You’ve landed a good job in a law firm and put your time in. You’ve managed to earn yourself a reputation as being a hard worker, well-organized and detail-oriented. You’re formulating queries like nobody’s business, answering telephone calls with authority, and tackling legal research with ease. On a couple of occasions you may have even caught something an attorney missed or dug a little deeper to find a little-known precedent, and that extra eye for detail and willingness to go just a little further ended up being critical to the case the team was working on.
You’re feeling confident, which has forced you to consider something that was maybe unthinkable when you started your career… Is it time to settle in and ride out a great career as a paralegal, or do you call this a first step and begin planning your next move toward pursuing a law license? You’re at a crossroads and faced with a challenging decision.
For many paralegals, the decision is simple because their original plan was always to catapult off their paralegal position to a career in law.
For others, maybe it was a word of encouragement from an attorney, judge, or professor that made them consider making the move sometime later on in their career.
Whatever the case may be, a career as a paralegal can be just as rewarding as a career as a lawyer. For some, earning a law degree may be the best career move they’ve ever made, while for others, leaning into their paralegal career for the long haul is far more satisfying and a much better fit.
Here are a few things worth thinking about as you mull over your plan…
Working as a Paralegal May Very Well Be the Best Way to Prepare for a Career as an Attorney
If you’ve already been working in a law firm, the secret’s out about what being an attorney entails– you can never say you didn’t know what you were getting into.
The knowledge gained performing tasks with a substantial legal component as all paralegals do will prove instrumental as you navigate law school, so you got that going for you.
In addition to having all the opportunity anybody would need to learn everything there is to know about working in a law office, your time as a paralegal will allow you to explore a specific area of law you may want to pursue. It’s often love at first site, and a sense of instant knowing that you’ll be a bulldog in personal injury or that you have the clever mindset for criminal defense. In any case, it’s more likely than not that the exposure you got on the job is what put that fire in your gut for a particular area of law. And if you fall in love, you might even be able to pursue a summer associate position in that area while in law school, giving you an even deeper inside perspective. This may be really advantageous; as many lawyers receive their first job offer out of law school from the same employer they worked for as a summer associate.
With that in mind, if you’re working in an area of law as a paralegal that you just don’t like, don’t let that experience leave a sour taste in your mouth. In other words, don’t let a lousy job as a paralegal shape your decision. If law is something that interests you, chances are there is an area of law that will be a good fit for you. Research other options, contact your state ABA chapter, arrange to shadow an attorney in another area of law for a day, and continue your ambitious pursuit.
Continuing to work as a paralegal as you complete law school may also prove beneficial, as you will likely have an entire support system at your disposal. As one attorney we talked to put it, “You still have to eat!”
Bouncing ideas and questions off practicing attorneys and asking for advice are just a few of the perks of being a paralegal as you work your way through law school. Another bonus: If you’ve established a good relationship with an attorney during your time as a paralegal, you will be guaranteed a glowing letter of recommendation when you apply to law school.
Law School is Expensive – Really, Really Expensive
Not only do you have to consider the time commitment (3 years of full-time study) … but you’re also going to have to figure out how you’re going to shoulder the cost. Law school isn’t cheap. And although plenty of attorneys rake it in, you still need to brace yourself for student loan debt – attorney salaries aren’t the only thing in the six figure range. How’s that for motivation for getting into a lucrative area of practice?
As of the 2016-17 academic year, the cost of attending law school at UCLA was $45,000, $51,832 for non-California residents… that’s per year. That comes to $135,000-$155,000 to earn your law degree, and that’s not including books and fees, oh and of course, living expenses. Even law students need to eat every once in a while.
Want to go to Stanford? Well, UCLA might seem like a bargain by comparison. For the east coast Ivy League school you’ll pay $58,000 a year… Harvard is even more at $62,000 a year.
According to the ABA, during the last 25 years, law school tuition has increased twice as fast as inflation. Ouch.
Now the good news: You might be eligible for tuition reimbursement from your employer as part of your salary package when you enter the field as an attorney. Although full tuition reimbursement may not be all that common, many employers are willing to pony up and cover at least some of the cost.
All the Money Means More Responsibility, More Stress and More Hours
You’re tired of the mundane. You might look to the attorneys with envy because they get to bask in the glamour of, well, being an attorney… and all the hours you’ve seen billed out stacks up so high it would make anybody green. All the while, you’re stuck in the background, preparing briefs and making copies. But all that glamour and all those big pay days come at a cost in the form of a lot of stress, more responsibility and long hours.
As a paralegal, you answer to the attorneys in your firm. However, as an attorney, you’ll answer to the client, the managing partner, and your state bar. Ultimately, the buck stops with you. If billable hours are down, it’s on you. If business is down, it’s on you. If a case ends in a bad verdict, you’re the person people are pointing fingers at.
Rose Turzak, a Cleveland-based paralegal-turned-attorney said it best when she said one of the biggest advantages of being a paralegal is, “Your butt ain’t on the line!” While working as a paralegal, Turzak said she would provide the lawyer with the information, discuss the options, provide her opinion, and then “be done with it.” After that, it was in the attorney’s hands to make the final call.
Long hours? Absolutely. Weekends? You know it. A busy schedule is just part and parcel of most attorneys’ lives. Sure, as a paralegal, you may be asked to put in longer hours before a deadline, but it’s nowhere near what is required of an attorney.
According to Angela M., a Pittsburgh-based paralegal we talked to, it wasn’t until she saw first-hand the long hours the lawyers put in at the law firm she worked for that she changed her mind about going on to become an attorney. “I always thought in the back of my head that I’d like to be a lawyer.” But after working at a law firm for five years, she realized that she wanted a life and a family, and didn’t want to be so consumed with work.
She is quick to point out, though, that paralegals should be prepared for some late evenings too, and that some things have to be cancelled. According to Angela, even in the role of paralegal, sometimes your social life “needs to be put to the wayside.”