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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Diary of a Pensive Paralegal

I've been reflecting on my career a lot since starting school this past fall. Big life changes are typically followed by reflection, so there is no surprise there. Some of the questions I have been asking myself lately are questions the younger me glossed over, or would have answered with blissful ignorance of the way the real world actually works.

I still love working in the legal field, and I remain proud of my profession and the many wonderful people I get to call colleagues. I have learned so much, and I still crave so much knowledge that I cannot fathom taking any other than the course I chose for my career several years ago. But being back in school has broadened my network. I am associating with successful people from all sorts of fields, and I'm learning that my education could take me almost anywhere I want to go... should I choose to go there.

The realization that the world is filled with so much opportunity suddenly makes me feel very limited in my field. I know that there exist places where seasoned paralegals advance to various other titles, become supervisors, managers, etc. I know that the skills I learn and hone are valuable assets in any number of circumstances. I know that I have the potential to go as far as my job and field allow because I want to make my mark. I want to be a voice, to help chart the course, to control my destiny, to be an encouraging example to others in my field, etc., etc. But the reality is that I go to work every day, and I come home. I assist in mostly administrative duties, with some substantive crumbs from time to time. I do not feel like I make an actual difference, and I struggle to find any meaning at all in what I do. I also worry that I am not growing, not moving forward, not gaining knowledge or abilities.

I know I paint a desperate picture, but it isn't so bad. I still feel inspired in my studies, and in my extracurricular activities. I enjoy being part of a group like NALS, and I gobble up opportunities to learn outside of work. It's just that a part of me yearns for a true growth experience within my career. I desire to constantly move forward, but I feel like there is a wall somewhere very close that I will reach too soon, a very tall wall with a sign: "No paralegals beyond this point."

Unless I transition out of law. But I love the law! How could I turn my back on something I enjoy being a part of? I couldn't be a paralegal if I left the legal world! What would I be?

This is the part where I usually start thinking that I expect too much. What do our employers owe us anyway? Certainly no one owes me the opportunity for career growth and expansion. If I want those things, I should seek them out for myself, on my own time, right? The capitalist in me says, "Your company owes you the pay and benefits you contracted to, in return, of course, for your best work." The me-generation kid says, "People in our generation don't accept bare minimum. Our companies should care about our career potential just as much as we do, because they could benefit from it as long as we stay with them." It feels selfish to expect or hope for advancement opportunities in a field where many firms have none for non-attorney employees.

Problem is, I can't think of any other fields that limits its members so much. Nurses can become hospital administrators, patient managers, you name it. In fact, nearly every non-physician job I have seen at hospitals lately requires at least a nursing degree. Engineers move on to be project managers, compliance officers, etc. Entry level accountants have the career potential to go just about anywhere in their field, with time. Likewise with people in sales. The hospitality industry. There is big potential for players in every field... except for the one I love. Again, I know that many paralegals have been fortunate to move into advanced positions over time within their firms, but I don't actually see those opportunities. I don't know first hand of a firm that has advanced positions for non-attorney staff other than office manager or financial manager. I have never seen such a position advertised, either in south Alabama or in Tennessee. I know that there appears to be greater potential for a bigger non-attorney role in smaller firms, but the trade-off of course comes in pay and benefits. A part of me sighs, wondering if I will actually have to choose, eventually, between working in the field that I love and finding the professional development that I crave.

For now, though, I am satisfied. I suppose I have to take this self-reflection business one day at a time. School keeps me busy enough that I don't have too much time to worry about this quarter life crisis. I have a good job, and I work with good people. NALS gives me outside opportunities to learn and grow as a legal professional, in the mean time, which is definitely good enough. For today.


  1. I think a lot of paralegal satisfaction comes from the attorneys you work for. I work for three attorneys, two of which allow me handle a certain amount of cases from inception to settlement. I do evaluations, pleadings, discovery, site inspections, client/witness interviews, research, sit in on depositions, and trial prep. Everything after their review and approval, of course. The third attorney I work for only has me collect medical records and prepare summaries, with the occasional tid bit of something more substantial. Personally, I do not feel like I want to be in a management type position. I get a great deal of satisfaction from being so involved in my cases. I like that feeling. I also am very involved in our paralegal association. I am particularly drawn to helping our student members. I run the internship program at our firm and I also run our NALA Certified Paralegal study group to help prepare our members to sit for the exam. I always have a lot going on both at work and outside of work with the association. I guess maybe I don't leave myself enough time to think about anything else! I think the type of opportunities you seek can be found in bigger cities. I feel lucky to have opportunities at the firm I work for here in Knoxville. One of our paralegals is also a teacher at a local paralegal program. Maybe you might consider that as another venue for satisfying your inner goal-getter spirit. Also, consider creating a position for yourself whether you stay at your current firm or promote yourself in the legal community as the paralegal you want to be. Interview with potential employers and tell them that this is the paralegal you are which will probably be better than what they are looking for. I started getting better projects from my attorneys because I asked them. They didn't even know that I could or even wanted to do more substantive work. Sometimes attorneys just don't know what they want until they get it. Good luck in whatever you decide to do!

  2. You may want to start looking into Legal Project Management. More and more firms are developing programs and positions. As an extremely driven paralegal myself, I can relate to how you are feeling, and have found the project management path may be just what I'm looking for.

  3. Melissa, I was going to say exactly what A #1 said, so much of your job satisfaction will depend on your supervising attorneys and your specialty areas. I do a great deal of substantive, interesting (and civil rights) work every day. I know I make a difference. My firm has also been extremely supportive of my extracurricular paralegal activities (blog, podcast, committee work, CLE presentations) as well. Sometimes it's simply a matter of finding the right legal environment and supervising attorneys for you.

    I'm so glad you're blogging again!

  4. Hi Meli, worst case you can always follow my path and transition to an attorney position. Not lying tho, sometimes I wish I could go back to leaving work at work after 5 pm. Sebastian

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