Is it realistic to think that a degree entitles you to a job?

June 8, 2012

I’ve been following a particularly interesting thread on LinkedIn:

“A few associates of mine think that they can walk into a law firm to work with just having a paralegal degree and no experience, I told them that’s not going to happen w/o exp. What are your thoughts?”

This is a phenomenal thread; filled with good advice and shared wisdom. I was particularly impressed by the comment that ‘earning a paralegal certificate is akin to receiving a learner’s permit’. It is true, no amount of education will prepare you for the real world.

Think about it – realistically – high school does not truly prepare you for the experience that is college; college and other degree programs do not prepare you for a job. An education provides you with the tools you need; if you’re lucky, it also provides you with the knowledge to use those tools. Nothing, however, takes the place of education, determination, experience, and thinking outside the box to get the job.

We are in a difficult economy – the jobs are out there, but they are more difficult to find. Paralegals sometimes need to be chameleons to succeed. To that end, you should not have a boilerplate resume or cover letter – you need to put the energy and effort into customizing both for each position. I am not suggesting that you lie – heaven forbid – but you need to tailor the content for your audience.

Use your cover letter to distinguish yourself from the competition; highlight personal, professional, and/or educational accomplishments that show that you can be an asset to a prospective employer – and remember to keep it concise and on point. Never send out blind or generic cover letters or e-mails – those are the first to get tossed; check and recheck your spelling and grammar; and know your audience.

I graduated from an ABA approved program in 1983; I had my BA and paralegal certificate, but it was 1983 in Texas and the economy was in trouble. My first job out of paralegal school was at the information desk at the unemployment office. My first paralegal job was with my father’s attorney. Armed with my degree, certificate, and several summers as a ‘law clerk’/runner (okay, mostly, I did a lot of filing), I went to the interview and agreed to work ‘as needed’ to get the necessary experience and a pay check.

My early career reads like a checkerboard. I took temporary and contract positions for several years; a few days here; a few months there. Ultimately I landed a job in the legal department of a savings and loan where I learned all about mortgage and bankruptcy; later I got a gig at a ‘real’ law firm. And then the economy took another hit … I ended up at the Resolution Trust Company closing down and investigating several failed Texas S&Ls.

I had to keep reinventing myself; to remain flexible and open to new opportunities – even 2 jobs where my office was a storage closet and my desk, a pile of boxes. I have earned my stripes, and yes, I had to swallow my pride a few times (and I have served my time in the unemployment line).

In 2008, I lost a law firm position that I had held for 8 years. I had to completely reinvent myself. Rather than rely on finding another law firm position, I started my own virtual paralegal services company. I provide services only to lawyers – UPL scares the bejeebers out of me. Going solo is not for everyone and can be difficult if you have not worked as a paralegal before; but there are options.

It is an established fact that it can be impossible to get past the office gatekeeper – find another way. Attend local bar association / section meetings; consider working part time for several lawyers (bear in mind the potential for conflicts of interest and confidentiality issues); make yourself useful – figure out their ‘pain points’ and offer solutions; suggest that you intern for a short period of time so you can get your foot in the door; apply to the courts and various agencies and NEVER stop networking!

So, what are your thoughts?

One Response to “Is it realistic to think that a degree entitles you to a job?”

  1. Jeff

    Hi Pamela: Your article invites an interesting debate. Certainly, American youth & recent grads hold no shortage of those who believe they are ‘entitled;’ however, I believe another potential cause lies in our current educational system…

    To remedy: I’d suggest instilling real life experiences to students along with a copy of “The Prince” (Machiavelli) & “The Art of War” (Sun Tzu) as mandatory reading for every public school. Do this, and in 10 years; I guarantee you’ll see less ‘brats’ coming out of our colleges…

    1) As a student of the 80’s/90’s; my generation was taught to do well on the SATs, get into a good college and the ‘American Dream’ would follow… [x- Military recruiters] No-one ever dared suggest the option of forgoing college and simply learning a trade. As a result, there are many who did what they were told & reality eventually set in. Our educational training held no remedy. Are their complaints a case of ‘nepotism’ or just not knowing any different?

    2) Many of these Associate or Certificate programs [Paralegal, Nursing / Rx Tech and IT] are businesses whose aim is to make profit via education. Upon sign-up these schools will provide pamphlets and grand promises about job placement. Once tuition is paid, reality once again sets in.

    I can personally attest to this fact (via my un-named Paralegal program). Luckily, my decision to enroll was to personally further my education & Professional craft. However had I solely enrolled for the promise of a ‘paycheck’ (& given what they told me) – yeah, I’d be mad too…

    Luckily, I realize it is ‘who you know’ that gets you in the door & ‘what you know or do’ keeps you in.

    [For the record: I own a small American business & (to subsidize) am, currently seeking employment within some cubicle out East].

    Unfortunately, the next generation is being told otherwise; so we have many students studying for the SATs primed to fail (who in an earlier time, would have succeeded via other means). Expect them to complain when society’s ‘promised dream’ is eventually exhausted…