Cozen O'Connor, LLC
Over 15 Years in the Field
Why did you become a paralegal?
I was making a career change from social work. I'd done child sexual abuse and child protection work for 10 years. Paralegal work seemed like a good match because I could use skills I already had: interviewing, case management, investigation. My college undergraduate degree was entry-level for that work, and I could take a certificate program, which wasn't as expensive as doing a master's degree.
I started with a solo practitioner in Montana, as his office assistant. As he saw my skills, he suggested that I go on to actually do the training. I took a paralegal program and got an entry-level paralegal job. I now work in family law.
What do you most enjoy about being a paralegal?
I've gone into areas of law that require client interactions and investigations, as opposed to just research. In family law, you're helping people. It's not as obvious or linear as social work, but these are problems people have that they can't solve by themselves. I enjoy the people interaction.
I also enjoy putting a case together and understanding the principles involved. I have to know what's legal, what's not, how you get this to work within the system. Court systems have procedures and forms that people don't like; the uniformity makes it easier to present and track.
What is most challenging about your work?
The complexity of understanding the multiple issues in a case, getting them sorted out, and then the complexity of responding, explaining a position. Because many of my cases are in litigation, a lot of my job is discovery, answering the questions that are sent to us. I break down the questions, sort through the information, and ask when I don't know.
The other side of discovery is preparing questions to get similar information from the other side. I like the challenge, it makes it different every day. That's the detail work. In my experience, the attorney is the big-picture person, and the paralegal is the detail person.
What skills are most important to being a paralegal?
- The ability to communicate
- The ability to ask questions. You can never assume you know anything, you can't be afraid to say "I don't understand."
- Strong computer skills, not only word processing but Internet research, database work, Power Point, Excel.
- The willingness to take a project, and think it through. You have to be willing to explore, and ask questions about the details, and show creativity and initiative.
What experience is useful for people starting out?
Working as a legal assistant or secretary is a good way to see if you like the legal profession. Look at your skill sets. It really is a detail-oriented position: if you don't like detail, it is definitely not the job for you. Every court system has its own rules for how documents are presented, timelines, how trials are run. Every county is different. The biggest job is knowing all the rules.
Also, you have to be okay being the support person. If you think you want to be an attorney, it's not the job for you, you'll get frustrated. But working as a paralegal for a short time is a good way to find out if you want to be an attorney.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
The profession is still evolving and some attorneys don't understand what a paralegal can or should do. Our credentialing is not as rigid as, say, nursing school. When interviewing or applying for paralegal positions, ask what is expected of you, and what the job entails. Paralegal job descriptions vary widely.
Get involved with your local paralegal professional organization. They have student memberships, and it's a place to network and find out about jobs. In our current economy, it's a bonus that paralegal is a very temp-friendly job. You can work in different law firms, experience different kinds of practice, and see which one is best for you.