From Paralegal to Associate: “So You’re thinking about going to Law School?”

A paralegal has the greatest inside view of the legal practice as opposed to someone who decides to go law school straight out of college.

Often, as a paralegal, you do tasks that are given to new associate, you may have attend a trial or two, and are familiar with the legal jargon: M&A documents, closing, and so forth.

But is becoming a lawyer truly what you aspire to? What are the reasons for the change? For me it was a natural next step, I had always wanted to become an attorney, and being a paralegal was just an in-between phase to test drive.  But before you make the big move, here are a few things for you to consider:

Are you doing it for the money?

Depending on where you are in your career as a paralegal, you may very well end up with a starting salary as a new associate, lower than what you made pre-law school.  Of course, this does not apply to the top salaries for the law students from the prestige schools.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that lawyers earned an average salary of $130,490 a year, or $62.74 per hour. This figure factors in all lawyers, no matter their experience. First-year associates often make much less money than other lawyers in a firm.  According to Robert Half Legal,[1] large law firms pay their first-year associates up to $151,750 a year in 2017. Small law firms pay the least, with salaries of up to $82,000 per year.  As a comparison, a Paralegal in a small firm is paid up to $71,500.  Not far of the salary of a first associate attorney.  But… attorneys are salaried (no overtime!).  During a trial, the paralegals might actually be making more per hour than many of the attorneys!

Last but to least, what needs to be factored in the decision, is the significant debt that law school add, which will cut into your earnings for many years to come.  A good way of keeping the debt down, is going to law school part-time while continuing to work.

How Important is Work-Life Balance to you?

As a paralegal, your typical day may be something close to 9-5pm.  You may on some days be required to do overtime.  But because you get paid overtime, attorneys will usually be more aware as to the volume of work they give you past your regular hours.

As an attorney, you’ll essentially be on call all the time (weekends included), something many people find deeply unpleasant.  Also, as an attorney, comes the run against billable hours, deadlines, etc.  Yes, as a paralegal, you are also on a tight schedule, but if something goes wrong, the ultimate responsibility falls on the attorney.  And who says responsibility says stress.  Planning a work-week dinner with friends or family becomes a futility, and before you know it, you will be known as the constant friend who cancels, reschedule or seems just busy all the time.

What Type of Work Will You Be Doing?

Being a lawyer is not all as glamourous as it sounds.  Often, people have the wrong idea of what TV or movie shows as to what the life of an attorney is.  The reality is, as an attorney, you spend hours upon hours reading documents, researching the law, and drafting documents.  It is an endless process.  The young associate will usually be given the most mundane tasks, and it takes many (many) years to have the first seat in a trial and doing that closing argument you’ve been dreaming about! 

As a paralegal, you usually only have to answer to the supervising attorney.  As a lawyer, you must answer to the client, the partner(s), and to the state bar.  While being an attorney can give you more control over the cases you work on and allow you to use your creativity, it also requires more hours, more responsibility, and more accountability for your work.

There is also a misconception, that paralegals may have a way-in the hiring process.  Although, it is great to have legal related work experience, it does not always translate into a first-year associate job offer.  How you do in law school, and your grades will still be the first things, the hiring manager will look at.

Last advice: follow your own path, but make sure to weigh the pros and cons of being a paralegal as opposed to being an attorney before you make your decision.   Good luck!


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