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Career: Paralegal

A Day in the life of a Paralegal

Through a combination of education, training, and work experience, a paralegal performs “substantive” legal work and is “an integral part of the legal team,” according to a vice president of a major association. If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of the legal profession and understand the importance of careful and thorough research, then paralegal studies may be the right occupation for you. The paralegal, or legal assistant, profession is the ground floor to lawyering and often, every bit as important. In many distinct ways, their duties include the same tasks lawyers who assume responsibility for the legal work do, but paralegals do not practice law and are prohibited from dispensing legal advice, trying a case in court, or accepting legal fees. Paralegals work hand in hand with lawyers, helping to prepare cases for trial. In their preparatory work, they uncover all the facts of the case, conduct research to highlight relevant case laws and court decisions, obtain affidavits, and assist with depositions and other materials relevant to cases. A significant portion of a paralegal’s work involves writing reports and drafting documents for litigation. After the initial fact-gathering stage, the paralegal prepares reports for use by the supervising attorney in deciding how the case should be litigated. Paralegals who work in areas other than litigation, such as patent and copyright law and real estate and corporate law, also assist in the drafting of relevant documents—contracts, mortgages, estate planning, and separation agreements. Paralegals who work for government agencies maintain reference files, analyze material for internal use, and prepare information guides on the law. Those paralegals involved with community legal services help disadvantaged persons in need of legal aid. Much of their time is spent preparing and filing documents and doing research. Employee benefit plans, shareholder agreements, and stock options are the primary concern of the paralegal working for corporations.

Paying Your Dues

Paralegals usually enter the profession after completing American Bar Association (ABA)- approved college or training programs or are trained on the job. Although most paralegal programs are completed in two years, a growing number of colleges and universities offer four-year bachelor’s degree programs. Beyond this, some firms hire liberal arts majors as paralegals directly after college and then train them on the job. This is a growth profession that attracts large numbers of applicants, and the competition is strong and healthy. A four-year program at a reputable college and certification by the National Association of Legal Assistants, the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation, will greatly enhance employment opportunities. The paralegal who has demonstrated competence in computer applications will distinguish him- or herself from the pack and be able to move ahead. Practical experience gained from student internships, familiarity with legal terminology, and strong investigative skills are also advantages.

Associated Careers

A number of occupations call for specialized knowledge of the law but fall short of the need for a lawyer. Should a paralegal become disenchanted with his or her career, there are possibilities in law enforcement or as an insurance claims adjuster, occupational safety and health officer, patent agent, and title examiner. And there is always the option of ultimately becoming a lawyer.

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