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The Various Practice Areas for a Paralegal

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
Published By
( 217 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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Many people who want to become paralegals have little or no idea what it is that paralegals actually do. They know being a paralegal vaguely has something to do with attorneys and the law.

Although the information the public has about lawyers has been glamorized to an extent by television shows such as Law and Order, The Practice, John Grisham novels, and the movies, at least people have learned something about the nature of the work that lawyers perform. Unfortunately, these shows rarely even mention paralegals, let alone give us any insight into what their role is in the delivery of legal services.

One of the best overall descriptions of a paralegal appears in the Handbook on Paralegal Utilization,
published by the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations:

A paralegal is a paraprofessional who assists an attorney. A paralegal is distinguished from legal secretaries and other clerical personnel in that more difficult technical duties and responsibilities are assigned to the paralegal. A paralegal must know basic legal concepts, terminology, principles and procedures and have knowledge of legal reference material. A paralegal must have the ability to reason logically, analyze situations accurately, and recommend an effective course of action. Paralegals must possess a high level of communication skills, prepare reports and memoranda based on research which sets forth the statement of facts, applications of relevant law, and conclusions. A paralegal must be able to read and understand statutes, court decisions, legal documents and other similar information. A paralegal must be able to work cooperatively with attorneys, clerical staff, technical staff, clients, experts and the general public.

In trying to describe what paralegals do, it is often easier to describe what they don’t do. Generally,

There are three basic things lawyers are allowed to do that paralegals cannot.
 
  1. Paralegals cannot represent a client in court.
  2. Paralegals cannot make the decision to represent a client, and cannot accept fees from clients.
  3. Paralegals cannot give legal advice.

Other than that, the sky’s almost the limit. What tasks you perform as a paralegal are only limited by what you feel capable of doing and the level of trust and confidence your employer has in you.

Choosing A Practice Area

If paralegals can do pretty much anything a lawyer can (with the above exceptions), this also means that there are paralegals working in every practice area in which an attorney works. Some practice areas are more suited to paralegal assistance. They are very labor intensive and have tasks that can easily be delegated by the attorneys to paralegals. The litigation field is one such area, and that is why nearly 50 percent of all paralegals work in litigation.

You will be exposed to some of the many practice areas while you are in paralegal school. Most good schools will require that you take classes in several different specialties. Don’t balk at taking classes in areas that might not at first interest you. First of all, it gives you a well-rounded education. There are no areas of the law that are isolated unto themselves. Family law practitioners touch on tax issues when structuring divorce settlements. Litigation paralegals need to know something about bankruptcy laws in case a defendant files for protection from his creditors. The more you know about “crossover” areas of the law, the better paralegal you will be. However, the second reason for taking lots of different types of classes is that it exposes you to interesting practice areas that you had no idea you would like. It gives you a veritable smorgasbord from which to choose your future specialty. And like most lawyers, most paralegals need to specialize these days.

When deciding the area of the law in which you would like to work as a paralegal, keep the following things in mind:
 
  • Take into account your personality. If you are sociable, outgoing, and a “people” person, you will be absolutely miserable working in the corner of some office, numbering documents, and entering them into computerized databases (complex litigation), but you might enjoy helping people through their personal crises (family law). If you have a low threshold for stress and prefer a more quiet, structured workday, you will probably not survive the daily rigors of the courtroom (litigation/ trial work), but instead you might consider choosing an area where you can do more research or drafting of documents (real estate or transactional).
  • Take into account your interests. If the thought of numbers and math makes your hair stand on end, you should probably steer away from a career in the tax field or as a probate and estate planning paralegal. If the idea of putting bad guys behind bars appeals to you, then you could look at a specialty in criminal law. Perhaps you have a love of protecting the earth or giant redwood groves. If so, an environmental law attorney needs your help.
  • Be realistic. If you drool at the thought of working in a firm that represents movie stars or sports heroes, you are not going to be able to do so if you live in a small town in Oregon. You are going to have to move to a big city, preferably on the East Coast or West Coast. If maritime law is your main interest, you are going to have to live in the Great Lakes area or on the coast, not in Kansas. If you are not willing to relocate, then you will have to make an assessment of what legal fields are available to you where you live or within reasonable commuting distance.

Practice Area Descriptions

With all those thoughts in mind, the following is a sample of some of the many practice areas that are available to paralegals, a description of what skills are necessary for each area, and a list of the tasks that paralegals who work in those areas commonly perform.1 The majority of paralegals fall into the litigation specialty practice area because, quite simply, it is the area that has the most openings. Other paralegals are in the corporate specialty area (meaning business practice specialty, not those paralegals who work in corporations) and real estate. Use this information as a guide in narrowing down the areas that seem attractive to you.

Bankruptcy Law Paralegal

Duties and Responsibilities
 
  • Interview client to obtain information in preparation for filing of petition and schedules; familiarize client with procedures
  • Compile list of assets
  • Coordinate appropriate UCC and real property searches, and appraisals
  • Draft and file petitions, schedules, and proofs of claim
  • Handle routine calls and correspondence to creditors, creditors’ committee chairperson and attorney, trustee, and client
  • Attend court hearings with attorney and client

Required Skills
 
  • Knowledge of Bankruptcy Code, Bankruptcy Rules, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and Local Rules of Court
  • Good organizational skills and attention to detail
  • Ability to write well
  • Ability to work with clients at possibly sensitive and emotional times

Elder Law Paralegal

Duties and Responsibilities
 
  • Locate sources of income and public entitlements (Social Security, pension, disability benefits, food stamps, rent increase exemptions)
  • Assist client in preparation of applications for unearned income
  • Locate health insurance and benefits, including private Medigap policies, and federal and state medical programs; prepare application and/or claims
  • Research housing, home care, or continuing care facilities
  • Research availability of funds to meet financial needs (i.e., loans, reverse equity or mortgage plans, annuities) and prepare documentation
  • Research methods for dealing with discrimination in admission, payment, resident rights, and transfer and discharge from care facility
  • Identify need for crisis intervention (incapacity, abuse, or intensive health care or financial needs)

Required Skills
 
  • Knowledge of employment issues (i.e., age discrimination, insurance benefits, and pension plans)
  • Ability to listen and elicit personal information in sensitive situations
  • Knowledge of the aging process, myths, and physical limitations and losses that accompany the process
  • Familiarity with the codes, rules, and regulations pertaining to Social Security, Medicaid/Medicare, and state medical insurance and benefit programs
  • Familiarity with the state and local welfare program services, including the food stamp program
  • Counseling training beneficial, but not mandatory

Duties and Responsibilities
 
  • Conduct patent/trademark searches
  • Conduct on-line computer information searches of technical literature for patents and trademarks
  • Maintain files of new products and invention development
  • Review patent filings with engineers
  • Draft trademark/service mark registration application, renewal application, and Section 8 and Section 15 affidavits
  • Draft response to trademark examining attorney’s official action
  • Draft licenses and agreement regarding proprietary information/ technology
  • Docket and/or maintain docket systems for payment of patent annuities in foreign countries
  • Research procedural matters, case law, and unfair competition matters
  • Assist in opposition, interference, infringement, and related proceedings

Required Skills
 
  • Familiarity with computerized research programs
  • Knowledge of state and federal patent, trademark, and copyright law, including forms and procedures for filing

Public Law Paralegal

Duties and Responsibilities
 
  • Review legal documents and appeals for compliance with regulations and/or requirements set forth in codes
  • Review for completeness information furnished by program staff in matters referred for legal proceedings
  • Draft answers to inquiries regarding legal requirements and procedure
  • Perform preliminary analyses of legislative bills
  • Organize, summarize, and index prior opinions, testimony, depositions, and documentary material
  • Prepare legislative and trial calendar
  • Organize trial documents and exhibits
  • Research legislative and case histories
  • Gather factual information and perform legal research to assist attorney in determining appropriate action
  • Draft and serve complaints, petitions, and pleadings
  • Prepare correspondence and reports

Required Skills
 
  • Knowledge of principles, concepts, and methodology of legal research
  • Knowledge of discovery and fact investigation
  • Knowledge of principles of legal writing
  • Knowledge of techniques of client and witness interviewing

Of course, there are many other areas of the law in which paralegals may specialize. This list is just the tip of the iceberg. As you read through these job descriptions, some common themes should become apparent. No matter what the practice area, they all require good reading comprehension and writing skills, good researching skills, and good organizational skills. If you do not currently possess all four of these abilities, you must get good instruction on them and polish them if you ever want to become a proficient paralegal.

Where Do Paralegals Work?

The majority of paralegals work in the law firm environment. About half of those work in large law firms (fifty or more lawyers in a large metropolitan area), and the other half work either for small or mid-sized firms (between two and fifty lawyers in a large metropolitan area) or for sole practitioners. The balance of paralegals work for corporations or for the government. Which of these environments would be best for you?

The Sole Practitioner

A sole practitioner is an attorney who works alone rather than for a firm. Some sole practitioners are generalists, meaning they have no particular specialty and will take on many different types of cases. Many of these generalists can be found in smaller towns or rural areas, where one lawyer has to meet the needs of many people, or where the scarcity of work forces the lawyer to “do it all.” In larger cities, sole practitioners are usually attorneys who have become so expert at a particular area of the law that they are in high demand, and are sought out by the public and other lawyers.

Some sole practitioners keep their own office and staff. Others, in an effort to keep costs down, will share office space, a receptionist, and even a library with other sole practitioners.

The paralegal who works for a sole practitioner will be relied upon heavily and will become the attorney’s right-hand person. Besides performing traditional paralegal work, the paralegal may also be asked to perform more “office managerial” duties, such as researching equipment purchases, doing bookkeeping, keeping the library up to date, working with vendors and outside accountants, and helping make personnel decisions.

The upside to working for one lawyer is having a very close working relationship with one person. Because you are so depended upon, you will both feel and know that your work is making a difference to the office. You will probably have very heavy client contact. You will be given a variety of tasks and will wear a variety of “hats,” which many people find more stimulating. You will probably be involved in a case all the way through, “from soup to nuts,” as it were.

The drawbacks to working with a sole practitioner must also be taken into account. Your employer may not be able to provide you with any health insurance or retirement benefits. You will probably be the only paralegal in the office, which may give you a feeling of isolation. It will also mean there will be no one to back you up during a work crunch or when you are on vacation. Paralegals who work for sole practitioners are much more likely to get stuck performing a lot of clerical work, especially when the attorney cannot afford to hire both a secretary and a paralegal. Finally, if your employer should retire or die unexpectedly, you will be left without a job.

The Small to Mid-Sized Firm

When working in a small to medium-sized firm, you will shed some of the disadvantages of working for a sole practitioner but encounter some new drawbacks. You will probably not have a one-on-one relationship with an attorney, since most paralegals in mid-sized firms are assigned to several (or even all) of the firm’s lawyers. Some paralegals look on this as a plus because they get a bigger variety of work in many ways. First, there will probably be several types of specialists in your firm. That means you may be doing corporate work one day, litigation the next, and probate the day after. Second, some attorneys will delegate more readily than others. If you were teamed up solely with one of those attorneys who believes that no one can do the work better than he can, you will get very little in the way of challenging assignments. However, if you have the freedom to go from door to door in the office searching for work, you will quickly learn which attorneys are the best sources of interesting assignments.

Other advantages of working in a small to mid-sized office include the potential for better benefits, more possibility of social interaction, and extra hands to help you in an emergency. There is usually a lot of camaraderie because the staff is not of an unwieldy size. It is not unusual for employees of these firms to be involved in coed softball leagues, have company picnics, throw office potlucks, or go as a group to the ballet.

Of course, every situation has its disadvantages. If you are one of those people who truly hates “office politics,” keep in mind that such goings-on increase exponentially with the size of the firm. Mid-sized firms may have more rigid rules than do their smaller counterparts. They sometimes invest more of their time and energy into training new associates and law clerks than providing training for their paralegals. Small and mid-sized firms rarely have any defined career paths for paralegals, who can sometimes labor for years doing the same tasks. Because there is not a large number of paralegals working at a small firm, there will be little opportunity for advancement into management roles.

The Large Firm

These are the mega-firms that sit in the big-city high-rises. There can be hundreds of attorneys on dozens of floors. Some have branch offices in multiple cities, even in other countries. If you dream one day of working in the London or Tokyo office of a big firm for a few years, these are the firms you need to target in your job search.

Large firms can offer a world of opportunity for paralegals. They often work for the biggest clients, performing power transactions. The pace is exciting and fast sometimes too fast for more laid-back paralegals, who enjoy having a life outside work. Paralegals in large firms often put in long hours and may have higher billable-hour requirements than do paralegals in smaller firms. There is usually little client contact for paralegals in larger firms, which may be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on your personality.

Because of their larger operating budgets, large firms are often the first to try more cutting-edge technology, such as scanning equipment, Internet capability, or videoconferencing. If you like being on top of the latest advances, this will be appealing to you. If you resist that sort of constant change, you may prefer a more relaxed atmosphere.

There is sometimes less variety of work in a large firm. You will probably be assigned to one or more lawyers in a particular department, such as the firm’s bankruptcy department. Paralegals in bigger firms often complain that they work on only “pieces” of a case, never seeing it all the way through from start to finish.

Despite the large number of people working in the firm, there is often a loss of esprit de corps. There is simply no way to remember the names of several hundred coworkers, let alone get them all together for a firm function. Often, departments will stick together, having their own Christmas parties or remembering each other’s birthday.

Some paralegals complain about the sheer size of the large firm. They feel like just a “number” and that none of the firm’s movers and shakers even knows who they are. They don’t feel like they make a difference to their employer or their cases. Other paralegals thrive on such a structure and enjoy moving up through the ranks from junior to senior paralegal and on up to case manager or other titles bestowed upon big- firm paralegals.

Corporations

Another potential employer of paralegals is the legal department of a corporation. Many larger corporations have an attorney who is employed by the corporation to provide legal advice. In an effort to trim spiraling legal costs, corporations in recent years have been enlarging their in-house legal staff, rather than hiring outside law firms to perform their legal work. And, just as inside the law firm, in-house counsel requires the assistance of qualified paralegals.

Paralegal employees of corporations report many advantages over their law firm counterparts. Their salaries are often higher, and there are rarely any billable time requirements. There can be less job stress because if a case gets too large or demanding, the corporation’s legal department can merely refer it to outside counsel. One of the biggest advantages for paralegals in a corporation is the possibility of moving upward within the company. In a law firm, unless you are a lawyer, there is not much room for upward movement. In corporations, there is no such limitation. Paralegals have been known to be promoted to vice president positions within their departments.

The downside to working in corporations are few, but they do exist. Corporate jobs are few and far between compared to law firm jobs, and it may be difficult to get your foot in the door. Corporate law departments prefer experienced paralegals, who have cut their teeth in law firms and will be able to hit the ground running, with a minimum of supervision. In- house paralegals sometimes complain they are not challenged because the minute a case gets too difficult, it is assigned out to outside counsel. Boredom can be a problem, since there may not be a variety of work to do.

And just what is it that corporations have their paralegals do? They may be assigned to review the hundreds of contracts the corporation is entering into annually. Paralegals may be found in the intellectual property department, making sure that all of the company’s patents and trademarks in the United States and other countries are kept up to date. Corporations sometimes have in-house litigation departments, where it is the paralegal’s job to coordinate with and oversee outside counsel who is handling a lawsuit against the company. Other corporations use their paralegals to prepare notices of shareholders or board of directors meetings, draft minutes and corporate resolutions, and make sure all permits and business licenses from government agencies are kept current. Some paralegals are assigned to administer their corporations’ employee benefits programs. Here are just a few of the types of corporations and companies that hire paralegals:
 
  • Agricultural
  • Airlines
  • Automobile manufacturers Banks
  • Bar associations
  • Big five accounting firms
  • Bio-tech
  • Cable companies Casinos
  • Chemical companies Clothing
  • Computer manufacturers
  • Cosmetics
  • Dot corns
  • Entertainment
  • Finance
  • Food and beverage conglomerates Healthcare High-tech companies Hospitality (restaurants, hotels, resorts)
  • Hospitals
  • Insurance
  • Internet
  • Investment/financial companies
  • Magazines
  • Manufacturers
  • Newspapers
  • Not-for-profit organizations (such as The Salvation Army)
  • Pension Pharmaceutical Phone companies Public utilities Publishers Real estate
  • Religious affiliations/churches/ synagogues Research and development Retailers
  • Schools, colleges and universities
  • Software
  • Sports teams
  • Staffing companies
  • Start-ups
  • Telecommunications Trade associations Transportation Venture capital

Government

Paralegals are utilized in all levels of local, state, and federal government and, in this increasing era of budget cutbacks, are often hired in lieu of attorneys. Paralegals can be found in the City Attorney’s Office or County Counsel’s Office, drafting and reviewing ordinances, working on environmental cleanup matters, and researching legislative and case histories. The court system hires paralegals to assist the judges’ research attorneys or work in the clerk’s office. The District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices both employ paralegals to prosecute and defend criminal actions. The U.S. Trustee’s Office uses paralegals to work on bankruptcy cases overseen by that office. State and federal agencies employ paralegals in a number of capacities, and in some circumstances, paralegals are actually permitted to represent clients in administrative hearings.

While paralegals in government settings do not generally command salaries as high as their privately employed counterparts, they usually enjoy more generous benefits. Federal employees also have a great deal of mobility, as they can request transfers to offices in other cities.

Here are just a few positions you’ll find in government (aside from the many, many government agencies):
 
  • Attorney General’s Office
  • City Attorney’s Office
  • City Law Departments
  • Community Colleges
  • Department of Corporations
  • Department of Justice
  • Department of Labor
  • District Attorney
  • FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)
  • FSLIC (Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation Mayor’s Office
  • Police Departments Public Defender’s
  • Office Secretary of State Universities Trade Councils Veterans Administration

Military

Believe it or not, you can find a great position in the service, if, of course, you are eligible and wish to enlist. The Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force all offer paralegal positions and training. Paralegals can be stationed anywhere in the world and work with attorneys who are also enlisted. Military paralegals handle anything from criminal matters to civilian matters such as drafting wills for soldiers who are about to embark on missions. They have been sent to explore environmental events such as volcano explosions and have worked on matters that are highly secret in nature. Contact your local recruiting office for more information.

Matching Your Personality with a Specialty/Working Environment

Use the following checklist to help you brainstorm regarding some possible practice areas based upon your own interests and skills. The third column will tell you where you might find such a position.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 217 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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