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.

Present and Future

The paralegal profession is a relatively new and rapidly expanding area. Previously, much of the groundwork now covered by the paralegal was part and parcel of being a lawyer. Now lawyers can afford to focus more intently on the strategies of trying cases and resolving legal problems, thanks to the invaluable preparatory work of the paralegal. Computer technology will continue to play a significant role in the fact-finding and fact-gathering stages of most legal cases. Instead of poring over volumes of research material in law libraries, much of this information is easily accessible from online digitized law libraries and software programs. Of course the paralegal who specializes in a particular field and who is computer literate will have the added edge on advancement. Because of the continuous enactment of new legislation and revised interpretations of existing laws, the paralegal must keep constantly updated on every change, every proposal, and every nuance of the law.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

These are the critical years for the newcomer to the profession to take stock, gain valuable all-around experience, and simply feel his or her way around the profession. At this stage the paralegal is probably given minimal responsibilities but loads of work— and working up to 90 hours a week should be expected at times, for those individuals who want to get anywhere in the profession. The day will be spent doing research in the law library, poring over tedious documents (looking for witness names through word-searches and similarly mind-numbing tasks), and preparing reports for presentations (three-hole punching, formatting labels, etc). The paralegal should expect to be under constant supervision, assist with clerical matters, photocopy articles, and compile files. The work may seem never-ending and tedious, but the paralegal with perseverance will take it in stride and absorb this experience.

FIVE YEARS OUT

If he or she hasn’t opted to attend law school, by now the experienced paralegal has decided on and begun to pursue a specialized field. The professional paralegal has more responsibility and significantly reduced supervision. In a corporate environment, advancement opportunities are possible at this juncture. Usually, paralegals move up to supervisory or managerial capacities, but many of them may find it easier to move to another law firm in search of advancement and better salaries.

TEN YEARS OUT

The 10-year mark is the ideal time for reassessment of one’s career as a paralegal. By now the professional has undergone several career-enhancing changes, such as college refresher courses, workshops and seminars on changes in the law, becoming familiar with new computer applications in legal research, and developing an area of specialty. At this stage, if the paralegal still yearns for more responsibilities and challenges, he or she should make the decision of whether to pursue a law degree or undertake an alternate career.