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A Career as a Paralegal

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A career as a paralegal can be exciting and rewarding, with good pay and considerable responsibility. And it can be a professional pursuit which can lead to many other rewarding careers. If you are at a career crossroads, paralegal work might be for you.

Is it the right career for you? Does the salary meet your expectations? Are you qualified? How can you find your first job? A paralegal, also known as a legal assistant or a paraprofessional, is a non-lawyer who assists attorneys in their professional duties. Unlike many other professions, there is no required or standard training for becoming a paralegal. Nor are there compulsory tests, certifications or licensing procedures. Perhaps the best way to explain what a paralegal is, would be to describe a few of the many things that paralegals do.


According to the American Bar Association, in its report on the use of legal assistants {Training and Use of Legal Assistants: Status Report, ABA Special Committee on Legal Assistants, 1974, p. 17), the legal assistant, under the supervision and direction of the lawyer, should be able to: Apply knowledge of law and legal procedures in rendering direct assistance to lawyers engaged in legal research; Design, develop or plan modifications of new procedures, techniques, services, processes or applications; Prepare or interpret legal documents and write detailed procedures for practicing in certain fields of law; Select, compile and use technical information from such references as digests, encyclopedias or practice manuals; Analyze and follow procedural problems that Involve forming independent decisions.

Paralegals do all this and more. Some paralegals are involved in almost everything that lawyers do except representing clients in court or giving legal advice. They draft briefs, do legal re search, interview witnesses and attend trials. Paralegals work in every imaginable setting, from rural law offices to large corporate headquarters, from senior citizens' homes to the White House. Some paralegals, called lay advocates, are even per mitted to represent and advise clients on certain legal issues. Usually, they work in government programs, where they help disadvantaged people with problems involving landlords, Medicare, social security benefits, etc.

One word of caution for the aspiring paralegal: beware of the "Perry Mason" syndrome. Some people who want to enter the profession know about law from television shows or from glamorized accounts in the movies. The law can be exciting- there are times when you could be working with attorneys as they hammer away at witnesses giving testimony in a murder trial. But the law isn't all courtroom drama. Far from it. Trial litigation, the kind of legal practice you've probably heard most about, is only one of many legal specialties. Attorneys and paralegals earn their fees doing a lot of other types of legal work as well: filing; corporation documents; handling real estate closings; drafting wills. No matter what specialty you choose, you're likely to spend considerable time researching background information, plowing through reams of files, labeling documents and photocopying information. It's not always exciting, but it's always essential work. What goes on in the courtroom-when a courtroom is involved- is only the tip of the legal iceberg. Big cases are won, or lost, on the facts gathered, researched and presented in advance.

The Changing Legal Environment and the Need for Paralegals

There have been legal assistants as long as there have been attorneys. From the days before law school, when young men would apprentice themselves to attorneys, to more recent history, when legal secretaries have handled many routine legal tasks, non-lawyers have helped in the practice of law. It wasn't, however, until the 1960's that paralegalism developed as a profession in its own right. The American Bar Association first proposed a committee to study the use of legal assistants in 1968, and it was during the '60s that the original paralegal associations were formed.

The paralegal profession began because the practice of law changed. There was a time in the United States when a young lawyer would finish school, pass the bar examination, and start practicing law. As his practice grew, he might have hired an associate, or gone into business with another attorney, employed a secretary and looked for a larger office. For the most part, lawyers were independent professionals, with limited overhead and expenses, and few, if any, employees. That kind of law is still practiced today, especially in small cities and rural areas. But in urban areas, the practice of law has changed drastically.

Law today is not only a profession, it's also a big business- a business that reflects the complexity and bureaucratic nature of contemporary life. In 1981, the nation's largest law firm. Baker & McKenzie , had 613 lawyers on its staff, plus hundreds of secretaries, paralegals and clerical assistants. More than 100 law firms across the country are staffed by 100 or more attorneys. A single law firm might have a half dozen branch offices, stretching from London to Tokyo. Attorneys still use law books. But they also use computers, word processors, electronic typewriters and videotape machines. And, as a result, law firms need to employ people who are experts in computer technology, data retrieval, office management, word processing, and more. A well-stocked law library today might also have, in addition to thousands of volumes, a staff of legal librarians to help the attorneys find what they're after.

There's a reason for the rapid increase in office technology. Legal cases are getting more complex. Today, it's impossible for one attorney to be an expert in all facets of the law. Most large firms are broken down into departments: real estate, litigation, corporate finance, etc. A lawyer might spend his career concentrating on one specialty-and he'll need an equally specialized paralegal to help him. In addition, cases are taking longer to try. Some large cases, particularly in the area of antitrust, have dragged on for five years, and have involved warehouses full of documents and testimony, painstakingly culled and evaluated by teams of paralegals. In a famous anti-trust suit, recently settled, the judge asked to be excused, since he was certain he'd be dead before the case came to trial. (The law firm representing the defendant was telling newly minted lawyers to be prepared to spend their entire careers-40 years or more-on that one case.)

In addition, the law has become complex because the subject matter of many cases has become more complex. Litigation involving the electronics or computer industry, for example, might involve esoteric knowledge that only a handful of scientists and engineers understand. In preparing for trial, lawyers might have to master a subject from the ground up, and rely on the advice of expert witnesses and paralegals who concentrate their research in one area.

Inflation has hit the legal profession hard. Salaries, rents, and office expenses have all risen drastically. Especially for people on a limited income, or people who rely upon social services, legal representation is becoming impossible to afford. Even corporate law firms, whose practice is limited to major companies and wealthy individuals, are starting to feel the pinch.

What's the solution? There's no simple answer. But one that many private law firms, corporate legal departments and government agencies have found is to use paralegals. In law offices across the country, paralegals are doing jobs that attorneys once performed-and doing them well.
Baker & McKenzie.

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