There are great jobs, and there are bad jobs, but most positions fall somewhere in between. A career as a paralegal, also known as a legal assistant, can be a wonderfully fulfilling profession, but it also has its disadvantages, from a lack of respect to high levels of stress. For many, it's a matter of your tolerance for certain things, and identifying why you chose to work in the legal profession in the first place.
Lack of a Career Path
Paralegals have a limited career growth in most organizations. You must transition to another role entirely, such as into management, litigation support, or tech support, to advance beyond the paralegal ranks.
Of course, you could always go back to college and tackle law school...but becoming an attorney comes with its own set of drawbacks.
High Stress and Pressure
Law is a deadline-driven business, and a great deal depends on meeting those deadlines. The U.S. court system is designed to keep cases on a definitive calendar, requiring that certain steps be taken or documents filed by etched-in-stone points in time.
The legal system would grind to a stop if courts didn't stand by with a stopwatch to keep things moving along, and whole cases can be dismissed if attorneys and their staffs don't meet these deadlines. You can't get derailed and miss one because you're stressed out...and you will be stressed out.
You'll be dealing with multiple deadlines on a daily basis, and you'll often find that you care a great deal about the clients who are depending on you and your team. You don't want to fail them and when the system does—as inevitably happens sometimes—it can break your heart.
Tight deadlines, high workloads, and a dwindling workforce combine to create an environment in which long hours, overtime, and weekend work are the norm.
Paralegals who are employed in law firm environments frequently work more than 40 hours a week, although those who are employed in corporate and government arenas might enjoy more relaxed schedules. And you can probably forget about being paid time and a half for your hours over 40. The Department of Labor makes an exception from overtime rules for the legal industry.
Numerous organizations have emerged to help attorneys manage work/life balance issues, but few such resources exist for paralegals.
Some paralegal work is mindless, tedious, and routine, especially at the entry level.
Law firm economics dictate that firms bill clients at the highest possible rate to maximize profits. More complex, challenging tasks are therefore pushed up the staff hierarchy, reserving the juiciest tasks for the highest-ranking staff—the senior associates and partners who can bill top dollar for their time.
Paralegals wear many hats and frequently perform work that's secretarial, administrative, or clerical in nature. They do what's necessary to keep a firm running smoothly, and they're expected to do so without complaint.
Office Dynamics Underdogs
A lack of respect is one of the most common complaints among practicing paralegals, although it's richly undeserved.
Paralegals routinely deal with demanding partners, jealous associates, competitive co-workers, disrespectful opposing counsel, cranky clients, and difficult vendors. Every law firm's culture is different, but long hours, tricky deadlines, and high stakes can create a toxic work environment, and paralegals sometimes receive more than their fair share of workplace grief.
Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL)
A basic tenet of paralegal practice is that paralegals can't engage in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). All states have enacted statutes that limit the practice of law to licensed attorneys. Although each defines it differently, the practice of law is generally recognized to include:
- Accepting cases from clients
- Setting fees
- Rendering legal advice
- Signing legal documents, and
- Appearing in a representative capacity before a court or other adjudicatory body.
Paralegals must work under the supervision of a lawyer, and their roles are limited by UPL rules. This can make it difficult for paralegals to receive credit or recognition outside the firm for their behind-the-scenes work. A paralegal who writes a winning appellate brief can't take credit for it. The attorney who signs off on it will get all the accolades.
Lack of Appreciation
Paralegals are often underutilized because their roles are minimized or misunderstood. They must proactively educate firm and corporate leaders regarding their substantive capabilities to overcome this barrier. They must consistently stress all the ways in which they can contribute to client service and profitability.
It's What You Make of It
None of these issues should be deal-breakers if you have a passion for the law and if you honestly care about making a difference in people's lives. In many respects, the job is what you make of it, and it can help immeasurably to understand what you're getting into before you leap in.