Considerable growth is expected in the profession of paralegals, or legal assistants, in the next 10 years. Particularly in the corporate, in-house legal environment, businesses are trying to cut costs, so more responsibilities are being given to individuals in this profession that attorneys used to do. Only attorneys can set legal fees, give legal advice and present cases in court, but individuals in this profession can do an increasingly broad range of tasks at a lower cost to an organization. As one of the highest paying vocational careers you can get with an associate's degree, this career path was included in our review.
Individuals in this vocational career help lawyers prepare for court trials, legal hearings and corporate meetings. They investigate the facts of cases and identify which laws, statutes or judicial decisions (case law) should be applied to a particular case. This often involves searching proprietary legal databases online or spending time in law libraries. They prepare written reports such as pleadings and motions filed in court, and they obtain affidavits. In addition, individuals in this profession maintain files on clients or cases and keep them readily accessible.
Command of the English language, both written and spoken, is critical for this job. You should also comprehend legal terminology and be able to apply the appropriate legal terms to a given situation. Individuals who did well in English, history and social studies in school will like do well in the legal profession. Research skills, such as searching the internet, searching a library database and being able to scan multiple documents for the needed information, are a big part of this job.
Ethics, such as honesty, avoiding conflicts of interest and protecting confidential or privileged information, are also very important. A legal professional can lose his or her job and certification if he or she has been found to violate the legal code of ethics.
Legal assistants usually specialize in one particular area of law, and, like any legal profession, that specialization depends a lot on what you do in your initial internship. Changing to another focus within the legal industry is rare and requires transferrable skills.
These career professionals enjoy a healthy starting salary averaging $33,280 annually with the potential to earn about $75,700. Salary ranges vary depending on the city in which you work. The highest paid individuals in this profession work in the District of Columbia, who average $64,760 annually. New York, California and Illinois also compensate legal employees higher than average.
Presently 246,800 individuals are employed in this profession throughout the United States, and the field is expected to grow 28 percent over the next 10 years with an estimated 104,000 job openings.
A majority of these career professionals work for a law firm (71 percent). Others work for a corporate legal department or for various government offices. Promising legal specializations for the future include real estate, bankruptcy, medical malpractice, product liability and community legal service programs. New industries offering jobs to these legal professionals include insurance companies, real estate offices, title firms and banks.
Competition for employment and advancement is high in this vocational career. Many in this profession get certified after they have completed a four-year degree and have worked in another field. Combining transferable skills from another field with legal skills can help individuals to be very marketable. Those with more experience in the legal industry and who specialize in a particular area of the law are the first to get hired, especially in the more promising legal specializations listed above.
After completing a two-year educational program, certification in this field is voluntary, but since less than 10 percent of individuals in this profession are certified, doing so increases your marketability.
A number of organizations offer certifications in this field. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) administers a two-day exam with a certification that lasts five years. Completion of 50 hours of continuing education credits is required for recertification. Other organizations that offer similar certifications include the American Alliance of Certified Paralegals, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations and the National Association of Legal Secretaries.
Titles that individuals hold in this profession may be "legal assistant," "legal analyst," "certified paralegal," "certified legal assistant" or a title that is specific to their line of legal work, such as "litigation paralegal." Other legal professionals may work as a judicial assistant.
Advanced individuals in this profession may supervise other legal staff in large firms. However, there is somewhat of a ceiling in this line of work because there is a barrier between individuals in this profession and attorneys. Attorneys have a doctoral level of education and attend prestigious universities, whereas individuals in this profession often receive their legal education through a community college. Although only a certain level of advancement may be reached, you are often highly valued for your experience and expertise within a certain area of law.
Most legal assistants work full-time. Contractual work is often available either working in an office or from home, although most who work from home have considerable experience in this career path. Contractual work, or temp work, is usually available during peak times, and the work can often lead to a permanent work arrangement for a firm. Overtime is usually available for full-time employees at law firms or other legal environments, as many work with tight deadlines, particularly in relation to the courts. Most legal professionals work a standard eight-hour day, Monday through Friday. Getting to work on time is usually critical. Bigger firms and corporate legal departments are the most likely to offer insurance and benefits.
This vocational career requires business professional dress (a suit and tie) with an impeccable grooming standard, so include regular apparel purchases and grooming maintenance in your budget. Much of the work you will do involves analyzing detailed reports at close range, and you will likely sit at a desk for long periods of time.
Basic Office Skills Required
Good spelling, grammar and punctuation skills are essential for this vocational career, as well as basic math skills. A fast typing speed is often a requirement, usually a minimum of 70 to 80 words per minute. You should also have an excellent command of MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.
Paralegals have fast-paced, demanding vocational careers that can be very rewarding. They have the ability to make a difference in the lives of legal clients because of their special training and experience.
A Paralegal's Typical Work Day
Yolanda has worked as a paralegal for the past five years at a medium-sized bankruptcy law firm. She chose her vocational career because of her interest in the law and her love of writing and research. She also enjoys working with people and providing specialized services that clients cannot provide for themselves.
As a result of the economic recession, she has seen a rise in the number of individuals filing for bankruptcy protection through her vocational career. Some of her firm's clients qualify for Chapter 13 protection, which gives them the chance to keep their homes and other possessions, where others have no choice but to do a Chapter 7 liquidation of assets. In either case, Yolanda works with clients to complete the required paperwork. For both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies, clients are required by law to provide a list of their real property including real estate, vehicles, and other valuables. They also must list all their outstanding creditors and the estimated amount of money owed. Yolanda takes the information provided about creditors and sends letters of notice on a client's behalf to inform creditors that a client has entered bankruptcy protection.
When an individual enters bankruptcy protection, it restricts how much creditors can do in terms of collecting funds. In a Chapter 13, a bankruptcy trustee is appointed by the federal government to collect and distribute funds to creditors in monthly payments, usually for a period of five years. Yolanda works with the trustee's office in her city to schedule the required appointments with clients and to assist in any disputes where she can. If clients fail to pay the agreed upon amount each month, their bankruptcy protection can default, so she maintains an open line of communication with clients the best she can. To avoid a default, Yolanda works with her attorney colleagues to establish a revised payment plan, or if clients will be unable to make monthly payments for an extended period, they may have no other choice but to convert the bankruptcy protection to a Chapter 7 liquidation of assets.
Yolanda works closely with attorneys and other staff at her firm. Since she has been working there for a while and is very familiar with the bankruptcy process, she is given additional responsibilities. Some of the tasks she does as a paralegal used to be reserved for only attorneys, but she does all she can to lighten the hectic schedules of the attorneys with whom she works.
On an average day, Yolanda conducts financial research related to creditors' claims and completes legal forms. Often she sits in on attorney consultations with new clients, where she provides a general overview of the bankruptcy process. She also takes phone calls from creditors and communicates with clients regarding the status of their cases.
Although bankruptcy is a dreary process, Yolanda has compassion for the clients she works with, many of whom got into their present financial crises as a result of a medical emergency or an extended period of unemployment. Yolanda enjoys her vocational career as a paralegal at a bankruptcy firm, which exposes her to many facets of the financial industry, and she likes the fast-paced, diverse nature of her work.