Reinvent Your Career Through Legal Studies

Posted by on Wed, Jun 24, 2015

what paralegals do

A legal studies degree program challenges students to understand the sociological, economical, and historical basis of law, as well as the ways that laws are formulated, interpreted, and implemented in society.1 By focusing on law, legal institutions, and policy making, a degree in legal studies can become the foundation for many careers in law as well as in business, government, and public advocacy.

Here are some of the most common law-related careers students enter with a background in legal studies2:

  • Adjudicators and Hearing Officers
  • Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators
  • Court Reporters
  • Judicial Law Clerks
  • Law Teachers, Postsecondary
  • Lawyers
  • Legal Secretaries
  • Legal Support Workers
  • All Other Paralegals and Legal Assistants
  • Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers

Of these careers, paralegal is one of the most accessible in the job market, particularly to people who are re-careering. Recent applicants to Kaplan University’s paralegal degree and certificate programs, for instance, have professional backgrounds that range from bus drivers and strawberry pickers to general managers and systems analysts. Choosing paralegal as your second career gives you more skills and experience to bring to the job, making you a more valuable employee.

Paralegals assist lawyers by conducting legal research, drafting documents, organizing case files, and performing other administrative duties. They are the foot soldiers of the legal profession who pave the way for attorneys to practice law. The need for paralegals is on the rise because businesses and organizations of all sizes are attempting to reduce their expenses by handing out more routine legal processes to paralegals whose time is not quite as expensive as an attorney’s time is.

What Paralegals Do

Paralegals help lawyers prepare for hearings, trials, and corporate meetings by performing any of the following duties:

  • Investigate the facts of a case
  • Conduct research on relevant laws, regulations, and legal articles
  • Organize and maintain documents in paper or electronic filing systems
  • Gather and arrange evidence and other legal documents for attorney review and case preparation
  • Write reports to help lawyers prepare for trials
  • Draft correspondence and legal documents, such as contracts and mortgages
  • Get affidavits and other formal statements that may be used as evidence in court
  • Help lawyers during trials by handling exhibits, taking notes, or reviewing trial transcripts
  • File exhibits, briefs, appeals, and other legal documents with the court or opposing counsel
  • Call clients, witnesses, lawyers, and outside vendors to schedule interviews, meetings, and depositions

Education You’ll Need

Paralegals can be trained on the job, but with competition for paralegal jobs heating up, those with formal training are in demand. Most paralegals have earned a two-year associate’s degree, but if you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can earn a paralegal postbaccalaureate certificate in even less time. There are also bachelor’s degree programs available for paralegal studies, and you can attend programs at public, private, or online schools.

[Check out 12 College Scholarships for Adult Learners.]

Skills to Succeed

Paralegals need to be avid readers and researchers who can find, sort, and organize the materials that lawyers need to prepare documents and case files. Be prepared to spend many hours searching through law libraries and courthouse files. You should also be trained in using digital law-research databases and be proficient in many kinds of office software, including word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation programs. Know how to write, multitask, and communicate with clients and other legal team members.

[Find online courses to update your office skills.]

In the Workplace

The median annual salary for paralegals is $46,990, and the job growth is faster than average.* Most paralegals are employed by law offices, but other places of work include corporate legal departments, government agencies, finance and insurance firms, consulting firms, and health care providers.

Paralegals typically work a 40-hour week, but overtime is not uncommon when deadlines are looming. Paralegals who work for smaller organizations perform a larger variety of duties, while those who work for larger firms specialize in a just a few activities, such as researching past cases or organizing evidence for hearings.

Specializations

Many lawyers specialize in particular areas of the law, and paralegals can do the same. If you already have an area of expertise from a previous career, that can make you a particularly attractive hire.

Here are some of the areas of specialization that might be of interest to you as you move forward in your paralegal career:

Alternative Dispute Resolution Entertainment Law International Law
Animal Law Environmental Law Litigation Paralegal
Aviation Law Estate Planning Nurse Paralegal
Bankruptcy Law Family Law Paralegal Specialist in Gov.
Business Law Freelance Paralegal Patent Law
Civil Litigation Immigration Law Personal Injury Law
Civil Rights Law Insurance Law Real Estate Law
Employment Law Intellectual Property Law Tort Law

Paralegals are sometimes called legal assistants, but while the terms have been used interchangeably for some time, there is now a trend toward differentiating them. ‘Paralegals’ refers to formally educated or certified employees, while ‘legal assistants’ refers to legal secretaries and paralegal assistants who perform less substantive roles.

There are very few barriers to becoming a paralegal, and it is a rewarding career for the right types of people. Whether you choose to earn a certificate or a degree, getting some experience in a law firm or legal department is also a good idea. Look for internships or volunteer opportunities while you study, and highlight any previous experience you bring to the table when you seek your first job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Experienced, formally trained paralegals with strong computer and database management skills should have the best job prospects.”

 

*Sources: 

1. http://www.myplan.com/majors/what-to-do-with-a-major-in-law-and-legal-studies-38.html

2. http://legalstudies.berkeley.edu/?page_id=1067

Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

 

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