Mastering the Maze of Business Filings: Corporate Research Tools for Paralegals

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Indeed, some corporate tasks may be better suited for able paralegals than busy attorneys. ''The tasks of tracking compliance information, downloading domestic filing forms, getting financial statements, keeping up with foreign subsidiaries, and even setting up foreign entities can all be done by paralegals,'' Ms. Tindle said. ''Things change daily (in the corporate sector), and attorneys can be bogged down with the day-to-day responsibilities. It's often up to the paralegal to stay on top of changes.''

Fortunately, the Internet makes things easier. ''Almost everything is available online,'' Ms. Tindle said. Start with the Securities and Exchange Commission's website; paralegals involved with corporate or financial information should be well-versed in EDGAR, the electronic database of SEC filings. ''Those who deal with SEC filings must master EDGAR,'' said Eric Pinckert, Head of Corporate Affairs at LRN, a legal research firm that provides corporate clients with a network of research experts. ''In fact, the SEC requires EDGAR to be used in its filings.'' Some of the information in the EDGAR database includes 10-K and 10-Q reports, proxies, securities initiatives, and mutual fund prospectuses. Paralegals should be able to search EDGAR by company, type of filing, or time period.

Corporate paralegals also must be familiar with the policies of their respective Secretaries of State or Departments of Corporations-particularly their websites, which usually provide corporate downloads and documents. ''When checking for updates, the Secretary of State's website is a prime tool,'' said Dem Hopkins, attorney, associate writer, and analyst at CCH Inc. ''The websites often house links to statutes and codes, as well as background information about entities and filings.'' When turning to statutory research, be sure to cross-reference information between different sections, experts say. ''Some Secretaries of States, for example, provide no information on taxes,'' said Mr. Hopkins. ''(Paralegals should) be sure to cross-reference (with their Departments of Revenue).''

Of course, even the most able corporate paralegal may get lost in the database maze. ''It's not the easiest to navigate,'' Mr. Pinckert said. Consider turning to special research software and sites. ''Paid research sites often offer complimentary training, and taking advantage of them can increase the effectiveness of a paralegal's use of these tools,'' advised Mr. Pinckert. ''Our programs make it easier to use EDGAR and lay out information so it makes sense,'' said Deb Doane, Vice President of Product Marketing at EDGAR Online, the company that markets Edgar Online Pro. ''This increases productivity when operating under strict deadlines. The program also has an alert feature, (which allows paralegals to) track a particular company or filing on EDGAR.'' CCH, Inc. also produces several software programs to help corporate legal professionals, in such areas as securities, trade law, tax compliance, and more.

Besides formal research tools, informal networking can be paramount in corporate research. ''The ABA's list serves are an easy and efficient way to connect to every state's codes, (as well as) chat with other attorneys, accountants, and professionals,'' Mr. Hopkins said. ''They often have great advice about hypotheticals from knowledgeable sources.'' Networking at relevant seminars may also prove resourceful. ''Benchmarking with colleagues is important,'' Ms. Tindle said. ''I went to several seminars when I first started corporate work and found them very useful.''

The corporate paralegal's job doesn't end when his or her research is completed; paralegals also have to know how to present their findings to attorneys, supervisors, or even clients. For example, mastering the art of the legal memorandum or verbal research presentation may be essential. In addition, corporate paralegals must be able to handle the maintenance of internal databases. ''Document management and the upkeep of databases are extremely important,'' stated Ms. Tindle. Paralegals are often in charge of updating and keeping track of corporate filings, securities documents, annual and quarterly reports, and contracts.

Legal research in itself is complex, but corporate paralegals must be familiar with specialized research tools in addition to general ones. ''It's important to remember that one has the opportunity to be the hero if he or she finds the applicable information (during legal research), but also the opportunity to be the goat (if he or she doesn't),'' Mr. Pinckert said. ''Therefore, it's essential to be meticulous and comprehensive.''

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