This to say that there are many routes to get to where you want to be. I get asked, many times, how I became a paralegal. My professional ascension to the paralegal halls was not much different from those paralegals that have been in the profession for as long as I have.
While in college I thought I wanted to go to law school, however, all I knew about the law was from watching legal shows on television. It all looked so glamorous. They all had great cases and were all stars in court. They all knew exactly what to say and always wore the nicest clothes. Was that what I was wanting to be or did I really want to be a lawyer? I decided that in order to better understand what a lawyer does I would have to spend time with lawyers. I was determined to find a job in a law firm and give myself some time to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. I’m still waiting for the grow up part, but at least now I know that I am doing is exactly what I always wanted to do…. but I digress.
Growing up I lived in an area with a large population of Portuguese immigrants. I can speak the language and I could translate, I thought. I just needed to get my foot in the door. I lived with my parents and they were going to pay for some of my college and the rest would be loans so I would not need that much money from a job. Yeah, I was one of the lucky ones.
I searched the papers for any job postings in the area law offices. There were some but most of them required experience. As I said, unless they were looking for experience watching law shows, I was not going to qualify. However, I have always believed that the only limitations are those you impose on yourself and I was determined to find something, therefore, I couldn’t let anything stop me. I called one of the telephone numbers that was advertising for a legal secretary. The advertisement called for someone with one or two years experience as a legal secretary and fluent knowledge of Portuguese. Hmmm… I thought. I have one of those. So one out of two is not bad. I made an appointment with the hiring partner. It was a small firm, there was no Human Resources Department. I interviewed with the attorney for whom I would be working.
After a few minutes of speaking with the attorney and explaining to him that I had never had a job in a law office or been a secretary. Heck… the only thing I knew about typing was the one course I took in high school on how to type. I could type a college paper but I had never taken dictation. Yeah, in those days secretaries took dictation. I started to realize that I was not going to get the job unless I was able to give him something he was not able to say no to. So I explained to him that I was very fluent in Portuguese, I had just came from Portugal a few years prior and I would do all of his translations. Although I could not, at that time, take dictation, I was willing to learn and I was a fast learner and I would work for him for free for three months in any position he chose. If at the end of the three months I was not working out he could fire me, no questions asked. He smiled. He thought about it and right there and then he decided that he would give me a job. He told me later that the reason he did that was that no one had ever been that eager to get a job and he thought that someone with that much “guts” would be a good worker.
I started out being a file clerk. I learned to tell the difference between a pleading that needed to be filed in the pleading board and interrogatories that needed to go into a discovery folder. I learned how to type a request for medical records and what types of paperwork needed to be filed with a motion. I read as much as I could while I filed all the millions of paper that are produced in a law office. I asked questions when I couldn’t figure things out on my own and I made it a point to learn from everyone in the firm. I even learned how each lawyer liked his coffee (there were only three lawyers). I stayed late and started early and I made myself available when there was a need for witnesses for wills or other documents.
After the three months were up, the lawyer called me into a meeting with the other two partners and offered me the secretary position. This is how I started. I still had a lot to prove but I had a good foundation at this time. Had this not worked out, I would have at least had the foundation and been able to get a job somewhere else and claim to at least have some knowledge and … If you think about it, my goal was reached. If you recall when I decided to get the job I was only trying to find out if I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to see what it would be like to be a lawyer. After three months I had spent enough time with lawyers to at least have an idea if I wanted to attempt law school.
So that was my first job. From that first job I’ve worked in other firms. I was a legal secretary for very large law offices as well small law firms and sometime after I learned about paralegals. I set my goals on becoming one. I was always good at finding opportunities and when they arose I was never shy about taking them. There is nothing like taking the bull by the horns. Decide what you want to do and do it.
It has taken me close to seventeen years to get to where I am and along the way I decided that law school was not for me. Ohhh I applied, was accepted, deferred my acceptance and ultimately decided that being a paralegal was exactly what I wanted to be.
Do you need to go to paralegal school? For me it was not necessary. I came into the profession at a totally different time. The competition was not as steep as it is today. Most lawyers didn’t know what a paralegal was or how to assign work to a paralegal. Most of time the secretary would do all the work done by a paralegal today. There were enough hours in a day for a secretary to accomplish both tasks.
Today I am a paralegal supervisor for a very large bank in New York. I supervise a small paralegal department and looking towards my next goal. I’ll keep this one to myself for now until I can figure out how to go about it. It’s in the works. Stay tuned.
So…, why does it always seem like I have such a long winded ways of saying things? Anyway, there are many ways of becoming a paralegal. Today, there are other opportunities you can take. There are many schools that offer paralegal programs as well as internships. Take every opportunity placed in front of you. Keep your eye on your long term goal and go for it. Don’t discount anything just because it does not fit into your immediate plan and have fun.