Paralegal Career and Job Highlights
Paralegal Career Overview
Lawyers, who are ultimately responsible for legal work, assign many of their tasks to paralegals. Legal assistants—as paralegals are also known—are increasingly taking on tasks formally performed by lawyers. Paralegals still cannot legally try cases, set fees, or give legal advice—all tasks explicitly delegated to lawyers.
A paralegal’s primary role is to help a lawyer in his or her preparations for trials, business meetings, and hearings. Paralegals help make certain that all aspects of the case have been considered, and gather information and investigate facts. By performing research, paralegals find relevant laws, statutes, and previous judicial decisions that relate to the case. They may be asked to compile all such information into a written report that aids lawyers in deciding the way in which they should proceed with a case. Paralegals assist with the preparation of arguments and court filings, and may provide assistance during a trial. They may also make readily available to attorneys any legal documents or files that relate to important cases.
Depending on the employer, the tasks paralegals are asked to perform vary. In addition to the support role they play to lawyers during court proceedings, paralegals may help with a number of legal documents, including drafting wills, contracts, applications, and divorce agreements. They may also prepare tax filings and real estate transactions. Other paralegals perform a more administrative role, managing the business activities of others and keeping company financial records.
The majority of paralegals work with government agencies, corporations, and private law firms, though paralegal work is available in all industries. Paralegals, just like lawyers, may center their own employment around different areas of law, including tax, divorce, patent, employment, and immigration law. Paralegals have adapted to more complex laws by specializing. Specialties further subdivide the different areas of legal practice—for example, a paralegal working within the field of intellectual property may specialize and work only in trademarks.
Paralegal tasks vary greatly among different types of organizations. Corporate paralegals help attorneys with items such as benefit packages, human resource issues, employee contracts, or stock-option purchase plans. Other tasks they perform include filing annual reports, taking minutes and recording business resolutions, and preparing corporate financial documents. Corporate paralegals may assist the company in staying current on and complying with government regulations that affect their industry by monitoring legislative or administrative activities.
Paralegals employed with government agencies conduct legal research, compile and manage legal material for in-house use, and collect evidence for agency meetings. They may prepare summaries and explanations of agency policies, regulations, and laws for public consumption. At the community level, paralegals often assist with legal-aid clinics that help poor, elderly, and others gain access to legal assistance. Paralegals do everything from file reports and documents, to conduct research and, when legal, represent clients at agency hearings.
Paralegals employed by a large private law firm or government agency are likely to specialize; however, paralegals who work with small- to medium-sized firms will likely be required to have a general working knowledge of the law. This will include such assignments as researching prior trials concerning improper use of force by police and preparing documents to file in court.
Paralegals are increasingly using computers and other technology to research legal issues. Literature is stored on online databases and CD-ROMs. In addition to research, paralegals also use computer database systems to store, organize, and access supporting legal documents related to complex cases. Documents and evidence is scanned using imagining software. Billable hours are tracked using billing programs. Software is used in tax law to compute implications of tax law, and calculate client tax strategies.
Most paralegals who are employed with government agencies and corporations typically work 40 hours a week. A minority of paralegals are seasonal employees, working only during the busiest times of the year; the majority, however, work year round. When deadlines are looming, paralegals who work with law firms may work long hours; this workload is often rewarded with extra vacation time or bonuses.
Paralegals with little experience are sometimes required to perform some more menial tasks. However, as they accumulate experience they gain responsibility for more important tasks. Though they may on occasion travel to help with investigations, the majority of paralegals’ time is spent in an office or library.
Paralegal Training and Job Qualifications
The most common path to becoming a paralegal is earning an associate’s degree in paralegal studies from a community college. Others earn a certificate in paralegal studies after graduation from college; bachelor degrees and master degrees are available from some schools as well. Others are promoted from their legal secretary positions or are hired with no formal paralegal training, receiving training on the job. Those with specialized training in a technical field related to the legal practice may also be hired as paralegals. Such fields include nursing, tax preparation, and law enforcement.
Some 600 colleges, universities, and law schools make paralegal training programs available. The American Bar Association (ABA) approves nearly 250 paralegal programs. Graduating from one of the programs the ABA approves may increase post-graduate employment opportunities; however, many programs do not seek ABA approval, nor is such approval required. Admissions requirements vary from program to program. A bachelor’s degree or specific college courses are required by some; legal experience or a high school diploma is prerequisites for others; some schools require students to take standardized tests or conduct personal interviews.
Program for paralegal education are available that terminate in a 2-year associate’s degree, a 4-year bachelor’s degree, or a certificate, which may take only a few months to complete. Such certificate programs are designed for persons already have a college degree, and the study is very intensive. The associate’s and bachelor’s programs combine paralegal studies with other academic fields. The best paralegal programs include job placement at the end. Courses are increasingly being offered to train paralegals on computer technology and online legal searches. Some programs include several months of internship experience where the paralegal gains hands-on knowledge of legal studies by working in a law firm, government agency, State or local prosecutor’s office, or corporation’s legal department. The internship experience is a valuable resource when applying for jobs following graduation. Before committing to a program of study, prospective paralegal students should consult with recent graduates of any particular program to find out their experiences.
Holding a professional certificate increases opportunities in the job market, though most firms and agencies do not require a paralegal to hold such certification. Paralegals may certify with the National Association of Legal Assistants and use designation of Certified Legal Assistant (CLA). To certify, professionals must meet established standards with regards to education and experience, then pass a 2-day examination that is given in regional testing centers 3 times annually. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers another test, the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam, to paralegals with a bachelor’s degree and two years experience. Registered Paralegal (RP) is the professional designation of those who pass this examination.
Not only is it important for paralegals to be able to use technological advancements to conduct legal research, they must also be able to document their research when they present them to their supervising attorney. In order to perform their tasks properly, paralegals must be familiar with legal jargon and be able to conduct effective investigations. Continuing education courses help paralegals stay abreast of developments and changes in their particular area of legal practice, and gain more knowledge of the legal process and system.
People skills are important for paralegals as they often work with the public. Ethical guidelines for paralegals have been established by a number of organizations, namely the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, some States, and the National Association of Legal Assistants.
Paralegal gain more responsibility and are supervised less when they gain more experience on the job. Senior paralegals in private law firms, government agencies, and corporations may serve an administrative role, delegating work to other staff and paralegals. Paralegals can be promoted to managerial and other law-related posts, though some find changing firms or agencies the easiest way to advance and gain more responsibilities.
Paralegal Job and Employment Opportunities
Job growth is expected to be faster than average through 2012 for legal assistants and paralegals. Some of that growth will come as law firms hire more paralegals and assign them responsibilities previously handled by lawyers in order to cut costs and make legal services more available. Most new paralegal opportunities will be with new firms and expanding agencies, though some spots certainly will result from paralegals retiring or leaving the work force. Educated and certified paralegals have a bright employment future, though competition for jobs will be keen due to the large number of persons who will go into this line of work.
Though corporations, banks, insurance companies, and other agencies will all continue to employ paralegals, the largest employer of legal assistants will continue to be private law firms. Corporations will employ a growing number of paralegals as they cut costs in their legal departments. As more people require legal services in specialized areas such as intellectual property, estate planning, environmental law, and housing issues, demand for paralegals will increase. Legal services should also grow because of prepaid legal plans that are gaining popularity. Opportunities for paralegals will also increase as current employers assign their paralegals more responsibilities and small and medium-sized firms and organizations increasingly use paralegal services. It is projected that some experienced paralegals will establish their own businesses.
Public sector employment for paralegals is expected to match growth in the private sector. Agencies at all levels of government will hire paralegals in increasing numbers, and community legal assistance programs that aim to make legal services available to previously disenfranchised persons—like the poor, minorities, and the elderly—will increase demand for paralegal services.
Paralegals are sometimes affected by cyclical swings in the economy. Peripheral legal service—for example, estate planning, will drafting, and real estate transactions—decrease during economic recessions. Businesses are less likely to hire new paralegals when diving profits require cutting costs. Some paralegals who work full time may find their hours reduced or they may even be let go during tough economic times. However, during economic crises, people find themselves more in need of some legal services, like bankruptcy, separation, or bank foreclosure. Paralegals tend to do better during recessions than lawyers do because they offer many of the same legal services at a fraction of the cost.
Historical Earnings Information
Education level, amount of experience, employer type and size, and location all greatly influence the salary a paralegal might earn. Paralegals employed with small firms in rural areas typically earn less than their counterparts working with large firms in urban areas. Bonuses are given frequently in addition to salary. The median earnings were $37,950 including bonuses for wage and salary paralegals working full-time in 2002. The 90th percentile earned more than $61,150 while the bottom 10 percent made less than $24,470. The middle two quartiles were paid between $30,020 and $48,760. The following table presents the median dollars earned in the types of practice that employed the most paralegals in 2002.
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