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An Overview of the Paralegal Field

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Let's take a look at the places where a paralegal is likely to find a job, and discuss how responsibilities can vary accordingly. Most paralegals work in the following places: private law firms; corporate legal departments: government agencies; litigation support companies; public interest groups; community legal action programs; and legal clinics. By far, the majority of paralegals are employed by private firms, followed by corporations and the government.

The Private Law Firm-Closer Look


A private law firm is usually a partnership owned by two or more attorneys. Private firms can range in size from a one- person office with a couple of rooms and a secretary, to a major enterprise with hundreds of lawyers in offices around the world, and with hundreds of secretaries, paralegals and technicians to assist them. Some private law firms are involved with general practice work; they'll take a wide range of cases in various areas of the law. Other firms specialize in a single field; real estate, trusts and estates, criminal law, immigration law, etc. What private firms have in common is that they are hired by clients-either individuals or companies-to handle their legal affairs. The law firm, in turn, bills the client for the legal work done by the attorney and/ or paralegal. Billing is usually done on an hourly basis, and fees can range from $50 to $1000 per hour, depending upon the complexity of the work and the experience of the attorney or paralegal. There are exceptions. Some law firms work on a contingency basis, and receive a percentage of the award or settlement if their client wins. But these firms are the exception. Most paralegals, like lawyers, work for firms that bill out their services on an hourly basis.

As a paralegal, especially if you work for a large private firm, you are likely to come into contact with a number of people with a variety of job titles. They are outlined below: Partners: The partners at a law firm are the people who own the business. They are attorneys, usually with six or more years of experience, at the firm. Besides sharing in the law firm's profits, they are the ones who make the decisions- decisions which affect both their clients and their employees. Depending upon the size of the firm and on the way that business is conducted, you could have a great deal of contact with the partners or none at all.

Associates: Associates are employees of the law firm, attorneys who have not yet been "made a partner." They are often recent law school graduates or it's also likely they have been at the firm for only a few years. In a large firm, associates are usually assigned to a particular department-litigation, or tax, for example-and they spend their time exclusively in those areas. As a paralegal, you'll often find yourself work ing most closely with the associates.

Administrative Directors or Office Manager: Depending on the size of the firm, it is likely to include someone called an administrative director (at a large firm) or an office manager (at a smaller firm). These employees are responsible for handling all the day-to-day, non-legal business of the law firm. At a large firm, they might oversee a number of other department heads, in areas such as budgeting, bookkeeping, personnel and employee benefits and office equipment. An office manager has an extremely important job for he or she might be responsible for everything from overseeing and delegating the secretaries' work load, to ordering office machines and to making certain that employees get paid on time. Many law firms are now turning to a new breed of administrator, with an MBA in finance or administration.

Legal Secretaries: Legal secretaries keep the operations of the firm running smoothly. They are the ones who keep track of schedules so that lawyers respond to deadlines and appear in court on time. Legal secretaries also write correspondence, maintain files and keep track of legal action paperwork. In addition, they are responsible for typing and taking steno graphic dictation.

Especially in large law firms, much of the work load is divided between legal secretaries and paralegals. Paralegals handle much of the writing and research work, while legal secretaries are more often assigned to clerical and administrative tasks.

Librarians: The primary tool of the law is books. A major law firm may have hundreds of books in its library: legal texts, casebooks, directories, summaries of judicial decisions, books about various aspects of business, and law and business journals. In addition, much legal information is now computerized, and available through specialized retrieval systems.

For the paralegal who is sent to the library to research an issue, the librarian can be an invaluable aide. He or she can instruct you in using the library's resources, and direct you to the best sources of information. Often, a law librarian will perform legal research as well as serve as a resource person. Paralegal Coordinators: Especially at a large law firm, which employs many paralegals in a variety of departments, paralegal coordinators or supervisors have become necessary. They are usually experienced paralegals who have been assigned the task of supervising others on their staff, monitoring and assigning the work flow, and acting as liaisons with the attorneys. In some cases, supervisors handle the recruiting, hiring and evaluation of paralegals.

Paralegals: The paralegals function as the attorneys' assistants. They might be called upon to do anything from Xeroxing correspondence to interviewing witnesses. In many large law firms, paralegals are assigned to an area of specialization. There are many divisions and subdivisions of law. Let's take a look now at some of the more common specialties: what they are, what the paralegals who specialize in each do, and how the work environment varies.

Paralegal Specialties Litigation

Litigation is the legal specialty that comes to mind when most of us think of the law. Most laymen think of litigation as courtroom debate and fervent speeches to the jury. But that's only a small part of it. Litigation is the entire process of a legal action, from the first complaint to the final decision.

The bulk of the work is preparation-interviewing, research and writing-that lawyers and paralegals spend months on before they step into a courtroom. As a litigation paralegal, you might work for the plaintiff, the party that sues for damages, or the defendant, the party that answers the charges. In either case, be prepared to work and to deal with a considerable amount of pressure. As trial deadlines near, the pace in litigation firms get hectic.

Litigation is the branch of law that employs the vast majority of paralegals. Those who are the happiest and most successful at this type of work thrive on detailed research and deadline pressure. Let's take a look at some typical litigation duties.

"Discovery," the transfer of documents and information from one party to the other, is one of the first tasks in a lawsuit. To the paralegal, especially to one working on a large case, discovery means documents-a seemingly endless flow to be filed, indexed and studied for relevant information. In very large cases, paralegals might code the discovery information onto computers, to be retrieved during the trial. Discovery work can be laborious, but it's a critical part of the pretrial procedure. One tidbit of Information, hidden in a file of documents, could make the difference between winning and losing a case. And sometimes, there are nice fringe benefits. If you're working on a case that involves an out-of-town plaintiff or defendant, you might be traveling to another city, or even to a foreign country, to work on document discovery. Another device for discovery is an interrogatory, a formal list of questions presented by one party in a legal action to another. As a litigation paralegal, you might be asked to re search the interrogatories, or the answers to them.

Litigation paralegals have traditionally been hired directly from college, without formal paralegal training. It's the feeling of many attorneys that a good liberal arts background is the best preparation for an aspiring paralegal, and that specialized skills can be acquired on the job.

Trusts and Estates/Probate

Trusts and estates (T&E) or probate paralegals are responsible for helping with the many legal tasks that arise when someone dies. They help file the papers for probate, the court procedure that determines whether or not a will is valid. They also help the attorneys accumulate and distribute property to the rightful heirs, and to pay inheritance taxes. Often, law firms manage estates-the aggregate of property, assets and liabilities that one leaves upon death-that amount to mil lions of dollars. Trusts and estates paralegals, who help with estates of that size, must be highly skilled in legal procedure, and be knowledgeable of business and accounting matters. They might aid the attorneys in deciding how property and income should be invested, and how the trust-the income and property held for the benefit of another person-should be administered.

Trusts and estates work demands a high degree of skill and responsibility. But much of the work doesn't require a law school degree. In fact, the American Bar Association estimates that over 90% of the tasks involved in T&E work can be handled by paralegals.

Real Estate

Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines real estate as, "land and its permanently affixed buildings or other structures together with its improvements and its natural assets." But real estate in contemporary law means a lot more than houses and land. It involves a whole spectrum of procedures and skills to be mastered in such areas as mortgages, leases, condominium conversions and investment tax shelters. Real estate is a field of law that makes great use of paralegals, and it assigns them a considerable amount of independence and responsibility.

Corporate/Blue Sky

Corporate paralegals do not necessarily work for corporations. And, despite the name, Blue Sky paralegals have nothing to do with aviation law. Paralegals who specialize in the broad area of corporate work help handle the many tasks that involve the legal representation of corporations: preparing the various documents necessary to incorporate a business; drafting stock certificates and securities; maintaining stock ledgers, books and minutes of meetings; preparing the necessary documents for a corporate merger, or the acquisition of one company by the other.

Blue Sky work is a particular sub-specialty of corporate law, and an area in which many corporate paralegals are involved. Whenever a corporation wants to sell stocks or bonds to raise money, certain procedures must be followed, and both federal and state regulations must be complied with. These regulations, called "Blue Sky" laws are designed to in sure that the prospective buyer has accurate information about the securities that he or she is purchasing.

Immigration paralegals have a great deal of contact with clients. Often, they'll conduct the initial inter view to determine what the immigrant is doing in the United States, how he got here, and how the law firm can help him obtain the necessary permission to remain. An immigration paralegal might research the variety of ways that an immigrant can obtain a visa-through marriage, relatives, or employment, for example. He or she might accompany the client to the Immigration and Naturalization Service proceedings, check that all the forms and papers are in order, and see what the client's status is. Since immigration and visa application is a slow process, the paralegal might spend a lot of time on the telephone, answering questions from clients who want to know their present status.

Immigration work is a good choice for the paralegal who likes working directly with people. And it's rewarding be cause, unlike litigation or corporate work, you're likely to see your labor rewarded; permission for your client to remain in the country.

Corporate Legal Departments

Most paralegals work for private law firms. But there's another segment of private law that employs thousands of paralegals: corporate legal departments. What are corporate legal departments? What sorts of opportunities can paralegals find there?
How do they differ from private firms?

In many respects, a corporate legal department is like a private law firm that specializes in corporate and business law. They range in size from single-attorney offices to departments with hundreds of lawyers. Some handle a wide variety of cases, and employ scores of assistants: secretaries, word processors, librarians, office managers-and paralegals. A corporate legal department might be part of any sort of business, from a bank to a film company. And because of the diversity of businesses, a paralegal has the chance to find an environment that interests him or her most.

But there are some important differences between private firms and corporate legal departments. A corporate legal department, no matter how large, has only one client-the corporation and its subsidiaries. And although there might be as many divisions as in a private firm-litigation, real estate, tax, etc.-all the legal work is geared toward the needs and enterprises of the company. Unlike the attorneys at a private firm, lawyers in a corporate legal department don't own the business, nor do they bill the client for their services. And since there's no attorney ownership, there are no partners and associates. The lawyers, like everyone else in the department, are paid a salary by the company.

Government Agencies

Government is the country's largest employer, keeping millions of people on its payroll. And despite frequently touted attempts to halt the increase in the government's size, there's no indication of drastic reductions. The federal government is a major employer of paralegals in most of its departments and regulatory agencies. There are a number of reasons why a paralegal might want to work for the government: competitive salary; excellent benefits, such as life and medical insurance, retirement pay, and vacation and sick leave; and much more job security than one is likely to find in the private sector. The work is also as varied and challenging as any a paralegal might find in the private sector.

It's impossible to describe the work of a typical government paralegal. There are simply too many of them, and their roles are too varied. A few case histories are profiled to give an idea of this variety.

First, some facts. Although paralegals can be employed anywhere in government, most of them work for a few departments. The Department of Justice, appropriately enough, is the largest single employer, but many paralegals also work for the Departments of Treasury, Defense, Housing and Ur ban Development (HUD), Education, and Health and Human Services. Additionally, independent regulatory agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Securities and Ex change Commission (SEC), are prime paralegal employers.

Paralegals have worked for the federal government for many years, but they weren't always titled as such. It wasn't until 1975 that the U.S. Civil Service Commission formally recognized the job classification "paralegal." Actually, they recognized two job classifications: GS-950-"paralegal specialist," and GS-986-"legal clerk/technician. (The "GS" preface stands for "General Schedule," the list of most federal employees' titles.) The "paralegal specialist" position requires a four-year college degree as a minimum qualification, and successful performance on the Professional and Career Examination (PACE), offered whenever the government has sufficient job openings to warrant it. The "legal clerk/technician" position is open to people without a college degree, but who have relevant experience: legal secretaries, for example.

Some departments of government, such as the Department of Justice, offer an extensive, formal, in-house training pro gram for paralegals, covering such areas as legal research and writing, civil and criminal litigation, and the Freedom of Information Act. On occasion, the department will sponsor an employee to take courses at a nearby university in a relevant area. Most paralegal specialists, with a college degree but with out formal training, begin work at the GS-5 salary level.

State and Local Government

Although the federal government is the largest public-sector employer of paralegals, don't overlook the job opportunities within your state or city government. Most state and municipal governments are divided into a tripartite system, like the federal government, with an executive, legislative and judicial branch. All three are good places to look for paralegal jobs. States and cities have employment offices, or civil ser vice commissions, to contact for information about job opportunities. Call them for information about applications and qualifications for paralegal jobs. Most states and cities also publish an annual directory, listing and describing all the government departments and the people in charge of each.

These directories are excellent reference tools in your job search. Look especially for those departments that have attorneys on their staffs.

Public Interest Groups

Paralegal involvement in public-interest legal work spans a host of activities and organizations, from community legal aid offices, to lobbying organizations and public interest law firms. Many of the large public-interest groups are head quartered in Washington, but community action groups can be found in almost any city in the United States. Paralegals choose to work in public-interest and community groups because they are strongly committed to social change, or because they are involved in a particular interest. The pay is notoriously low when paid employment can be found at all. As the federal and state governments continue to cut back funds to these organizations, prospects for paid employment become even dimmer. Nevertheless, if you are strongly com mitted to public-interest work, there are opportunities. And especially if you are looking for a volunteer position, or if you will settle for a low-paid internship, you can find rewarding work experience in the public sector. Let's look at a few groups involved in public-interest work to view what opportunities exist.

Legal Counsel for the Elderly

A Washington-based organization, the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, has trained paralegals since 1975 to help in its task of providing legal services to low income, elderly people. Formerly, the organization received federal funding to train volunteers in over 30 states, and also to convince lawyers in private practice to volunteer their services. Today, the organization still receives some funding from the government's Legal Services Corporation, but this support is diminishing. As managing attorney Jan May puts it, "We're exploring al ternate means of funding."

Even so, the Legal Counsel for the Elderly is still an excellent option for paralegals who want to do public-interest work, while developing skills and experience. At present, about 40 volunteer paralegals work there, under the supervision of attorneys. Mostly retirees, college interns, and law students, they perform sophisticated and responsible tasks under the supervision of attorneys: monitoring legislation, drafting wills, representing clients at administrative hearings, doing factual investigation, and recruiting attorneys to volunteer their time. In addition to the volunteer staff, there are a few paid, fulltime paralegals. They work in a variety of areas: crisis intervention-offering emergency assistance to elderly people who are being evicted from their apartments, or whose electricity has been shut off; working with community groups; home visits to clients who are handicapped or otherwise un able to come to the office; and attorney recruitment.

The Legal Counsel for the Elderly is an excellent source of training for paralegals. Staff attorneys regularly offer training sessions, two to four days in length that deal with the substantive laws and skills in their specialties. Courses in the past have covered social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, wills, landlord-tenant relations, and such skills as interviewing clients, fact investigation and representing clients at administrative hearings.

The Legal Aid Society is a private, non-profit organization that provides quality legal representation, free of charge, to people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. There are actually many Legal Aid Societies, since the organizations are independent in each state. The bulk of its funding comes from contributions from the legal community in each state, and from private individuals. In addition, there is some government support, from the Legal Services Corporation, but that is declining due to budgetary cutbacks.

The Legal Aid Society handles both civil and criminal cases. In civil matters, the parties involved contact the Society on their own and, if they meet the necessary criteria, can choose any attorney they wish to represent them. In criminal cases, the judge assigns an attorney to defendants who cannot afford to hire their own counsel. The lawyer chosen can be either a private attorney, or a member of the Legal Aid Society.

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