Paralegal Career Path Information & Options for Associations

Paralegal Career path information


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So you’re thinking of starting your paralegal career. You already know how to be a paralegal but do you know what that actually entails? Or maybe you’re wondering “is paralegal a good career?” Let’s start off with 3 reasons NOT to go down this job path:

    1.   It costs too much – Whether you choose the bachelor’s, associate’s, or just the certificate program, going back to school isn’t cheap. Tuition and books will run you thousands of dollars.
    2.   It takes too much time – There are some programs that tell you that you can get your certificate in just 10 weekends. On the other side, getting your bachelor’s can take 4-8 years.
    3.   You think it’s an easy way to make a lot of money – Maybe you’re unemployed and you saw an ad for an online paralegal program while watching your daytime soaps and thought, “yeah, I could do that. I’ll be earning big bucks three months from now.” The truth is, being a paralegal isn’t easy. It’s a lot of work. And many graduates don’t land a job for up to 6 months. Many go through an unpaid internship just to get some experience to put on a resume and make some connections. That “average” salary includes people who have been doing this for years and have been paid accordingly. So don’t think you’re going to start out at 45k a year.
    4.    You think paralegals and lawyers are basically the same thing – Just because they work in the same office and touch the same documents does not mean that they are the same but with less time spent in college. Lawyers and paralegals have very different skill sets and strengths.
    5.   High stress – Not only is there a lot of detailed work that needs to be precisely correct but if you make a mistake, that could mean that a family loses its house or an innocent man goes to jail. There will be a great burden on your shoulders so if you can’t handle that, get out now.
    6.   Long hours – Researching, drafting, double checking, and organizing all of the documents and evidence takes a lot of time. The courts have deadlines for filings and often, your timeline will not be long. So expect to work late many nights.
    7.   Getting a job isn’t easy – As mentioned before, you are not handed a degree and a job at the same time. Finding a paralegal job can take many months and a lot of energy.

Bottom line: This needs to be something you enjoy, not just a quick win.

And now for something positive, reasons TO become a paralegal:

    1.   SalaryThe average salary for paralegals in America is around $46,000 per year. Yes, you will not make this straight out of college. But remember, this is the average. Do you plan on being average? There are a number of paralegals working in the bigger firms making 6 figures. That sounds pretty good, right?
    2.   Fastest growing profession – Getting a job isn’t easy. It never is. But the paralegal profession is the fastest growing industry in the U.S. right now. Law firms are finding that replacing lawyers with paralegals is not only saves money but is also more efficient. Typically, there is one paralegal for every five lawyers. That’s a lot of work for one person. By hiring more paralegals, firms aren’t paying high priced lawyers to do menial work that can be done for a third of the price or more.
    3.   Don’t need 7 or more years of school – The majority of students enrolled in paralegal programs are working on starting their second or third career. They don’t have time to spend getting a four year degree and going to law school, only to have to study and wait to take the bar. That’s 7 or more years out of the work force, stacking up student loan debt. Online paralegal programs can be as short as 3 months.
    4.   Challenging – This is not a repetitive task kind of job. Every day you will be working on new cases with different needs and aspects. If you’re looking to be intellectually challenged, you’re on the right track.
    5.   Varied career path – Don’t think that once you become a paralegal, that’s all you’ll ever be. Many people who have started down that path have gone on to hold high positions in marketing, recruitment, management, teaching, and even training 1st year associates.
    6.   Help people – Here’s the big one. Sure, a lot of people go to lawyers to sue each other over dumb, inane things. But many are just trying to get back on their feet and have to file bankruptcy or want to adopt a child from a developing country. There are many examples of heartwarming tales that you can collect while working as a paralegal.

Certificate vs. Bachelor’s vs. Associate’s

Now that you’ve decided that the paralegal career path is for you, you have got a choice to make. Should you go for a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or a certificate program? Making the choice isn’t easy. It depends on many factors like location, time, cost, and available programs. If you live in a very rural area, you may not be able to find a bachelor program that fits your needs.

And if you’re working full time, you may not have enough time to do more than night classes towards an A.A. Also, some programs are prohibitly expensive. Many times, these are private “technical colleges” or “diploma mills” who charge large fees and give less than standard education. Out of the over 1,000 schools that offer a degree in paralegal studies, only about 200 are ABA accredited. Also, in California, paralegals are required to have at least a B.A. or a lawyer sponsor.

While it is more expensive and time consuming, having a bachelor’s does help you in the long run. In this day and age, you will be at a major disadvantage without one since most applicants have a B.A. In larger cities, getting a job in the paralegal sector without a 4 year degree is next to impossible. In smaller cities, an associate’s is acceptable but know that it will make it harder to find employment. Almost all larger firms require a bachelor’s and the top law firms require that it be from a top school.paralegal certification

When deciding on a program, look at the graduation and employment rates of the college. If very few people make it through or, even worse, they get out and still don’t have a job within six months, that’s a red flag. Quality institutions have placement officers who help graduates find employment. And colleges with low standing in the legal community often get passed up for an applicant who went to a more prestigious school.

Is there a required internship? Many bachelor’s programs require students to complete an unpaid internship to graduate. If you have a full time job and a home life, this would be impossible so keep that in mind when selecting a program.

Online vs. on campus is something else to consider. If you are in a remote location or don’t have normal working hours, it would be very difficult to attend live classes. Conversely, online paralegal programs allow you to watch the classes and complete the work on your own time.

When factoring commute time and time spent waiting for professors, you might be able to put in half as much time to achieve the same results. However, online degrees might limit your options for employment. Many employers still don’t hold these programs in high regard and it might keep you from advancing to the next step in your career.

There is another option. Depending on your circumstances, it might be a good idea to go ahead and get your certificate or A.A. and start working towards your B.A. while working. You’d have experience and may be able to use your job in lieu of an internship. Plus you’d be familiar with a lot of the curriculum already.

Paralegal Associations

Once you’ve received your degree and started down your paralegal career options, you may want to consider joining an association. This is a great way to network and show that you are serious about your career. There are also a number of publications and conventions that these associations sponsor that are very beneficial to your line of work. Getting to know your peers, sharing stories and strategies, and meeting people who may help you land a (better) job are just a few of the benefits of a paralegal association.

You have a number of options when deciding to become a member. You can join as many as you want but if you join, try to make a contribution to the group. There are national, state, and geographic associations so it might be wise to join at least one of each.

National

NALA – National Association of Legal Assistants. Now the National Association of Paralegals, NALA is not only one of the biggest associations but, by completing their certification process, you will stand out in the job market as someone who is serious about your profession. There are over 18,000 members so making friends in your area should not be a problem.

NFPA – National Federation of Paralegal Associations. There are over 9,000 members and it was the first paralegal association in America. They also have their own certification process.

AAPI – American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. Started in Phoenix, Arizona, this group has a process of certification as well as holding annual conferences nationally.

NPA – National Paralegal Association. Despite its name, this is an international organization and its members range from pre graduates to employed professionals to educators.

State*

*These are just a few of the state associations. Many times there are multiple depending on the size of the state.

CAPA – California Alliance of Paralegal Associations. Founded in 1977, CAPA has been instrumental in fighting for paralegals’ rights in California. It continues to do so to this day.

PAW – Paralegal Association of Wisconsin. This is another organization that fights to protect the rights of paralegals in their state. They also offer a job board where members can fill positions and find employment.

IPA – Illinois Paralegal Association. No, not that kind of IPA. This IPA began in 1971 in Chicago and is still a major influence in the legal community in Illinois.

Geographical*

* Like the state section above, these are just a few of the associations for these areas. Many overlap while some areas might not be represented at all.

NEFPA – Northeast Florida Paralegal Association. Formed in 1984 and originally known as Jacksonville Legal Assistants, Inc., NEFPA mainly serves the Jacksonville area but also includes Gainesville, Ocala, Lake City, and Palatka. They host numerous volunteer efforts from free legal aid to assisting with the Department of Children and Families.

RMPA – Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association. The RMPA’s territory covers Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Which all together equals about the population of NEFPA’s territory. They don’t believe in the use of the oxford comma and therefore should not be taken seriously.

TPA – Tidewater Paralegal Association. The TPA is a member of NALA and VAPA (Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations) and serves the Commonwealth of Virginia.

City*

*This is a small selection of the city level paralegal associations.

LAPA – Los Angeles Paralegal Association. LAPA boasts a membership of 1100 professionals and offers great benefits to its members. Not only networking opportunities but continuing education courses and volunteer activities as well.

NYCPA – New York City Paralegal Association. The NYCPA provides its members with CLE (Continuing Legal Education) classes, networking opportunities, job boards, and up to date standards, requirements, and practices notices.

HPA – Houston Paralegal Association. HPA is one of the largest non profit organizations in the country. Their main concern is minimum education standards though they are a non bargaining organization.

Types of Paralegal Careers

Like doctors and lawyers, paralegals can specialize in very narrow fields of law, regardless of their job description or current duties. There are a number of specialties out there and if you find one particularly interesting, it might be a good idea to further your education in that direction. Here are a few:


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Litigation Paralegal

As a litigation paralegal, you will have many different responsibilities ranging from organization to drafting. In the beginning, there is investigation. This consists of interviewing clients and taking their statements. Then comes the task of collecting evidence and organizing it all neatly. Most trials have thousands of sheets of paper and any number of pieces of evidence so it is crucial that it is all organized, categorized, and easily accessible.

Next are the pleadings. At this phase you will be responsible for drafting summons, complaints, and supporting affidavits, formulating responses, filing pleadings with the court, and adding court dates and deadlines to the schedule.

Most of your time will be spent at the discovery stage where you will be tracking down witnesses and experts and taking their statements. Drafting requests, interrogatories, and other important articles, creating indexes, and making note of discovery dates are in this stage as well. Then you will move on to organizing case files and creating and reviewing needed legal documents. You will have to prepare deposition summaries, do legal research (precedents, etc) and send memos of what you find, and then factual research (newspapers, police reports, etc), also sending what you find in memos

After that you move on to the pretrial phase where you will prepare and organize binders, coordinate and reserve hotel rooms and office spaces and act as the liaison between the lawyers and the clients, witnesses, and court personnel.

At the trial phase, you will prepare and issue subpoenas, prepare witnesses, organize and set up evidence, research jurors, continue to act as liaison between the lawyers and clients, witnesses, court personnel, assist in jury selection, observe the jury, prepare the witnesses, take notes throughout the trial, and order and review transcripts.

Finally, the settlement phase is where it all gets tied up in a bow. At this stage, you will be in charge of gathering and organizing the data, creating settlement brochures and other necessary articles, and drafting agreements.

Basically your job will consist of these main activities:

    1. Organize documents
    2. Do research
    3. Prepare witnesses and material
    4. Schedule and attend depositions
    5. Court filings
    6. Liaison
    7. Schedule and attend trials

Immigration Paralegal

An immigration paralegal helps people who are seeking temporary or permanent legal status in this country. Which means you will be handling finding visa alternatives, finding legal residences, researching options, and translating legal documents. You will also be coordinating with outside counsel, federal, and state agencies for visa petitions, maintaining public access files, stay up to date on immigration policies and laws, communicate with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and draft letters, pleadings, and case files.

This specialty is a good fit for someone who speaks multiple languages, comes from a recently immigrated family, or is an immigrant himself or herself. Immigration paralegal jobs are in greater need in states near the USA border.

Real Estate Paralegal

Real estate paralegals spend a lot of time preparing, reviewing, and coordinating, not to mention the due diligence for acquisitions, dispositions, and borrowings. This would include reviewing title commitments and surveys, judgment, tax, and lien searches. You will be responsible for preparing deeds, mortgages, leases, rental agreements, closing binders, and closing checklists. All the while, you will be coordinating with title companies, permit agencies, city offices, neighborhood boards, zoning commissions, and probably many more red tape agencies.

Intellectual Property Paralegal

Intellectual property law covers patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, etc. Generally if someone thought it up, that falls under IP law. There are actually specialties within this specialty. You could niche down into a trademark paralegal or a patent paralegal. Or a copyright paralegal. Whatever you want. The world’s your oyster. As an intellectual property paralegal you could work somewhere other than a law firm such as a corporation or government agency.

The work usually includes conducting a lot of intellectual property research in the U.S. Copyright Office or USPTO. This is to ensure that your client was the first person to come up with this idea and copyright/patent it. Then you’re on to litigation where you prove that the other party is using your client’s IP without consent. It’s basically a game of “I was here first”.

Family Law Paralegal

Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins. What do they all have in common? Family. And when they fight, they need an attorney who specializes in family law. And he needs a family law paralegal. Like IP law, family law can be specialized even further to adoption law or divorce law (a booming business since half of all marriages end in divorce).

As a divorce paralegal you can go niche down even more into a firm that only represents men. But as a general family law paralegal, your duties will include collecting legal documents like birth and marriage certificates, tracking down absent parties, finding and listing assets, filing legal documents, working with a mediator, and drafting prenuptial agreements, divorce papers, child custody, etc. On a good day, you’ll even get to establish paternity.

Freelance Paralegal

A freelance paralegal, and sometimes known as a virtual paralegal, doesn’t specialize in a particular field. Well, they can. But then they’d be a virtual real estate paralegal. A freelance paralegal doesn’t work in one office or for one lawyer. He or she takes clients on as part time work. This is highly beneficial to small law firms who can’t afford a full time paralegal but can’t find someone who wants to just work part time. Becoming a virtual paralegal is a good choice for someone who is independent, self motivated, and can run his or her own business. Freelance paralegals get paid more per hour but typically make less annually than their traditional counterparts.

This is for two reasons. One, freelancers have to find their own clients. If they only have two clients that use them for ten hours a week, they would make much less than someone who was on salary for 40 hours a week. Two, freelance paralegals only get paid while they’re working. Not while they are getting coffee or going to lunch or discussing the last American Idol episode. So while they may put in less hours, it doesn’t mean they have shorter work days.

However, this work can be done at any time of the day, any days of the week. So if you needed to go to a doctor’s appointment or watch your child, you can do that from the comfort of your own home. Or at a beach resort with an internet connection. Speaking of which, freelancers must supply their own equipment. Computers, phone lines, internet, SaaS subscriptions are all paid out of pocket (and hopefully expensed). They also get no benefits. No group insurance, no vacation days, no stock options. So what do they do? Everything a normal paralegal would do except attend meetings. They draft legal documents, perform legal research, and organize everything that needs to be organized.

Finding Paralegal Jobsparalegal jobs

Even though there is a lot of paralegal career paths available, finding a job in any industry is tough. Finding a good job is even tougher. When searching for entry level paralegal jobs, here are some factors that hiring managers consider:

  1.   Nepotism. First and foremost, jobs generally go to people who know someone in the company. Is it fair? No. Is it illegal? Nope. But instead of complaining about it, use that favoritism to your advantage. Find out who the top dogs are at the firm and make friends with them. Or stalk them on Linkedin. You’re sure to have some friend in common through a 2nd or 3rd connection. Ask for an introduction or to pass along a resume. Can’t hurt.
  2.   Education. If you’ve been reading this whole article, you know what I’m going to say. A bachelor’s degree will always trump a certificate barring any outside factors. So consider this when interviewing. What level of education do your competitors have? Can you make up for your education deficit with other factors like experience and nepotism? If you’re looking for paralegal jobs in Atlanta, it will be very difficult to get hired without a B.A. However, it might be easier to find paralegal jobs in Columbus, Ohio with only an A.A. Besides the type of degree, it also matters where you got it. Technical schools and online only colleges have a bad rep, no matter what the quality of the education is. Keep that in mind when deciding on which institution to choose.
  3.   Letters of recommendation. Before you graduate (or at least immediately after), make sure to ask your professors to write you a letter of recommendation. Not only is it a great morale boost but it shows hiring managers that you didn’t just sit in the back of the class and play Angry Birds. It also acts as a character witness to the type of person you are.
  4.   Certification. Getting certified by NALA or one of the other associations will definitely help you stand out against other applicants. It shows that you know your material and that you care enough to take an optional test to prove it. Some firms don’t hire uncertified paralegals. So be sure to get it.
  5.   Experience. It’s a cruel catch 22 when you get out of college. No one will hire you because you don’t have experience but you can’t get any experience because no one will hire you. There are other ways to get experience though. Most of them involve working for free. You could do pro bono work at a local Legal Aid in which you’ll be paid with experience and warm feelings. You could find an internship which would directly relate to the position you are trying to get. You could do freelance work. And while it is paid, it’s hard to find clients unless you know someone or find some opportunities on a job board. And lastly, you could start as a legal secretary and work up. Or at least get enough experience to land another job.
  6.   Good resume and online profile. These are lumped together because in this day and age, if you make it to the second round of interviews, they are going to google your name and look at everything you’ve ever shared online. So first off, get your resume in order. Make sure you don’t sound like another drone out of the degree mill but don’t get too weird with it. Tailoring each one to each company you interview with may be more work but it’s what’s going to set you apart. In a digital world, you need to be a material girl. Which brings us back to the digital world. Make your Facebook profile private and make sure your profile picture isn’t lewd or… just make sure you look like someone companies would want to hire. You can change it back later. Fill out your LinkedIn profile completely. It should say what your resume says and more. Show your personality here. LI has a job board and you should be using it.
  7.   Interview skills. Once you make it to the interview round, everything is on you. They know your education and experience; they’ve seen your resume. Now you need to wow them with charm. Dress the part. Wear your good suit or dress. Make sure you are well groomed and presenting an air of confidence and positivity. Many colleges and local government programs offer mock interviews to help students perfect their skills before they get onto the field. Utilize these resources. No one is perfect out of the gate. It would be a waste to spend all that time and energy trying to get an interview and then blow it because your mind went blank when the interviewer asked you what your biggest weakness is.
  8.   Network. This ties in to many of the earlier points. Networking can be one of the most beneficial things you can do with your time. There are a variety of ways to network: Volunteering, joining associations and chambers, attending charity events, and, best of all, mixers. Grab a drink and go meet some people. You never know who knows whom and which uncle owns a law firm. Ride that nepotism train into employment town.
  9.   Online job boards. As previously mentioned, LinkedIn has a very good job board. Many associations do too. These will be your best bet, especially for virtual paralegal jobs. Monster and CareerBuilder are littered with garbage and spammers but there are some good jobs in there as well. When searching online for paralegal jobs, try using “legal secretary jobs” and “legal assistant jobs” as these terms are generally interchangeable.
  10.   Cold call. No one likes to cold call but when you run out of options and you’re tired of seeing who’s the father on Maury, it might be a good idea to pick up the phone and start calling local offices to see if they are hiring or need any freelance work done. You can also walk in (dress appropriately), whichever way you feel most comfortable with.

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Most graduates don’t find employment until about 6 months after graduation so don’t lose hope after a couple of months searching for paralegal career information. If this is what you really want to do, you will find a way.