We recently had the great privilege of discussing the paralegal profession with Rachel Nesbit, a paralegal at Heilman Law Group in Jackson, Mississippi and Vice President of the Mississippi Paralegal Association. In the following interview, Rachel shares valuable insights on what it is like to be a paralegal at a law firm and great career advice for new paralegals.
1. Can you summarize for our audience what the main requirements are for becoming a paralegal in the state of Mississippi?
The requirements for becoming a paralegal in Mississippi can vary greatly depending on the type of work you will be doing. Larger firms and government positions may require formal educational training, while smaller firms may not be as stringent and would consider in-house training. The most common ways to become a paralegal are:
- B.S. Degree in Paralegal Studies from a 4-year college or university;
- A.A.S. Degree in Paralegal Technology from a 2-year community college;
- Paralegal Certificate from a 4-year college or university for those who have a B.S. or B.A. Degree in another subject. The Certificate program is typically 30-hours of Paralegal classes; or
- In-house training.
In addition to the basic requirements to become a paralegal, many paralegals may decide to take the Certified Legal Assistant (“CLA”) examination offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (“NALA”). Being a Certified Legal Assistant distinguishes paralegals as knowledgeable and successful in certain areas of the law.
2. What gets you excited for work and what do you enjoy most about your job?
By far, the most exciting and enjoyable part of my job is going to trial, but that is actually a very small part of what I do. In addition to trials, I would have to say one of the most enjoyable things about being a paralegal is that you are constantly learning something new. The paralegal profession is best suited for people who never want to stop learning. As stated on NALA’s website, “Education is a lifelong process”. That statement could not be more true for anyone working in the legal profession!
3. What activities do you spend the majority of your time on during most work days?
This is probably the hardest question of all to answer. No two days are ever the same, but I could broadly describe the majority of my time as reading, writing, organizing and strategizing. Attorneys are always trying to think one step ahead so, if you take your job seriously, you will inherently begin thinking along similar lines.
4. Is there anything that you think suggests a bright outlook for paralegal careers in Mississippi or nationally?
There are several things that I consider to be bright outlooks for paralegals not just in Mississippi, but everywhere! One of the most helpful things to paralegals in any area is to join either a local association such as the Mississippi Paralegal Association, Inc. (“MPA”) or a national level association such as NALA. Being associated with the MPA has been a great resource to so many paralegals in the state of Mississippi. MPA provides continuing education, review courses for CLA examinations, a Job Bank, and a myriad of networking, pro bono, and communication opportunities.
5. What advice would you give to paralegals who are just starting out in their career to help them be successful?
My best advice for a new paralegal is to ask questions. Get a clear picture of what you are working on. Most attorneys are more than happy to explain things because ultimately your increased knowledge is a benefit to them in the long-run. The only dumb question is the one that you do not ask.
6. What did you learn in school that has been the most useful in your career?
The most important thing I learned in school was how to write well. Grammar and organized thoughts are key elements of a good writer. Writing well comes in to play in several different aspects of the paralegal profession. Legal writing, of course, is a completely different style that must be learned, but having a good foundation of basic writing ability is essential.
7. What surprised you most about working as a paralegal that you did not expect when you first started in this field?
The most surprising thing to me about being a paralegal is the level of responsibility that comes with the position. Ultimately you are working under the supervision of an attorney, but attorneys typically do not have time to micro-manage their support staff. Being a paralegal can be stressful and, at times, intense. Staying on top of your work alleviates a lot of the stress so above-average organizational skills and a self-starter work ethic go hand-in-hand with a responsible paralegal.