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Working as a Paralegal In House


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"More and more corporations employ in-house paralegals," said Marge Dover, Executive Director of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Insurance companies, financial institutions, medical corporations, and research firms are just a few areas that increasingly prefer to hire in-house legal staff instead of outsourcing legal tasks. "Companies are becoming very creative about using the skills paralegals have," Ms. Dover said.

Some of those skills include multi-tasking and being able to handle complex projects, explained Vicki Kunz, past President of NALA, now an in-house paralegal in the Risk Management Department of MDU Resources, a publicly traded corporation with more than 60 companies nationwide and in Brazil. "Every day is different," Ms. Kunz said. "A regular day is whatever walks through the door," agreed Stephanie Hawkes, Senior Paralegal in Legal Compliance at Nissan North America, Inc., and President of the Metroplex Association of Corporate Paralegals, an organization dedicated to the professional betterment of corporate paralegals.

In-house work is certainly diverse and rewarding. "I love being able to see new business concepts and ideas from their conception all the way through implementation," Ms. Hawkes said. One of the benefits of working in house is the dynamic and exciting nature of the work, Ms. Kunz and Ms. Hawkes both stated. Paralegals in corporate settings often perform numerous different tasks and communicate with different people every day.

A corporation's paralegals may have little supervision; however, they may report to more than one supervisor, such as the corporation's in-house counsel, as well as a department head. "I work fairly independently, with regular reports to my supervisors," said Ms. Kunz. In-house paralegals may perform the bulk of the corporation's legal work or specialize in one particular field. In fact, in-house legal staff work in numerous areas of the law, their profession still expanding. "Contract compliance, litigation, and intellectual property law are just a few of the areas that hire in-house paralegals," said Ms. Dover. "They may work specifically for the corporation's legal department or for other branches like human resources."

Sample daily tasks may include writing reports to corporate clients, corresponding with other corporations, attorneys, and clients, docketing and file maintenance, and in-house training of employees. "I spend a lot of time on the phone speaking to our companies on problem claims or serious injuries or accidents, to attorneys for updates or for information on lawsuits, and to adjusters for more detailed information on large claims and loss information for trend activity," Ms. Kunz said. Among Ms. Kunz' other duties are providing monthly litigation and loss reports to all management throughout the company, providing claims-management training to employees, and reviewing all deductible billing invoices for payment and allocation. "I track legislation in all 50 states and present new laws to attorneys and corporate departments," Ms. Hawkes explained. In addition, Ms. Hawkes takes calls from clients, conducts extensive legal research on existing laws, and answers questions from various departments to ensure that new projects are in compliance with laws and regulations.

The job differs from that of paralegals at law firms. "It's a different setting, where the corporation is really your client," Ms. Dover explained. "In-house paralegals represent the company as a whole," Ms. Hawkes said. "They are actually sitting in the [offices] of their clients." Corporate paralegals may also experience less attorney involvement in their work. "My work is generally not assigned by an attorney. Instead, my caseload is dictated by litigation that comes into the company and falls under our insurance policies," Ms. Kunz detailed. "Also, most corporate employees, no matter what department, do a lot more of their own daily work without administrative assistance." As such, in-house paralegals are often apt at both the professional and clerical tasks of their trade.

Those interested in in-house work should be quick on their feet, Ms. Kunz recommended. "Accept the fact that it is okay to do it all and always be a company team player." "Corporate paralegals must be able to multi-task; they have to see the big picture," Ms. Hawkes stated. "They must have an appreciation of the company and its products [and services]." Paralegal training, education, and experience are also important in landing an in-house job, Ms. Dover said.

Legal headhunters are great places to start when looking for in-house jobs, as many corporations are now turning to legal staffers for hiring help. Naturally, in-house paralegal positions are more common in cities where many corporations are headquartered. Networking is key, Ms. Hawkes believes. "The best way to get into a corporate position is through personal recommendation," she said.

The corporate paralegal profession can expect substantial growth in the future. "In the seven years I've been at Nissan, my roles and responsibilities more than doubled," Ms. Hawkes said. "In these post-Enron days, corporations are expected to govern themselves [through their own legal departments]." "The outlook is good," Ms. Dover said. "Companies realize that paralegals can perform many tasks."
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