LAW

Roundtable Discussion: What’s it really like being a paralegal?

“This part of the job kind of can feel a bit like providing a hospitality service.”

 WELCOME, TO ANOTHER FOOTNOTES ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION.

Hi Footnotes,

I’m a second-year law student and I’m starting to think about getting a job as a paralegal to get some practical experience before I apply for clerkships in a couple of years.

 I’m wondering if other law students can tell me about their experience working as paralegals or other law-related roles?

For this round table discussion, we call in:

  • Maria – paralegal at Broadspectrum (infrastructure service)
  • Corey – paralegal at a small employment law firm
  • Jamila – dispute resolution associate at the Australian Disputes Centre

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Why did you choose to work at your organisation?

Maria: Honestly, I just really needed a job in law but nowhere else would hire me.

Corey: I didn’t know enough about employment law to say that I was actually interested in the field… The reason I took this job is that I knew it was a good thing to have a legal job during uni and I had a connection at this firm.

Jamila: I didn’t really know that much about it [the firm] before I started actually. I was looking to gain some work experience in the legal profession while I was studying and I came across the ADC on a page of internships on my university website.

 

How did you get it? 

Maria: One of my friend’s sisters used to work for the company, so I kind of heard through the grapevine that they were hiring. I sent them an email and they responded saying they would love to hire me, when could I start! I didn’t have to interview or anything.

Corey: I really got the job through good old nepotism. So, I didn’t apply or interview or anything. With that said, I’ve worked there for three years now so I know how the process works. We’re a very small firm so we never go through big recruitment; if we need to hire someone, we’ll use our network of law contacts to find someone.

Jamila: I started off doing a university internship with the ADC and then I was hired part-time after completing that internship.

 

What do you do day-to-day?

Maria: Broadspectrum is an infrastructure company that provides operations, maintenance, and a whole bunch of other services. I just work in their legal team so, I write reports, read over contracts, do some filing, legal research, write reviews on legislation, and handle subpoenas.

Corey: My time is basically split between doing administration work and legal work. On the admin side, I spend a lot of time going through and replying to emails which can include new client enquiries or clients asking about their appointments. Then I’ll also help the solicitors with legal work they assign to me, such as legal research, drafting letters and employment contracts for clients, and streamlining internal processes for clients.

Jamila: I’m in charge of case management for all the disputes that come to us. I assess the legal issues and ascertain who the most appropriate person would be to solve their dispute based on their needs. For example, if you have a financial issue in dispute, you might get an accounting expert in to determine figures. I’ll select a few people for the panel and ask the clients for their preferences. As the impartial body, we also take care of the finances in case either party tries to drop out.

We’re a national service that works not just the commercial space, but also with indigenous communities. The legal system can seem threatening and foreign for these communities, whereas the principles of conflict resolution and mediation are much more familiar to them. Overall, the work we do is so different to the typical perception people have of our legal system being expensive and court-driven.

We also do mediation training for lawyers, people in HR, government agency employees, anyone really, so they can become mediators within their own organisation.

 

 

What’s the best and worst part of your job?

Jamila: The best part of the job is seeing the change that can happen in 7 hours. People come in at 9am in the morning with so much hostility, and then a few hours later they can be leaving with a settled agreement, everyone smiling and chatting. I find that really gratifying to help people in this way. Rather than going to court, people can just sit down with tea and biscuits to resolve their legal problems.

Like most jobs, the administrative tasks can be a bit boring. Also, we’re a physical dispute centre so often I have to set up the rooms, put out jugs of water etc. This part of the job kind of can feel a bit like providing a hospitality service.

Maria: For me, the people I work with are probably the best part of the job. In terms of the actually work, I find time goes the fastest when I’m doing legal research so I guess you could say that’s the most interesting part.

I dislike handling subpoenas and document production, mostly because I have to talk to others in the company about it but people don’t reply to my emails. Also, sometimes I have to argue staff about why their demands are ridiculous, and I find this really hard as I don’t have confidence to stand up for myself yet. I guess these are the downsides to working as in-house legal counsel; a lot of the other staff I work with don’t understand the law or what I do.

Corey: The people I work with and the discussions we have are definitely the best part. As a small firm, we are a really close team and we spend a lot of time together, sometimes talking about work but also about other things. I think I’ve learnt a lot from my co-workers though.

My least favourite part would be managing accounts. Everyone in the office does a bit of this kind of work because we don’t have anyone who is on accounts specifically. I just don’t like invoicing clients or following up to make sure they pay on.

 

Would you recommend it? Can you see yourself staying in this field?

Maria: Yeah, I would definitely do it because it’s such good experience. The other senior lawyers I work with are genuinely so helpful and want to help me develop professionally. In the long term, I probably wouldn’t stay in this company forever because I’d like to try something else.

Corey: I would definitely recommend getting a law job in general because it’s really good to figure out what the law looks out in practice and if this is the path you want to go down. I would also highly recommend working in a small firm like mine, just so you can experience something different to the ‘big firm’ narrative. So many law students think you have to get a clerkship, finish law school, then work your way up in a big firm; but this just isn’t the only way to do it.

At some point I want to move into a different area, but I’m in no rush now. I could happily stay here for the next five years I think, but eventually I would want to try something different just because this is the only area of the law I’ve explored so far.

Jamila: I would recommend it to someone who wants to see a different side the law – a side that’s alternative, efficient, and less costly. In the short term, I’m interested in moving into commercial law or policy, because I want to gain a bit more life experience. But I could definitely see myself coming back to this role one day.

 

Disclosure: It’s important to remember these are just opinions of the panel, and that this article’s advice shouldn’t be used in isolation when making your decision about studying politics. Remember, opinions are limited to a person’s own experience. 

Roundtable Discussion: What’s it really like being a paralegal?
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