We recently had the great opportunity to interview the president of the Minnesota Paralegal Association, Lori J. Boris, RP®, about what it is like to work as a paralegal and advice for individuals interested in starting a paralegal career. In the following interview President Boris shares excellent insights and advice on being successful in the paralegal field.
Can you tell us why you decided to become a paralegal and how you got started in your career?
I decided to become a paralegal in around 1995 when I realized that I had the capability to do a lot more substantive legal work than I was currently doing. I had been working as an LAA (f/k/a legal secretary) for about four years at that point. So I enrolled in an ABA-approved post-baccalaureate paralegal program here in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area that enabled me to obtain my paralegal certificate in one year. After graduating, I was very fortunate to get a job within the firm where I worked as a paralegal in the labor and employment law department. That was in 1998, and I’ve been working as a litigation paralegal in various areas of law ever since.
Do law firms in Minnesota typically look for a specific college degree when hiring paralegals? Do you recommend any certifications?
Law firms in Minnesota typically look for a paralegal to at least have a paralegal certificate, preferably from an ABA-approved program. Many like to see a bachelor’s degree. And the PACE (Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam) certification is becoming more and more well-known as a way that certain paralegals have set themselves apart as having reached a level of advanced competency. That is a certification through the NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations).
Can you describe what a typical day at your job is like for you?
Each day is so different – there are seriously no two alike. Various tasks I undertake on a typical day might be summarizing medical records, corresponding with expert witnesses, meeting with attorneys regarding defense medical status, meeting with the paralegals in my department (as a paralegal coordinator, I supervise a group of paralegals), preparing materials for a deposition, reviewing and analyzing deposition transcripts when they arrive, reading filings of other defendants, and so on..
What qualities do you think are important for success in a paralegal career?
I think definitely attention to detail ranks very high. A paralegal must be able to review documents and accurately glean important information to summarize for the attorney. I think technical skills also rank very high. A paralegal who is technically savvy is typically in high demand. People skills are also obviously important. A paralegal often is the first point of contact for clients, and they need to have good customer service skills. They also need the good customer service skills in order to work with their attorneys, assistants and other office staff. A paralegal needs to be able to write well, in order to prepare memos and summaries for their attorneys and to communicate well via correspondence, whether that’s via e-mail or snail mail.
Why do you think becoming a paralegal is a good career choice?
I think that as corporations and the public become more and more demanding to have legal services at lower cost, there will be a greater need for paralegals to handle some of the more mundane legal tasks at a lower cost to the client, always under the supervision of an attorney, of course. Individuals with paralegal training are not only needed in law firms and corporate legal departments, but also in courts, government agencies and other areas where that training is valuable.
Do you have any advice for new graduates for getting a job as a paralegal?
One thing I would say is that every paralegal has gotten that first job, and they will get theirs, as well. They need to sell their strengths and experience that they have gleaned from prior jobs, whether that’s as a server in a restaurant or working retail, or whatever they’ve done. Many of those skills transfer to being a paralegal, and even though one doesn’t have paralegal experience, per se, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have any valuable experience. Another thing I would tell them is that a job ad is an employer’s “wish list”. It does not mean that a candidate will not be considered if they don’t have absolutely everything on the list, although there may be things that are truly “required”. Another thing I would advise new graduates is to take as many opportunities as possible to become involved in their local paralegal associations – network, volunteer, get your face and name out in front of the leaders in your profession. It will truly make a difference!
How can joining a local paralegal association help paralegals in their careers?
I guess I touched on this in the last question, but I have literally seen paralegals who volunteer with their local association and become known by the leaders of the association get jobs due to their connections in that association. In addition, our association, at least, has a great job bank that is targeted toward paralegals that only members have access to. They can also post their resumes, and there are great tips on resume writing and interviewing, etc. Finally, there are many educational and networking opportunities available through the association.
What advice do you wish you would have received at the beginning of your career as a paralegal?
To join my paralegal association! I was a paralegal for seven years before I joined, and I wish I had made those connections earlier.
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