Paralegals in Government

Paralegals in Government
The United States Department of Justice is listed as the federal government's largest employer of paralegals. Indeed, the official government job-search website (http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/) reveals several current DOJ openings across the country, with widely varying salaries and experience requirements.

Lauren Kaplan, a paralegal with the Department of Justice in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division, Narcotics Section, found her first government job through the website. She applied six years ago for a legal secretary position after some experience as a secretary/paralegal at a private company. After three years in the government, Ms. Kaplan received a merit promotion to paralegal and now enjoys working with six attorneys on discovery matters and trial preparation.

The Department of Justice also has various civil sections that employ paralegals. People applying for positions within the DOJ may not know which unit they will be placed in until they are offered a position. Responsibilities vary by the unit, but Ms. Kaplan stated that she does very little research or writing. Most of her work is assisting attorneys with paperwork and correspondence, copying files, and preparing exhibits for trial. Despite long hours and occasional stress, Ms. Kaplan says she enjoys her job for several reasons. "Working for the government provides good experience. So far, it's a secure job. And, it's exciting to be a part of the prosecution process."

Amber Glascock, a paralegal with the DOJ in the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Office, Criminal Division, Appellate Section, has a similar history but a much different job. Ms. Glascock started with the DOJ when she heard about a legal secretary position in 1991; about four years later, she was promoted--first to paralegal assistant and eventually to paralegal specialist. Her work focuses on research and writing appellate briefs and motions. She and one other paralegal specialist in the appellate section handle about 1,400 active cases for the district.

Ms. Glascock noted that a degree of competition exists for promotion to paralegal specialist positions, since there are only four positions in the entire criminal division of her office and three in the civil division. Still, she believes the best way to become a government paralegal is to start as a government legal secretary. She noted that access to information about job openings is much improved in recent years with the use of the website.

The Social Security Administration and the Department of Transportation also employ large numbers of paralegals. Most government positions involve paper applications, interviews, and background investigations. Paralegals receive a lockstep salary and annual cost-of-living increase according to a government "general schedule," with a promotion every year to a certain point and then an annual incremental raise. The starting salary for an entry-level paralegal in the Department of Justice is about $35,500. Entry-level applicants typically need a college degree and one year of relevant work experience. However, Ms. Kaplan noted that in the past two years, she has seen a focus on hiring people who plan to go to law school or are already attending law school in the evening.

State governments generally have similar hiring procedures and basic salary structures. At the state level, most court systems employ non-attorneys to cover a vast array of duties. However, titles for job responsibilities that include paralegal-type functions may range from "stenographer" to "clerk."

Information compiled by the National Association of Legal Assistants indicates that government pay scales are slightly higher than private firm pay scales for paralegals. As of 2000, the annual average salary for a paralegal was $38,000. Bureau of Labor information indicates that as of 2002, median annual salaries were $53, 770 for a federal government paralegal, $36,030 for a local government paralegal, and $34,750 for a state government paralegal.

Ms. Glascock highly recommends work as a government paralegal to anyone looking for a challenge and looking to "give back to the community and feel like you are making a difference." She raved, "It's the most interesting job I've ever had."

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