IN THIS PART …
Explore the wide variety of jobs in the paralegal profession and sample those jobs where paralegals are most in demand.
Discover the skills and education necessary to succeed in a paralegal career.
Amplify your networking success through joining paralegal associations and decide whether certification makes sense for your path.
Prepare killer cover letters and effective resumes for securing a paralegal position.
Set up your freelance paralegal business and advertise your skills to law firms and other potential legal employers.
Almost a Lawyer: What a Paralegal Does
Both paralegals and lawyers are legal professionals. The difference is that an attorney must supervise a paralegal’s work, and a paralegal can’t do certain things, like give legal advice and represent clients in court.
But there are many things paralegals can do. Because using a paralegal instead of an attorney can save a lot of money, law firms and corporations are increasingly relying on paralegals. As a paralegal, you’ll likely be doing many of the tasks that in past decades were accomplished only by licensed attorneys. We cover some of these important tasks in the following sections.
Researching and analyzing the law
Courts make decisions about current cases based on the decisions made in past cases. So, to effectively prepare a case, you have to know what the courts have decided in similar circumstances and evaluate them to figure out how they apply to the case you’re working on. You find prior cases and relevant statutes through legal research.
Performing legal research can eat up gobs of time, so attorneys often count on competent paralegals to take up this duty. No matter which area of law you enter, you’ll have to do legal research. If you work in areas that frequently require litigation, you’ll do lots of research, but even other areas like domestic law, trusts and estates, corporate law, and entertainment law are going to require you to hit the books.
Of course, legal research has increasingly moved away from books and into computer technology. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be doing less research, just that you may be doing more of it from your desk rather than heading to a law library. (Chapter 13
shows you how to research the law in texts and on a computer.)
Your job doesn’t stop with the accumulation of research. You also have to analyze the information by applying law to facts and probably draft memos that present your analysis for the lawyers in your firm. You may need to apply the information that you find to a corporate contract, will, or other legal document. In many cases, you may even be asked to do initial writing on motions that will actually be filed in court. So although you may not be speaking in court, your work will be.
Playing Sherlock: Interviewing and investigating
Cases aren’t only about relevant statutes and case precedents; they’re also about the facts. As we discuss in Chapters 11
, you may interview witnesses and collect evidence in your paralegal career. Evidence gathering is especially important in any kind of litigation. Litigation results in many areas of law. For example, corporate law may involve litigation stemming from contract disputes or product liability; patent and trademark law may lead to trials over intellectual property rights; and family law features frequent litigation, especially stemming from divorce and child custody issues.
For each of these kinds of lawsuits, there are witnesses to interview and evidence to gather. For example, if your supervising attorney were working for a plaintiff in a product liability suit, you would need to gather information on the harm caused by the product, interview other people who may have been adversely affected by the product, work to determine what the company knew of the danger and when, and collect information from any additional witnesses.
Convening with clients
Without clients, the practice of law wouldn’t exist. Tasks like legal research and document preparation may seem to be the main duties of legal professionals. But, you only engage in these and other legal tasks because you’re working on behalf of a client. Establishing good relationships with clients is essential to open communication and good legal practice — and it’s also important to strengthening your career.
During your paralegal career you may find that you’re often the liaison between the client and the attorneys you work for, which may be one of the most important duties you have. As the liaison, you keep the client informed of how the case is progressing and work with the client to get all the relevant case information. Then you accurately relay what the client tells you to the attorney who represents the client.
Administrating the legal environment
In some offices, you may work as a case administrator. An administrator handles the case details for a client and the attorney. For example, law firms have special accounts where they keep money that belongs to clients rather than to the firm. If a client wins a judgment or if money included in a will is being dispersed, that money passes though the accounts of a law firm. Or, you may keep track of the money bequeathed through a will if you work for a probate attorney.
In a small law office, your paralegal duties may also include administrating the entire operation, including the filing system, the calendar, and the billings. (For more on how to manage these tasks, turn to Chapter 18