Learn About Being an Employment Paralegal
An employment paralegal describes her road to success.
Interview with Toni Anderson
Stoel Rives, LLC
22 Years in Field
Toni Anderson, employment paralegal, shares her secrets of success in the paralegal industry.
On Becoming a Paralegal
I graduated from college with a degree in speech and hearing science, and in order to pursue that career, I would have needed a master's degree and had to relocate. So instead I took my first job as a medical assistant at a local doctors' clinic. A few years later, I found a job as a receptionist in a private law firm.
Eventually I needed a job with more substance. The law firm allowed me to move into a paralegal position and the lawyers invested their time in helping me learn the skills I needed. Their practice was exclusively labor and employment law, and that is an area I really enjoy.
There are four things that are really important for paralegals:
- First, you have to be flexible.
- Second, you have to possess an analytical mind.
- Third, you have to be willing to take initiative.
- Last, but not least, you have to be extremely well organized.
If I had to say which of the four is most important, it would be organization.
There are a number of tools of the trade that paralegals need to know. A lot of time is spent working on the computer, so good word processing skills and knowledge of email and spreadsheet programs are a must.
In a litigation practice, you also have specialty software to keep track of case deadlines, manage trials and evidence, and organize documents. The specific programs differ enough from one another that most people learn how to use these on the job, but having the aptitude to learn new software is essential.
Getting Paralegal Experience
I was fortunate to have lawyers who were willing to invest in me when I was getting started. There are still some large firms that have paralegal training programs, so people can advance into the position from inside. But I don't think someone entering the career today can count on a natural progression.
Getting paralegal certification and training is a good place to start and has a better likelihood of success in today's market.
Paralegal Job Satisfaction
What I like most about my job is the level of responsibility, as well as my ability to work independently. I know the cases I need to work on and what I need to accomplish, and I'm given the authority to figure out what needs to be done on a given day.
That isn't the case for all paralegals, especially when they are just getting started. But I'm fortunate to have the experience and the trust of the attorneys I work with to get things done as I see fit.
Of the types of things I do, I would say that working on pleadings and briefs is most enjoyable for me. In an employment practice, the lawyers most often establish the facts of a matter that will go into a legal document, but it is up to me to find support for these facts. It is kind of like piecing together a puzzle. You need to know the big picture, but you also need to have investigative skills and extreme attention to detail.
The Challenges of Being a Paralegal
A lot of work I do is discovery—finding answers and support for the facts of the case from our clients' perspective. Sometimes clients can be resistant to handing over information or simply unresponsive to my requests. Most often I'm able to get what I need through persistence and persuasion, but occasionally I'll need to get an attorney involved.
I like being able to organize my day and stay on top of things to avoid those court deadline emergencies. Especially in larger cases—when you may have a partner, a couple of associates and a paralegal all working together—you only have so much control.
It's common in this profession for things to get out of hand, especially when attorneys are juggling a lot of different client matters and, dare I say, some attorneys can be prone to procrastination.
A Paralegal's Words of Advice
There is so much variety about what is a paralegal and the level of authority they have. As you gain experience, you naturally get more responsibility. But there is still a huge difference between what a paralegal who does mergers and acquisitions does, and the kind of work I do, for instance.
To get your foot in the door, you are likely going to have to do some of the more routine things like preparing court filings, and you'll probably be subject to a lot of supervision. So expect that in the first few years of your career. After an initiation period, you gain their trust and will be involved in more diverse work, and will have more independence and job satisfaction.