After speaking with practicing attorneys and experienced paralegals, we came to an important realization: The things you’re taught in your paralegal program aren’t all you need to know to succeed in the field.
It is true that to get started, you need a paralegal associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in any subject and a certificate in paralegal studies, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It also helps to pass the national certified paralegal exam.
The chief responsibilities of a paralegal – as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor – still include preparing legal documentation, meeting with clients, maintaining legal databases and helping attorneys formulate cases.
And, yes, if you’ve got a penchant for the law, being a paralegal can be interesting and lucrative. The median annual salary for paralegals in 2010 was almost $47,000, according to the BLS.
That’s the textbook explanation of what it means to be a paralegal.
But that’s not everything you need to know.
To the get the lowdown on a career path that promises 83,000 new jobs by 2020, we asked six professionals working in the field for some real-world advice for those looking to get into it.
Here is what we heard.
TIP 1: Specialize in one area of the law
“When [a paralegal’s] interest in the subject matter is genuine, they want to understand what is going on and it keeps them engaged and better able to do their jobs,” Ohio-based criminal attorney Ben Luftman says.
According to the BLS, paralegals can specialize in a variety of areas including: litigation, personal injury, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law and real estate.
When added together with experience, specialization in a popular or high-profile area can help burgeoning paralegals assume leadership roles. This can then lead to managing team projects and delegating tasks to junior paralegals and clerical staff.
TIP 2: Embrace flexibility
Paralegals often serve as the connection between the law firm and the rest of the world. Those that embrace a jack-of-all-trades identity will find themselves less stressed and more employable.
Florida attorney Shane Fischer looks for paralegals that aren’t afraid to play the role of “bad cop.”
“I look to my paralegal to become ‘super b****’ on some of my clients,” Fischer says. “[My paralegal] can say things that I, as the attorney, cannot say. This way, I come across looking like the caring lawyer while my staff plays the heavy.”
The weakened economy has also contributed to redefining the traditional duties of a paralegal.
“Many law firms are downsizing,” 26-year veteran paralegal Hope A. Rising says. “Paralegals who are not willing to also do secretarial work will find themselves without jobs. A degree means nothing without experience – expect to start at the bottom.”
Judith Accilon, a personal injury paralegal since 2002, sums up perfectly the importance of flexibility in the job.
“Paralegals are the face of the law firm,” Accilon says. “Clients, lawyers, judge advocates and clerks deal with you more than the actual attorney. So you almost have to be a lawyer-secretary-counselor-friend-expert, all in one.”
TIP 3: Embrace technology
Law firms have begun to rely heavily on technology to draft and index documents, correspond with clients and other attorneys and prepare presentations, according to the BLS. In fact, all of the discovery materials necessary to prepare for trial – i.e. emails, documents, databases and websites – now fall on the shoulders of the tech-savvy paralegal.
Chicago-based attorney Michael Helfand agrees that the impact of technology on the law has been substantial. He says paralegals that possess research skills or have received technological training need to make sure their employers are aware of the value they bring to the firm.
“If [paralegals] aren't at a firm that will utilize their skills, they will be treated no better than an untrained clerk,” he says. “They might spend a lot of their time making copies, filing papers in
court, delivering the office mail, etc. Probably not what they had in mind when they spent all of that money on school.”
TIP 4: Embrace your role
New Jersey-based employment attorney Jennifer Passannante says it’s crucial for paralegals to remember that support professionals reflect on the attorney and firm for whom they work.
Two primary roles for paralegals include meeting with clients to discuss details of the case and representing the firm to the public, government entities and current and potential clients.
A positive attitude and professional demeanor is what distinguishes paralegals in Luftman’s office.
“This week I had a prosecutor compliment me on my paralegal who she described as ‘incredibly professional and polite,’” he says. “[On the other hand] I have also had past clients tell me that my paralegal seemed like they didn't care about the issue and [then] cringed.”
TIP 5: In the beginning, questions are key
Like any new job, becoming a successful paralegal is a journey fraught with a host of questions. But the difference between being a paralegal and almost any other career is that mistakes and missteps in the legal realm can have a serious impact on people’s lives.
Having said that, remember when you’re starting out that getting the right answer to your question can make a huge difference for you, the firm and the client.
“A good paralegal will recognize when it’s important to ask questions,” Passannante says. “Whether it’s for the sake of efficiency or to avoid making a mistake that could be detrimental to a legal matter.”
Luftman encourages his paralegals to ask questions if they are unsure about anything.
“Attorneys welcome and appreciate [questions from paralegals],” he says. “Because fixing mistakes after the fact is much more difficult and time-consuming than getting it right the first time.”
So there you have it ...
It seems the paralegal program you choose is less important than how you conduct yourself once you’ve graduated, according to those working in the field.
So if you know you need a career change, and you’re interested in learning how to use the law to help people, becoming a paralegal
might be the path for you. Our inside info might even help you distinguish yourself once you’re ready to join the ranks.