It takes more than just attorneys, judges, and paralegals to make a courtroom run smoothly. Docket clerks are an essential piece of the puzzle—and that’s where Kristy Russell, now a six-year veteran paralegal, started her legal career.

“I started out as a docket clerk in the Attorney General’s office, typing stuff for their worker’s compensation department,” Kristy said.

She found her way into a paralegal role a bit by accident. “There’s a huge turn over at the Attorney General’s office,” she said.

“Everyone kept leaving, which meant I kept getting promoted. I came to be in the legal secretary position and realized how much I enjoyed it, and they actually offered a tuition reimbursement program for me to go back to school, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll get my paralegal studies degree.’ I did that, and then got promoted to a paralegal job in the public safety unit. It was kind of just getting moved up and ending up here.”

Kristy, who went to school for computer programming, never expected to land in a paralegal role. However, her early experiences as a docket clerk helped her determine that she enjoyed the legal field.

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Gaining Experience Through Entry-Level Positions

It can be hard to know if you’ll enjoy a certain type of work, let alone excel at it, before actually being immersed in the day-to-day work. Dana Medley-Vogel, who has worked as a paralegal for ten years, suggests taking every opportunity that comes your way to get your feet wet in the legal field before committing to the career…

“If you thought at all you were interested in a career in law, if you were able to start out even at an entry-level, you would know pretty quickly if you found the law interesting or boring.”

“Like kids going into college—they sometimes think they want to do something, and then when they get started, they’re like, ‘No, I don’t think so, this isn’t what I’m interested in.’ Even working in clerking or something like that in the court system would be great to find out if you like it,” Dana explained.

It might feel like there aren’t many opportunities outside of a student internship to get a feel for what it’s actually like working in a law firm or court system without already having the training and education necessary to get hired on as a paralegal, but you’re not the first one to find yourself in this position, and you’ll actually find that there are lots of entry-level jobs in the legal field that can provide the kind of immersive experience you need to get a real feel for what life might be like as a paralegal…

With law firms …

Many law firms process serving companies and other legal services providers employ runners, file clerks, receptionists, court filers, secretaries, and office managers in positions that don’t require a legal background or degree, but that provide plenty of experience working side-by-side with attorneys and paralegals. These positions would involve plenty of scanning, data entry, auditing and cataloging, of course, but they would also involve some document preparation, and you’ll often have a chance to get out of the office and interact with employees at the local courthouse when delivering documents. And just as important in preparing to become a paralegal, the job often involves interacting directly with clients when answering questions and keeping them informed of progress during the process.

Depending on the turnover rate of the office, it’s possible to stay with the same employer and move up the ranks by going to school to get the education you need to qualify for a paralegal position. Many firms like to promote from within. Law offices have every reason to want to keep experienced staff and given them opportunities to advance since they’re already familiar with the office culture and some of the particulars of working in the area of law the firm specializes in. As

Kristy says, “Each law firm is different.” Most firms prefer their employees to be familiar with their unique atmosphere and workflow rather than hiring an outsider. Even if you’re starting out in an entry-level position, it can lead to a position as a paralegal. As Kristy explained, “My educational program gave me an idea of how things would be and kind of opened the door, but you have to do the job to be prepared. It seems like each law firm likes it if you get your experience from them—or working directly in the field—as opposed to a bunch of schooling. I’ve heard that quite a bit.”

With the courts …

Docket clerks and court clerks are usually found working for the courts directly where they manage courtroom calendars, including trial and court appearance scheduling, notify litigants and attorneys of court dates, collect court fees and fines, maintain court records, and process and deliver everything from jury notices and subpoenas to bench warrants. This is a position that involves lots of face-to-face interaction with the public, communicating important information related to the hearings their involved in and their responsibility afterward, answering questions and fielding phone calls.

Perhaps the best thing about working for the courts as a way to prepare to become a paralegal is all the opportunity you get to interact with judges, court employees, and attorneys. There is no better way to gain an understanding of what’s involved in litigation than to work with attorneys outside of the comfort of the law office. Most of these positions are available through municipal courts, though you can find positions with higher courts too.

Even though Kristy started out her legal career as a docket clerk, she says she “learned the hard way” to “always be nice to the circuit clerks, or any of the clerks you talk to over at the courthouse. You might be a little unhappy with them or they might be a little rude, but always be nice to them, because they’re the ones that can get you what you need.”

If you choose to gain experience by working in clerking, you’ll be an essential piece of the courtroom’s puzzle by organizing files and maintaining schedules. Since calendaring is such a vital piece of the paralegal’s role, you’ll be learning essential skills that will only boost your chances of landing a great paralegal job.

Working as a clerk or in an office position for a legal firm will help you gain experience directly in the field, but it’s not the only way to gain the kind of experience you need to maximize your chances of getting hired as a paralegal.

Nonprofit legal organizations provide great opportunities for anybody willing to volunteer their time. These organizations usually take pro bono cases related to everything from immigration to environmental concerns. Since they rely on grants and private donations, they are known for working on a shoestring budget and are usually very eager to get any help they can.

A lot of time, there isn’t anything terribly glamorous about the work you’ll do, picture basic office duties or working the phones to either contact people from a list of prospective donors or fielding incoming calls.  However, it’s definitely worth looking for something that will provide even more valuable experience, like volunteer mediator or court appointed special advocate positions with organizations like the national nonprofit CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children). In volunteer positions like these you’ll actually get the chance to work with social workers and attorneys and communicate directly with judges.

Through CASA, volunteer advocates are appointed to specific cases of abused and neglected children until the children are placed in a safe home. These advocates are required to understand the details of the case as well as case documentation in order to act in the child’s best interest and ensure that attorneys and judges are aware of important details related to the child’s situation. A position as an advocate provides an up-close, in depth look into the court process, something that could be invaluable to a future career as a paralegal.