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Garrin Sax started out as a case clerk at Morrison & Foerster in 1989. Over the course of the next nine years, he took advantage of the firm’s on-site and off-site training programs and brown-bag lunches and learned to delegate tasks. While honing “strong and sophisticated” litigation skills, Sax also developed an expertise in employment law. What’s more, he won the trust of the attorneys who handed out the work. “That was key in my career development and in helping me advance,” he said. “The more initiative you show and the more responsibility you want, the more likely the attorneys are to ask that you be assigned to their case,” Sax said. Today, the 42-year-old manages nine paralegals and three case clerks at San Francisco commercial real estate boutique Steefel, Levitt & Weiss. And his goal is to someday run an office. Twenty-five years ago, he might’ve been stuck as a not-so-glorified file room grunt. Squeezed by competitive pressures, law firms and corporations increasingly rely on non-practicing professionals. Advancing technology and the growing size and complexity of cases have expanded career prospects for paralegals, while technology keeps law librarians busier than ever. Meanwhile, there is a growing concern over a shrinking pool of legal secretaries, who, like the paralegal, are increasingly vital and continue to be in high demand. But because the profession offers little of the on-the-job training, career development or prestige the paralegal enjoys, fewer people are jumping in to replenish the workforce. TECH & SPECIALIZATION Not only are work opportunities for paralegals growing, their work is increasingly sophisticated. Always in demand, paralegals have become the technology-proficient information managers often called upon to go to court alongside the attorney. “Paralegals today are much more relied upon,” Steefel’s Chief Financial Officer Stephen Wahle said. The 80-lawyer firm employs about a dozen paralegals and counts on them to keep up with the technologies used in information management and litigation. “Somebody has to be educated in the tech side of things,” he said. “The lawyers don’t have the time.” Andrea Hunolt, division director of Robert Half Legal, said facility in database and information management and knowledge of software programs and legal technology is much sought after. “The best thing a paralegal can do today to further their career is to become very technically savvy,” she said. “And once you get into a law firm, raise your hand to get involved in more advanced work.” Hunolt said law firms also use paralegals as a cost-cutting measure as clients grow more price-sensitive. Paralegals work at $100 to $150 an hour. An attorney might bill two to three times more. “Clients are looking more at the cost of the project than the hourly cost of an attorney,” Hunolt said. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s San Francisco human resources manager, Jackie Hughes, agreed. “The client is demanding it,” she said, adding that clients typically want to meet not just the attorneys but the paralegals before hiring the firm. Paralegals have more room to grow, and faster. The need for firms to operate more effectively has opened doors to leadership positions, and the use of director-level managers of paralegal teams is growing. Recruiters and human resources managers have a few ideas about how a paralegal can land in a managerial post. Orrick’s New York office legal staff manager, Maureen Tuohy, said probably the smartest thing a paralegal new in the field can do is win over the attorneys. “As their confidence in your abilities builds, they give you more work,” Tuohy said. “This is how you build your base as a young assistant in the first two or three years.” Like lawyers, paralegals also are more likely to specialize. Tuohy said she encourages her paralegals to broaden their knowledge in their area of expertise. And they do: One took advantage of Orrick’s tuition reimbursement program to get a master’s in international real estate. Others take university courses in corporate matters or litigation, depending on their focus. “Education never hurts anyone,” Tuohy said. Probably the biggest change in the last decade is the need to have a certificate from an institution approved by the American Bar Association. But recruiters say it isn’t difficult to land an entry-level position at a firm with a four-year university degree and some legal experience. “Training has upgraded significantly,” Hunolt said, and certificate requirements have led to a proliferation of paralegal programs to choose from. Paralegal careers aren’t limited to the law firm. Landmark Legal Professionals business development manager and former recruiter Denise Bottarini said more opportunities have opened up for paralegals in corporate legal departments as contract administrators or license negotiators in areas such as research and development and IP. “This is a field that wasn’t open to someone with a paralegal background 20 years ago,” she said. “These positions didn’t exist.” Joseph Harding, a manager of direct hire for the legal division of Forrest Solutions in New York, called corporate counsel “the promised land.” Although the opportunity for fiscal and name advancement are better at the law firm, Harding says the corporate environment offers plenty of room to grow within its departments. “It’s about a 10 or 15 percent difference in pay,” Harding said, “but after a certain point, people are very happy to make that concession to reclaim their lives.” LIBRARIANS HIT THE BOOKS For law librarians, the best way to get ahead is to get plugged in. Professional organizations such as the Northern California Association of Law Libraries offer the chance to meet the person who might know of that next great job or a seminar that’s especially helpful. Or even find a mentor. “Librarians are a very social group,” Nixon Peabody reference librarian Tina Dumas said. “We tend to rely on each other quite a bit.” Most positions today require a master’s degree in library science and some experience. But keeping abreast of new developments in such areas as corporate governance is a must. “There are no requirements for continuing legal education, but it’s something that’s absolutely vital in our profession,” Thelen Reid & Priest’s West Coast head librarian, Todd Bennett, said. “Sometimes attorneys turn to us, and they expect us to be on top of trends in the legal industry.” Though the field tends to be flat in terms of career advancement, librarians say there are more management positions at law firms than in the past. Dumas advises taking advantage of the numerous seminars in topics such as firm economics, communications and management offered by professional organizations. Bennett, who started as a library clerk, said he’s part of the old guard who got ahead with just a bachelor’s degree. But he learned from “great people” and got involved. A past president of NOCALL, he manages the libraries of four Thelen offices. “But I would definitely recommend getting the master’s in library science because technology is so key to our profession.” Because the master’s in library science degree isn’t law-specific, it takes recent graduates a while to get up to speed on the job. And at the firm, “No one has the time to train somebody adequately,” Farella Braun & Martel Manager of Library Services Mary Staats said. To make the transition easier, NOCALL is pairing with San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science to offer a legal research bibliography course, expected to be offered next fall. “We have people ready to teach and vendors to donate space,” said Staats, a chairwoman of NOCALL’s placement committee. “We’re also looking at the possibility to start internships for credit.” EVAPORATING POOL While the career path of the secretary hasn’t changed much in the last few decades, the job description has, and secretaries are expected to do more (for more attorneys) with less (support and training) just to stay employable. But, as Steefel’s Wahle puts it, “You can’t sell scarcity, you have to sell skill.” He and others in the field say the secretaries who adapt to new technologies and to the increasingly team-oriented work are the ones firms and corporations need most. “We’re almost always looking for legal secretaries,” Wahle said. “We just had a secretary relocate to the East Coast, and it just breaks our heart. She was experienced, smart, well-liked and we wonder, who are we gonna get?” He’s not the only one wondering. Some recruiters attribute the dwindling supply of legal secretaries to a dearth of academic training programs coupled with a perception that there is a lack of opportunities for career development in the field. “Librarians can go to school to become librarians; for paralegals the academic opportunities have grown in the last five years; the options for legal secretaries are nearly none,” Robert Half’s Hunolt said. New people aren’t entering the profession to replace retirees, and it doesn’t help that fewer firms today are willing to invest the time and dollars for on-the-job training, she said. Some are testing new training grounds. Orrick’s Hughes said nine times out of 10, the firm looks for secretaries with five or more years of experience. “It’s harder to do,” she said. “We’ve been taking the chance on those with less experience but more potential.” Orrick’s answer: an internal “litigation center.” Set up about two years ago in San Francisco, the litigation center is staffed by one “very experienced” senior secretary who helps train junior-level secretaries. Orrick’s New York office has three such training grounds. “For us, it’s been very successful,” said Hughes. Cooley Godward Director of Administration and Attorney Recruiting Jo Anne Larson said Cooley typically hires secretaries with some legal experience but as the competition for these rare creatures heats up, Cooley, too, has kept a flexible approach. “If our requirements are too narrow, we can miss out on some really qualified people.” The shortage is a problem that Hunolt said will not be resolved until academic institutions begin to offer programs, and the profession receives the regard it deserves. Law firms increasingly compete against companies in the corporate sector, where the need for legal secretaries is on the rise, particularly in the high-tech, biotech and real estate arenas. “It is a career and a highly valued function in the law firm and in corporate legal departments,” Hunolt said. “It isn’t as respected as it should be.”

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