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A paralegal is someone who performs delegated legal work for which a lawyer is ultimately responsible. They perform a variety of tasks which include maintaining and organizing files, drafting documents and conducting legal research. Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for law firms, government agencies, or corporate legal departments.
Paralegals may typically do the following:
Paralegals help lawyers prepare for trials, hearings and corporate meetings. Depending on the size of the organization or firm, a paralegal's duties could vary, especially in a smaller firm. In addition to reviewing and organizing information, paralegals may prepare written reports that help lawyers determine how to handle their cases. If lawyers decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help draft documents and prepare the legal arguments to be filed with the court.
Rather than handling a case from beginning to end, paralegals that are employed in larger organizations work mostly on a particular phase of a case. For example, a litigation paralegal might only review legal material for internal use, conduct research for lawyers, maintain reference files, and collect and organize evidence for hearings. Litigation paralegals often do not attend trials, but might draft settlement agreements or prepare trial documents.
Law firms increasingly use computer software and technology in preparing for trials and for managing documents. Paralegals use computer software to prepare presentations and draft and index documents. In addition, paralegals must be up to date on the latest software used for electronic discovery and familiar with electronic database management. Electronic discovery refers to all electronic materials that are related to a trial, such as data, emails, accounting databases, documents and websites.
Paralegals can assume more responsibilities by specializing in different areas. Some of these areas could be litigation, corporate law, criminal law, personal injury, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, real estate and family law. In addition, experienced paralegals may assume supervisory responsibilities, such as delegating work to other paralegals or overseeing team projects.
Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for a corporation's legal department, government agencies or law firms. They usually work full time, and although most paralegals work year round, some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year. Paralegals who work for law firms may need to work overtime to meet deadlines. Occasionally, paralegals travel to gather information and do other tasks, but for the most part work in offices and law libraries.
There are several paths to becoming a paralegal. One can enrol in a community college paralegal program to earn an associate’s degree. A limited number of schools also offer bachelor’s and master's degrees in paralegal studies. For those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, they can also earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Some employers may also hire entry-level paralegals without any experience or education in paralegal studies and train them on the job, although these jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree.
Associate’s and bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies usually combine courses in legal research and the legal applications of computers with other academic subjects. Most certificate programs provide this paralegal training for people who already hold college degrees. Some certificate programs only take a few months to complete.
Many paralegal training programs also offer an internship, in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a private law firm, a corporate legal department, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a government agency or a legal aid organization. Internship experience helps the students improve technical skills and can enhance their employment prospects.
Sometimes employers hire college graduates with no legal experience or education and train them on the job. In these cases, the new employee often has experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such as criminal justice or tax preparation. That being said, employers prefer candidates who have at least one year of experience in a law firm or other office setting and have technical understanding of a specific legal specialty. For example, a personal-injury law firm may desire a paralegal with a background in health administration or nursing. It is particularly important for people who do not have formal paralegal training to have work experience in a law firm or other office setting.
Many local and national paralegal organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications to students able to pass an exam. Yet other organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications for those who meet certain experience and education criteria.
Paralegals usually require less supervision and are given more responsibilities as they gain work experience, and experienced paralegals may delegate assignments to clerical staff and other paralegals.
Skills and knowledge tested by certification examinations include an advanced knowledge of legal procedure, ethics and substantive law as well as research, communication and writing skills.
Although a formal paralegal education is not required, it is helpful as is the optional paralegal certification.
A paralegal is under the guidance of a lawyer, and assists with many legal responsibilities. They help prepare cases and handle many of the administrative tasks involved with pursuing claims, as well as conduct research and execute orders from the lawyer in relation to a case. Paralegal training programs typically offer classes that resemble the first year or two of law school.
A law clerk is a legal professional who works for a lawyer or most likely, a judge, and helps to research and determine legal options in a case. Law clerks have typically completed law school, and get their start as a law clerk. Law students compete intensely for summer law clerk positions because law firms use these temporary worker slots to fill their future attorney job openings.
According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 17 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. This occupation attracts many applicants, and competition for jobs will be strong. Experienced, formally trained paralegals with strong computer and database management skills should have the best job prospects."
Both terms are used interchangeably. The American Bar Association (ABA) does not distinguish between the paralegal vs. legal assistant positions. The ABA defines both positions as follows: "A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."
If you are serious about becoming a paralegal, it would be wise to specialize in a healthy and growing area of the law. The types of paralegals in greatest demand appear to be those who have specialized in: litigation, corporate, real estate, intellectual property, immigration, and trust and estates. Make yourself irreplaceable by anticipating what the lawyer needs and by being extremely organized. Working as a paralegal is also a great way to discover if you'd like to be a lawyer.
There is an overwhelming amount of documentation and filing that paralegals are responsible for, and being exceptionally organized will make this a lot easier. Paralegals also need to be detail-oriented and efficient. Because duties can vary greatly based on the size of the firm or the supervising attorneys, a paralegal must also be very adaptable to situations and must either enjoy the organizational aspect of the job, or be willing to dedicate themselves enough to become exceptional at it.
Part Detective, Part Counselor, Part Magician... Robin Gomez has worked as a paralegal for 33 years. She currently works for the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has an AA in Business Management and an AA in Paralegal Studies.
My decision to become a paralegal was purely coincidence. I would like to say that I spent time poring over materials on career choices, but that would not be true.
To answer questions about paralegal regulation (in Canada), the Law Society has developed a set of frequently asked questions and answers, which is updated regularly as soon as new information becomes available.
What does a paralegal do in general is a great question. Unfortunately, paralegals don’t do the same thing in every type of law firm. Paralegals have a varied set of skills and requirements depending upon the focus of law the firm they are working for practices.
A paralegal’s job description will vary depending on the attorney, the type of law the attorney practices, the size of the law firm and the location of the law firm.
Paralegals typically work with attorneys in all aspects of their practices including helping them prepare cases for trial, researching matters, speaking with clients, and preparing documents for court deadlines. A paralegal is often vital to a lawyer's success.