Saturday, March 3, 2012

Should You “Paralegal” Before Law School?

          Many prospective law students wonder whether or not there are advantages associated with taking a job as a paralegal prior to law school.  In fact, this question came up last week when I sat on a panel with two other lawyers and a law student at Harvard University where a college student was thinking about spending a year after college working as a paralegal.  The panel members had mixed responses and here is a flavor of the discussion.  First, this post only addresses the specific question of whether or not you should work as a paralegal in order to increase your chances of getting into law school.  A job as a paralegal is a very respectable job and this post does not address whether or not you should select that as a career. 

Will a Job as a Paralegal Make Your Law School Application More Competitive?

          There was general consensus that a job as a paralegal is not going to make your law school application any more competitive.  In fact some felt that you may be at a slight disadvantage as many associate the role of a paralegal with administrative tasks.  If you really want to make your law school application more competitive, you might be better served to take a year prior to law school pursuing something that you are interested in so that you can passionately describe an interesting chapter of your life to the admissions committee.  If being a paralegal fits this description then that is fine too but describing your year as a paralegal will at best show a general interest in law and it is not certain that you will be able to talk about your experience in a way that will impress most lawyers or admission committee members.

Will you get Great Experience that Will Help Your Application?

          One college student at the panel discussion also wondered whether a paralegal job would provide him with valuable “legal” experience.  Generally, the consensus was that it would not.  This is especially the case if you are a paralegal in a large firm where the administrative tasks will far outweigh any substantive experience.  Some panel members did note though that they had jobs in the not-for-profit sector where paralegals gained valuable experience and performed tasks similar to tasks that lawyers perform.   I have also seen this in smaller companies where the paralegal was able to perform substantive tasks.

Will Being A Paralegal Help You Get A Job as A Lawyer?

          Generally the consensus was that taking a job as a paralegal prior to law school would not help you find a legal related job.  The results here could differ if you perform substantive tasks.  In addition one important thing to note is that many are under the mistaken impression that if you work as a paralegal in a large firm that they will hire you after law school.  While this is possible, I know many people who worked as paralegals at large firms and were not picked up by that firm during the recruitment process.  Even if you are hired, it will definitely be because you had great grades and were an attractive candidate.  I personally do not feel that being a paralegal adds much to make you an attractive candidate but opinions may differ here.  Also, I do know people who worked as paralegals for large firms and are now employed there. Again though, these students had excellent grades and were probably offered positions at other top firms.  That is, I doubt they got the job because they were a paralegal at the firm.  Also again, I know many more people who were not ever offered a job at the firm where they worked as a paralegal.  

What are Some of the Advantages?

          The key advantage associated with being a paralegal is that you get an up front look at what being a lawyer is like.  (mind you it will not show you what law school is like & for me a great part of being a lawyer was the law school experience)  A preview of the life of a lawyer can be particularly helpful if you are a “big law” paralegal because it may give you insight as to whether you want to commit to the big law life. (long hours, unpredictability, etc.)   I am not sure that this is a good enough reason to work as a paralegal though as you could get a good insight by speaking to people or perhaps doing an internship during law school.  Moreover, as a paralegal you may be exposed to one narrow area of law that may turn you off law altogether.  Lawyers often end up in numerous fields and this one glimpse may not be enough to make an informed decision regarding a career. 


          There are two pieces of advice here.  First, if you take time off after college (75% of Harvard Law School’s last entering class took a year off), focus on something that you have a passion for and something that you want to do.  This will make you happy and will also make for excellent material for your application.  With many good students applying to top schools, the schools are often looking at that time off to determine what the student is made of.  I am not sure that being a paralegal does a great deal to put you ahead of the person that say went to a third world country to feed the starving or build schools.   Second, if you do want to work as a paralegal prior to going to law school, sit down and talk to some lawyers who worked as paralegals prior to going to law school.  You should also speak to several current paralegals to see what they like and dislike about their jobs. 

          To conclude, I will repeat that being a paralegal is a very respectable job but if the question is will it help you get into law school or get a legal job, my answer is no.

This summary is one of many that are offered in the new book, Law School Lowdown (Barron's Publishing).  You can order the new book written by Harvard Law School graduate, Ian E. Scott, by clicking here.


  1. My personal experience is quite different from what is said in this post. I was a paralegal at a large institutional firm many years ago. I took the job very seriously and was noticed for doing so, and as a result got increasing levels of responsibility. I would say that the experience as a paralegal definitely helped me get into law school (Harvard) and get a good job after law school because it gave me a much greater knowledge of and enthusiasm for the law and legal practice than I would have had otherwise, and this affected the substance of my law school/job applications. It also helped me get better grades in law school because I had a much better knowledge than my peers about how law works in practice. Finally, I think my experience helped me get clerkships (appellate and Supreme Court) for many of thes same reasons.
    I think my basic disagreement comes from the assumption implicit in this point that the paralegal job is only administrative. I think this depends entirely on the person who has the job. Even in a large, bureaucratic firm such as I was in, it is possible to make it into a substantive, exciting job at which one can learn a great deal about law and the legal practice. A substantive interest in one's job is something that is noticed by one's employers, including in a legal job, and such an interest generally is rewarded by entrusting the job holder with substantive responsibilities.
    It may be that my experience was idiosyncratic but it definitely was not consistent with any of the conclusions in this post.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. I agree with you 100%.

    2. I agree. I teach in a paralegal program and was a practicing lawyer for many years after graduating from a top law school. The big difference today than from 20 years ago is the law school investment. Knowing what you're getting into is crucial - ending up with a huge law school debt and no job is a reality today, but at least you'll know it's your passion and worth the trouble. Ending up with a huge debt and realizing you hate the practice of law... not a risk people can take today.

      I resent non-lawyers telling students to not major in paralegal studies or work as a paralegal. The author posted, "The key advantage associated with being a paralegal is that you get an up front look at what being a lawyer is like." That isn't just an "advantage" is an imperative.

    3. This article is based upon the idea that the law school applicant has the resources to do what he or she wants for a year. Unfortunately, many people are not in a situation. For many people, being a paralegal allows them to make money before they go to law school, alleviating their debt post-law school by a little amount (and every bit helps).

  2. Thank you for your comments. Yes, I agree fully that the experience really depends on the person and what they do with the job. There really were mixed views on the panel and many of your points came through for sure. (more on the smaller or public interest paralegal side but I think the points are equally valid for big law). Also, in big law, associates also have to take the time explain and give paralegals meaningful work. I know that where I work at times I see associates giving tasks to paralegals that really should go to their assistants. Thanks again for the comment.

    1. This article is based upon the idea that the law school applicant has the resources to do what he or she wants for a year. Unfortunately, many people are not in a situation. For many people, being a paralegal allows them to make money before they go to law school, alleviating their debt post-law school by a little amount (and every bit helps).

  3. Anonymous is "spot on". The tragedy is that the focus of the discussion was no on "who does the processing of paperwork into the courts" and hence who really has the Law Office Practice Skill Sets that truly serve the law office productivity and profitability? Paralegals is who. I had foreign lawyers take my program for the express reason it was bottomed in Law Office Practice Skils (what is NOT taught in paralegal nor law schools generally) and redounds to paralegals and Lawyers disadvantage. Foreign Lawyers leaving law school (after taking paralegal training) were able to instantly hang out a shingle and make income. America is still in a traditional mode that will continue to tank the profession in failing to acquire necessary Law Office Practice Skill Sets. That's the training that's necessary for law office to want you, regardless of where you get THAT training. I'm talking developing $million dollar law firms from those who created them including Johnnie Cochran. You're still talking 200 year old theory of law training. IT IS IN THE "PRACTICE". The very area of the law--developing Law Office Practice Skill Sets--that will MAKE a law firm profitable -- is the very issue you failed to discuss -- making Money in a law office. Considering the condition of the Legal Profession, it's obvious there needs to be a paradigm shift away from abstract thinking and pontification and towards what REALLY makes a law firm WORK -- Law Office Practice Skills. With all due respect, you should learn them. THAT is a yeoman's task you should train up to, assuming you're interested in training Lawyers to make money.

  4. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that practice skills are very important and law schools should do a better job to cover this area. I found clinics very helpful in this area and certainly wish that some of my courses were more practical. For example, in my trusts and estates class the professor actually had us find someone and write their will for them. I would have liked to see more of that. Regarding the post though, the focus is very narrow and the topic is really whether or not being a paralegal would help your law school application. As I state, a paralegal is a very respectable job but wanted to share the thoughts of all 4 of the panel members on this topic. A post about making money as a lawyer and what you can do in law school to do this is a good idea though.

    1. so did you include yourself in the will?

  5. The typical paralegal today has a degree and is educated in substantive and procedural law, legal writing, legal analysis, and legal research.

    The typical Bachelor's program in paralegal studies will usually cover 90 credit units in law courses with the remaining 30 credits in general studies. That breaks down to 3 years of law studies.

    No one can learn to be a paralegal in a year and it's an insult to every paralegal working in the field.

  6. Thank you for the comment. I have to point out again (pointed out at the beginning and end of this post) that being a paralegal is a very respectable profession and this post ONLY deals with whether or not someone should do this BECAUSE they want to improve their chances of going to law school. Most people I know that have this question have not gone to school to become a paralegal and do it right after college. (I know many people personally who have done this). These people do this in order to see what working for big or other law is like and to improve their chances of getting into law shcool. This is who this post addresses. Please keep in mind that the post is based on a direct question from a college student who wanted to know if being a paralegal would improve his chances of getting accepted at the law school of his choice and answering his question was not meant to be insulting.

    1. I understand your narrow point. However, you really need to emphasize that students also need to succeed in law school and they need to know that being a lawyer fits who they are as people. The ABA published a job satisfaction survey that said many lawyers were unhappy and wouldn't recommend others to go to law school. That statistic would be vastly different if they majored in paralegal studies, or worked as a paralegal. If they had known what the practice was like before they ended up with thousands in law school debt, only the ones who loved it would have bothered. They'd be happy, and good with the challenges of it.

  7. Dear Ian,

    I am a law school graduate and a director of paralegal program. Unfortunately, many attorneys and law school educators (many times their practice experience is outdated) have no idea what a paralegal does. So you are correct in the sense that it may not help a student get into law school.

    I have to educate law school admission officers sometimes. Being a paralegal will absolutely help a student in the profession. I have students that go on to law school and are very successful due to the foundation they received in our paralegal program. I definitely think this article needs to be "adjusted", because you may lead a lot of students down the wrong path that could benefit from a paralegal program.

  8. Thank you for the comment. I hope that the article will not lead people down the wrong path. Please note that the article addresses a very narrow topic which is whether or not taking a paralegal position during a year between college and law school will help one get into law school. The first paragraph makes this clear and I have attempted to reiterate this throughout the article. Also, I have attempted to balance the responses by including view from the entire panel (2 of which were paralegals before becoming lawyers). At the end of the day, reader will have to understand that this is just an article and should be one thing that they can use to make their decision. Thanks again.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Well, paralegal will help students a lot in preparation for law school. With experience, they will have a substantial right mind set to handle law lessons, drills and litigation exercises.

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  37. As a paralegal turned 1L currently looking for a summer clerkship, I can vouch for the fact the paralegal aspect does not help.

  38. I got my paralegal certificate from a Junior college while doing my undergrad studies there so that I'd be able to work at a legitimate firm (instead of starbucks) for the last two years of undergrad when I transferred to a 4-year university(UCLA). I feel like it made my resume more competitive compared to the rest of my classmates and fellow applicants for UCLA. Even my professor who used to practice law told me that getting my paralegal certificate was a good idea not just for getting into lawschool but improving my overall career in the legal field.

    Sure a paralegal and a lawyer learn different things. So does a doctor and a nurse. But we work in the same environment and benefit from the same experience and its experience I'd rather have than not.

    besides, law schools don't let you work for the first year, so I gotta save up money right? and its better than making minimum wage at starbucks

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  40. I had a friend who is a paralegal right now. It's a great way to gain experience before entering the law field on your own. It's sort of like an apprenticeship, and there's a lot you can learn.