From freshly graduated English BAs to document-drafting veterans with training and certification, paralegals are really something of a mixed lot. Some have formal training, while others do not. Some have one of many certifications, while others have none. Paralegals, or legal assistants as they are sometimes called, come from a great variety of backgrounds and perform a wide range of tasks. As a result, compensation and working conditions vary to a large degree. Further complicating matters is that, while some legal assistants find they enjoy their paralegal careers, for others it is a stepping stone to a law degree.
Swimming in paper
Generally speaking, much of what paralegals do involves the large mounds of paperwork generated by large scale commercial litigation and corporate transactions. Legal assistants may find themselves sifting through these documents, organizing them, analyzing them or even drafting them. In addition, paralegals perform research and prepare reports based upon their findings. To do this, paralegals must have a good understanding of legal terminology and good research skills. When permitted by law, paralegals involved with community service sometimes even represent clients at administrative hearings. In short, paralegals can do everything a lawyer does, except the "practice of law:" presenting cases in court, setting legal fees and giving legal advice. Paralegals are free to do just about anything else, which is good if it involves using the brain, but possibly tedious if it involves rote clerical work.
Pay for legal assistants reflects the great variety of the work performed. Entry-level workers do not enjoy high salaries, but with increased experience and education, compensation becomes healthier. Paralegals in major metropolitan areas tend to earn more money than those in smaller locales. Similarly, working for a large law firm means higher pay. Major firms may also have perks in the way of bonuses, extra vacation time, and tickets to sports events and the like. At any rate, paralegals can almost always count on boosting their salaries with hefty overtime hours at the rate of time and a half. Some feel that obtaining a certification or a degree in paralegal studies can lead to greater compensation and responsibility. Two certifications are available to those in the profession, the Certified Legal Assistant exam (CLA) and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE). The two-day CLA exam is offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants three times a year. The PACE exam is affiliated with the National Federation of Paralegal Associations and is administered throughout the year by an independent agency. Once either of these certifications has been obtained, a paralegal may use the title registered paralegal (RP).
In addition to certification exams, many paralegal training programs are available (some are run through colleges and universities, while others are independent). Most of these degrees are either two- or four-year programs. Correspondence courses, which have grown increasingly popular due to the Internet, are also an option. Degrees recognized by the American Bar Association and the American Association for Paralegal Education tend to be the most reputable.
There are various opportunities for paralegals, besides just the standard law firm. The legal departments in large corporations are in need of legal assistants, as well as departments in the U.S. government; not surprisingly, the Department of Justice is the biggest employer of paralegals. Once hired, paralegals are expected to follow the ethical guidelines standardized by the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. Generally, though, for the first two years, a paralegal is a clerical functionary, preparing files and photocopying research materials. After about five years, a paralegal usually specializes in a particular field and is largely unsupervised.
For some, becoming a paralegal is a way of testing the waters without getting soaked. Many young graduates decide to do paralegal work for a year or two before making a decision about whether to undergo the financial burden of paying for law school. Legal assistant jobs allow these people to see the inner workings of a law firm on a day-to-day basis. These interim legal assistants frequently do not bother with certification or formal training, as their plans are short-term. Others move on to related fields such as law enforcement or public health regulation agencies.
For others, the paralegal trade is the law career that they seek. Paralegals can, and do, perform many of the same tasks as lawyers. Furthermore, as companies look to reduce costs, paralegals can expect to do more and more of the non-essential work normally allotted to attorneys.
"I think becoming a paralegal is a great choice for those who like the law but who do not want to become married to it," says one paralegal from New York. Paralegals perform "grunt work, pure and simple," but as they gain tenure, "the casework is fascinating" and they "begin to feel needed and more respected."
Much of a good experience lies in being lucky enough to stumble upon attorneys who care about their paralegals. More than a few respondents warn of the "stultifying lifestyle" that involves "ludicrous hours," "monotonous work" and "sinking morale." A few warn of "overweening" partners "who will remind you that you are beneath them," and "who will make sure that you don't leave the office before 10 p.m." Says one respondent, "At my firm, they want you to get your work done--and do it perfectly. If you don't, they get angry." All of this translates into a profession in which "many of us would be doing something else if we had the chance." Despite this angst, however, a position as a paralegal is, for some, the best entry to the more lucrative life of a lawyer. Notes a paralegal from New York, "You will see what it is like to work at a law firm on a day to day basis, and in turn, see if this is a career for you. In addition, if you choose to go to law school, it will help you immensely in getting through your first year." For people with families, "the flexible hours are worth a mint." For those who are "analytical," "willing to take orders" and "anal, or at least willing to work with anal people," paralegal work may be a good choice.
Great ground-level experience for law school; Plentiful overtime pay
Long hours; Many clerical tasks
Organized; Detail-oriented; Resourceful
Averages about 60 per week
Average salary: $38,000; Average bonus: $2,400
Bachelor's degree or American Bar Association; Paralegal training program certification