Sunday, December 28, 2008

Q&A: Should Paralegal Students Start Looking for Internships in Their First Year?

This entry is in response to a much appreciated reader comment on my December 19, 2008 posting, “Locating a Paralegal Internship”. The second part of the question is, “I just started a 3-year paralegal program this past fall, and my school will be setting us up in law firms in our last year. Should I jump ahead and look for internships for the summer?"

The simple answer is “Yes, start looking for any job which will give you legal experience prior to graduation as soon as you can.” Even if a student is financially able to attend school without working, experience working in the legal field makes a huge difference to potential employers. If the student does not actually need a salary, then she may have more flexibility locating unpaid paralegal internships.

I understand that many students do need to work full or part-time while in school, and that with no prior experience, it may be difficult to find a job working for lawyers. Even working in a different field which provides highly marketable transferable skills, such as the medical, banking, insurance or real estate fields, is better than having little to no relevant work experience. Some paralegal jobs may even require experience in a different field.

Serious paralegal students who are working in “dead-end” jobs which do little to enhance their administrative, computer or analytical skills should consider seeking work which will help them build their resumes and appeal to future employers, even if they cannot locate a job in a traditional law firm or corporate legal department.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bad Grammar Disclaimer or Admission of Carelessness? (Or Run That Spelling and Grammar Check)

I have noticed a mildly disturbing trend by authors of listserv and discussion board posts and even bloggers to routinely add written disclaimers for their own grammatical errors, such as “I am not responsible for any grammatical errors due to my typing speed” or “Please disregard my typos due to the short amount of time I had to post my response.” (I am suspicious when someone tells the world that she keyboards like the wind if what her writing suggests is that she slept through most of her English classes in high school).

Disclaimers can be prudent, especially when lawyers are giving advice to non-clients whose cases they have not reviewed, or doctors are answering questions from patients they have not actually met. However, for legal professionals, failing to proofread our own writing is an admission of carelessness.

I know that sometimes people are trying to be funny when they add a disclaimer for potential written mistakes. Unfortunately, it is not funny at all when the writing disclaimed is actually full of errors. Our writing is one of our most important public professional personas, especially in the legal field. They might laugh, but in the end, our audience is still judging our competency and maybe even our level of education and academic success.

Plus, a disclaimer in lieu of simply running our word processor’s spelling and grammar check before we present our writing to others just seems lazy. When I was majoring in English in the early '80s, my typewriter did not check my spelling or my grammar, and my editing capabilities were limited to white-out, correction tape and cursing if I had to re-type an entire paper an hour before it was due. Today, we do not have any excuses for presenting basic written grammatical errors to potential employers, our supervising attorneys or our colleagues.

Disclaimer: I ran Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check on this blog entry. If it is not grammatically correct, it is my computer’s fault. The program does not recognize the word “bloggers” and recommends “bogglers” instead, which can be descriptive of people whose writing is mind-boggling.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Locating a Paralegal Internship (or the Search for Hidden Treasure)

Paralegal programs that provide internships for their students offer an invaluable service, although there are many positives to locating an internship on your own. Seeking a paralegal internship gives students an early start on the development of their resumes, as well as hones their job search skills and expands their professional networks. The search itself may be challenging, but really earning that first internship will feel as exciting as finding buried treasure.

The search for an internship would be simple if law firms advertised for interns, but very few firms do. "Cold-calling" law firms does not give you much of an opportunity to sell yourself, as you will rarely get further than the front desk person who answers the phone. Serious applicants should submit a cover letter and resume to law firm partners and/or office managers, together with at least one letter of reference from an instructor. If you have excellent letters of reference from prior employers, attach them as well.

The cover letter should be extremely well-written and indicate very clearly that the student is seeking an unpaid internship with a private law firm. Include a persuasive but succinct argument as to why a law firm would benefit from having you as an intern. State that you are willing to undertake any tasks in order to gain legal experience, including copying, filing and running errands. If you have skills which are particularly appealing to law firms, such as a high keyboarding speed, expertise in software programs and/or transferable work experience, briefly describe them.

Your resume should be very attractive and professional. If you have a high G.P.A. or have received academic scholarships and awards, list those. The objective should state that you are seeking an internship. Use the best quality stationary that you can afford. Mail your proposal to all private law firms within a reasonable driving distance of your home, no matter what area of practice. Ask your instructors if they know of any law firms, law-related businesses, local court offices or legal non-profit agencies that accept interns.

An outstanding internship proposal may land on the right person's desk and generate an interview. In this tough economy, you might find a firm that is receptive to assistance from a bright, motivated paralegal student. Of course, there are no guarantees, but you have a better chance of getting more people to review your proposal if you submit it in writing.

Other resources include posting an ad on Craigslist under legal/paralegal jobs, announcing that you are seeking an internship. The ad should be extremely professional and well-written. If you have not done so already, set up a profile on LinkedIn and use that to network as well.

Also join as many local and state paralegal associations as you can and use their resources, including listservs, websites and meetings, and network, network, network. Most paralegal associations offer greatly discounted student rates.

View your search for an internship as a treasure hunt which will reflect your resourcefulness and your professionalism. An internship is a key part of a good paralegal education, especially if you do not have prior experience working in the legal field.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Going the Extra Mile to Assist Clients in Need

Paralegals who work with clients experiencing crises, such as severe injury, loss of employment, bankruptcy or domestic troubles, often find themselves offering additional support outside of "billable" work or traditional legal tasks. With the worsening economic climate in our country, it is more important than ever that legal professionals be aware of their clients' needs and help direct their clients to appropriate government, private and community resources. These clients are already relying on a law firm to guide them through a traumatic period and may not be thinking clearly or know where else to go for assistance.

Informed and caring paralegals can help by providing clients with contact information for agencies which provide assistance to individuals and/or families in crises, including (but not limited to):


  • Employment Security Commission to apply for unemployment benefits (if eligible), vocational counseling and access to the jobs bank
  • Social Security Administration to apply for SSD, SSI, Medicare or other types of benefits
  • Department of Social Services to apply for food stamps, Medicaid or other assistance
  • Consumer Credit Counseling to work with creditors or make a decision about bankruptcy
  • Legal Aid for assistance with landlord/tenant or domestic issues
  • State division of vocational rehabilitation services, GoodWill Industries, community colleges or other local return-to-work programs to obtain assistance in locating jobs or re-training for a different career
  • City/County health department and/or mental health agencies which provide medical and counseling services to individuals with minimal or no insurance
  • Local agencies, including churches and other privately-funded social services, which provide food pantries, clothing, meals, emergency assistance with rent and utilities or temporary shelter
  • Government websites which offer practical and clear advice for consumers, such as the Federal Trade Commission which has excellent and easy-to-read resources for foreclosure (www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/homes/rea04.shtm) or identity theft (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/) (Paralegals can print a copy for clients without computer access).

Keeping a list of contact information for these agencies is a good idea.

Sometimes just taking the time to listen to clients reassures them, and helps them think more clearly to develop a plan to resolve issues themselves. Being supportive, open-minded and empathetic will help both the client and paralegal thoughtfully and carefully work through the most important issues and explore available resources. Sometimes you may feel a little like an unlicensed counselor and social worker, but at the end of the day, it feels good to know that you and your firm went the "extra mile" to help a client in need.


Additional comments from readers for ideas to go that "extra mile" for clients are welcome.