Paralegals: The Alternative Legal Career

What is a Paralegal?

Paralegals, also known within the legal community as legal assistants, have played a crucial role in the legal field since the late 1960’s. Firms and individual lawyers were seeking ways to improve their interaction with clients while keeping down the actual overall cost of legal services. And thus, the concept of the paralegal was born.

What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant? Many would argue of the dramatic status and educational differences between the two but, basically, the two terms describe the same profession. The paralegal is, in essence, an attorney’s or a law firm’s legal assistant. They carry out simple tasks related to legal processes that do not necessarily require that a lawyer complete.

In the US, the practice of law is regulated according to the laws and policies of each state. These laws vary greatly from state to state, but all fifty of the states prohibit paralegals from actually practicing law.

This basically means that a paralegal is unable to provide any type of legal counsel- including advice, representation in a court of law, or acceptance or the refusal of a case-each of which are considered one way or another as practicing law.

A paralegal can perform functions such as:
�·General client contact such as interviews, updates, and important messages relating to their case.
�·Research including legal documents, databases, interviews, and investigations
�·Draft legal documents and pleadings
�·Document depositions and summarize interrogations and testimony for further use in court or court-related documents.

Is the Paralegal Field a Promising Career Choice?

Many individuals are intrigued by the legal profession due to the association of wealth and high paying careers. Unfortunately, many times, most people scrap the idea after learning the typical educational costs associated with becoming a lawyer. But for those of you who are genuinely interested in joining the profession, don’t be too hasty in dismissing the idea of having a legal career. There are certainly other very lucrative careers within the legal industry.

Paralegals, while they typically do not earn quite as much money as attorneys do, do not have to spend an exorbitant amount of time or money on their education yet they still earn quite reasonable salaries and are extremely involved in the legal process.

According to a recent release by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the sixth fastest growing career category today is paralegal work. It has been projected that the field will grow an unprecedented 60 percent by the year 2012.
Because a paralegal is not a lawyer, they cannot request or arrange fees. Their compensation is calculated into the attorney’s fees and costs and then passed onto the paralegal once the fees have been paid. The annual salary of a paralegal averages $38,000 and can range from anywhere between $30,000 and $65,000 depending on their educational background and experience as well as their geographic location. Individual legal firms employ the majority of paralegals.

Paralegals who work within existing firms generally handle such responsibilities as:
�·Handle the preparation of legal documents such as court reports, affidavits, personal wills, and real estate transactions.
�·Carry out research related to cases by reviewing records, court filings, and other various legal documents.
�·Personally assist lawyers in case-related matters such as interviewing witnesses, clients, taking depositions.
�·Making the actual arrangements for the trials themselves such as selecting appropriate court types and the preparation of trial briefs.

In almost every industry and trade these days, you will notice a growing trend of persons who have chosen to break away from the mainstream and go into business for themselves. The question is: could this trend carry over into the paralegal profession? The answer, is, as you continue to find more and more firms who opt to do business on a less typical, non traditional basis, yes.

Is there any reason why a self-employed paralegal could not perform the same duties as well as an in-house paralegal? Apparently not, today, many lawyers and firms choose to use self-employed paralegals to perform tasks such as:

�·Initial contact with clients
�·The handling of real estate related court proceedings such as evictions, as well as other small court related issues such as name changes and traffic violations.
�·Small claims court filings
�·The representation of clients at tribunals

If you would like to become a paralegal and work for a particular firm or even for yourself, you should understand that paralegals require specific and detailed knowledge of legal procedures and principles which is generally facilitated through paralegal schools or courses or the appropriate amount of professional experience working in the field alongside an educated legal professional.

Educational Programs for Paralegals

What does it take to become a paralegal? Many paralegals have little or no formal training at all. They simply applied for the job as a legal assistant with a law office or attorney and learned through the general experience and exposure they were able to gain working alongside a legal professional.

More and more offices these days are requesting that paralegal candidates become certified within the profession before they are willing to hire them. There are several ways through which to gain your certification or degree and the amount of time and money required varies greatly from program to program.

There are a variety of educational programs available for individuals who would like to become a paralegal. Paralegal education programs vary in size and accreditation and are available at a number of different institutions including public and private colleges, secondary colleges, career training centers, universities, and community colleges.

Certain centers and schools specialize in paralegal certification and education and offer a degree or certification within a matter of weeks or months while others offer two and four year degrees for paralegals. Access to such a diverse variety of educational choices has made the paralegal opportunity available to a wide assortment of people.

The types of paralegal programs most commonly preferred by law offices and firms include:

Ã?·Master’s degree paralegal programs. For the genuinely motivated paralegal prospect who has access to this type of educational degree and the genuine interest and dedication to the profession, this educational alternative would be ideal. Many colleges and universities offer advanced degrees in paralegal studies and other legal-related fields such as general legal studies and advanced legal administration degrees.
Ã?·Bachelor Degree Programs. There are also several alternative bachelor’s degrees which are available for paralegals. Candidates often have a choice of a major in, minor in paralegal studies. This degree requires four years of education, with a third of the actual classes pertaining to the law or legal related studies.
Ã?·Associate’s degree paralegal programs. This type of alternative is more widely available than the master’s or bachelor’s degree and can be obtained at most any local college, university, and even some career schools. It requires a minimal investment of two years of studies, most often equally divided between legal-related studies and general education.
�·Certification Programs. Various different types of educational facilities offer these types of certifications. They can be obtained within a time frame of several weeks or months. This is the most typical of certifications available for paralegals and is considered to be more then adequate to gain employment with most any law firm.

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