Not all paralegal programs opt for American Bar Association (ABA) approval. But among the schools that have become ABA-approved, an additional set of requirements may exist. If your school structures paralegal internships to be what the ABA defines as a "legal specialty course," then certain things must be happening. Paraphrasing the applicable ABA guideline, an internship probably meets the definition of "legal specialty course" if it does the following:
- Includes instruction in a specific area of law, procedure, or legal process
- Is structured specifically for paralegals (not, for example, mainly intended for criminal justice students or business majors)
- Emphasizes paralegal skills, forms, documents, procedures, legal principles, and theories
- Is pertinent to paralegals' on-the-job performance
- Promotes development of work-related paralegal competencies-not just knowledge of theoretical law
To many students and educators, this situation describes the ideal paralegal internship anyway, regardless of ABA guidelines. It emphasizes career-oriented, truly educational objectives.
If these requirements apply to your internship, you can expect to work hard, be held to rigorous standards, and learn a great deal. In some ways, you may have the best of all possible worlds.
What Basic Job Skills Need Developing?
Previous experience is your best guide to identifying general job skills and work habits that need further development. Students with an extensive work history will probably know which, if any, of the following skills still need attention. Students with little or no work experience should consider which of the following skills have perhaps been mastered in the classroom setting. Any items that have not been mastered should be added to your list of learning objectives.
Basic job skills include the following:
- Being present when expected, except in times of genuine illness or emergency
- Notifying your boss when you cannot be present
- Making sure you understand assignments correctly asking for clarification when any doubt exists
- Establishing a cordial, personal relationship with your instructors or boss
- Establishing friendships with colleagues and coworkers
- Adapting to a new and different environment
Few students have mastered all of these skills. Make a list of the skills and habits you still need to develop and review that list often during the early days of your internship. Work at making those items a part of your own behavior on the job.
The various paralegal skills that students can acquire would fill whole books. Your paralegal course textbooks, paralegal associations' materials, and other references describe general paralegal skills and tasks. Many of these materials also describe tasks performed in various specialty areas. Prospective interns should consult these sources for a broad overview, knowing that no intern can learn every skill listed.
As you glance through available lists, use the following guidelines to identify the paralegal skills that you most need to develop:
Where Do You Want To Be After Graduation?
- Determine what kind of job you most want after graduation
- Use previous course experience as a guide
- Use previous work experience as a guide
Your internship should provide a springboard toward permanent employment. Having a clear picture of the kind of employment you want makes it easier to choose an appropriate setting and meaningful learning objectives.
Professional Communications Skills
In the internship office, students lacking prior business experience will need to observe how phone calls are handled and how clients and others are greeted. Younger students will notice, too, that slang is used less often and the "uinm's" frequently heard among classmates are rarely heard in the office. You may need to imitate the more professional speech patterns used in your new setting. Include these communications factors among your personal learning objectives.
Students working in law offices for the first time usually pick up a good deal of legal jargon. Using it among other professionals in the office often saves time, smooths communications, and makes the intern a part of the law office culture. With clients and others not trained in the law, however, legal jargon frequently has the opposite effect: it mtimidates. It prevents good understanding of principles and procedures. Knowing when to use-and when to avoid-legal jargon should also be among every intern's learning objectives.
The overwhelming majority of law offices use computers extensively. To succeed as paralegals, students need to learn everything they can about burgeoning office technologies. Students who do not will be left behind. Even if you have learned the basics in a computer course, take every opportunity to learn still more during your internship.
Among your learning objectives, consider including experience in some of the following:
- Word processing and document assembly
- Database management
- Storage and retrieval of litigation documents
- Using spreadsheets
- E-mail and interoffice network systems
- Internet research
- Voice recognition systems
- CD-ROM legal research
- On-line computer-assisted legal research
- Portable document imaging
- On-line retrieval of government documents4
- Timekeeping and billing software
- Specialized legal transactional software
- Electronic filing of court documents
In every internship interview, ask about the office's computer systems. What opportunities will you have to develop career-related computer skills? Look for a good match between the skills you need for maximizing your career options and the learning opportunities available at each office.
In doubt about your specific career direction? Go for the most varied experience possible. A small or solo law practice often gives you a well-rounded, versatile background for selective development later in your career.
Seeking a Specialty Focus
Becoming an expert in personal injury litigation support, estate planning, or blue-sky regulations (to name a few examples) can lead to well-paid participation in a high-powered team of legal professionals in a prestigious firm. It can open the door to settings in which supervisory paralegal positions, and other opportunities for promotion, can be pursued. With experience and hard work, top paralegal specialists sometimes find themselves being simultaneously sought by more than one firm.
Students often wonder what disadvantages could possibly exist in such an upbeat scenario, but there are a few. For example, the fast pace is not for everyone. The burnout rate is high in fields where work becomes repetitive. Also, limiting yourself to a highly specialized area can sharply limit your career options later on. If you ever become disenchanted with your s pecialty, finding similarly paying work in a different practice area can be difficult. These factors make it important to seek out opportunities for involv fment in other subject areas at all stages of your career.
Interning as a specialist in a larger firm is ideal if:
- You have a strong preference for a certain field of practice
- You prefer a well-structured environment
- You seek a larger, more prestigious office
- Higher salary is more important to you than career flexibility at this stage
- You want access to promotional opportunities as soon as possible
- You are comfortable handling the same kind of work, or sam e subject matter, on a daily basis
- Your research shows that this specialization has a reasonably solid future
Most paralegal students plan to become career paralegals, and it is for them that the entire paralegal program is usually designed. However, sizable minority has law school on their minds as well. Whether viewed as a distant prospect or as an immediate goal, law school candidacy introduce special considerations for the paralegal intern.
Law school requires an enormous commitment of time (at least three additional years of very demanding work) and can strain financial resources to their limits. Before making such a big commitment, rudents should learn as much as possible about what it is really like to practice law. To the extent that your school's internship guidelines allow, the law-school-bound students should include this objective among their personal internship goals.
Additional learning objectives for future law school candidates might include
- Meeting lawyers in different areas of practice
- Asking them about how they spend their workdays
- Observing court proceedings
- "Shadowing" a practicing attorney for a few days
- Finding paralegals who considered law school and decided again
- Meeting lawyers who began as paralegals and learning how that career progression was helpful
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