume and cover letter. Law firms often seek candidates who are computer savvy and proficient in a variety of document management programs. What if you don’t have any work-related skills? Then consider taking continuing education courses, seminars, or workshops. Several of our paralegal students at CALS who have no prior legal experience take NALA’s Certified Paralegal Exam to increase their marketability. Advancing your skills and education will arm you with the confidence of knowing that you have even more to offer potential employers. Advancing your skills could also mean a higher salary, which is always a good thing!
2. Accept a Hybrid or Non-Paralegal Position
If a paralegal position is your goal, first be willing to consider any job with a legal employer: receptionist, file clerk, junior paralegal, etc. Once you are there, you are one step ahead of anyone on the outside trying to get into the firm. I cannot stress enough how important it is to consider every job that is presented to you. Never think any job or any job duty is beneath you. One example for you: one CALS’ graduate wanted to work in Intellectual Property Law, so she accepted a position at an IP firm working as a receptionist/legal assistant. It wasn’t initially the dream position for her, but her goal was to get her foot in the door and work her way up. After a short time, she secured her coveted position as an Intellectual Property Paralegal at a well-known international law firm. Don’t underestimate the ability to work your way up to your dream job.
As we mentioned before, the paralegal students at Center for Advanced Legal Studies have the opportunity to complete an externship to gain valuable experience working as a paralegal before they begin their job search. While we help facilitate this for our students, we understand that some schools don’t offer this assistance. If not, don’t be afraid to be proactive! Contact your school about any possibilities of you arranging your own internship. If this is possible, research law firms you are interested in and contact them about arranging an internship. You’d be surprised how often experience can be gained by those who are proactive and who go out and make it happen—and don’t underestimate how impressive that could be to a future employer. Extern/Internships can be especially valuable, not only because they add to your skills and experience, but also because they could end with a job offer if you are a good fit and prove yourself a significant asset to the firm/corporation.
4. Spread the Word
Access all your networks, including the students you know from paralegal school. Keep in touch with your former classmates and ask them where they got their job. You can even post your search on your facebook and twitter accounts (and make sure your accounts/pictures/posts, etc. are professional! Employers often look at these!). Ask your friends, family members, and acquaintances if they know of any job openings or attorneys looking for help. We had one paralegal student who got his first job as an Immigration Paralegal at BP through a member at his church. Another student found a job at a law firm through a technician who was working on her plumbing at home. You never know who could lead you to your next job, so spread the word!
5. Get on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world. You can find and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals. A professional network of contacts gives you an advantage in your career. When I was a headhunter, I was always on LinkedIn searching for candidates to fill positions. Every week I would send the job postings I was working on to all my contacts asking if they knew of any candidates who were looking for a job. The same concept could be applied when looking for a job. Send messages to your contacts asking for leads.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, then create one as soon as possible. When you join, create a profile that summarizes your professional expertise, skills, and accomplishments. You can then form connections by inviting trusted contacts to join LinkedIn and connect to you. Through your network, you can:
Congrats, You Secured a Position! Now What?
When you land that first job, do your absolute best. Learn the day-to-day functions and inner workings of the law office. Observe what you need to learn, especially if your goal is to work your way up to your dream position. Keep your eyes and ears open so that you can see firsthand how the paralegals and lawyers work together. Be aware of the roles of other legal support staff (secretaries, litigation support, project management, etc.). Watch how lawyers treat clients. Study the firm hierarchy, and don’t get involved in office politics. Learn as much as you can and be willing to help out in any department. Your first job may not be your last, but your professional reputation will follow you wherever you go. Lawyers have a tightly knitted network. If you do an excellent job, they can help you advance your career.