Are New Lawyers Selling Themselves Short?

Last week, a paralegal blogger posted about a job posting that called for “JD Paralegals”. Her primary concern seemed to be that there were plenty of qualified paralegals and no reason attorneys should be encroaching on that territory or law firms should be paying higher rates just to get JDs.

What struck me about the situation, though, was that the ad invited lawyers to downgrade themselves to paralegal status and paralegal pay. For the law firm, of course, it’s a great deal—if they get takers, they’ll essentially be getting contract lawyers at paralegal rates and paralegal prestige. And they will get takers.

The lawyers won’t make a lot of money, they won’t get experience that looks particularly good on their resumes, but they’ll get a (relatively small) paycheck for a while, which is more than many of their former classmates can say.

It’s easy to see how even a small steady paycheck might be enticing in the current economy, especially as news reports indicate that the already bleak legal employment landscape may actually be worse than law schools have been leading us to believe.

There may even be good reason to take on such projects in the short term. But it’s also easy to get caught in that cycle of accepting low-paying jobs that don’t really make full use of your skills just to keep the bills paid, and it can be self-perpetuating.

In legal publications and mainstream news and even right here, you hear over and over again that the legal profession is changing and that attorneys are going to have to adapt or “die”. But think carefully about what adaptation means for you, and don’t just accept a place at the bottom of the totem pole where someone else can take advantage of those changes to profit from your education and hard work while you remain trapped.

“The legal profession is changing” doesn't mean “accept that you’re going to be stuck in a low-level, poorly compensated job.” It means getting creative, making the most of new tools, being prepared to become an entrepreneur or to join forces with other attorneys in your situation; it means finding new markets, taking advantage of technology and adapting the services you offer to those markets and networking in new ways.

Going solo, starting up a virtual law practice and finding a niche in which to offer contract legal services to law firms from your home are just a few ways that you may be able to find your place in the new legal landscape; don’t blindly accept the place that the large firms who don’t want to compete with new structures and options want to assign you.

Yes, the changing legal marketplace presents some challenges, especially if it crept up while you were in law school and you graduated into a very different world than the one you’d been preparing for.But it also offers opportunities, and this is the time to find them, when you can be part of the foundation of the new legal profession.