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The Pleasures and Pressures of the Job as Paralegal

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As paralegals gain experience and learn more about the profession through continuing education courses, they enjoy increased responsibility and increased challenge. They also enjoy contact with lawyers.

Unfortunately, inexperienced paralegals are often asked to handle many routine assignments that offer little challenge and can become frustrated with their duties. While most paralegals work a 40-hour week, they may work very long hours when under the pressure of deadlines.

The rewards, the pay, and the perks

The employment picture is bright for paralegals as this occupation is growing rapidly. Private law firms will continue to be the largest employers of paralegals as people demand even more legal services. At the same time, more and more organizations such as corporate legal departments, banks, and real estate firms will begin hiring paralegals as they see the practical use for their services. Earnings of paralegals vary greatly depending on education, training, experience, job location, and type of employer. The 1995 NFPA's Paralegal Compensation and Benefits Report showed a salary range from $9,600 to $125,000 with an average salary nationwide of $32,875. Plus, many paralegals received an annual bonus, averaging $1,869.

There are several ways in which you can become a paralegal. Based on current hiring trends, you should obtain a four-year college degree in a paralegal program or take a short-term program after graduation. More than 800 formal paralegal programs are offered by colleges, law schools, community colleges, and other schools, but only about 200 have programs that have been approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Graduating from a school having an ABA-approved program can improve your employment opportunities. So can completing an internship that gives you valuable practical experience.

You may not need special paralegal training. Some employers prefer to train their paralegals on the job, promote experienced legal secretaries, or hire individuals with experience in a field such as medicine or real estate that is useful to their firm.

Things you can do to get a head start

While you are in school, you can study several things that will prepare you for becoming a paralegal. First of all, you can work on developing your oral and written communication skills so you will be able to communicate your findings to your supervising lawyer. You will also need solid computer skills, which includes knowing how to do research on the Internet.

James is a law clerk (a paralegal plus) at a large law firm of about 300 attorneys. He usually gets assignments from one of the six attorneys in the environ-mental law department.

What first attracted you to a career as a paralegal?

After finishing college with a master's degree in philosophy, I began looking for a field where I could use my special talents. Most companies weren't advertising for philosophers, so my family and friends suggested law. I had already spent so many years in school, I couldn't see myself in law school for another three years! I decided to start out as a paralegal and think about law school.

How did you know you would enjoy working as a paralegal?

I didn't until I started working- although I had a hunch. I think I knew for sure I would enjoy my work the first time I was asked to research a legal issue; it was to answer who owned the bottom of a river. It sounds funny, but it was hard work, it called for a lot of effort and careful thought, it kept my interest, and the results were very satisfying.

Tell me how you got started as a paralegal.

I took a one-semester paralegal training course at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I soon found a job as a paralegal for a temporary firm, which assigned paralegals to work on special, short-term projects for different law firms. Then I bumped into a friend from college who worked in the hiring department of a big Chicago law firm; she asked for my resume, and a few months later I had a permanent job as a paralegal.

Do you use the skills learned in school on the job?

The most important skill I learned in school-one that I use every day-is typing. That might not seem important, but most work done by lawyers, law clerks, and some paralegals requires writing enormous amounts of material. I think it's like doing a ten-page report every day; and when you are on deadline, it helps to be able to type your own work.

Describe your work environment.

Many people think of lawyers at big law firms as mean or-at best-self-centered and boring, but our group (the environmental law department) is notorious for its sense of humor (people daily tell us to knock off the laughing). Like all departments in our firm, we sometimes put on informational seminars for clients; unlike everyone else, we don't just talk and show slides-we do skits and plays, too.

One case I have been working on for close to four years now started when our client sued someone in 1989; it has yet to reach a courtroom. The judge has many times asked, almost begged, the parties to settle the case rather than keep filing more briefs. But the case keeps rolling forward, and to keep track of where things are, every few months the judge holds meetings with the lawyers for both sides. Because I was almost finished with law school, one of our attorneys let me attend a status hearing as part of my education.

We showed up a few minutes before our scheduled time, and saw the lawyer for the other side waiting in the courtroom. Shortly, the judge's clerk called us into chambers. We greeted the judge and sat down; the lawyer for the other side was obviously upset at our client. He quickly started in on us, saying we were dragging the whole thing out and were lousy people. But after a few minutes the judge was confused and cut him off, saying, "Just who are you?"

The other lawyer swallowed hard and stated his name. We followed suit, and the status hearing proceeded normally.

Terry started working as a paralegal in the legal department of a very large company but now works for a small law firm.

Tell me how you got started as a paralegal.

During a summer break in high school, I worked for a friend's father who was an attorney, performing various clerical tasks that only a summer employee would be assigned to do. Even though I did not assist with legal matters, I enjoyed working in a law office and helping out with whatever I was capable of doing. I had originally planned to attend law school immediately after college, but after much thought, I decided to pursue a career as a paralegal first. I am still working as a paralegal, enjoying it thoroughly, and have no plans of attending law school.

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