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The Best Alternative Career for Paralegals (+Other Roles to Consider)

During my time leading legal teams, I’ve seen some interesting career transitions. The legal assistant turned sci-fi author or the corporate lawyer who gave up their role to open a restaurant, for example. But one transition I hope to see more of in the coming years is paralegals pursuing a career change and discovering legal ops.

Until recently, becoming a lawyer was one of the few ways paralegals could significantly grow their future earnings, take on a more dynamic workload, and learn new skills in their field. But that’s a significant commitment in both time and education, and it may not get you the fulfillment you are looking for.

The skills you hone as a paralegal provide a strong foundation for many career paths, including legal ops, which offers a way to expand your skills, take on projects aligned with your interests, and command a higher salary.

But First, Why Leave a Paralegal Job?

A career as a paralegal is a solid and rewarding long-term option for many people, but if you are ready for a paralegal career change, here are a few reasons why it could be time to look for a role outside of a corporate paralegal.

  • You are burnt out: Legal work can be high-stress and high-stakes, depending on the types of matters you work on. Between tight deadlines and long hours, paralegals can suffer from burnout.
  • You want more earning potential: According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a paralegal is just under $60,000 per year. Brightflag did an extensive study of legal ops job descriptions and found junior positions with three years of experience start at $67,000, and many roles earn more than six figures.
  • You don’t feel like you’re being challenged: While you learned a lot when you first started as a paralegal, you now feel like you know your role inside and out. You’re not being challenged anymore and are constantly looking for ways to improve your processes for better outcomes.

If any of those sound familiar, you should definitely look at the growing field of legal operations.

Why Legal Ops is an Ideal Career Switch for a Paralegal

Many of the skill sets needed for legal ops roles are inherent to a paralegal job, especially if you are already interested in technology and creating more efficient processes.

For example, as a paralegal, you regularly take on dynamic challenges, such as managing workflows, assisting with intake, or helping with your legal team’s knowledge and document management. You understand what tasks need to be done in what order for the best outcome. In your legal support role, you are doing this work. In legal ops, you would be finding and implementing ways to improve these processes.

To excel as a paralegal, you have to be an excellent communicator with great listening and writing skills. You are accustomed to working with people in the legal profession and across the organization, know what they need, and understand the standards they expect. You know how to dig into a complex question to find the right answer.

And a big benefit to making a paralegal career change to legal ops is that you already know legal tech. Even if you move to a legal ops role at a company with different legal tech, you know the basics of working with essential tools like legal spend and matter management systems.

Skills Legal Ops Recruiters Look for in Paralegals

  • Project management: Legal ops roles often involve identifying and scoping a project to solve a problem and managing that project to an effective completion. To get started with this as a paralegal, offer to help with your department’s next legal tech project, such as researching possible vendors, helping with evaluation, or assisting with implementation. At Brightflag, we’ve seen many paralegals get their start in legal ops by helping their team implement an e-billing and matter management tool.
  • Vendor management: From legal tech to outside counsel, legal ops takes a holistic view of the legal department to understand how to optimize vendor relationships. If you don’t work directly with vendors today, see if there’s an opportunity for you to gain exposure.
  • Budgeting: Managing legal billing and spend is a key part of legal ops, so it’s important to understand the legal department’s budget and what decisions are made to create it. You can show some experience by helping set and track budgets on the matters you work on.
  • Institutional knowledge of the core business: Paralegals already have this in spades.

How to Make the Shift from Paralegal to Legal Ops

If you are interested in pursuing a legal ops career path, here are some steps you can take now to prepare you for the role:

First, become well-versed in the legal tech your organization uses. Look for training and best practice guides so you know how to use the technology to its fullest.

You will also need to understand the basics of legal data analytics. Legal ops is data-driven, and makes suggestions for improvement based on what is happening — or not happening — in the legal department. Check out Brightflag’s resources to learn the basics of data analytics for legal ops. Then, dig into the analytics you have access to from the legal tech your team uses. What reports are available? How is information presented? Find out who is pulling reports on legal data today in your department and ask them to walk through some of the reports with you to help you understand how the data influences their decisions.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people currently in a legal ops role. Legal operations is a famously welcoming space. Connect with legal ops professionals for help or advice, hear what they are talking about, and expand your network. You can also listen to Brightflag’s In-House Outliers podcast to gain insights into the career journeys of other legal ops professionals. In each episode, you’ll hear from legal ops professionals who can help you find your niche within the community — and ensure the jump from paralegal to legal ops is a smooth one.

5 Alternative Careers Paralegals Should Consider

If spending your day looking for ways to improve processes and leverage technology to enhance legal department efficiency doesn’t sound interesting to you, you don’t have to give up on your job search. Here are five alternative paralegal career change options that could be a good fit.

Attorney

As a paralegal, you get a front-row seat to the work an attorney does. You see the matters they work on. You gather the documents they use as part of their matter management. Becoming a lawyer can be a natural next step for a paralegal, especially if you already have a law degree.

Think about whether you want to be an in-house attorney or work in a law firm. Typically, attorneys work in-firm first before moving to in-house, so that may add to the time it takes to get to your ideal role.

Next step if this role interests you: Before you jump into further legal training or education, talk to the in-house lawyers you work with every day to understand what the role is really like and what skills you’ll need to develop to be successful in the role.

Compliance Manager

Another in-house role that requires strong attention to detail and analytical skills is a compliance manager / officer. This role works with the company to identify and manage regulatory risk. They maintain the organization’s internal controls and processes to make sure those controls are followed.

Compliance manager / officers have to research, understand, and be able to explain complex regulations and laws. Because the compliance officer makes sure the company abides by those regulations, they must have high ethical standards. This role often works closely with the organization’s GC. Compliance officers are common across most industries but are essential for healthcare, financial services, and other highly regulated sectors.

Next step if this role interests you: Talk with someone currently in a compliance officer role in an industry you want to work in. A compliance officer for a large financial services firm may have a different day-to-day than one at a retail company.

Contracts Manager or Analyst

If you have high attention to detail and enjoy digging into the nuance of a contract, consider a role as a contract manager or analyst. In this position, you would help draft, review, and manage contracts for your organization. The contracts manager often works closely with in-house counsel — especially for mid-size and large organizations — to ensure agreements align with the goals of the company. The role also leverages technology to help automate some of the steps of contract review.

Next step if this role interests you: To get a feel for the role and understand the scope, take a look at the topics included in the certification programs, such as the Certified Contract Management Associate, Certified Professional Contracts Manager, or Certified Commercial Contracts Manager. These certification programs are not required to be hired as a contracts manager, but if the syllabi sound interesting, it could be a good fit.

Project Manager

If you are interested in taking your organizational skills outside of the legal profession, consider a project manager role. As a project manager, you will be responsible for coordinating projects, from identifying goals and scope to maintaining timelines and ensuring success.

Project managers exist in every industry, from government agencies to technology companies to non-profits and even within the legal department. As a paralegal, you likely manage parts of projects or orchestrate different pieces to make sure everything comes together on time. If you enjoy that aspect of your role, this might be a good option as a paralegal career change.

Next step if this role interests you: Look into obtaining a project management qualification or certification such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification or PRINCE2 practitioner training. Also, spend some time looking through job descriptions for project management roles to understand how project management might differ across industries.

Human Resources Professional

As a paralegal, you have to be a skilled communicator. You work closely with attorneys, other paralegals, employees in other departments, and vendors. And you know a thing or two about confidentiality and problem-solving. If these are aspects of your paralegal role you enjoy most, consider moving to human resources.

HR typically handles five areas: talent management, compensation and benefits, training, workplace safety, and HR compliance, such as adhering to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the U.S. Larger HR teams may have individuals for each role, while smaller teams may have a few generalists who can work across several roles.

Different HR positions require different education and skills. A Human Resources Assistant, for example, typically requires an associate degree in Business Administration and experience as an administrative assistant or similar duties. If you are more interested in becoming a recruiter, you will likely need a bachelor’s degree with some additional training in human resources or talent management — either within your degree program or outside of it.

Next step if this role interests you: Talk to your HR team. Ask them about the different roles and what they do on a daily basis. See if they can introduce you to HR professionals in other industries so you can understand how the role changes based on the industry.

Or Maybe It’s Time to Look for a Different Paralegal Role?

The paralegal profession helps you build skills that can open doors for a number of alternative careers. But before you make your paralegal career change and jump to a different role, make sure you are looking for a new challenge, not just a new office.

For example, if you enjoy elements of a paralegal career but not the types of matters, or if the organization’s larger industry isn’t interesting to you, consider finding a different in-house legal team or practice area. Are you sick of the constantly changing demands of a litigation matter? Try a role with an IP focus, where deadlines are more predictable. Maybe you are tired of working on patent applications. Try corporate, where work is more varied.

Another reason you might be ready for a move is the pay. If you are making less than the average salary for a paralegal, see if there is another paralegal job that pays more while you gain more experience.

Understand Your Value

Paralegal skills can open many doors to new career paths. With advancements in legal tech, legal ops continues to be a rapidly growing field and a natural transition for paralegals looking for an alternative career. But before you accept a new position, make sure you understand the standard compensation for that role. Check out Brightflag’s 2024 Corporate Legal Operations Compensation Study to learn what to expect—and negotiate—in your new role. And whatever path you choose in your paralegal career change, good luck with your next move!

Brightflag Director of Legal and Compliance Laura Gleeson, smiling in business attire.

Laura Gleeson

General Counsel and Vice President at Brightflag

Laura’s career has spanned senior legal roles both in private practice and in house, giving her first-hand exposure to the importance of legal technology. Prior to joining Brightflag, Laura spent more than ten years at Matheson, Ireland’s largest law firm, where she was a partner in its Finance and Capital Markets group, after which she served as senior counsel at PM Group, a multinational engineering firm. Laura serves as a board director at Make-A-Wish Ireland and has a degree in Law & European Studies and a Master of Laws from the University of Limerick.