Paralegal & Legal Assistant
If you are an aspiring legal professional, becoming a paralegal should be on top of your list. Although lawyers are licensed to practice law, the scope of work that legal assistants assume is vast and expansive. Paralegals are given more responsibilities that only lawyers were allowed to perform a few decades ago. This only means that career opportunities for paralegals are fast increasing as well.
It is projected that the demand for legal assistants will steadily rise in the next few years. Law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies are constantly in need of paralegals that can provide reliable legal services. The compensation and monetary returns of working as one is quite attractive compared to other professions. Professional growth and advancement is also guaranteed among those who have extensive paralegal experience, thus making it one of the best career choices an individual can make.
With promising job opportunities and financial benefits, it is quite clear that entering the paralegal profession will be a wise career move for individuals who want to succeed.
Scope of Work
What is a paralegal? This may be one of the main questions that fresh graduates have once they start planning their respective futures. Simply put, legal assistants or paralegals assist lawyers in the provision of legal services to clients. Entrants who finished paralegal training programs are delegated with tasks that are performed by lawyers as well. Although paralegals of today are being provided with more legal service functions, they are specifically not allowed to practice law. The following are tasks that paralegals are prohibited to execute:
- Accept a case
- Represent a client in court of law
- Provide legal advice
- Feed client confidential information
- Solicit legal business
- Set legal fees for clients
- Accept or reject clients and/or cases
- Sign or cosign legal documents
These prohibitions were primarily arranged by the American Bar Association in concert with various paralegal groups and organizations. The aforementioned tasks and responsibilities obviously fall on the hands of lawyers; professionals who were able to complete the educational and training requirements and who were sworn in as licensed legal service providers through qualifying in the licensure examination.
The job description of a paralegal depends on the type of organization or office he/she is currently working in. However, for entrants here are a couple of routine assignments that paralegals perform on a daily basis:
- Gather, manage, and organize legal documents
- Conduct interview with clients
- Document drafting
- Filing, application, and submission of legal documents
- Investigate in order to gather more information for a case
- Prepare contracts, titles, mortgages, pleadings, motions, agreements, and similar legal documents
These legal tasks are considered to be basic functions and do not include advanced functions that are delegated to individuals who work in specialized fields of law. For example, certified legal assistant who work in the corporate realm help lawyers in the preparation of employee contracts and benefit plans.
On the other hand, those who specialize in rendering legal services in various public sectors assist lawyers in the preparation of legal documents that are intended for internal use. They are also tasked to prepare informative documentation and memorandum that pertain to standards and rules of a specific government organizations or public agencies. Those whose work primarily entails community service are given authorization to represent clients in administrative case hearings too.
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Paralegal Education, Training, and Certifications
There are different ways by which an individual can become a paralegal or legal assistant.
- High school graduates or college student shifters take up paralegal studies in community colleges and universities. Majority of students take an associate’s degree in paralegal studies as this is considered the fastest way to become a certified legal assistant. There are also those who prefer a four-year bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, making them more competitive once they seek for employment in law firms and government agencies.
- Individuals who already graduated from other bachelor’s degree courses normally enroll in certificate paralegal courses. A certificate course usually takes three to one year to complete.
- There are also law schools and colleges that are certified by the American Bar Association which offer master’s degree in paralegal studies. Seasoned paralegals usually take up a master’s degree as preparation for upcoming career growth and advancement.
Colleges who offer paralegal courses teach students basic and advanced law concepts. Paralegals are expected to have extensive knowledge of law overtime. A sufficient number of hours is allotted for classroom teaching and discussion.
As part of training, paralegal students are given the chance to work in actual law firms, legal departments, and government agencies as part of the internship program. During this hands-on training, paralegals are presented with an opportunity to work with actual lawyers.
Internship programs allow students to put their knowledge to the test. They are also fed with real-world skills that will eventually become useful once they start working as legal assistants.
Internship from a reputable organization in some cases becomes a valuable ticket to faster employment. A desirable remark in both academics and skills make a paralegal a commodity among law firms’ corporate legal teams. With this, paralegal students should seriously look into getting good remarks and grades from teachers and instructors. Remember that there is strict competitiveness among candidates, thus making an individual with gleaming educational background the perfect candidate to hire.
Although certification is not mandatory, majority of legal service providers and agencies prefer paralegal graduates who were able to receive certification from notable professional paralegal organizations. In addition, promising careers are rewarded to legal assistants who sign up for specialty training courses. Promotion at the workplace or higher financial compensation is given to legal assistants who have extensive training credentials.
Voluntary certification is offered by the following groups:
National Association of Legal Secretaries
The organization founded in 1929 offers three different types of paralegal certification namely, Accredited Legal Secretary (ALS), Professional Paralegal (PP), and Professional Legal Secretary (PLS). The Professional Paralegal designation is given to those who concentrate mostly on paralegal work, while the ALS and PLS designation can be awarded to any individual who perform legal work.
To become a certified Professional Paralegal, one has to meet one of the following criteria before taking the examination:
- Test taker should have a five-year work experience as a paralegal
- Test taker must possess paralegal certificate prior to taking the NALS exam
- Test taker must have a paralegal degree and three years of working experience
NALS’ certification exam for individuals who want to obtain a professional paralegal designation undergo a four-part exam which tests the following:
- Grammar, spelling, composition, and writing competency
- Tests a paralegal’s ability to conduct routine functions such as legal research, interviews, and investigations
- Understanding of the ethical principles and concepts that are essential in the legal industry
- Knowledge and understanding of substantive law
Test takers who were able to get a 70% grade are given the professional designation of Professional Paralegal.
Renewal entails a professional paralegal to undergo 75 hours of continuing education classes; 55 hours of which should be in substantive law and the rest in other areas.
National Association of Legal Assistants
This organization understands that certification is crucial to boost one’s career. Certification means that an individual has leverage when applying for the job. Although the NALA certification exam is voluntary, the organization encourages paralegals to become certified in order to obtain promising job opportunities and substantial payouts. The time-limited recognition provided by NALA validates that a legal assistant was able to successfully meet the standardized criteria to become a professional paralegal.
The professional designations Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) and Certified Paralegal (CP) are given to paralegals who were able to get a 70% score on the NALA five-part examination. Law firms and legal departments do measure a paralegal’s ability and competency through certification exam scores that are given by organizations such as the NALA.
The NALA certification exam is divided into:
- Communications- word usage, grammar and punctuation, writing skills, non verbal communications, and general interviewing skills are tested in this section of the examination.
- Legal Research- this part of the examination tests the recording skills, research skills, and analytical skills of test takers.
- Judgment and Analytical Ability- the third section of the NALA certification exam assess data comprehension, ability to apply knowledge, evaluation skills, and data organization abilities of examinees.
- Ethics- the work ethics and the level of discipline is gauged in this part of the exam. It also evaluates the professional integrity and competence of a paralegal in performing functions basic and advanced legal duties.
- Research- Investigation and research are the major tasks that paralegals routinely perform. It is due to this fact that NALA evaluates the skill level and mastery of test takers in research and legal investigation.
In order to be eligible for examination, a voluntary applicant should meet basic requirements first:
- A graduate from a educational institution recognized by the American Bar Association
- A bachelor’s degree holder with at least 225 clock hours of substantive legal course
- A high school diploma holder with at least seven years of work experience as a paralegal under direct supervision of a certified attorney
American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. has set a voluntary certification program for paralegals. Unlike the NALS and the NALA, the American Alliance does not offer any certification examination. The organization only requires applicants to meet basic standards and procedures such as submission of educational and experience documentation:
- An applicant should have five years of substantive paralegal experience and possess one of the following criteria:
- A bachelor’s degree holder or an advance paralegal studies degree holder from an accredited and reputable educational institution
- An associate’s degree graduation from an ABA-accredited school or American Association for Paralegal Education member
- A certificate course holder from an ABA-approved college or American Association for Paralegal Education member
- Applicants are also deemed to submit the following documents:
- Completely filled-out application form
- Official transcript of records
- An affidavit or declaration from a lawyer confirming the applicant’s substantive work experience
- The standard processing fee
The official designation, American Alliance Certified Paralegal is awarded to applicants who were able to meet the requirements and abide by the American Alliance’s code of ethics.
Employment Opportunities, Professional Growth, and Advancement
As mentioned earlier, there will be a steady, growing demand for legal assistants in the next 20 years. Law firms and corporate legal departments are hiring more legal secretaries than lawyers as they are able to cut on costs without having to sacrifice the quality of legal service provided to their respective clientele.
It is also due to the growing demand for paralegals that they are given more legal responsibilities; tasks and functions that were once deemed to be strictly for lawyers. Career growth and advancement opportunities come in the form of managerial jobs in the corporate setting.
The legal services of paralegals are also in high demand in specialty areas of law such as:
- Intellectual property
- International law
- Patent law
- Criminal law
- Environmental law
The earnings of paralegals largely depend on the institution where they are currently rendering legal service. In addition, the educational background, training credentials, certifications, geographic location, and the size of a company dictate the salary of legal assistants.
Paralegals who work in big law firms and those working in metropolitan areas are known to have premium payouts. The average paralegal salary of paralegals is $44,000. Those who work under the federal government have a median salary of $60,000 per annum. Experienced paralegals can earn up to as much as $75,000 yearly.
Becoming a paralegal is truly an interesting, enriching, and profitable profession. For those who want to contribute to society and have a rewarding career at the same time, the field of paralegal studies should definitely be your top consideration.
Written by Mark Heinrich