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A Quick Insight to the Paralegal Profession

published February 18, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 10 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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Here are some definitions of "paralegal." According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "paralegals perform many of the same tasks as lawyers, except for those tasks considered to be the practice of law." The National Federation of Para legal Associations (NFPA) defines a paralegal as "a person qualified through education, training, or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, govern mental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work."
 
A Quick Insight to the Paralegal Profession

WHY BECOME A PARALEGAL?


There are several reasons to become a paralegal. Read on to find out more about the many benefits of this growing profession.

Job Satisfaction

According to a survey conducted by the NFPA, paralegals find that contact with attorneys and a sense of responsibility are the most satisfying parts of their work. Of course, job satisfaction among paralegals can vary greatly. Once you have received paralegal training, you have a certain flexibility in the kind of work you do. That's even more true when you have a couple of years of experience. Therefore, if you do end up in a job that you find is not satisfying, it is fairly easy to change positions. Of course, the market for paralegals varies across the country, but if you have a certain amount of drive, you can find or create a position that is fulfilling.

A potential area for dissatisfaction is the duties you, as a paralegal, are expected to undertake. The profession is still new enough that not all lawyers really understand what a paralegal is, especially as compared to a legal secretary. Many others, in small firms and solo practices, feel that economics keep them from hiring both a legal secretary and a paralegal. As a result, paralegals are often asked to undertake tasks that are clerical in nature. For the most part, a paralegal who works in an environment where everyone-including the attorneys-pitches in as needed probably doesn't mind so much performing the occasional clerical duty.

On the other hand, a lawyer who understands and is respectful of your position will realize that while paralegals and legal secretaries both do important and difficult work, the two jobs are not the same. Most people, for example, wouldn't expect someone lacking legal training to conduct research or draft a pleading. Nor should they expect someone trained as a legal assistant to do clerical work. It can be a good idea to ask for a written job description when you apply for a job.

Professional Growth

As you gain experience as a paralegal, opportunities for advancement will present themselves. If the firm or company you work for is fairly large, you will have a chance to advance in-house into supervisory and management positions.

However, if you work at a smaller firm or company, you may need to make a lateral transfer to a bigger employer to move on to a managerial position. Certainly, even if you work for a very small employer, you will be given more responsibility and be expected to perform your duties with less supervision as time goes on.

One way to demonstrate that you have continued to grow in your profession and therefore deserve to advance in your career is by receiving certification. Certification is voluntary, and currently few paralegals receive certification, but it may become more important as the field grows.

A Word about Certification

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) administers the certified legal assistant (CLA) exam, the most common method of certification for paralegals. It is important to note that this certification is not the same thing as the certificate you may receive from your paralegal training program. The CLA program is an attempt to recognize national minimum standards of competence for paralegals. According to NALA, there were 8,630 certified legal assistants and 690 certified legal assistant specialists in the U.S. as of May 1997. For comparison purposes, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, estimates that less than one-tenth of paralegals have their CLA. Nonetheless, NALA claims that paralegals with CLAs are consistently higher paid than those without.

To take the CLA examination, you must have graduated from a paralegal training program that is ABA approved or that grants an associate or bachelor's degree or a post-baccalaureate certificate, or a program that consists of a minimum of 60 semester hours, of which at least 15 semester hours are substantive legal courses. Or if you have a bachelor's degree in any field plus one year's work experience as a paralegal, or a high school diploma and seven years of experience, you may take the exam. It is unusual for a paralegal to sit for the CLA exam right out of school; in fact, depending on your education, you may have to work for a while before you qualify to take the exam. However, you may want to take it someday, so it is worth keeping its requirements in mind as you make decisions about your education and career.

The CLA is a two-day exam based on federal law and procedure. The exam covers the following topics:
 
  • ethics
  • legal research
  • communications
  • human relations
  • interviewing methods
  • legal terminology
  • judgment
  • analytical ability

It also tests knowledge of substantive law, including the American legal system and four areas of your choice: administrative law, bankruptcy, business organizations/corporations, contracts, family law, criminal law and procedure, litigation, probate and estate planning, and real estate. Upon successful completion of the exam, you may use the designation C.L.A. (a registered trademark) after your name.

NALA also offers you the opportunity to receive advanced certification in one of several specialty areas. After you have passed the CLA, you may take an exam in bankruptcy, civil litigation, corporations/business law, criminal law and procedure, intellectual property, estate planning and probate, or real estate. Successful completion of one of these four-hour tests allows you to designate yourself as a specialist in the particular area.

In 1994, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations decided to begin administering its own certification test, called the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE). To qualify to take this exam, you must have a minimum of two years of paralegal experience and a bachelor s degree and a certificate from an accredited school or a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. You also must not have been convicted of a felony or had any kind of license, registration, or certification revoked. If you successfully complete this exam, you may designate yourself PACE registered paralegal or RP. The PACE test also has a specialty component.

A few states have begun providing their own paralegal certification, and more are considering it. Often they give the tests in conjunction with the CLA or the PACE. As of now, certification for paralegals is voluntary. However, it is always possible that it will be required in the future. Either it will be required de facto (in fact) because "everybody else" has it, or it will be required dejure (by law). Remember that to some extent, attorneys exert influence over the paralegal profession, and the majority of them had to take grueling bar exams in order to practice. They may decide that certification of paralegals is a good idea, too.

Salary and Benefits

Earnings of paralegals can vary a great deal, depending on the level of education and experience of the paralegal and the geographic location and size and type of the employer. Throughout the country, actual paralegal salaries range from about $10,000 to over $80,000. As a rule, if you are in a large urban area and work for a large firm, you will make more than paralegals in smaller cities at smaller firms. The average salary of paralegals employed by the federal government is about $5,000 more than that earned by legal assistants in the private sector, but there are opportunities to make more in the private sector.

Paralegal benefits vary as well. Most paralegals receive vacation, sick leave, life insurance, and medical benefits. Less than half of paralegals have access to a pension plan. Paralegals who received a bonus reported that it averaged over $1,800.

A current issue in the paralegal profession is that of overtime. Most paralegals are nonexempt employees; that is, they must be paid overtime for working over 40 hours a week. Some paralegals would prefer to be exempt employees and be paid a straight salary; they believe that nonexempt employees, because they are paid an hourly wage, are seen as less professional. Paralegal associations are very involved in the dispute about whether we should be professionals and receive a straight salary or whether we should receive overtime. To me, overtime is unprofessional. You might have to sacrifice for a few years on a straight salary, but if you want to be respected as a professional, you need to be recognized as a professional, and that's one of the ways you do it.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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