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Working Paralegals Must Know Their Ground

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Paralegals must understand what it is they will be working at and what they will be doing after they are hired. Those engaged in a paralegal job hunt must master a special language that is derived from the various modes of legal employment you will encounter during your search. Often, those who fail to achieve employment have failed to understand the language of the paralegal job descriptions that were discussed in their interviews.

Working Paralegals Must Know Their Ground

Nothing dims the prospect of success like going into a new job with a head full of bad information, wishful thinking, questionable assumptions, and unrealistic expectations. You may have assumptions and expectations that are based upon any number of sources, all of which could contain a mix of accuracy and inaccuracy. In describing practice areas and jobs, we will discuss how much time is spent on word processing, in public contact, in "the back room" handling involved research projects or large litigation support tasks, or on the phone. It is important to know not only what legal activity you will be working on, but also how your time will be divided.

Those who become working paralegals do not:
• Talk about how much they love public contact when they will be doing multi-document litigation support
• Emphasize their high grades in legal research when they interview to do client intake for a bankruptcy practice
• Talk about how they have always wanted to "save the environment" to a firm representing a chemical company

Put your assumptions "on hold" until you find out about the basics of your prospective firm: Is the firm plaintiff's practice or defense? Is it large or small? Is it in general or specialized practice? Is it an employer of a large number of paralegals or small number? Is it sophisticated in its use of paralegals or basic? Is it a heavy user of computers or computer-phobic? Is it one that grants paralegals public contact or little public contact? Is it one that considers paralegals part of the professional staff or the non-professional staff?

There is no need for an exhaustive source of all paralegal job descriptions, but you must know how much different paralegal jobs will vary. This will hopefully raise your consciousness during the job search process so that you will "query, query, query."

Keep your antennae out for key points about the particular working world you are trying to join. Paralegal skills are useful in a wide variety of settings. Find out about the specific job description for which you are applying and be sure the job meets your expectations.
For example, some paralegals want (and even crave) client contact. Others become paralegals so they do not have to deal with clients at all.

One paralegal job may emphasize client contact and the other may virtually forbid it. It depends on the attitude of the boss, the community in which you live, the practice area, and whether the job involves the defendant or the plaintiff. Know what you are likely to get when you go hunting for it. Be sure to ask all you can about it before accepting it. And then once you have accepted a job, find out even more about it, and go full steam.
The real world
Before describing specific practice areas and focusing on paralegal duties within those practice areas, a look at the "real world" picture would be appropriate. Most paralegals are multiple or (general) practice area paralegals for two reasons:
  1. Many law firms start out with generalist practices and grow to become specialists. Thus they need paralegals who can help in different areas.
  2. Many specialist paralegals have grown into those categories after being exposed to a wide range of practice areas.
The fact that many paralegals are generalists goes straight to job search issues: Flexibility and willingness to handle differing tasks in the same day; Adaptability and able to move skillfully and enthusiastically from basic to complex tasks.

You must be enthusiastic to take on the unknown with admiration and accepts new assignments. Always be ready to learn new software, develop new skills, delve into a new practice area; in short, do what's needed, even if it has not been handled before. Be interested in the employer's stated practice areas. Be enthusiastic about potential new assignments. The natural evolution of practice areas and firm development will tend to make you a multiple-practice-area paralegal.

Look at this example of a paralegal’s five-year career. He handled many practice areas. In the first job, which lasted one year, he was hired to handle a basic plaintiff's bankruptcy practice, which grew into three other practice areas.

Job No.1:
Original Role--Bankruptcy Paralegal
Actual Role--Bankruptcy Paralegal, Domestic Relations
Paralegal, Estates/Wills/Trusts Paralegal,
Criminal Defense Paralegal
He left for a substantial pay increase to Job #2. At the second firm, the firm started with one paralegal (himself) and in a two-and-one-half year period grew to three additional attorneys and five more paralegals. The number of practice areas demonstrates the firm's rapid expansion.

Job No.2
Original Role--Products Liability/Personal Injury Paralegal (Asbestos cases)
Actual Role--Products Liability/Personal Injury Paralegal, Mechanic's Lien Foreclosure Paralegal, Domestic Paralegal, Criminal Defense Paralegal, Bankruptcy Paralegal (Creditor), Lender Liability Paralegal, Litigation Paralegal
This firm's partnership broke up, and he went on to a large law firm in Job No.3. In this position, he was brought on to handle one large litigation case involving tens of thousands of documents. When that case was settled he went on to handle other cases in various practice areas.

Job No. 3
Original Role--Litigation Support Paralegal
Actual Role-- Support Paralegal, Lender Liability Paralegal, Commercial Paralegal, Intellectual Properties Paralegal, Personal Injury/Insurance Defense Paralegal

This brief outline of this paralegal career is very representative of the way law firms work. A paralegal is "on board" and, like a ship at sea, all hands contribute to the whole effort. It is not generally in a paralegal's self-interest to refuse work because of one's classification, even though in larger firms there is a "division of labor," and specialist paralegals are usually busy at their special practice, be it bankruptcy, foreclosures, litigation, corporate law, etc. Before specific paralegal duties are outlined, you must understand that any given paralegal may do one, two, three, four, or more of these job descriptions in any given year or in any given stay at a particular law firm or over the course of a career. It is a rare person indeed who is hired to do one particular job and then continues in that specialty area over a number of years.

Cultivating personal and professional viability
One other factor should be mentioned before we delve into the specialties. With the modern law firm and the nature of work flow being what they are, it behooves the working paralegal to have as broad an experience as possible while still maintaining an area of strength. Being able to say you have a strength or specialty is very important, but it is also helpful to be able to say you have had exposure to two or three other practice areas. Job leads are often accompanied with statements like: "I want a two-year paralegal with any kind of law office experience, and whatever workers' comp or personal injury experience they can muster up."

Remember that if you fall in love with one practice area, you still have to be a useful member of a firm.

Educate yourself, ask questions, and test out different job descriptions to see if they match your personality profile and work style. At the same time, stay flexible, be informed, and be ready to roll up your sleeves and handle tasks no matter what the practice area.

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