The Dark Side of Being a Paralegal: Hating Your Job, Demoralization, Burnout and Stress

I came across an article the other day about how certain professions attract psychopaths, and guess who was second on the list? Lawyers.  That's right, the people we as paralegals work for are more than likely a psychopath according to the Business Insider.   

Paralegals Problems

I have had my own hellish experiences with attorneys, from watching an attorney throw an office telephone at his legal secretary because she wasn't working fast enough, (personally I would have had him arrested for assault, but she just cried and felt humiliated), to my own attorney boss accusing me, in front of clients and staff,  of being stupid because I couldn't force a certain very large hospital from across the country to give up 12,000 pages of requested medical records in paper form in just 6 hours.  I have also been yelled at in front of clients because he could not find certain documents, but only because he refused to learn the firms document management system and did not bother to read the emails I sent him with the documents attached.  It's an uphill battle dealing with attorneys who don't understand the procedures, are technically inept, or don't know what it takes to get a job done, and instead accuse you of doing a poor job, because they just don't get it.  

When attorneys accuse, rather than ask first or admit their own lack of knowledge, it's a red light for me. In all honesty, burnout and stress, and lack of basic procedural knowledge on my attorneys part caused me to leave my "glamorous" job as a litigation paralegal and start freelancing and writing.  I got tired of watching my attorney take incredible vacations, drive fancy cars, leave early, come in late and take 3 hour lunches, while I was on overtime every week with no lunch hour to speak of and was berated.  I wouldn't have felt this way if I was appreciated, respected just a bit, or if he simply understood our document system and technology, but I wasn't and he didn't.  I was basically there to help him stay wealthy while I slaved to live paycheck to paycheck.  

What was the straw that broke the camel's back? I saw his true character one day when he was speaking with our highly frustrated IT manager.  After being warned daily for a week to NOT use our old email system after a certain date because we were changing to a new one, he did just that.   He yelled at the IT manager because his emails were not received by very important people.  When the IT manager politely reminded him that he had been told to not use the old email system, my attorney looked right at him and said "I didn't think I actually had to listen to anything you had to say." I was floored.  And I quit.    

I recently asked my readers to tell me why they hate their jobs and I got a few good responses.  

1. "Don't do it. It can be rewarding and working with clients most of the time is great, however, you will never, never get the appreciation you deserve from the majority of the lawyers you work with. They have too many problems with lack of ethics, laziness, arrogance, egotism, lack of caring for their clients, abuse problems, greed, et cetera. I spent 35 years in the legal field and am still doing some part-time work now that I'm retired, and when I look back on it I should have become a physical therapist. The pay is horrible with plaintiff attorneys. The stress is horrendous, and the office politics can be brutal. If you do everything your attorney bosses tell you to do without question, you can be in danger of losing your job but the jerk keeps on going. It will always be your fault when something goes wrong. I'm sorry I ever wasted my life trying to be David up against Goliath. I had to leave three law firms because of their lack of ethics" vh from Boston

2. "I must add my two cents. Do NOT do it!! I spent two years of my life in school and actually did get my AS in Paralegal Studies and was employed for about one year as a paralegal. I quit and am now preparing myself to invest one more year in an LPN program.
The stress of the legal field was overwhelming and unsettling. The stories of attorneys throwing chairs at their paralegals and tyrannical behavior was not a secret once I entered the field. If I had known about it prior, I may not have completed my paralegal education.
Keep in mind, many firms do not offer benefits; they are small businesses. The larger firms that do dangle benefits packages are often hiring individual paralegals with 10+ years experience or are hiring impoverished recent law school grads desparate for any work, even if it is as a paralegal, grunt-worker. I personally started in the field at just above minimum wage; pay is slow and hard earned.
Many in the legal field, myself included, are type "a" perfectionists who are working on severe deadlines and pressure from clients (Many are nasty, short-tempered, uneducated and wary of lawyers; some are nice and patient. It is often difficult to differentiate between the two). The whole scene is a volatile mix. And, you better believe the attorneys will suck up your time! I often brought work home toward the end of my employment; that was a real wake up call. You give an inch they will demand a mile (even if it is a passive demand of leaving "post-it" notes with smiley faces, LOL).
Working as a paralegal is FULL of stress, deadlines, "post-it" notes, and serious disillusionment. I was completely disappointed with the legal field and am very excited (and nervous) to be starting on a new path in nursing in just one week!
So, if it is a non-stressful, high-paying job you are looking for, working as a paralegal is not the path to take." Overwhelmed in FL

Do you have a nightmare paralegal story?  How did you solve the situation?

Next week, I'll offer a few articles on how to deal with attorneys like this, especially if you want to remain at the firm you currently work for.   I'm also interested in whether an attorney can change, be a better manager, and learn how to improve relations with his staff. 


Anonymous said...

I too experienced mental and emotional abuse at the hands of several attorneys throughout my 27 year career. I finally left the law firm setting and am now working in house as a litigation paralegal. The differences are night and day! I felt like I had been paroled and can now live a normal life. I would never ever go back to a law firm again!

Lori L. Robinett said...

Been there, done that. I feel extremely fortunate that I finally found a job where, though overworked, my supervising attorneys are polite and appreciative. That makes me so much more motivated that the temper tantrums and verbal abuse that I faced in previous firms.

Anonymous said...

It saddens me that so many you seem to work in unethical, stressful situations where you are not appreciated. I am glad you left those situations and found something that makes you happy.

The good news is that there are excellent firms out there. Firms that care about their employees and support not only their professional development, but a healthy work-life balance. I happen to work at such a firm and am very thankful for the opportunities, education, friendships and overall excellent experience I've had over many years.

The paralegal profession can be challenging, rewarding and very interesting. I hope that anyone considering joining our field doesn't let a few bad apples dissuade them.

Anonymous said...

I had to leave my last firm because, after several years of working with a nice group (though there were some tempers), I got put in a satellite office with a young partner and inexperienced associates and was severely mistreated for a few years. The final straw was when they hired someone to "help me" who had no legal experience and no desire to learn anything from me. She would say everything I did seemed "inefficient" but would do things like mailing out a bunch of letters and never making a copy. The young attorneys were sloppy, lazy and arrogant. One guy would spend the entire day with me being the only person in the office and he wouldn't say hi. But someone else would come in and he'd be annoyingly friendly to them.

I reached a point where I realized I didn't even like my job enough to have to fight for it or deal with bad coworkers.
I didn't rush out, but instead tried to take advantage of every opportunity to gain a new skill to add to my resume. I spent a lot of time testing out different techniques for dealing with working with difficult people hoping I'd learn something I could use at a new job. I met with former colleagues to help me figure out which direction to go in and ask if they could be references. I also worked hard to go through my 10 years worth of stuff.

All this was worthwhile because when I finally started looking for a job, I found one in less than 3 weeks! I'm still in my honeymoon phase at the new job, but I've already heard some stories.

You definitely need a think skin in this profession and sometimes even nice people will act like jerks because of stress.

Jenny said...

I am currently living this nightmare. You are not alone! There is no appreciation for all of the hard work you do, I mean come on... how hard is it to get a simple thank you, after endless hours of overtime and stress meanwhile they're kicking back on their vacations every other week! These types of attorneys couldn't care less about their employees and more about how/when they can get out of the office next while you sit there and do their work/make money for them! I'm am so happy to have come across this post, I was losing my mind with all of the stress, verbal abuse, and lack of respect I was receiving. It is is comforting to know that I am not the only one. The only thing that keeps me going is "onward and upward" and like another poster has said... not every attorney is like this. I'm still looking for that happy place at a firm, but I am positive it is out there!

Anonymous said...

The legal field is not for the faint of heart. I consider myself an empath, and despite that, I've worked in the field for almost 30 yrs.

I've seen plenty of bad behavior from both attorneys and management alike. I've come to believe that many of them consider themselves above the law.

I used to work for a cop-turned-lawyer bully with a Jekyll/Hyde personality. He has a small practice with a large turnover.

Anyway. It was standard protocol for a meeting one day a week for everyone in the firm to meet for case review. The premise was to discuss status, strategy, and brainstorm about all active cases. Supposedly,every member of the firm deserved an equal voice during the meeting, and input was supposedly encouraged. One day I started to speak when he interrupted me by saying, "Shut up. No one cares what you think." Yep, you read that correctly. Right in front of everybody who worked at the firm.

It was about halfway through my short tenure at this firm when it became abundantly clear that my boss didn't like me and was just waiting for a moment where he could justify firing me. The catalyst for this change in attitude came directly on the heels of him asking me to do something borderline unethical on his behalf. I wasn't willing to lower my moral and ethical codes to his shady standards. Needless to say, he was infuriated.

Eventually, he gave up waiting for that perfect moment to can me. I'd been horribly sick for literally months with a respiratory condition that went improperly misdiagnosed. I'd continued to work to the best of my ability, without asking for any special accommodation. My work was such that he never had any legitimate excuse for firing me. However, the writing was on the wall.

On a Monday morning, two days before my birthday, he asked me to come in early to prepare for our Monday morning case review meeting. When I arrived, he was waiting with separation papers for me to sign. At that point I'd been sick with adult pertussis for a few months. During that time, he'd handed down orders to me to see additional doctors than the ones who'd already misdiagnosed me (oh, and he didn’t offer any health insurance), dressed me down for staying up late one wintry evening, talking and socializing with friends which, in his opinion, was impeding my recovery, and accused me of disclosing confidential case information to parties outside the firm. All horse hockey.

I was at my wit's end trying to keep this impossible person satisfied. So I just signed the papers and left.

Fast forward two months. I still hadn't found a job, so I applied for unemployment. He filed a rebuttal full of misrepresentations and outright lies. He'd evend hired an attorney to represent him.

I chose to not reply to his objection and wait for the matter to be heard in mediation with the Department of Labor. But within a week of the hearing date, he suddenly withdrew his objection. The Department of Labor went ahead and ruled on his objection and stated that he'd been unreasonable, and ruled in my favor.

I've worked with plenty of difficult, high maintenance people and never had any problems before. As a matter of fact, every prickly character I've ever worked for has not only liked me, but has shown me kindness and preferential treatment because I not only am very good at what I do, but I also am flexible enough to adapt their attitudes and work styles.

In the end,that good-cop-bad-cop-ambulance chaser did me a favor. I actually started to regain my physical health shortly after my termination. All that stress was keeping me sick.

He'll never change, but I learned a valuable lesson in terms of being highly alert long before I accept a job.

Anonymous said...

After spending 25 years as a Legal Assistant I started classes to get my paralegal degree. Prior to starting my classes I was told the firm I was working at would pay for my classes, I did not ask for this, and that I would receive a significant raise when I finished my classes. I graduated with a 4.0 and also took on half of the real estate work in the office when that person quit. No one was hired to replace her, the work was divided between myself and one other person. I had been under the impression that a raise would be given for taking on the real estate work and saving the firm paying a salary and benefits for that position. When I didn't hear anything about the raise after a month of doing the work for settlements I went to the office manager. I was told that no raise was going to be given. I later found out that the other girl that took on half of the work did receive a small raise. Three months later I completed my paralegal classes. I had to wait another four months to get a small raise for becoming a paralegal and the firm being able to bill for my time. I had also been told prior to beginning my paralegal classes and also when I was asked to take on the real estate work that my secretarial work was going to be re-assigned. That did not happen. So, I am now doing everything I was doing prior to my classes, half of the real estate work and paralegal work and I am also the back-up for the office manager. I have thought about looking for a new job but I have been at my current job for 17 years, I am 50 and I don't want to give up my vacation time. I know that if I go somewhere else it will at least be cut in half. My advise -- don't do it, don't become a paralegal.

Anonymous said...

I think for me its a question of "Why are the hiring me?" I have been in this field for 13 years and for the last ten I have felt useless. Good bosses and bad bosses. I have thick skin and have learned to get along with everyone. Some days are better than others. My complaint is the work load. Or rather lack of it. I just want to be busy and be more than a personal assistant. I have worked for 4 places in ten years and have been bored to tears the entire time. I don't know if its me or if I am not asking the right questions. It seems my idea of working and their idea of hiring me is not lining up. The place I worked prior to this hired me because they thought they were getting a bunch of business that never came. My current job my boss is on the cusp of retirement and business is way down. I am jaded and tired. I just want to work. The next job I take in our out of this field you can bet I will be asking some serious questions. To anyone getting in this field. Pro (you can make a lot of money) Con ( you will never advance).

Anonymous said...

Hello all,

I work as a paralegal at a foreclosure law firm. Currently I have about four years experience in the field and I am looking for another job, preferably in a nonprofit or charity.

In my experience I have never been so unappreciated, disrespected, mistreated, tormented and verbally abused in my life. The attorneys and management put a lot of stress and pressure on paralegals and its not fair. I work in a law firm that can be compared to a circus. Its just bad management. The work environment is toxic. I can only trust a few people. The rest only want to see me fail because I'm good at what I do. There is a high turnover and its obvious to see why. I feel like I'm in prison desperate to be set free.
I only went into this profession because I needed a job that paid well to support myself and pay the bills. I have no passion for it whatsoever.

To anyone who is considering being a paralegal, know that it takes tough skin, obedience, stress management, being strong mentally and emotionally to get through each day. You may not advance much in this career or get the respect and acknowledgment that you rightfully deserve. Find something other than money that can motivate you in this career.

This is my present day nightmare as a paralegal however I have faith that one day I will do something different that is meaningful and gives me joy.

A new career, a new life and happiness can be had for all of us.

God bless-

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