If you have ever dealt with a legal dilemma and worked with an attorney then you most likely have dealt with a paralegal. Paralegals assist attorneys with a variety of legal functions and with their proper utilization can greatly reduce the cost of legal services to the public and overhead costs for legal organizations. From real life stories of paralegal greatness like Erin Brockovich, who took on a powerful opponent in order to ensure that injustice was exposed, which resulted in the largest toxic tort settlement in U.S. history, to Della Street who worked as a legal secretary prior to the development of the paralegal profession in the long running television legal drama Perry Mason the impact of the paralegal role continues to evolve. The Perry Mason show ran from 1957 to 1966. Prior to this time the paralegal role had not been developed or defined. Although a fictional character, Della Street’s role showcases the importance of the assistance provided by paralegals and the necessity for a distinct profession within the legal industry for paralegal professionals.
It is important to understand the distinct roles of the legal secretary and paralegal (legal assistant) before embarking on a career as a paralegal. The failure to do so will cause individuals to misalign themselves or allow themselves to be misaligned within the legal industry, therefore inheriting a clerical/secretarial mindset and hindering the development of a career based mindset.
A brief history of the creation and development of the paralegal role will explain why although both women played crucial roles in the various stages of a case the different titles they held meant the difference in whether or not their employer was able to bill for their services. This is crucial because holding the correct title and performing paralegal based functions (substantive legal functions) greatly reduces the costs of legal services to the public. Although help legal secretaries cannot billed their times and paralegals are as long as they work on substantive legal functions.
History of the Paralegal Career
In the late 1960’s the paralegal career was created with the collaboration of law firms, bar associations, the American Bar Association (ABA), and the government in order to provide equal access to justice to the low income population and to combat poverty in the U.S. Since this time the American Bar Association has continued to be instrumental in the development of the paralegal profession. In 1968 the ABA created the Special Committee on Lay Assistants for Lawyers to provide guidance on the use of the growing ranks of the early paralegal profession. Today the ABA is still one of the most influential organizations within the paralegal profession, and its influence is demonstrated with its ABA approved credentials that it bestows upon paralegal programs that meet its rigorous standards.
Paralegal Career Information
Most people have heard of an attorney and understand what service they provide to the public, but others have either never heard about paralegals or do not understand the contribution that they make to the public and the legal profession overall.
Paralegals play an important role within a legal team and can assist with a variety of functions from legal research to assisting at trials. There is not a one size fits all approach to becoming a paralegal. Some individuals have earned the title by working themselves up from a receptionist position while others have obtained extensive formal training that resulted in a certificate or degree.
Although formal training is not a requirement for becoming a paralegal obtaining formal training provides individuals with the opportunity to specialize in a particular area of this rewarding field and also expand into a niche within the legal industry like an e-Discovery specialization, environmental advocacy, construction defect law, workers compensation specialist, Court Appointed Special Advocate for children, and more. Some programs even include an internship component, which provides legal organizations with valuable assistance while providing paralegal students with real world hands on experience.
If you’re interested in becoming a paralegal take the first step today by checking out the schools below and finding the right one for you!
Within the profession, there is a wide range of titles that come along with the job. If you are considering this field, then check out some of the positions you could land:
- Bankruptcy Specialist
- Contract Administrator
- Corporate Paralegal
- E-discovery Specialist
- Elder Law Paralegal
- Foreclosure Specialist
- Immigration Paralegal
- Legal Analyst
- Legal Assistant
- Litigation Paralegal
- Real Estate Paralegal
- Regulatory Specialist
- Social Security Disability Specialist
As you gain experience within the industry, you could advance into other positions such as:
- Case Manager
- Law Firm Administrator
- Paralegal Instructor
- Paralegal Manager
- Senior Paralegal
A typical day in the profession can include a broad range of tasks that begin at the client intake interview and extend through to the trial. On any given day, a paralegal might handle tasks in these areas:
- Collect all pertinent case information
- Organize all case information electronically and physically
- Maintain all information and documents pertaining to open cases
- Coordinate exchange of information from clients, opposing counsel, witnesses, and other interested parties
- Conduct client interviews
- Schedule expert witnesses for depositions
- Receive and log all client calls and correspondence
- Draft client engagement letters, interoffice memos, and legal memos
- Conduct and coordinate factual investigations
- Conduct witness interviews
- Obtain medical reports, statistical reports
- Collect and preserve physical evidence
- Draft interrogatories, request for production of documents,
- Attend depositions with attorney
- Prepare chronologies from deposition testimony, documents, and other investigative material
- Prepare notices, motions, and briefs
- File documents with various courts and agencies
- Research applicable procedures, case law, and other laws
- Ensure cited cases, laws, and other rules are up to date
- Ensure citations are formatting accurately
This is just a sampling of the items that can make up the various job functions that paralegals perform. If a specific practice area is chosen, additional job functions and tasks can be performed.
Becoming a Paralegal
Regardless of whether you work in a traditional or non-traditional role as a paralegal the entry route is typically the same. In addition to the various positions and practice areas that can be held in the paralegal career following are some of the variations on how individuals work within the field.
A traditional paralegal is employed by a law firm, government agency, or other organizations and report to an attorney.
A freelance paralegal is self-employed and works for one or more attorneys on a contract basis on short and/or long term cases and projects.
Legal Document Preparer
A legal document preparer is able to assist the general public with preparing and filing a variety of legal documents without the supervision of an attorney. Unlike paralegals a legal document preparer is required to register and obtain licensing within their jurisdiction in order to offer their services.
There is a great deal of confusion about the difference between being a certified paralegal and a certificated paralegal. Before embarking upon the paralegal educational journey it is important to understand the difference between the two. Attending a paralegal program will often lead to a paralegal certificate upon successful completion of the program. Once the certificate is earned the paralegal will be considered a certificated paralegal. The certificate that is earned demonstrates to employers that the possessor can perform the tasks most often delegated to paralegals, in addition to having a basic understanding of a set body of knowledge, which typically includes the following:
- Interviewing and Investigative Techniques
- Legal Research
- Legal Writing
- Litigation Support
- Legal Technology
- Practice are specific knowledge ranging from business law to probate administration
In contrast to the certificated paralegal a certified paralegal does not necessarily have to attend a formal training program but demonstrates their paralegal proficiency by taking and passing a rigorous exam that is administered by a paralegal association or a state bar association. There are currently more than 10 national and regional associations within the U.S. that offer some form of a certified paralegal designation. After satisfactorily passing the exam an individual will then be considered a certified paralegal and can use a professional designation to demonstrate their certified paralegal status. Earning a certificate or becoming certified is not mandatory and is strictly voluntary. The only state that has mandatory regulation for paralegals is California. According to California Business and Professions code 6450 all paralegals in the state of California except for those that work for government agencies are require to maintain a minimum level of continuing education credits in order to be considered a paralegal and maintain their paralegal status.
Two of the most popular paralegal certifications are the registered paralegal (RP) designation offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations ( NFPA) and the certified paralegal (CP) designation offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
Cost of Schooling
Before choosing a program, you should consider what the tuition costs are. Here are some of the average costs of a paralegal education:
- Associate’s degree ranges from $600 to $5,400
- Private or vocational school ranges from $5,000 to $12,000
- State College or University ranges from $5,000 to $23,000
In addition to the costs of the program the answers to the following questions should be obtained prior to enrolling in any program:
- Will I graduate with a certificate, diploma, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree?
- Is the program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA)
- Does the school provide employment assistance?
- Will I receive help finding an internship opportunity?
- Is the school accredited?
- Does the school have a good reputation within the industry?
- Do I have to purchase training materials and tools separately?
- Does the school have connections with employment agencies and employers?
- How long is the program?
These answers can provide a better picture of the value you will be getting for your tuition dollars, helping you to make a more informed choice.
What You Can Learn
A formal program can provide training in a broad range of areas, including:
- Interview client to obtain necessary information for court filings
- Provide client list of documents needed, such as tax returns, certificate
of title, life insurance, leases, and liabilities.
- Obtain asset and debt information and prepare list of assets and debts
- Maintain repository and/or database of current court rules.
- Collect, organize and maintain form files, including model pleadings,
motions, and checklists.
- Review legal periodicals and material relevant to a specialty area of
law and report or circulate pertinent facts to appropriate attorney(s).
- Check name availability and reserve or register corporate name
- Draft and file articles or certificate of incorporation
- Draft bylaws
- Assemble and maintain corporate minute book.
- Prepare motion for bond reduction
- Examine all relevant evidence
- Draft applicable motions to change venue, set aside indictment, acquittal, civil compromise, return property, to postpone trial
- Prepare sentencing information
- Draft applications and petitions for filing with Immigration and Naturalization Service
- Coordinate translation of foreign documents
- Prepare copyrights, trademarks, and patents
- Maintain docket for due dates of actions, filings, responses, etc.
- Assist in intellectual property litigation
Wills, Trusts & Estates
- Prepare wills to determine distribution of assets to beneficiaries
- Coordinate the transfer of assets into trusts, including bank accounts,
stock transfers and real estate deeds
- Prepare and maintain a calendar system, noting important estate
administration deadlines and court appearances
When examining the typical salary, it’s important to look at a number of factors, such as:
- Certification level
- Geographic location
- Years of experience
- Specialized knowledge
- Type of work environment
As an entry-level paralegal, you can expect to earn a percentage of the full pay of an experienced paralegal, but with additional certifications and/or experience pay will increase.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2012 the median income for a paralegal was $46,990 and the top five industries that paralegals worked in were:
- Federal government
- Finance and insurance
- Local government
- Legal services
- State government
The highest-earning 10 percent were paid more than $75,410 and the lowest paid earning approximately $29,420.
The cities with the highest earning paralegals are Washington D.C. with an average salary of $66,050 , Oakland, CA with an average salary of $61,180, San Luis Obispo, CA with an average salary of $61,180, San Jose, CA with an average salary of $65,020, and San Francisco, CA with an average salary of $68,740.
With globalization, the technology explosion, and the publics need for the affordable access to justice the demand for paralegals will continue to grow. Although, the demand for paralegals will continue to grow there will still be a great deal of competition within the field and only those with the appropriate amount of training, experience, and paralegal know-how will be in a position to compete for these jobs.
The U.S. Department of Labor projects that positions for paralegals will grow by 17 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is a faster rate than the average for all occupations
Experience in the field can bring a variety of opportunities for advancement. By opting to work for a law firm, you could eventually move up to a role in paralegal management or legal administration, meaning you could managed other paralegals, assist with human resource functions, and coordinate operational and administrative functions for an entire law firm or other legal organization.
Additionally, once you gain a well-rounded skill set and substantial experience, you could decide to venture down the entrepreneurial path and become a freelance paralegal.
Benefits of the Work
There are many benefits associated with a paralegal career. Here are some examples:
Assistance with the effective and affordable access to justice. A well trained paralegal not only provides countless benefits to their employers, but also allow for the reduction of legal costs.
Provides a clear path to becoming an attorney. For financial reasons, limitations due to family obligations, and various other reasons individuals who may want to become attorneys may decide that a paralegal route may be more feasible for their short or long term career goals.
Satisfaction obtained from successfully solving cases. As a paralegal you may work on cases ranging from an injury from a dog bite to a domestic violence case. The feeling of satisfaction that is derived from knowing that you have assisted with successfully solving a case is immeasurable.
Joining a paralegal association is a great way to network with other legal professionals and to obtain valuable paralegal career related resources. Unlike bar associations that provide licensing and networking for attorneys, participation in a paralegal association is not mandatory. Even in the state of California where all paralegals must adhere to state mandated educational requirements and other professional mandates, belonging to a paralegal or any other legal organization is voluntary.
Determining the right paralegal association to join requires an understanding of both short and long term career goals. From this standpoint an individual can determine whether a career specific, practice area specific, regional, and/or national paralegal association will allow them to maintain and develop within their chosen paralegal career path. Following is a small selection of paralegal associations who’s websites can be visited to learn if they can provide the necessary networking and career resources for your career:
Association of Legal Administrators
Association of Litigation Support Professionals
Practice Area Specific:
Association of Bankruptcy Judicial Assistants
Association of Intellectual Property Paralegals
Arizona Paralegal Association
California Alliance of Paralegal Associations
Illinois Paralegal Association
Paralegal Division of the State Bar of Texas
The New York City Paralegal Association
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI)
The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)
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