Preparing for my first interview as a paralegal in a foreclosure office, I reviewed the top questions typically asked
with a friend of mine. The question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
took me by surprise. “Honestly, I don’t think interviewers ask this.” I said.
“That’s because you’ve only had dead end jobs.” My friend replied. “You’ll do
fine. Just don’t say anything stupid like ‘I wanna get into personal injury’
because you’re not interested in that and it’s not relevant to this job.” I
laughed. The next day at the interview the man interviewing me looked me
straight in the eyes and said “Where do you see yourself in 5years?” The answer
I had thought up the night before flew from my head and without realizing it I
blurted out “I think I want to get into personal injury law.” DOH!!!
Right then, it dawned on me.
I didn’t have a 5-year plan. I never had to think that far ahead.
All About Goals
I’ve got my small goals
down. In the next two years I plan to graduate in the top of my class with my
postgraduate paralegal certification through an ABA program. Become a Notary
Public. I want to get an entry-level job in a law firm, any law firm. I plan to
grow my professional network by joining my local chapter of NFPA and online through
LinkedIn. I am building a professional reputation through blog writing and responding
to other blogs and posts. Short-term goals are in progress.
Sensibly, I want to earn
enough money to support myself and my family. I want to have a career, not a
job, doing something I’m interested in and I’m good at. I want respect within
the legal community as a peer. But what law do I want to do? True, personal
injury is not what I like but criminal sounds interesting. Although in my area,
paralegal jobs in criminal law field are rare and hard to get. How about
something juicy, like divorce? Except, I don’t know how I would be able to
handle ripping families apart and watching people try to destroy each other. I’m a fixer, not a breaker. I’ve heard Real
Estate is good work and stable…and boring. I want to use my investigative
skills. I have these bizarre fantasies where I have this sign on my door that
reads “Kate Frank: Legal Investigator” and I wear a fedora. Ok, ok, so it’s
clear that I need to work on these long-term goals and one of the biggest ways
to narrow down my search brings me to next point.
Trial and Error
Being a Paralegal was not first career
choice. I have worked as an event planner, a direct support professional in a
group home, customer service in a furniture store and as a secretary in mental
health clinic. And these are just the job titles I’ve held. Since I graduated high
school, I’ve tried to follow careers in internal design, psychology, marketing,
library science and even next great American novel author. They were not right
for me. So, what makes the paralegal field different? I feel drawn to this
field. My reasoning skills, my background working with difficult people and my
eerie sense of right and wrong all are natural fits within the legal field.
Plus, for years, the running joke is that I should be a lawyer because I never
lose a verbal spare. However, it’s all trial and error. I could not find a job
in this field, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I’ll go through every law office
before I find the right one. I could realize I hate paralegal work. I guess only what my
career path will be but one for sure, if I never try, I will never know.
Acceptance or I am Not a Fortune-Teller!
It’s good to have goals,
try new and plan out where you want to go but we know what happens to. If
you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you have some interest in becoming a paralegal,
so even if you don’t know exactly what you want in 5 years, feel lucky that you
have a direction. Think back to time in your life when you didn’t have that
direction, I know I have several, and relish in feeling knowing you’re on a
path. Enjoying the ride is more
important than knowing the destination.
As I begin my new profession, I realize my first challenge is in deciding what to call myself. The debate between the title paralegal verses legal assistant has fueled many arguments within the field. Officials begrudgingly agree they can be interchangeable but it is clear to me the term paralegal is a better fit then legal assistant for a number of reasons.
1) The Duties and Requirements are Different
My biggest pet peeve about the term legal assistant is the most obvious, paralegals are not assistants. Assistants carry out managerial and secretarial responsibilities essential in running a business competently. Paralegals take on many legal responsibilities appointed to them by a lawyer. They help lawyers get ready for closings, hearings, trials, and corporate meetings. Assistants offer guidance and support for new employees and competence with ever-changing office machinery. Their main duties include gathering, recovering, and putting information together to share with the organization and clientele they work for. They can perform research online when needed. Paralegals, also, conduct Internet research but on a more demanding level that typically includes exploring legal text collected in computer catalogs.
One of the largest differences between assistant and paralegal jobs is the wanted education level. Any high school graduate will technically qualify for either job. Assistants often learn on-the-job. Years of experience are more critical then degrees for assistants. Paralegals learn on-the-job but typically have at least an associate’s degrees. Many companies want Bachelor’s degrees, as well as, postgraduate certification from a paralegal program. Several states even want paralegals to take a standardized test and become certified.
2) They Mean Different Things
Many people mistakenly assume that paralegal and legal assistant have the same definition but by taking a closer look, it is easy to see that they are different. The word assistant comes from a middle French word, assistent, meaning “one who helps or aids another” (etymoline.com). While the suffix para- has roots in the Greek language meaning “alongside, beyond, altered, contrary” (etymolone.com). Therefore, a legal assistant aids or helps out in a legal setting. A paralegal works alongside others in a legal setting.
3) They are Viewed in Different Ways
The way other’s view paralegals and legal assistants are also relevant. The word “assistant” brings to mind support staff. They take care of administrative tasks. They are responsible for filing, answering the phone and keeping records and other secretarial and office management duties. Assistants do the same tasks, regardless of where they work. Assistants are typically entry-level positions. Many people begin their careers as assistants, hoping to advance in whichever field the company they work for is in. Many people do not view being an assistant as a long-term career goal.
Paralegals, on the other hand, work only in legal fields. They may draft legal documents and have hands-on tasks involving cases. They work alongside lawyers as part of a team. Paralegals must have a broad understanding of the legal field. Much like nurses in the medical field evolved, paralegals now take on tasks once done by lawyers and their list of duties continues to grow. Paralegals want careers in the legal field and see being a paralegal as a career, not a stepping-stone.
Paralegal is a more professional title than legal assistant. The job descriptions of assistant and paralegal are different. The words assistant and para- mean two different. The views when you are an assistant versus when you call yourself a paralegal are different. Paralegals are professionals and they should have respect. Legal assistants are secretaries waiting for their next career move.
What do you think? Which term fits your job description better?