As I attempt to grow my career, as a budding professional in my 20s, I’m trying to focus on what I’ve learn as I go. If I’m interested in climbing the career ladder and being taken seriously as a professional, it’s exceedingly important that I take some time to define who exactly I am as a professional. I’m trying to constantly ask myself, what makes you a professional? What makes you stand out? What do you bring to any given job? What makes you better than the competition?
I’ve been a legal secretary for over three years now. Saying I work for a “small firm” would be an understatement. I spend roughly 35 of my 40-hour work week alone in the office. I work for one attorney, and I am his only employee with exception of the paralegal, and she’s only in the office for a few hours each week. We specialize in real estate and bankruptcy law, and dabble in estate work and will drafting from time to time. The paralegal handles all the input and preparation for bankruptcy cases. I handle everything else.
I started training for this job during my senior year of college, in the middle of finals week. I was fully trained by the time I walked across the graduation stage, diploma in hand. I was in the office, armed with plenty of caffeine, as a full-time employee, the day after graduation. I accepted this job knowing that it would give me great experience, and assuming that after building my resume here, I would move onto my “career.” I accepted the pay level I was offered, one week of paid vacation, five paid holidays and a bonus check at Christmas, with gusto. I had landed my first “adult” job right out of college!
Here I am, more than three years later, updating my LinkedIn profile, preparing myself for the daunting search for that “career” I told myself I’d move on to after this job. As I upload a professional photo, search my hard drive for my most recent resume, and search for college alum and other contacts I’d like to connect with, it feels like I’m making my resume into a Facebook page. There are all kinds of sections to fill out, basically prompting me to expand and personalize bullets from my resume, and there are an abundance of questions about my skills. I click through some generic suggestions from LinkedIn: “organized,” “efficient,” “team-player.” Sure, those are all skills I have in my toolbox, but so does everyone else. What skills do I have that make me stand out? I was at a loss.
The current average pay for a legal secretary across the country is anywhere from $17 to $25 dollars an hour, and I fall just below the tail end of that bracket. I worry that boasting general skills like “organization,” will keep me there. I needed to do a serious assessment to figure out what skills I have that make me stand out to a potential employer. If I were in a job interview, sitting in front of the CEO of a company that I desperately wanted to work for, and was asked my weaknesses, I could pull up a list off the top of my head. If I was asked my strengths, I would pause.
Of course it’s important to be aware of our weaknesses too, because that’s how we improve. To successfully improve as professionals, we need to be able to take constructive criticism from others, as well as assess ourselves and find areas on which we could improve. But I need to understand my strengths too. I think that knowing what I bring to the table professionally is one of the most important steps to successfully finding a job that could become my career, or my dream job.
What frustrates me is that my resume only really says that I’m a legal secretary. It doesn’t tell you that I work in a do-it-yourself office, and am also the office manager, the administrative assistant, the copier, and that I draft documents and am a personal assistant when necessary. So, I sat down at my desk, and made a list of all the things I could bring to a new job, that set me apart from the crowd. It was an exercise that helped me realize how I can present myself as a marketable employee to new companies. Here is a quick look at my list:
1. I’m great at multitasking. Working for one attorney, and managing the entire office operation while he’s on the road 90% of the time, means that I’m constantly wearing multiple hats. When I’m right in the middle of drafting a document, and an upset client calls because they need information on a legal matter, I need to drop everything, and change gears. I spend a lot of my day putting clients at ease, and keeping them informed, which is no easy task.
2. I’m incredible under pressure. Having an extensive background in writing for newspapers, I can get a lot of work done when the heat is on. I react quickly, accept criticism and make changes immediately. I’ve never missed a deadline. When the editor says I need one more source, and that my word count needs to get beefed up, I’m on it instantly. In a job interview, I’d want to provide specific examples like this.
3. I have strong customer service skills. In high school and college I worked retail jobs part-time, on top of a full class schedule. Retail, while not a glorified position, is the best way to learn how to deal with disgruntled people. As a sales associate and now as a secretary, it’s easy to be the punching bag for clients anger or unsettling emotions. It’s up to me to be calm, collected, polite and friendly, to assure our clients that it’s going to get taken care of, and create a positive interaction.
Getting my strengths on paper automatically made me feel better about the job search that is ahead. I think the lesson here is that, when you’re working hard, whether at a temporary job, or a position that’s started to wear on you, you’re gaining more experience than you think. It’s frustrating to know that I may get overlooked next to someone who has more experience, when I’m really just trying to gain experience. But that’s why taking the time to understand your worth, and show what you can bring to a new company, is necessary. You might lack a few years of experience, but if you outline your strengths to yourself, you have a better chance of explaining them well to potential employers when the time comes.
Samantha is a legal secretary in Vermont trying to put her English degree to good use. She is always writing, reading or rescuing animals (the most recent rescue is a high-fiving Chihuahua named Hambone).
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