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Not all legal work requires a law degree. Lawyers are often assisted in their work by paralegals or legal assistants. Paralegals perform many of the same tasks as lawyers, except for those tasks considered to be the practice of law.
Paralegals work under the direct supervision of lawyers. Although the lawyers assume responsibility for the legal work, they often delegate many of the tasks they perform to paralegals. Paralegals are prohibited from setting legal fees, giving legal advice, and presenting cases in court.
Paralegals generally do the background work for lawyers. To help prepare cases for trial, paralegals investigate the facts of cases ensuring all relevant information is uncovered. Paralegals may conduct legal research to identify the appropriate laws, judicial decisions, legal articles, and other materials that may be relevant to assigned cases. After organizing and analyzing all the information, paralegals may prepare written reports that attorneys use in determining how cases should be handled. Should attorneys decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help prepare the legal arguments, draft pleadings and motions to be filed with the court, obtain affidavits, and assist the attorneys during trials. Paralegals also keep files of all documents and correspondence important to cases.
Besides litigation, paralegals may also work in areas such as bankruptcy, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, patent and copyright law, and real estate. They help draft documents such as contracts, mortgages, separation agreements, and trust instruments. They may help prepare tax returns and plan estates. Some paralegals coordinate the activities of the other law office employees and keep the financial records for the office.
Paralegals who work for corporations help attorneys with such matters as employee contracts, shareholder agreements, stock option plans, and employee benefit plans. They may help prepare and file annual financial reports, maintain corporate minute books and resolutions, and help secure loans for the corporation. Paralegals may also review government regulations to ensure the corporation operates within the law.
The duties of paralegals who work in government vary depending on the agency with whom they are employed. Generally, paralegals in government analyze legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for attorneys, collect and analyze evidence for agency hearings, and prepare informative or explanatory material on the law, agency regulations, and agency policy for general use by the agency and the public.
Paralegals employed in community legal service projects help the poor, the aged, and others in need of legal assistance. They file forms, conduct research, and prepare documents. When authorized by law, they may represent clients at administrative hearings.
Some paralegals, usually those in small and medium-sized law firms, perform a variety of duties. They may research judicial decisions on improper police arrests or help prepare a mortgage contract. Paralegals must have a general knowledge of the law to perform these duties.
Some paralegals employed by large law firms, government agencies, and corporations, specialize in one aspect of the law, including real estate, estate planning, family law, labor law, litigation, and corporate law. Even within specialties, functions often are broken down further so paralegals may deal with a specific area of the specialty. For example, paralegals specializing in labor law may deal exclusively with employee benefits.
A growing number of paralegals use computers in their work. Computer software packages and on-line legal research are increasingly used to search legal literature stored in computer databases and on CD-ROM. In litigation that involves many supporting documents, paralegals may use computers to organize and index the material. They may also use computer software packages to perform tax computations and explore the consequences of possible tax strategies for clients.
Paralegals do most of their work at desks in offices and law libraries. Occasionally, they travel to gather information and perform other duties.
Paralegals employed by corporations and government work a standard 40-hour week. Although most paralegals work year round, some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year, then released when the workload diminishes. Paralegals who work for law firms sometimes work very long hours and when they are under pressure to meet deadlines. Some law firms reward such loyalty with bonuses and additional time off.
Paralegals handle many routine assignments, particularly when they are inexperienced. Some find that these assignments offer little challenge and become frustrated with their duties. However, paralegals usually assume more responsible and varied tasks as they gain experience. Furthermore, as new laws and judicial interpretations emerge, paralegals are exposed to many new legal problems that make their work more interesting and challenging.
Paralegals held about 111,000 jobs in 1994. Private law firms employed the vast majority; most of the remainder worked for the various levels of government. Paralegals are found in nearly every Federal Government agency; the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Interior, and Health and Human Services, and the General Services Administration are the largest employers. State and local governments and publicly funded legal service projects employ paralegals as well. Banks, real estate development companies, and insurance companies also employ small numbers of paralegals. Some paralegals own their own businesses; as freelance legal assistants they contract their services to attorneys or corporate legal departments.
There are several ways to enter the paralegal profession. Employers generally require formal paralegal training; several types of training programs are acceptable. Increasingly employers prefer to hire either graduates of 4-year paralegal programs, or persons with bachelor's degrees who have earned paralegal certificates through short-term programs after graduation. However, some employers prefer to train their paralegals on the job, promoting experienced legal secretaries or hiring college graduates with no legal experience. Other entrants have experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such as a background in tax preparation for tax and estate practice or nursing or health administration for personal injury practice.
Over 800 formal paralegal training programs are offered by 4-year colleges and universities, law schools, community and junior colleges, business schools, and proprietary schools. In 1995, about 200 programs had been approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Although this approval is neither required nor sought by many programs, graduation from an ABA-approved program can enhance one's employment opportunities. The requirements for admission to formal training programs vary widely. Some require some college courses or a bachelor's degree. Others accept high school graduates or those with legal experience. A few schools require standardized tests and personal interviews.
Some paralegal programs are completed in 2 years, while others take as long as 4 years and award a bachelor's degree upon completion. Certificate programs take only a few months to complete, but require a bachelor's degree for admission. Programs typically include general courses on the law and legal research techniques, in addition to courses covering specialized areas of the law, such as real estate, estate planning and probate, litigation, family law, contracts, and criminal law. Many employers prefer applicants with training in a specialized area of the law. Programs increasingly include courses introducing students to the legal applications of computers. Many paralegal training programs include an internship in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a law office, corporate legal department, or government agency. Experience gained in internships is an asset when seeking a job after graduation. Depending on the program, graduates may receive a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor's degree.
The quality of paralegal training programs varies; the better programs generally emphasize job placement. Prospective students should examine the experiences of recent graduates of programs in which they are considering enrolling.
Paralegals need not be certified, but the National Association of Legal Assistants has established standards for voluntary certification which require various combinations of education and experience. Paralegals who meet these standards are eligible to take a 2-day examination given each year at several regional testing centers by the Certifying Board of Legal Assistants of the National Association of Legal Assistants. Those who pass this examination may use the designation Certified Legal Assistant (CLA). This designation is a sign of competence in the field and may enhance employment and advancement opportunities. The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam, administered through the National Federation of Paralegal Associations to qualified paralegals, offers a similar level of professional recognition.
Paralegals must be able to handle legal problems logically and communicate, both orally and in writing, their findings and opinions to their supervising attorney. They must understand legal terminology and have good research and investigative skills. Familiarity with the operation and applications of computers in legal research and litigation support is increasingly important. Paralegals must always stay abreast of new developments in the law that affect their area of practice.
Because paralegals often deal with the public, they must be courteous and uphold the high ethical standards of the legal profession. A few States and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations have established ethical guidelines which paralegals must follow.
Experienced paralegals usually are given progressively more responsibilities and less supervision. In large law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies, experienced paralegals may supervise other paralegals and clerical staff and delegate work assigned by the attorneys. Advancement opportunities include promotion to managerial and other law-related positions within the firm or corporate legal department. However, some paralegals find it easier to move to another law firm when seeking increased responsibility or advancement.
Employment of paralegals is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Job opportunities are expected to expand as more employers become aware that paralegals are able to do many legal tasks for lower salaries than lawyers. Both law firms and other employers with legal staffs should continue to emphasize hiring paralegals so that the cost, availability, and efficiency of legal services can be improved.
New jobs created by rapid employment growth will create most of the job openings for paralegals in the future. Other job openings will arise as people leave the occupation. Although the number of job openings for paralegals is expected to increase significantly through the year 2005, so will the number of people pursuing this career. Thus, keen competition for jobs should continue as the growing number of graduates from paralegal education programs keeps pace with employment growth. Still, job prospects are expected to be favorable for persons with bachelor's degrees who graduate from well regarded paralegal training programs.
Private law firms will continue to be the largest employers of paralegals as a growing population demands additional legal services. The growth of prepaid legal plans should also contribute to the demand for the services of law firms. A growing array of other organizations, such as corporate legal departments, insurance companies, real estate and title insurance firms, and banks will also hire paralegals.
Job opportunities for paralegals will expand even in the public sector. Community legal service programs-which provide assistance to the poor, aged, minorities, and middle-income families-operate on limited budgets. They will seek to employ additional paralegals in order to minimize expenses and serve the most people. Federal, State, and local government agencies, consumer organizations, and the courts should continue to hire paralegals in increasing numbers.
To a limited extent, paralegal jobs are affected by the business cycle. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate transactions. Corporations are less inclined to initiate litigation when falling sales and profits lead to fiscal belt tightening. As a result, full-time paralegals employed in offices adversely affected by a recession may be laid off or have their work hours reduced. On the other hand, during recessions, corporations and individuals are more likely to face other legal problems, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces, that require legal assistance. Furthermore, the continuous emergence of new laws and judicial interpretations of existing ones creates new business for lawyers and paralegals without regard to the business cycle.
Earnings of paralegals vary greatly. Salaries depend on the education, training, and experience the paralegal brings to the job, the type and size of employer, and the geographic location of the job. Generally, paralegals who work for large law firms or in large metropolitan areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less populated regions.
Paralegals had an average annual salary of about $31,700 in 1993, according to a compensation survey by Kenneth Leventhal & Company for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. Starting salaries of entry-level paralegals ranged from a low of $14,000 to a high of $32,000 an year, according to the same survey. In addition to a salary, many paralegals received an annual bonus, which averaged more than $1,600 in 1993. Employers of the majority of paralegals provided life and health insurance benefits and contributed to a retirement plan on their behalf.
Paralegal Specialists hired by the Federal Government in 1994 started at about $20,000 or $25,200 a year, depending on their training and experience. The average annual salary of paralegals who worked for the Federal Government in 1995 was about $39,800.
Several other occupations also call for a specialized understanding of the law and the legal system but do not require the extensive training of a lawyer. Some of these are abstractors, claim examiners, compliance and enforcement inspectors, occupational safety and health workers, patent agents, police officers, and title examiners.
General information on a career as a paralegal and the Guide for Legal Assistant Education Programs by the American Bar Association may be purchased for $7.50 from:
Standing Committee on Legal Assistants, American Bar Association, 750 North Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60611.
For information on certification of paralegals, schools that offer training programs in a specific State, and standards and guidelines for paralegals, contact:
National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc., 1516 South Boston St., Suite 200, Tulsa, OK 74119.
Information on a career as a paralegal, schools that offer training programs, the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam, and local paralegal associations can be obtained from:
National Federation of Paralegal Associations, P.O. Box 33108, Kansas City, MO 64114; or on the internet http://www.paralegals.org.
Information on paralegal training programs, including the pamphlet "How to Choose a Paralegal Education Program" may be obtained from:
American Association for Paralegal Education, P.O. Box 40244, Overland Park, KS 66204; (913) 381-4458.
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