Niche Careers: Paralegal
You’ve probably seen preppy, slick lawyers argue their cases before judges and juries alike, either on TV or in real life. Sometimes they can seem quite impressive, knowing a great deal about their clients, opponents, and the law. But did you know those same lawyers often need help? That’s where paralegals, also referred to as legal assistants, come in.
It takes a good team, not just a good lawyer, to argue a point, and the best way to do that is to do good research–and that’s exactly what paralegals do. They research legal precedent by looking through old cases, put together legal documentation for the purposes of a trial or inquiry, and provide much of the clerical work attorneys require. Paralegals are basically professional fact checkers who aid in case preparation every step of the way. Paralegals can work for a corporation, court, law office, governmental entity, or individual lawyer. Paralegals need to have people skills, a strong work ethic, excellent writing skills, and be good mediators.
Like any profession, there are specific things someone interested in becoming a paralegal must do. States often regulate how much training is required and from whom a paralegal can obtain that training from, but often a certificate and/or an associate/bachelor’s degree is looked upon most favorably for individuals looking to get into the field. Students should study topics such as conflict resolution, negotiation, management, mediation, writing, legal investigation, victim advocacy, ethics, and other topics related to law. It is not required that a paralegal has a degree in a specific discipline. Criminal Justice, Peace Studies, Conflict Resolution, English, Psychology, and other similar majors tend to do well in this field. While a degree is definitely favored, it isn’t always required. Plenty of paralegals have a certificate program credential or receive on-the-job training for the purpose of practicing their craft. Paralegals can either have a general working knowledge and work in a variety of capacities or specialize in fields like family law, bankruptcy law, immigration law, etc. The level of work a paralegal might have will vary depending on the type of job they obtain, the size of their firm/corporation, their specialization, or whether or not they freelance.
Paralegals cannot do certain things due to laws and regulations regarding the profession. First and foremost, paralegals are not allowed to counsel clients or people in general about their legal options. That right is only given to attorneys. It is not uncommon to encounter clients or acquaintances who will ask legal questions anyway. For those types of situations, it is in the best interest of the legal professional to inform them that they are not a practicing attorney and cannot give legal opinions of any kind, nor are they allowed to inform them of their legal options. Breaching this code of conduct can lead to immediate termination. Because paralegals are not attorneys, they cannot represent clients in court or set any types of legal costs associated with legal services.
Becoming a Paralegal can be a very rewarding career, but it is important to note some workers complain that the hours can be too long or the work too rigorous, citing great deals of stress. Hopefuls must understand that this profession is not one to be considered lightly. A good deal of work sifting through laws and previous cases and contacting sometimes unresponsive individuals will be part of your daily responsibilities. According to PayScale, the average salary of paralegals in the United States is $44,579.