Becoming a paralegal is a great way to gain law experience and start your legal career. Many prospective law students take a gap of a year or two before beginning law school. During this downtime, working as a paralegal can give you a much needed break from the grind of legal coursework and also provide valuable work experience that can be used as a stepping stone to becoming a practicing lawyer.
Johann Lee, the assistant dean of admissions at the School of Law at Northwestern University, said that in some years, more than 90 percent of the entering J.D. class has some work experience. Clearly work experience, particularly in the legal field, is an important way to remain competitive with other applicants.
One option for prospective law students is to begin working as a paralegal. Paralegal certificate programs can be completed in as little as 3 and a half months and will further emphasize to employers you are qualified to work as a paralegal. The knowledge law students can gain by working as a paralegal alone makes the experience worth it, but there are less obvious benefits as well.
Law firm experience
Working as a paralegal at a law firm can give you an inside look at what it is like to work as a lawyer. Paralegals often do much of the same work as lawyers, without actually practicing law. This can be beneficial as learning the legal terminology and principles of law in your state are valuable hands on experiences that will make you more familiar with the subjects covered in law school. Some examples of work performed by paralegals includes:
- Reviewing and organizing client files
- Conducting both factual and legal research
- Interview clients and witnesses
- Preparing legal transaction documents
- Provide assistance at trials and closings
Working as a paralegal may also come with financial benefits. Some law firms have begun to cover the costs of Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation courses for their employees. LSAT prep courses are a great way to provide structure and accountability in order to study for the LSAT exam, but they can be expensive. Some LSAT prep courses can cost up to $5,000.
A reimbursement from your employer could save a large amount of money. Many law firms also offer law school tuition reimbursement programs for their staff. These programs can help to ease the large financial burden that comes with attending law school. Law school tuition can climb as high as $40,000 per year, but a reimbursement can make it less expensive.
Letter of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are an integral part of the law school application process. According to the Law School Admission Council, the most effective letters of recommendation come from work supervisors. As you work as a paralegal and develop a rapport with your colleagues and supervisors, they could potentially write a recommendation for your law school application.
A letter of recommendation from a practicing lawyer at a respected firm will carry a lot of weight. They will likely know you more personally than a professor, so will be able to add a more personal touch to the letter. They can also speak to your professional achievements in terms of your work and experiences at the law firm, which may distinguish you from peers without experience at a law firm.
Industry contacts and references
Furthermore, working as a paralegal at a law firm will introduce you to fellow professionals and allow you to work alongside experienced colleagues. Making relationships with coworkers early in your career, especially in a related field like paralegal, can be useful as you progress in law school. These are people you can rely on if you find yourself in a position where you need career advice, or are even looking for career opportunities. Your coworkers can also be used as a professional reference in job applications after you complete your law degree. Remember, at one time, the lawyers you work alongside started fresh just like you.
Paralegal work experience can have a tremendous impact on your path to law school and becoming a practicing lawyer. Coupled with financial benefits of tuition reimbursement, extremely personal and valuable letters of recommendation, and gaining helpful industry contacts and references, becoming a paralegal can be an instrumental first step in pursuing a career in law.