5 Ways Paralegal Experience Can Help Law School Applicants

Before putting time and money into a law degree, it helps to know what you are getting into.

Taking law-related classes, volunteering with legal organizations on campus or in a community, attending information sessions with prelaw advisers and law school admissions officers, and asking lawyers within your extended network about their careers can help you choose a legal career path.

However, the confidential and client-focused nature of most legal work makes it hard to get a direct look at the day-to-day work that lawyers do. One of the only ways to gain direct experience in a legal workplace is by working in a law office as a paralegal.

Paralegals, sometimes called legal assistants, support law offices and government bodies with tasks such as client intake, legal research, deposition summaries, case file management and submitting court filings. Unlike lawyers, they are not authorized to provide legal representation or advice, but they work closely with practicing lawyers to serve clients efficiently.

[READ: How to Become a Paralegal: A Guide to Paralegal Education.]

Many law firms depend on professionally trained and certified paralegals with years of experience. However, the legal field also offers plenty of entry-level roles for energetic and reliable college graduates seeking an insider's view of the legal profession.

Paralegal work is not for everyone. Paralegals must exercise impeccable time management to meet tight deadlines. Many paralegals complain of repetitive and unrewarding tasks, high-pressure work environments and unappreciative supervisors. While paralegals gain real-world exposure to legal work, they only see it through the narrow window of one specific law office and the idiosyncrasies of its practice.

On the other hand, such complaints are common among entry-level positions. Working as a paralegal can provide many benefits specific to law school applicants, including:

-- Building relevant skills.

-- A personal statement topic.

-- A strong recommendation letter.

-- Legal networking opportunities.

-- Subsidized LSAT prep or tuition reimbursement.

Building Relevant Skills

If all you know about law comes from legal dramas and political commentary, you may think lawyers spend all their time interviewing witnesses, drafting motions and arguing in court. In practice, lawyers often draw on subtler skills like mediation and negotiation, time management and legal research.

[READ: How to Build Legal Research Skills Before Law School.]

Working as a paralegal cultivates skills critical to legal practice behind the scenes, both working on your own and with others.

A Personal Statement Topic

Not every paralegal gets to ride the emotional roller coaster of collaboration on a riveting, high-stakes case. However, there are certainly times when paralegals feel like their contributions made a difference.

Perhaps they managed to pull a key piece of evidence from a mountain of research. Perhaps they sensed important details in a phone interview and were able to direct potential clients to the right help. Perhaps they persuaded a peevish bureaucrat to expedite a critical records request.

Any of these stories could be the grounds for an excellent personal statement, if carefully written to preserve client confidentiality. Stories about helping people solve real-world challenges draw in readers without sounding egocentric.

[READ: How to Talk About Yourself Modestly on a Law School Application.]

A Strong Recommendation Letter

Many schools like to see at least one letter of recommendation from a supervisor outside of an academic setting. It is hard to beat a letter from a practicing lawyer who can speak to your legal skills.

If a supervising lawyer attended or has a connection with a law school you plan to apply to, consider asking for a school-specific recommendation letter in addition to a more general letter.

Legal Networking Opportunities

Working in a law firm can expose you to many practicing lawyers both inside and outside of the firm. And each of those lawyers may have an extensive legal network of their own. By working as a paralegal, you may gain critical connections that help you secure an internship or summer position in law school and ultimately give you a head start in your legal career.

Subsidized LSAT Prep or Tuition Reimbursement

Finally, some law firms provide extra incentives to employees who plan to pursue careers in the law. For example, some law firms subsidize LSAT preparation classes or law school tuition. This can be especially helpful for paralegals considering part-time law programs or planning to continue working at their firm.

While there are many advantages to taking time off before law school, it can be hard to find a perfect job for a gap year. Working in a law office can be time well spent for an aspiring lawyer.

Gabriel Kuris, founder of Top Law Coach, writes about issues related to applying to law school. After advising law school applicants for more than 15 years with Powerscore and JDMission, he founded to directly help applicants master the LSAT, find their voice and make their best case to law schools.

Kuris has worked as a legal researcher focused on human rights, corruption and policy reforms for Columbia Law School, the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, the World Bank and the American Bar Association. He has done field research to support judicial reforms and transitional justice efforts in more than 20 countries. Previously, he taught at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and practiced global finance law at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in New York.

Kuris received a Fulbright Fellowship in creative writing and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Harvard Review, Policy and Society and ForeignPolicy.com. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Yale University.