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Economy prompts lawyers to consider trying paralegal work

By: Rick Benedict//July 1, 2011//

Economy prompts lawyers to consider trying paralegal work

By: Rick Benedict//July 1, 2011//

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Paralegal positions, while less lucrative than starting associate jobs, are becoming an attractive option for unemployed lawyers looking for work.

“I would say for every five resumes we receive today for paralegal positions, two are from either recent law school graduates or experienced attorneys,” said Mary Arnberg, chief human resources officer at Milwaukee-based Quarles & Brady LLP.

Though it’s a trend that’s on the rise, Arnberg said a law degree doesn’t give an applicant an edge over other candidates.

In fact, the firm has yet to hire anyone with a law degree to work as a paralegal, she said.

One of the reasons firms are wary of hiring attorneys for paralegal work is because of the potential the person will leave sooner than later for a more lucrative job, said Paul Katzman, assistant dean for career planning at Marquette University Law School.

He has advised students considering paralegal positions that employers may be less inclined to hire attorneys, given the perception that most want to practice law at some point.

“Someone might say, ‘I’m an attorney, obviously I’m the best candidate,’” Katzman said. “That might not be the case because the firm could be looking for a particular skill set.”

Having a law degree doesn’t always hurt applicants, though, said Kelly Conrardy, director of attorney recruiting for Godfrey & Kahn SC.

The Milwaukee-based firm has recently seen a handful of attorneys apply for paralegal positions, she said.

While the firm has not yet hired an attorney as a paralegal, Conrardy said, applicants with a law degree shouldn’t be disqualified because of their versatility to practice law.

“You always want to hire the best people no matter what,” she said. “So by no means would being an attorney hurt them.”

At the same time, she said, hiring also depends on experience and a candidate’s ability to fit into firm culture.

Conrardy agreed that while a law degree certainly qualifies a paralegal applicant, it could also mean they’re not likely to stick around long.

For recent law school graduates with six-figure student loans to repay, a paralegal position isn’t the most lucrative career, after all.

The starting salary for a Wisconsin paralegal is between $38,000 and $40,000, said John Goudie, vice president of the Paralegals Association of Wisconsin. A new associate’s wages at Godfrey & Kahn, by comparison, average $115,000, according to the firm.

“I think associates are taken aback by what they can expect in terms of compensation (as a paralegal),” Goudie said.

Mary Johnsrud, president of PAW and a paralegal at Devanie, Belzer & Schroeder SC in La Crosse, said she doesn’t see paralegal work as a long-term career option for attorneys in Wisconsin.

“So I think if they are doing it here, it would be more of a stepping stone to another job at some point,” she said.

Katzman agreed that new graduates exploring paralegal opportunities might do so as a “back-door” into an attorney position with a firm, and that could be a turnoff for firms, he said.

“An employer might want to resist the appearance of an obligation to promote an attorney to the next level,” Katzman said.

But with the job market still shaky, the ability to apply a legal degree to another, related line of work is attracting a growing number of people, Goudie said.

Unlike some states, Wisconsin does not require a specific certification or degree to work as a paralegal. That means a law degree satisfies the minimum requirements, he said.

The result is increased competition for a limited supply of paralegal jobs in the state, said Goudie, a litigation paralegal with Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown in Milwaukee.

“I would hope employers, when looking at candidates, are not looking for the short-term,” he said. “I would think they want a person who will stick around and not be looking at the job as a weigh stop to another field-of-law opening.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at [email protected].

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