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It is usually only after working for a few years that paralegals finally have the experience to realize which practice area they would like to pursue throughout the remainder of their career. Often, it is the area in which they have been gaining experience. However, in certain instances, paralegals decide they would like to make a change. There are a number of reasons for such a decision. Perhaps when the paralegal accepted an initial position, it was the employer who decided which department or practice area the paralegal would be assigned to, or perhaps the paralegal wanted to pursue a more general practice to sample a number of areas before choosing a specialization. In addition, paralegals who are in positions with demanding hours of concentrated work sometimes develop a dislike for the practice area in which they are working. Many paralegals who would like to pursue a new practice area are met with opposition from their employer or a prospective employer because of a lack of experience in the area. Although to a certain extent this resistance is understandable if employer training is required, paralegals seeking to make such a career move may consider these tips on increasing their chances. When applying to a prospective employer, tailor your resume to highlight any experience gained in your current position or previous positions that may be applied to the new practice area you would like to pursue. Certain paralegal skills, such as drafting, researching, proofreading, cite checking, digesting, and reviewing and managing documents are generally applicable to other practice areas. In addition, special experience from one practice area also may be applicable to another area. For example, if applying for a position as a medical malpractice paralegal, it would be beneficial to describe your experience reviewing and managing medical records in your position as a products liability paralegal. Paralegals who wish to move from a litigation area to a corporate or other commercial area may find it challenging to highlight relevant, special experience. But take the first step by identifying your skills. Your objective should be to indicate to a prospective employer that you have skills that would be beneficial to the practice and applicable to the open position. Prepare a cover letter that not only indicates the skills and experience you have to offer, but, more important, also states your objective of pursuing a position in a new practice area and explains the rationale behind your decision. Be sure to convey your commitment to your decision to a prospective employer. For example, if you have helped a team of litigation attorneys in a number of substantive areas, including assistance with an involved and exciting labor dispute, indicate to a prospective employer that that experience sparked your interest in the labor area and that you are committed to pursuing a full-time position in that area. If your current position has not allowed for a sampling of practice areas, you may wish to demonstrate to a prospective employer that you have previously tested your interest in the new area by having worked on pro bono litigation for a number of months. Such an effort will demonstrate that you have made a considered decision and that you are not going to second-guess yourself shortly after you’ve been trained for a new position. Volunteer with an organization related to the new practice area you are pursuing. For example, if you are interested in becoming a bankruptcy paralegal, join a local consumer bankruptcy assistance project. This effort serves three important purposes: � It gives you the opportunity to include some relevant experience on your resume that may cause a prospective employer to consider you a more credible candidate. (Coupled with relevant previous experience, it may also improve your ability to bargain for a higher starting salary.) � In addition, volunteering demonstrates to a prospective employer that your decision to switch practice areas is not a whimsical one. � Volunteer experience also gives you an opportunity to network with legal professionals in your area of interest. Take continuing legal education courses in the area you would like to pursue, list those courses on your resume and, if possible, highlight them in your cover letter. A number of excellent CLE courses are offered by national and local organizations. You may even want to consider returning to paralegal school for certification in a specialized area. Again, putting forth effort to prepare to carry out your decision demonstrates your commitment. If you enjoy your work environment, approach your current employer first. If possible, negotiate an internal move before attempting an external one. Your current employer, who is already familiar with your education, experience, skills and work ethic, is likely to prefer accommodating your request over losing a good employee. Being familiar with your firm’s internal procedures will give you more time to train in the substantive law of a new practice area. You may want to offer to assist attorneys and paralegals within your current firm who practice in the area you are interested in. This effort will demonstrate your interest in the new area and give you an opportunity to make a good impression on colleagues in the department you wish to enter. Be prepared to continue with your existing workload while adding some time to begin handling lower-level assignments to learn the details of the new practice area. Consider that you may have to discount some time billed in the new area to reflect the learning curve. However, keep in mind that these are merely two short-term sacrifices that might help you achieve your long-term goal. Stay committed to your current position, even if you are feeling burned out. It is much easier to find a new job when you already have one. Be prepared to accept a reduced salary and starting status when beginning in a new area, since employers tend to compensate on the basis of experience. While those adjustments may be difficult for senior-level paralegals to accept, it is crucial to understand that legal professionals with limited or no experience in a practice area other than the one in which they have been working are not taking much more than a good education and general paralegal skills to the bargaining table. Keep in mind that you may be able to renegotiate your salary after gaining some experience. Network with legal professionals working in the practice area you would like to pursue. Networking will serve a number of purposes. � It will allow legal professionals in the new area to associate your face with your name, and it will demonstrate to those professionals that you are interested in their practice area. � In addition, networking will allow you to engage in dialogue to learn more about the substantive law in the area you have chosen to pursue. � And networking will allow you to market yourself as a candidate interested in pursuing a career in the new practice area and make a positive impression on legal professionals who may have influence on hiring decisions. Organizations you may want to consider becoming involved with include local and national paralegal associations and their many practice area subcommittees or a local volunteer or professional organization. With patience and persistence, you will be on your way to furthering your career in the practice area of your choice. Elizabeth C. Nourian is a principal of Coleman Counsel Per Diem, Inc., the division of Coleman Legal Staffing that handles the temporary and permanent placement of paralegals. Nourian frequently lectures and writes on issues relative to the employment of legal professionals.

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