Careers in Paralegal Studies
Paralegals work just about everywhere, because everyone deals with the law. Careers in paralegal studies can be found at law offices, legal departments in financial institutions, real estate offices, government and corporations. Some paralegal studies graduates work in general practice law firms and others choose family law or legal aid. Others are drawn to the excitement of the court room and choose to enter litigation. Additional focuses include, personal injury, medical malpractice, and criminal law. Your job opportunities as a paralegal are vast and expanding.
The paralegal studies profession has grown rapidly in recent years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this trend will continue beyond 2018. Paralegal jobs are in diverse areas including, but not limited to:
What does a paralegal do? What can't a paralegal do (UPL)?
All states have general statutes which limit the practice of law to licensed attorneys. The way each state defines the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL), if it is defined at all, differs greatly. UPL laws are open to interpretation by the courts and each jurisdiction differs in its activities and interpretations. Generally, the practice of law has been recognized to include: (1) accepting cases from a client; (2) setting fees; (3) giving legal advice, thereby rendering independent legal judgment on behalf of a client; (4) preparing or signing legal documents; and (5) appearing in a representative capacity before a court or other adjudicatory body. You need to be familiar with the UPL rules and regulations for the state within which you are working.
With those exceptions, paralegals can do anything that a lawyer would do, such as:
- Investigate - Uncover facts and laws while working with the attorney on how to prepare cases.
- Research - Gather and analyze laws or decisions that were made on similar cases.
- Organize - Analyze and organize material for cases; digest and index information obtained prior to trial.
- Write - Prepare written reports for lawyers that summarize the research and communicate both in and out of the office.
- Draft - Prepare legal documents such as briefs, pleadings, wills, contracts, and other documents.
- Interview - Collect information in preparation for lawsuits.
To be successful, paralegals need certain skills, such as:
- Organization - to maintain complex dockets and files, both manually and on a computerized basis, for availability to attorneys.
- Management - to direct and coordinate office activities or workers.
- Technology - to use computers in a variety of ways such to locate and organize legal records and research.
- Communication - to present ideas and results in a professional manner.
- Foreign Language - to benefit employers by communicating with diverse clients.
A paralegal's prespective on job responsibilities.
The following is an excerpt from a Paralegal textbook titled "Contract Law for Paralegals" co-authored by Kathleen Reed and Henry Cheeseman.
Amy L. Evard is a graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College's paralegal studies program. She works as a corporate paralegal for the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Elkhart, Indiana.
"I work in a law firm that represents business clients in various areas of the law. A part of my job involves assisting the clients with business transactions (under the supervision of an attorney) from the initial drafting and due diligence stages through closing.
During the initial stages of a business transaction in which we represent the buyer, I am responsible for reviewing and organizing documents that the seller produces. One type of document that a buyer may request is a contract between the seller and customers/vendors. I review and summarize the terms and conditions of the contract for the attorney's review.
In a case in which we represent the seller, I draft documents for review by the attorney. Such documents may include purchase agreements, deeds, lease agreements, and consents of the officers/shareholders approving the transaction.
The attorneys rely on me to organize and maintain the documents that are prepared and received throughout the course of a business transaction, and to prepare draft versions of many forms of transactional documents for their review. I provide efficiency and organizational advantages to the attorney while providing economic efficiencies for the client."
Will a paralegal studies degree prepare me for law school?
There is no magic major which will insure your acceptance into law school. Law school classes are composed of students from all traditional college majors. Each law school has its own criteria for admission. The commonalties for all law schools are grade point average, LSAT scores, letters of recommendation, work experience, and state of residency. Other criteria are also considered, such as extracurricular activities and personal essay.
Admission committees are usually impressed with applicants who can demonstrate that their thinking and reasoning skills have been challenged in a diverse curriculum emphasizing writing, speaking, synthesizing, analyzing, advocating and negotiating. A broad liberal arts curriculum provides these skills.
Paralegal studies majors reinforce these skills in the legal specialty courses. The major is small enough to allow students to pursue other courses of interest which also emphasizes thinking, writing, and speaking. The paralegal studies major gives students a decided edge in the first year of law school because of the students' knowledge of the basics of law, the terminology, the initial research and computer skills, as well as some work experience in a legal setting.
Tips for students considering paralegal studies
First, do your best, academically. Attend class, be alert and engaged with class materials, be on time with assignments, and show initiative. The Mentor Program and Practicum can provide you with experiences in actual work settings and many courses in the major require projects that get students into the community. These real life situations allow you to make important community contacts. Participate and show leadership in various extra-curricular activities.
Second, pick an area of interest to you for a second major or a minor. Because paralegal studies majors learn skills that are useful in a variety of employment settings, many major or minor areas will create good combinations. For example:
- Business (any major): a career in accounting, personnel, human resources, management, or marketing.
- Computer Information Systems: support in any employment scene that is continually being transformed by computers and their impact.
- Art and Graphic Design: a career in any area that is based in visual matters.
- Equine Studies: a career in the legal/management aspect of stables, and buying and selling of horses.
- History/Political Science: work in government, as a lobbyist, or use as a basis for law school.
- Human Services: a career in shelters, social service agencies, or senior centers.
- Professional Writing: careers as writers or editors in the publishing industry.
- Psychology: a career in law enforcement, investigation, shelter settings, or the juvenile justice system.
- Sociology: an understanding of group behavior, the structure of society, organizational systems and for public-interest advocacy work.
- Spanish or French: careers in firms that deal with Hispanic or French communities, have overseas offices, or perform in consulate work.