Paralegal Employment: It's Much More Than Simply Graduating!
Back in 2015, BARBRI conducted the first ever "State of the Legal Field Survey" in an attempt to collect data on law students, recent graduates, and practicing attorneys. The survey revealed a remarkable difference of opinion when it came to career readiness between 3L students, law school faculty, and practicing attorneys.
Specifically, the data showed the following:
- 71 percent of 3L students believed they “possessed sufficient practice skills.”
- In contrast, only 23 percent of practicing attorneys who work with recent law school graduates felt the same way.
- Only 45 percent of law school faculty members think new attorneys are ready to do their jobs on day one.
- More than three-quarters, or 76 percent, of 3L law students believed that they were prepared to practice law “right now.”
- In comparison, 56 percent of practicing attorneys who work with recent law school graduates believe that, in general, soon-to-be law school graduates are prepared to practice law.
It should come as no surprise that as reality sets in for the recent law school graduate, the number of graduates setting up their own solo law practice after law school continued to decline in 2016. According to the National Association of Law Placement, Inc., law graduates setting up their own solo practice following graduation accounted for just 2.8 percent of law firm jobs and 1.5 percent of all jobs. The number of law school graduates setting up a solo practice is as low now as it has been in twenty-five years.  Notwithstanding their significant academic training, recent law school graduates are simply not ready to practice law.
Ask any experienced attorney and most will admit looking back that they learned very few of the core skills they needed as a practicing lawyer while they were in law school. Despite the clear shortcomings when it comes to career readiness, law school graduates continue to enjoy a very favorable “bar passage required” employment rate of 73 percent as of 2016. The bottom line is that hiring attorneys, in spite of knowing a newly admitted attorney lacks reliable, dependable, and competent practical skills, will nonetheless hire new associates with confidence. Legal employers continue to have trust in the recent graduate’s ability to learn on the job quickly.
Unfortunately, despite the American Bar Association approving paralegal programs there are no annual publications regarding paralegal graduate placement data. While ABA approved paralegal programs are required to measure and assess graduate data, there is no nationwide entity, group, or association that collects and reports on the data as a whole.
As a Paralegal Program Director for the past eleven years and collecting employment data each of those years in New Jersey, I can report that unequivocally that the employment rate of paralegal graduates is nowhere near as high as it is for law school graduates. One can safely assume New Jersey is not an anomaly and the employment data we are gathering here is generally consistent with data nationwide.
Recent paralegal graduates, fair or not, do not enjoy the same benefit of the doubt with regard to employability that experienced attorneys seemingly give law school graduates. Legal employers, seeking support staff help, will seek out candidates that possess competencies that give them assurance the employee will hit the ground running on day one or, alternatively, learn very quickly on the job.
In many instances, legal employers are left with much to desire because, similar to law school graduates, many paralegal graduates are deficient in "on the job" proficiency skills. When one considers that ABA law schools generally require 3-4 years of intense academic instruction and thousands of hours of classroom time while paralegal schools are in some cases only a few short months long, it should come as no surprise that legal employers are sometimes a bit more skeptical with hiring support staff then they are with hiring associates.
Review the most recent list of paralegal classified ads published in your community lately. How many advertise a desire to hire an “entry level paralegal” or seek a “recent paralegal graduate?” Not many, if any at all. Among the many fears that hiring attorneys and law firms have when it comes to hiring support staff three of the most common ones cited are:
Reliability, Dependability, Competency
Unlike law school graduates, who despite lacking key proficiencies continue to get hired at favorable rate, paralegals are not. Paralegal students must take it upon themselves to ensure they graduate with a level of career readiness that gives them the tools to excel on day one. This is difficult to do with just attending classes and doing no more. Students must commit to learning as much outside the classroom as they do inside of it. This is where the vast majority of paralegal students aren't doing enough. More specifically, getting an “A” on a written assignment in an Ethics class is a great accomplishment but it does not necessarily mean the prospective employer will assume you are reliable, dependable, or competent.
If you consider the fact that there are close to 1,000 paralegal schools nationwide (almost five times the number of law schools), entry level employability becomes an even bigger problem. Here in the small State of New Jersey, there are a total of twenty institutions offering paralegal training. Of these, twelve are ABA approved paralegal programs. While there are twenty New Jersey paralegal programs, there are currently only two law schools in the State. The bottom line is that there is a massive pool of soon to be graduates and entry level paralegals, all with virtually identical legal education training competing for the very same limited number of legal paraprofessional jobs.
A few years ago, this reality showed its ugly face. Five of my students applied for a paralegal position with a very reputable law firm locally. A friend of mine from law school, who headed the hiring committee called me a few weeks later to discuss the job opening and interviewing process. He reported to me that a total of 28 paralegal graduates across the state had applied for the job and each of them had graduated with a GPA of 3.75 or higher. The committee found it impossible to distinguish the qualifications of one candidate from the next and, as such, decided to laterally hire a paralegal from another law firm instead.
The importance of networking and committing to significant learning/training outside of the classroom during your paralegal studies cannot be overestimated. The paralegal job market is strong but horrendously flooded with entry level candidates with similar classroom academic training. Students who do not go the extra mile outside the classroom during their studies will face a job market that will continue to look towards experienced practitioners or, alternatively, one where they find themselves in a legal position underemployed.
In fact, the paralegal profession has consistently been ranked as one of the top degrees for underemployment. According to Payscale, which has compiled the largest worldwide database of individual salary profiles, the paralegal profession has an underemployment rate of 50.9%. The breakdown indicated that 86.7% felt unemployed because of education reasons while 13.3% reported it was because they were employed part-time yet were seeking full-time employment.
Paralegal students today are facing a daunting dilemma. First, there are thousands of training programs to choose from that come in every format, length, and quality imaginable. Online v. Live, Degree v. Certificate, Credit v. Hourly, Short v. Long, ABA Approved v. Not ABA Approved…the list could go on.
The quality of the paralegal program you attend is no doubt important. Equally important for employability, however, is working towards distinguishing yourself from the deep pool of similar candidates. Come to terms early in your legal studies that just like law students in law school, you are not going to absorb anywhere near what you need to via just classroom instruction over the course of a few months or a year or two. Time and effort invested into individual learning and training outside the classroom will pay significant dividends in the long run both in terms of finding a job and, just as importantly, not feeling underemployed in the profession.