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What Exactly Is a Paralegal and What Services do Paralegals Provide?

Many people consider paralegal to just be another word for lawyer. In reality, this is not the case at all.

Paralegals are actually more like lawyers’ assistants; they are not authorized to give legal advice, contrary to popular belief. They are, however, trained to do many of the tasks which lawyers themselves would normally perform. By having a paralegal available to perform certain tasks such as drafting documents or performing legal research, the lawyer’s time is freed to work on other projects. This allows the lawyer to devote professional time to more substantative topics, and it is also more cost effective for the client, as the paralegal’s time is usually billed at a lower hourly rate than the attorney’s.

Paralegals have a strong background in the way the legal system works. The line between paralegal services and those tasks that should be performed by lawyers often differs between firms and areas of practice. It should be noted, however, that paralegal opportunities are available in every practice area, as listed below, giving paralegals the ability to shape their careers to fit their individual lifestyles and goals.

In addition to being trained in various practice areas, paralegals are also employed in a variety of settings. The most common employment setting is a law firm. Paralegals are employed in firms ranging in size from sole practitioners to firms with a global presence. Also employing paralegal services are corporations with in-house legal departments. And finally, some paralegals choose to work for a variety of companies on a contract basis through their own freelance paralegal operation, which in certain situations allows them to act as virtual assistants for lawyers.

So You Want To Be A Paralegal?

If you have always enjoyed the legal system, but are not ready (or able) to commit to the necessary schooling to become a lawyer, a career as a paralegal may be perfect for you. From Honolulu HI to Rochester NY, paralegal services are always being sought by a wide range of companies. This normally makes job opportunities plentiful no matter where you choose to live, although when moving to a different state, you’ll need to learn the nuances of that state’s particular legal system - each state does something a little differently.

As noted above, one of the many perks of being a paralegal is being able to find the right combination of practice area(s) and employment situations so that you’ll develop an enjoyable and fulfilling career which is uniquely your own. First, however, you’ll need to begin with a solid education in various paralegal skills.

Aspiring paralegals have a few options. Upon high school graduation, you can enter a paralegal certification program. There are a few types from which to choose, including a paralegal certificate which take only a few months to complete; a two-year degree in paralegal studies; and a more post-graduate type of program, which requires that you earn a Bachelor’s degree before application. These programs will train you in areas such as research and writing skills, applicable to any practice area in which you specialize, as well as give you an overview of a variety of legal topics, such as civil and criminal procedure. When choosing elective courses, however, it’s a good idea to focus your studies in the area of law you wish to pursue in your paralegal career. Be somewhat flexible in your choices, however. Be careful not to specialize too much – knowledge in a variety of topics will help you stay flexible in the job market.

When determining your educational path, remember that many firms seeking paralegals are looking for someone with the strongest legal background possible. This means that a four-year program can be most useful. Also, the more experience you get as a paralegal on your resume, the more your career options will expand. So when looking for a job, keep an open mind – experience is key to building a successful career, even if it isn’t in your primary field of interest.

When looking at schools to attend, be mindful that not all paralegal programs are endorsed by the American Bar Association (ABA). Some firms will only consider hiring paralegals who graduated from ABA-accredited schools. So if you are pursuing a career in Rochester NY in paralegal services, check to see which companies in Western NY prefer ABA-accredited training for the paralegals they hire prior to applying to a paralegal studies program.

Education for paralegals doesn’t end with earning a degree or certificate and finding a job. The only constant in the legal community is change. Therefore, to stay current with the ever-changing legal environment, good paralegals subscribe to a variety of news sources and business magazines, as well as attend continuing education seminars. Taking ownership of your knowledge of current events and changes in the law is another key to developing a successful paralegal career.

Practice Areas for Paralegals

As noted above, paralegals can work in a huge variety of practice areas, supporting attorneys who practice in such areas as:

- Bankruptcy 
- Business/Corporate 
- Collections 
- Family Law 
- Foreclosures 
- Immigration 
- Intellectual Property 
- Litigation 
- Probate and Estate Planning 
- Real Estate 
- Securities Law 
- Criminal Law
- Personal Injury

This is only a sampling of the areas of expertise you can consider for your career. And don’t limit yourself to only one. Each area has its unique challenges. Consider blending a couple areas of interest in your career – that will give you a wider variety of employment opportunities and open the door to potentially different and interesting client and trial experiences.

Be A Major Legal Contributor

A good paralegal at one’s side can be a huge asset to a legal firm or other company. The paralegal support services offered will allow lawyers to stay focused on their clients’ needs without worrying about some of the more procedural matters. The best paralegals can handle almost anything a firm needs, including finding background information on clients, drafting legal documents, proofreading, doing research, summarizing depositions, organizing records, summarizing documents and much more.

As a paralegal, you may not have spent seven or more years in school after high school, but you can still play an incredibly important role in the legal process as a whole and enjoy a challenging lifelong career, tailored to your specific interests and lifestyle. What could be better than that?


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