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Although no formal requirements exist to be a paralegal, most attorneys look for experience or participation in a formal education process. Most paralegals have received training in one of the more than 800 paralegal programs currently available. In the early 1970s, community colleges and proprietary schools around the country began offering paralegal programs. Today, several four-year baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate programs exist as well.
Although the content and quality of programs vary, most institutions provide students with knowledge of basic legal terminology, procedural law, substantive law (usually in torts, contracts, probate, family, and corporate law), legal research and writing, and legal ethics. In addition to learning basic legal concepts, students are challenged to think logically and analytically and to express themselves clearly and concisely, both verbally and in writing.
To help rectify the lack of consistency among paralegal schools, the America Bar Association adopted a set of standards in 1973 for granting ABA approval for the paralegal programs. Over one-fourth of the existing programs have received ABA approval. The remaining programs either do not meet the ABA's standards or have opted for philosophic or economic reasons to forego the demanding and time-consuming approval process. Programs that have not applied for ABA approval but who appear to meet those standards are referred to as being in "substantial compliance."
Another effort to improve the quality of paralegal education came in 1981 with the formation of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAPE). This organization has members from colleges and universities around the country. It serves as a forum for discussion and vehicle for dissemination of information in reference to the paralegal profession and paralegal education. Voting members of AAPE must work for institutions that are ABA approved or that are in "substantial compliance" with ABA standards.
Putting It into Practice:
Assess your current skills. What are your strengths? In what areas do you need some practice or skill-building? How might you improve these skills?
Experience is that all-important ingredient that employers seek and usually lack. So how do you go about getting that experience? You can get some experience by being in a part-time job in a legal setting, perhaps as a receptionist or a typist. However, it is in a law firm or government agency that employs paralegals that really gives you the best experience. This allows you to see the practice of law firsthand, to gain exposure to the realities of legal procedures, to have contact with attorneys and other panels who can later write letters of recommendation, and to learn how to perform tasks that will obviate the need for training when you are hired.
But what if that ideal job is not available? Alternatively, look for a job as a runner (someone who hand-delivers documents to law firms, courts, and other entities) or as a process server (someone who delivers subpoenas and summonses - although age requirements and then being bonded restrict eligibility for this sometimes dangerous job). Individuals sometimes do not have the privilege of working within these jobs. If getting a job is out of the question, consider doing volunteer work a few hours each week in a law office or law-related field. Legal service clinics and public interest law firms are good places to begin looking because they are usually understaffed and working on a shoestring budget. Most schools offer an internship program; some even require their students to complete an internship. If such a program is available at your school, do your best to take advantage of it. An internship gives you the requisite experience and allows you to earn credit at the same time.
Putting It into Practice:
How do you plan to get experience? If you do not plan to get experience, how will you address your lack of experience when you meet with potential employers?
Just as you need to begin reflecting on and expanding your experiences now, you also need to begin thinking now about preparing your resume. Be aware that there is no one "right" way to develop a resume. Start now collecting sample resumes (from form books, for example) and getting feedback from people in the legal field who review resumes to determine what kinds of resumes they prefer and what sorts of information they seek. How long should the resume be? What are the most common errors made in resumes? What should the cover letter say? In what order should the information in the resume be presented? How detailed should it be? How can you make your non-legal experiences relevant to the legal job you are seeking?
Be sure to write down the responses to these questions so you have them when it comes time to draft your resume. Begin a draft now and keep revising it as you receive additional information. Books are available to assist you in preparing a resume; they contain sample resumes for you to review and blank worksheets you can use to build your resume. (See, for example, How to Land Your First Paralegal Job by Andrea Wagner.)
For more information about writing resumes, go to www.pamlegals.org/reporter; click on "Fall 1996," and go to the article entitled "Writing a Winning Resume." An online resume bank is available at LawMatch Error!
Begin collecting writing samples now. Many employers want to see samples of what you are capable of producing. Being able to show your writing ability is especially important when you are getting that first job.
Ideal writing samples are research memoranda, motions, complaints, wills, contracts, or extensive reports. Make sure whatever you submit is typewritten, has no spelling or grammatical errors, is well-organized, and looks professional. Have someone that you know is a good writer review it to ensure that it is a high-quality product worthy of representing your abilities.
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