Applying for a Paralegal Position

Once you have identified a potential employment opportunity, you must submit an application to the employer. The application process for legal employment is divided into three distinct phases — the submission of a resume, the interview, and the follow-up — and in some respects differs from that for other kinds of jobs.

Resume Submission

Nearly all legal employers require applicants to submit a resume — a summary of your qualifications for the job. A resume should include your educational background, your work experience, and a list of references. The resume is a snapshot of you as a professional. It has one purpose — to catch the interest of the legal employer. The resume is the first impression you will make on a prospective employer — you should take care to make sure your resume creates a favorable impression.

Do not try to make your resume stand out by making it look markedly different from other resumes. Wildly colored paper, offbeat fonts, or other attention-grabbing tricks should be avoided. You are applying for a position in a field that is professional and traditionally conservative. Your resume should reflect your own professionalism. Print your resume on good-quality bond paper, preferably white or ivory. Use a traditional business font, such as Times New Roman or Courier. Proofread your resume thoroughly, and more than once. Mistakes in spelling, grammar, or punctuation can terminate an application before it has a chance to be considered.

This does not mean that your resume should not be unique. You are unique and your resume should reflect that. In addition, the position is unique. Your resume should show a strong match between the needs of the position and your qualifications as a paralegal. To this end, you will need to think about the skills the specific legal position requires. Think about how your education and background qualify you for the position. Try not to describe your work experience in the terms used by your previous employer. Instead, think about the skills you acquired that are transferable to the position you are applying for.

Many sources provide checklists for the contents of your resume. Consult these to make sure you have not overlooked an important aspect of your qualifications. Do not, however, feel bound by the structure or phrasing suggested by these resume guidelines. If your resume is two pages instead of one, it does not mean that the employer will ignore it. If you list your employment before your education, it simply means that the employer will read about your employment first. Remember that the job of the resume is to pique the employer's interest.

ssential

Different paralegal positions demand different skills. Your background and experiences are not one-dimensional — use your resume to stress the specific demands of the specific position you are applying for. This may well require a separate resume for each type of position you apply for. A one-size-fits-all resume does not stand out to the prospective employer.

The cover letter has a similar function. Again, a generic cover letter probably does more harm than good. You will usually have one qualification that sticks out above all the others. Your cover letter is the place to highlight this qualification. You must relate this qualification to the specific job opening. Find a way to relate your qualifications to client service — the very focus of the practice of law.

The Interview

If your resume and cover letter have done their jobs, you will be contacted for an interview. The approach to the interview will vary from employer to employer: some interviews are conducted by a single person, others involve several interviewers. You should be prepared for anything from a panel interview to serial interviews with several separate interviewers.

The questions asked at an interview for a paralegal position depend on the interviewer. Some questions will simply confirm information on your resume. You may be asked to explain some information, but these questions are mainly factual. Other questions may ask you to discuss a specific experience — an especially satisfying experience or an especially frustrating one. Some interviewers ask the interviewee to list strengths and weaknesses. You may be asked to analyze a hypothetical situation. These are all questions you can prepare for in advance. The key is to appear confident and collected. Interviewees who appear excessively nervous or uncomfortable are rarely hired.

Question

What do I do if the interviewer asks an improper question, such as my marital status or whether I have a disability?

These kinds of questions are more common that you would think, even among lawyers. Try to avoid challenging the interviewer if possible. You need not answer the question, but be prepared to change the subject to allow a smooth transition away from these topics. Asking a question about the firm, or stressing an interest or strength, is usually effective in steering the interview in a new direction.

You may be offered the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewee. You should prepare such questions in advance, to be ready if the opening presents itself. While it is likely you have questions about salary and benefits, billable-hour expectations, and other working environment issues, it is best to reserve these questions until later discussions. At the interview, you want to ask questions that highlight your interest in the substance of the job. Ask about the work the lawyer normally does, how a paralegal can assist in performing that work, and the required skills for the position. This gives you an opportunity to stress how your qualifications fit the job and may provide a basis for further discussion. Make notes of this information as soon as possible after leaving the interview. You might consider referencing some of this information in a thank-you letter sent within three days after the interview.

It is likely you will be called in for a second interview before you are hired. Review the notes of your prior interview. This is the time to explore your working environment questions. By the second interview, you are in a select category of a few applicants the employer is interested in hiring. Use this opportunity to stress qualifications that were overlooked in the first interview and gather additional information about the employer.

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