Recently someone Tweeted me a question which totally peaked my interest. They wanted to know what paralegal is more respected, the one working in-house or the one working in private practice. I have done both so I feel as if I am somewhat qualified to answer this question. I wanted to answer it here because I feel that if one person is thinking about it, others are as well.
The short of it is that I don’t feel one is more respected than the other. At least not from a client’s perspective and it all goes back to the attorney or the firm you work with. Regarding the clients you will deal with the one thing to keep in mind is that when you’re in-house your clients are people within your walls. Granted outside of usually a locked door (privacy issues) but they are all other members of the firm. These people get to know you so it becomes up to you to allow them to see your professionalism on a day-to-day basis. When you work in-house you are always being observed. Most of the time your clients wind up being your friends and are always your co-workers. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. They will get to know you on a personal basis and if you give them any reason to see you as any less than a professional they will treat you as such. So, it’s up to you to ensure that you are respected as a professional.
Being a paralegal in private practice your clients don’t see you all the time and it’s more likely that you will never develop a personal relationship with them. They will always, hopefully, see you at your best professional self so if you are prepared and know their case, chances are they will respect you as a professional.
In both instances, at least in the State of New Jersey, where I am. Paralegals work under the attorney’s license and that is the reason why I said that the respect you receive really depends on the attorney you work with. I have to say that I have always been lucky in the assignments I had. All the attorneys I worked with always saw me as an equal and always referred to me as a colleague or someone who worked with them and not for them. I think clients take cues from the attorneys and if the attorney treats his/her paralegal with respect, the client has no other frame of reference and will therefore respect you as well….. well, that is if the work product is something the client is happy with.
Having said all that. The work of an in-house paralegal is totally different from the work of a paralegal who works in a law firm. Speaking from a litigation perspective, an in-house paralegal rarely goes to court. In-house attorneys usually hire outside counsel to represent them in court. At least in the firms I have worked with. So a paralegal working in a large in-house legal department will most likely be putting documents together to send out to the paralegal who is working with the outside counsel. The difference is that the in-house paralegal is expected to be the expert in the documents. I remember sitting with the paralegals from the outside counsel’s office to explain to them the business so that they could, in turn, explain it to their attorneys who would be representing us in court.
My personal thoughts around respect are these: I believe that it is up to each individual to demand the respect they deserve. I totally believe that respect is something that is earned and not something that you get because you have a particular title. A paralegal career is a very respectable career and it should be taken seriously. We are professionals and we should be treated as such, no matter where you happen to be working. However, it is up to you to make sure you get the respect you deserve.
I hope this answers the question.
You may also want to take a look at this post I wrote some time ago.