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My Thoughts on What Makes a Good Paralegal
In addition to having good training, paralegals need to be able to communicate well, both orally and in writing. They are expected to attack problems in a logical and methodical way. They must be organized and flexible in their approach to their work assignments. Paralegals have to be able to work well as part of a team and also on their own.
As a paralegal, you will often have to deal with the public. Even in large firms, it is often the paralegal that does the initial interview with a potential client. Working with the public takes courtesy and patience, but in a legal setting, it can sometimes take even more. For many of your clients, seeking out a lawyer is not a happy experience. Perhaps they have been arrested or sued; maybe they are getting divorced, or have been injured, or must file bankruptcy. As a paralegal, you may be the first person clients talk to when they decide to seek help. Like a bartender or cab driver, you must not only perform your professional duties but also be a little bit of a therapist.
The Unlicensed or Unauthorized Practice of Law
What constitutes the practice of law, or the unauthorized practice of law, is determined by each state's judicial branch. Therefore, the definition varies from state to state. It is vital that as a paralegal you are constantly aware of the practice of law in your state and take care that you don't practice law.
The definition of practice of law is continually evolving. The practice of law is often defined in the negative. Someone (a paralegal, a real estate broker, a banker, a notary public, etc.) may undertake an activity that someone else perceives as the practice of law and, therefore, something that should be done by lawyers only. Then a complaint is made against that person, and eventually a court determines whether the activity is or is not the practice of law. And, one more activity is added to one side of the list or the other.
By way of example, here is the definition of Unlicensed Practice of Law according to the Florida Statutes: "The unlicensed practice of law shall mean the practice of law, as prohibited by statute, court rule, and case law of the State of Florida. For purposes of this article, it shall not constitute the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to engage in limited oral communications to assist a person in the completion of blanks on a legal form approved by the Supreme Court of Florida. Oral communications by nonlawyers are restricted to those communications reasonably necessary to elicit factual information to complete the blanks on the form and inform the person how to file the form." (Florida Statutes, chapter 10-2.1 (a).) In other words, in any given situation, you must research the statutes, court rules, and case law of Florida to determine if a particular activity constitutes the practice of law.
If you are not an attorney and you want to engage in an activity that you think may constitute the practice of law, and there is no reference to it in the statutes, court rules, or case law, the rules regulating the Florida Bar allow you to request that the Standing Committee on Unlicensed Practice of law give you an advisory opinion, indicating whether they believe the activity is the practice of law. The Supreme Court of Florida has the final word, however. This procedure is similar in other states. This issue is very important to the future of the paralegal profession and will continue to be high on the agenda of paralegal associations, bar associations, and paralegal educators.
Finally, it is imperative that a paralegal always behaves in an ethical manner. There are a variety of sources of ethical standard for paralegals. First of all, every state defines the unauthorized practice of law, which is exactly what you don't want to do. In addition, many state legislatures or state bar associations have addressed the role of paralegals in the legal profession, and professional organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants address ethical issues. It is up to every working paralegal to keep abreast of all the ethical concerns of the profession.
My Advice on Becoming a Paralegal - Get Going, Don't Wait around for the Best Job
I got my first paralegal job through a temp agency during the recession. They were downsizing tremendously, and so there ceased to be an abundance of paralegal jobs. So everyone started going to temp agencies; you get your foot in the door and if they like you and they need you, they'll hire you. My current job was the first temp job I had. They sent me there, and it was supposed to be a three-week job, and I'm still there. But I think I could have had a variety of jobs. There was a big need for document coders at that time and a lot of people were getting those types of jobs. But they didn't pay as well-around eight to nine dollars an hour-so I was lucky I got one with more computer responsibilities, because of my background.
It's tremendously exciting to be involved in a major litigation and to be helping the law firm to have at its disposal all of the evidence and to be able to locate it when they need it, to bring it into court to prove their case. They put everything on the database in this law firm that's our main customer. For instance, I get the text from the depositions on a floppy and we import that right into the database so it's immediately searchable. They also have scanned the deposition that was filed, the actual copy that was filed, just to have the signature, and the dates, and everything on it. And the documents that they collect are organized by different sources, so each has its own database. Other parties in the litigation pay to use portions of the database-the parts that aren't privileged.
I love the legal field; it's very interesting, very challenging. I originally wanted to be the type of paralegal who did the research and drafted the motions and things like that. And I think I would have been very good at it. But those jobs are hard to get, at least out here. I think in New York, it's a lot easier. But out here, you have to work for four or five years, paying your dues, before they'll let you touch that kind of thing.
My Take on the Future of the Paralegal Profession
The paralegal field is one that a lot of young people go into, because you can come out of a paralegal certificate class, maybe have an associate degree, and you can start making, minimum, twenty-five thousand a year. For young people that's not bad. And they get bonuses and they get a lot of overtime and that's how they bring their income up to thirty-five, forty-five thousand dollars.
I think the industry has a great future. There really is a wide variety of opportunities in the paralegal field. Especially for young people, who can put in the time to network, and to work a little bit of overtime to get on the exciting projects, and do some volunteer work - I think it s a great field and it has a big future. I'd highly recommend it to anyone.
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