Paralegals: Carving Out Your Alternative Career Path

Posted on 03-23-2018 by
Tags: paralegal

Paralegals: Don't be afraid to pursue an alternative career.  


After law school, I spent nearly a decade directing an ABA approved paralegal program. In that role, I worked with students throughout the program to discuss their career options. While many wanted to work directly with clients as a firm paralegal, some of them weren’t sure what they wanted to do, and those were the conversations that I enjoyed the most.

When I would talk to these students, I would often ask them what they loved doing, what they loved about the law, and what was their life goal. Sometimes, this life goal led down a different path than the traditional law firm career. When this happened, career-thinking became outside-the-box thinking, which meant a conversation about alternative careers.

If you’re a paralegal and you’re in need of some outside-the-box thinking, I want to provide some options for alternative careers (outside the traditional law firm role) that may interest you. I hope to start a discussion about how your career has evolved, and if you’re seeking a change, I want to promote new career paths you can pursue as a paralegal.

Paralegal Alternative Career #1: Freelance/Independent Paralegals

Freelance or independent paralegals work for themselves. They provide their legal education and knowledge to law firms, pro-se litigants, and business organizations.

Freelance paralegals might limit themselves to working in a specific field or area of law. For example, a freelance paralegal might:

  • become a bankruptcy preparer.
  • assist with document preparation for a pro-se litigant.
  • contract with an organization’s legal department or law firm as-needed.

For some of my students, freelancing was an extremely attractive idea. Freelancing has these advantages:

  • Setting your own schedule.
  • Taking on clients in interesting areas.
  • Working with diverse organizations.

However, for a newly trained paralegal, there are disadvantages too. For example, it might be difficult to be mindful of the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) rules in your state as you work with clients. Other considerations before following this path include the need to purchase professional liability insurance.

Paralegal Alternative Career #2: Patent Agent

If you have a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering, another path to explore is in the field of intellectual property; specifically, sitting for the United States Patent Trademark Office Registration Examination, which is more commonly called the “Patent Bar.” The full requirements for applicants can be found in 37 CFR 11.7.

While state bar exams require a law degree, the patent bar doesn’t have a similar requirement. In fact, there isn’t a requirement for any legal training. I do think that it's tremendously helpful to have some legal education, like a paralegal degree or certificate. This provides a solid foundation in legal research and administrative processes.

After successful passage of the “Patent Bar,” a paralegal can become a patent agent. A patent agent prepares patent applications and files them with the US Patent and Trademark Office. A patent agent is not an attorney, cannot provide legal advice regarding the application, and cannot represent the applicant before the USPTO.

Paralegal Alternative Career #3: Victim Advocate

Increasingly, courts, nonprofits, and government agencies are hiring victim advocates who assist crime victims through the criminal process. In some cases, they specialize in specific types of crimes – domestic violence or sexual assault for instance. In other cases, a victim advocate might be more of a generalist. Typical responsibilities include:

  • assisting victims with preparing for court appearances,
  • coordinating interviews with defense and prosecuting attorneys,
  • providing support or assistance with protection orders, and
  • assisting victims with locating community resources, such as counseling or housing.

If a paralegal wants to be a victim advocate, multilingualism is often an asset in this role. Compassion and the ability to navigate the local criminal courts are also valued skills. For many positions, a background in social services or mental health in addition to paralegal experience is beneficial.

Paralegal Alternative Career #4: Legal Software Training/Support/Sales

A number of legal technology companies are hiring highly qualified individuals to represent their products These positions, which include sales, training and support, don’t necessarily require a legal background, but in my experience (over a decade at LexisNexis), a legal background is advantageous. In this regard, paralegals benefit from:

  • their exposure to legal terminology,
  • their understanding of how a law practice operates, and
  • their understanding of the lifecycle of a legal case.

Typically, these positions require great communication skills, customer/client advocacy, attention to detail, and sales experience –  skills that many paralegals have because of firm experience and/or non-legal employment.

Your Paralegal Career: Thriving on the Non-Traditional Path

These are just four of the non-traditional career paths that I used to explore when providing career advice to paralegal students. But that’s only scratching the surface. The skills you learn through your paralegal experiences and training will provide you with unique abilities. These are the unique abilities you must highlight to promote yourself to employers. By highlighting these abilities, you can unlock doors to many careers, and many of these careers will sit outside the traditional paralegal path.

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