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What area of the law you work in may depend largely on the specialty of the employer. In a small general practice firm, the area of the law pretty much depends on the problems of the clients who come through the door. Was your client arrested? Then you'll be researching criminal law. Does your client want a divorce? Then you'll bone up on family law. A will? Estate planning and probate. The possibilities are almost endless. For many people, that's part of what makes the law interesting; others prefer to become specialists in one or two of these areas. Common specialty areas include:
- administrative law
- family law
- civil litigation
- corporate and business law
- criminal law and procedure
- intellectual property
- estate planning
- Real estate law
Administrative law refers to the law that is generated by governmental administrative agencies. Although these agencies may fall under the legislative branch of the federal, state, or local government, most of them are under the rubric of the executive (the president, governor, or mayor) branch. The agencies may be in federal or state government and vary from state to state, but they include the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and, in states, such areas as education and worker's compensation. In addition, more and more cities have human rights boards that deal with discrimination issues within the city. Specializing in this area may allow paralegals to represent clients in adversarial settings before administrative law judges, because in many cases petitioners may be represented by anyone they choose; it need not be a lawyer.
In family law, you will be dealing with divorce, child custody and support, and adoption. This can be a very rewarding area of the law, but it can also be quite stressful. A lot of people I know who specialize in this area have very strong political beliefs (about the rights of women or of children) that impel them to work in family law, where they feel they can make a difference. For many firms, especially small firms, family law is the real bread-and-butter of the business. As a paralegal, you will draft divorce and child custody petitions and gather financial and asset information and spend a lot of time with clients.
Litigation involves lawsuits and the possibility of court battles, although most lawsuits are settled before reaching trial. "Civil" refers to the areas of the law that are not criminal-that is, disagreements between parties that do not involve the police power of the state. By definition, this area deals with disputes, one side trying to prove it is right and the other side is wrong. To be successful in this area, you need to be flexible; you may be on a side you don't personally believe in, but you must represent your client zealously. You also need to be organized and detail oriented. Clients can lose cases because their attorneys failed, for example, to file a response on time. This also opens the offending lawyer up to a malpractice suit. As a litigation paralegal, you will be responsible for, among other things, keeping track of dates and deadlines. You will also conduct investigations and witness interviews. It can be very interesting and varied work. On the other hand, some cases drag on for years!
Bankruptcy law used to be about as prestigious as ambulance chasing. Now it is often called debtor-creditor law and is becoming more reputable. It can also be very lucrative. In the last couple of decades, the number of bankruptcies has increased greatly. This used to be tied very much to the economy in general; that is, when the economy was bad, bankruptcies increased. Recently, though, even with a good economy, people seem to continue to get into too much debt, and bankruptcies continue to be a profitable area of the law. As a paralegal, you may work for an attorney who represents debtors, creditors, or trustees. Obviously, debtors are the ones who owe the money, and for them you will gather together financial information, draft the bankruptcy petition, prepare the schedule of assets and liabilities, and file any periodic reports. If you work for the person to whom the money is owed-the creditor-you will draft and file the proof of claim. If you work for a trustee (who may or may not be a lawyer), you will notify all parties who might have claims, track any transfers or payments of assets, and review claims. Unlike most areas of the law, bankruptcy can be handled by a paralegal from beginning to end, except for the decision to file and the decision about which chapter to file. There is very little "practicing of law" in bankruptcy.
Corporate and Business Law
Although many paralegals work for corporations, not all of them are practicing corporate law. Paralegals who work, for example, for an insurance company and deal with customer claims are working in insurance law. These paralegals are sometimes called corporate but are more appropriately labeled in-house legal department paralegals. On the other hand, corporate law deals with business transactions, incorporations, mergers and acquisitions, and ongoing corporate matters. These include drafting or amending articles of incorporation or bylaws; drafting shareholders' agreements and stock options; and preparing meeting agendas, notifying meeting participants, and taking meeting minutes.
Criminal Law and Procedure
Criminal law involves violations of the rules of society, such as rules not to drive drunk or assault someone. Criminal procedure involves constitutional law, in the form of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Sometimes you'll hear that a criminal defendant "got off on a technicality." I like to point out that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution should hardly be considered a technicality!
On occasion, the people and situations you deal with in criminal law and procedure are a bit unsavory, but it is always interesting work. And nothing is more important in our society than protecting individual constitutional rights.
The practice area of intellectual property involves protecting the creations, ideas, and inventions of people and businesses. This area of the law deals with trademarks, which protect manufacturers' rights to the identification of their products; patents, which protect inventors' rights to make and market their inventions; copy rights, which protect the products of authors and artists; and trade secrets law, which deals with a company's right to keep secret formulas, designs, and other information that gives them a competitive advantage. Intellectual property deals with the property that results from using one's intellect.
This is a very specialized area of the law; in fact, lawyers who work in this area are members of a distinct bar. The advent of computers and all the software that goes with them have made this a very hot and fast-growing field.
Estate Planning and Probate
Like bankruptcy, many paralegals are attracted to estate planning and probate because it is a field in which they can work quite independently. Estate planning involves helping clients utilize procedures-such as the creation of trusts-that allow them to bequeath their property without having to go through probate.
Probate is the legal procedure by which a deceased person s property is located and distributed. If the decedent had a will, it is called a testate proceeding; if there is no will, it is an intestate proceeding, and state law will determine how the person's property is disbursed. Conservatorships and guardianships are also under the purview of the probate courts. A conservator is appointed to care for an adult who is deemed to be incompetent. A guardian does the same thing for a child.
Estate planning in particular requires knowledge of accounting procedures and investments, as well as the law of trusts and estates. For paralegals who have this knowledge, there is a great deal of autonomy in the field; there are even times when you can appear in court on behalf of a client.
Real estate law is another field that allows paralegals to work autonomously. This area involves representing buyers and sellers of residential or commercial property; lenders or borrowers of the financing for these sales; and landlords or tenants. To do this, paralegals deal with titles, the documents that give possession of property to a particular owner, and also with any rights that others may have to the property (through a lien or lease, for example). Titles must be thoroughly searched in order for a sale of real estate to commence.
Once the title is clear and the sale is going through, paralegals are often responsible for seeing that the closing of the sale goes smoothly. This involves drafting any documents needed, such as mortgages, deeds, or bills of sale; estimating what the closing will cost; and managing the documents for the title company. A great deal of this work can be done by a paralegal with only minimal supervision from an attorney.
Other Areas of the Law
If you decide to pursue training and a career as a paralegal, you will no doubt be struck by how the law seems to touch every aspect of our lives. Almost anything can conceivably be a specialty area of the law. In addition to the areas I've already discussed, others you may run across are:
- AIDS law
- agriculture law
- alternative dispute mediation (ADR-also known as mediation)
- animal rights law
- antitrust law
- civil rights law
- computer and Internet law
- elder law
- employment law
- entertainment law
- environmental law
- human rights law
- immigration law
- labor law
- legal malpractice law
- medical malpractice law
- Native American law
- personal injury law
- private (business) international law
- sports law
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