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The paralegal profession is one of the fastest growing today, as more and more companies and firms are looking for qualified paralegals to expand their services to their clients. In your role, while you don't practice law, you participate in many of the same activities that lawyers do, such as interviewing witnesses, assisting at trials, or conducting investigations or doing research for cases or legal reference. Paralegals also assist with legal documents and support lawyers in other professional ways.
The First Step
According to the American Bar Association, the only state that regulates paralegals directly is California, but many other states are currently considering regulations. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) reports that 85% of all paralegals have some formal paralegal education, usually a two-year or four-year program that allows a candidate to earn an associate or bachelor degree. You can choose from more than 1,000 paralegal education programs in the United States.
Associate degree programs split their courses between paralegal- and general-education-type courses. If you decide on such a program, you may want to check to see if credits from that program are transferable to a four-year college program, in case you decide later that you would like to continue your education. Programs offering a baccalaureate degree let you choose between having a paralegal studies major, minor, or concentration. "Getting a degree however, does not mean that you are certified," explained Anita G. Haworth, RP, Treasurer and Director of Finance for NFPA, "but having a degree or the RP, CP, or CLA designation is a good idea, since these designations are recognized nationwide."
Ms. Haworth suggested that if you already know what area of the law you'd like to specialize in, a four-year degree makes the most sense, because you can minor in that area. For example, if you are interested in pursuing finance law, you could take finance classes.
RP and CP/CLA (Registered Paralegal and Certified Paralegal or Certified Legal Assistant, respectively) certifications are available through the NFPA and National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Fees for the CP/CLA exam are $250, while the CALE review course for PACE costs $350, the PACE Application and Handbook cost $25, and PACE (RP) costs $225.
Working as a paralegal
The largest employer for paralegals still remains law firms (70%), but many corporations and financial institutions also hire paralegals. In addition, you may find opportunities at nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and even in the court system itself. Salaries vary, depending on where you work, what field you're in, and what part of the country you live in, but the U.S. Department of Labor notes that in 2003, the average paralegal earned almost $41,000 annually. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) reported a slightly higher average from its 2003 survey, listing the average salary at over $44,000. Large law firms or corporations tend to pay more, while government or nonprofit groups may provide better benefits.
Salary, however, is only one criterion. Small- and medium-size firms give you more opportunities to work on a variety of cases, while large firms and corporations tend to expect you to specialize in just one area. Paralegals working with trial lawyers may find their jobs very stressful and requiring a great deal of overtime to get ready for the trial or during the trial, whereas probate is less stressful and time consuming.
Back to law school?
"There used to be a perception that being a paralegal was a steppingstone to becoming an attorney," Ms. Haworth said, "but that is not the case anymore. Some paralegals do go on to law school, but Ms. Haworth noted that those who have experience and seniority in their current positions may find it difficult to start over again. "New associates are at the bottom of the heap," she explained. "They usually don't get the good cases."
For more information on choosing the right educational program for you, the American Association for Paralegal Education, along with several other legal associations, has posted a guide at the following web address: www.aafpe.org/choose.html
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