Legal Assistants and Paralegals – The Future Is Bright

One of most common ways to become a legal assistant or paralegal is through a community college program that leads to an associate’s degree. Another common route; primarily for those who already have a college degree, is through a program that leads to a certification in paralegal studies.

Many legal assistants and paralegals have associate degrees in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree paired with a certificate in paralegal studies. Currently, a small number of schools offer bachelors’ or masters’ degrees in paralegal studies. A few employers train paralegals on the job, hiring college graduates with no legal experience or promoting experienced legal secretaries. Others have gained experience in a technical field useful to law firms, like tax preparation for tax and estate planning, criminal justice, nursing or health administration for personal injury practice.

With 250+ paralegal programs approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) and an estimated 1,000 colleges and universities, law schools and proprietary schools offering formal paralegal training programs – the field is highly represented. Although many programs don’t require ABA approval, graduating from an ABA-approved program can enhance one’s employment opportunities – it’s a credibility thing for some employers.

Program admission requirements vary greatly – from a few college credits or courses to a bachelor’s degree for others, to high school graduates, those with legal experience, passing a standardized test, to simply having a favorable personal interview.

Many legal assistant and paralegal programs include 2-year associate degree programs, 4-year bachelor degree programs and certificate programs that can take as little as a few months to complete. Most certificate programs provide intensive and specialized paralegal training for individuals who already hold college degrees. On the other hand, associate and bachelor degree programs usually combine paralegal training with courses in other academic subjects.

Obviously, the quality of paralegal training programs can vary with the higher quality programs usually including job placement services.

Courses range from introducing students to the legal applications of computers, including how to perform legal research on the Internet to more and more paralegal training programs offering internships to assist students in gaining practical experience by working for several months in the real world. Internships could be with a private law firm, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a bank, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization or a government agency. Clearly, the experience gained is an asset when one is seeking a job after graduation and for many can lead to a job with the company they interned with.

Most employers don’t require certification but earning a voluntary certificate from a professional society does have its advantages when it comes to finding a job. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has established standards for certification that requires various combinations of education and experience. Paralegals who meet their standards are eligible to take a 2-day examination, offered three times a year at one of several regional testing centers. Those who pass can then use the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation. NALA also offers an advanced paralegal certification for those who want to specialize in specific areas of the law.

The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam offers professional recognition to legal assistants and paralegals that have earned a bachelor’s degree and have at least 2 years of experience. Once they pass this test they can use the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation.

Legal assistants and paralegals must have the ability to document and present their findings and opinions to their supervising attorneys. They also need to understand legal terminology, have good research and investigative skills and be able to do legal research using a computer and the internet. They also need to stay abreast of new developments in the laws that affect their area of expertise. The most common way many legal assistants and paralegals expand their knowledge is by participating in continuing legal education seminars.

Because legal assistants and paralegals deal with the public on an ongoing basis they need to be “shining examples” of ethical standards for the legal profession. The National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations and a few States have established ethical guidelines for them to follow.

Employment Outlook

Legal assistants and paralegals held about 224,000 jobs in 2004 with about 70% being employed by private law firms; most of the remainder worked for corporate legal departments and various levels of government. Within the Federal Government, the U.S. Department of Justice is the largest employer, followed by the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. A small number of paralegals own their own businesses and work as freelance legal assistants, contracting their services to attorneys or corporate legal departments.

As a whole, employment in this field is projected to grow much faster than average. The current trend of employers trying to reduce costs by hiring paralegals to perform duties formerly carried out by lawyers is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. As a result, employment opportunities are projected to grow much faster than average for the next 10 years or so.

As in all fields, compensation varies greatly due to the high number of variables but in general, salaries depend on education, training, experience, the type and size of employer and the geographic location of the job. As a whole, legal assistants and paralegals who work for large law firms or in large metropolitan areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less populated regions. In addition to salary, many also receive bonuses. In mid 2004, the average salary for all legal assistants or paralegal was a tad over $39,000 per year.

Differences Between a Paralegal and Legal Assistant

Most of us think that legal assistants and paralegals are the same but actually there is a difference between the two. Although a Paralegal may also be known as a Legal Assistant, in some geographical areas, there is a difference between the two.

No matter what, Paralegals and Legal Assistants are different in terms of their job titles. The Paralegal is more involved in legal research and actual casework as compared to a Legal Assistant. Paralegals may be involved in the drafting of legal documents which demands more research and background knowledge. Private organizations hiring Paralegals often prefer those who have background in political science or law to help them in research and trial preparation.

Legal Assistants are often involved in managing the administrative tasks that are required by the Paralegals and lawyers. For instance, Legal Assistants may be in charge of maintaining precise trial records and research or to make sure that all the court filing needs are successfully met. The people working as Legal Assistants mainly have a clerical or secretarial background, as the capabilities of maintaining precise records and supporting multiple people are indispensable.

The differences between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant lie mainly in the kind of work they perform. A working Paralegal is able to earn around $35000 to $50000 a year. The salary range may vary according to the location and experience of an individual. The experienced Paralegals living in metropolitan cities enjoy a higher pay scale. Also, the Paralegals can improve their salary by earning the certified paralegal credentials program certificate. The certificate adds to both qualification and knowledge of a paralegal.

In spite of the differences in job duties between a paralegal and a legal assistant, the salaries earned by both are quite similar. The salary of a legal assistant basically depends on the kind of job duties assigned and the location of work. The legal assistants also have an opportunity to improve their salary outlook by earning various certifications like certified legal assistant program through NALA.

Despite of the job title you pursue, it is vital to keep yourself aware of the different demands of each title. Legal Assistants and Paralegals have to work in a high pressure environment as most of them are employed either in government agencies or private law organizations. It is a great field to make handsome money and social status if you are comfortable working in such situations.

Legal Assistance Options For Single Mothers

To navigate through intrinsic legal tangles you some times require professional legal help which is expensive. Luckily, the legal profession offers skilled attorneys who volunteer their services through either a community legal aid organization or pro bono work to individuals. LawHelp.org is one organization that works with these free or low cost organizations and refers people who require legal help to them. Their website offers people who need help handling their legal problems links to locate legal aid organizations in their localities. Basically, any legal assistance that single mothers require can be found through following the links provided on the LawHelp.org website.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC)

For single mothers who have income level at or below 125% of federal poverty level, Legal Service Corporation can be the much needed answer for their legal problems. LSC is a nonprofit corporation that funds legal assistance to low income individuals through over 850 offices spread across the US. Over 50 million people are eligible for the service and the program closes more than 900, 000 cases annually. Over 70% percent of the clients assisted by the LSC programs are women. LSC also handles cases involving housing problems and foreclosure. Assistance offered includes foreclosure prevention, loan renegotiation and landlord- tenant disagreements. Assistance is also available single mothers who are facing eviction from a rental unit because the landlord is facing foreclosure.

Legal aid clinics

There are myriad of reasons why single mothers find themselves needing legal representation. From the outset lawyers are very expensive, but some situations cannot allow single mothers to represent themselves. As a single mother you can obtain legal assistance from a law school. Depending on the state you reside in, law students can volunteer for programs to assist people who require legal advice. Visit the website of the law school in your area to check what low cost or free legal services that they offer. When in a situation where you require legal advice, any help will be welcomed. If you live in a locality where there is no law school, contact the local community college. They usually sponsor legal aid clinics to the benefit the local community. The People who attend legal aid clinics are able to point out their legal problems to the volunteers. If the volunteers are unable to assist them, at least they can help you find low cost or even free legal assistance from other sources.

Legal help without an attorney

Many single mothers don’t have the luxury of paying for legal assistance in their budget. Fortunately, there are other methods of handling legal dilemmas rather than commencing a court process. Identify your problem and once you are convinced that legal redress is required, contact your local enforcement agency that is mandated to deal with such crisis. If the agency can’t help you, they can refer you to a local branch of government who can assist you deal with the problem. You can also contact the department of social services in your locality and inquire whether you qualify for legal assistance. If you don’t qualify, ask if they can direct you to any other source. If the states of affairs are beyond these circumstances and you find that you require an attorney to represent you, ask the agency related to your legal issue if they can direct you to lawyers you can afford.

Low cost or Free Legal Advice

Child Support Services

These services are absolutely free and administered on the behalf of your children. Child support offices have their own lawyers, or work closely with state attorneys to come up with the best course of legal action for your case.

Department of Children’s Service (DCS)

This is the place to go when your children’s rights are being violated in anyway. DCS can help you to remove the child from that situation and at the same time assist you in court for the best interest of your children. Their legal provisions are free, but they only handle cases involving the welfare of your children.

Legal Assistants and Paralegals – A Closer Look

One of the most important tasks legal assistants and paralegals perform is to assist lawyers as they prepare for corporate meetings, closings, trials and hearings. Although the lawyers take ownership for the legal work, they will often delegate many tasks to legal assistants and paralegals. As a result, they continue to take on a growing range of tasks inside the nation’s legal offices and perform many of tasks traditional done by lawyers.

On the other hand, they are still strictly prohibited from performing any duty that is considered to be the “practice of law” – such as setting legal fees, giving legal advice, and presenting cases in court. Legal Assistants and paralegals also do much of leg work like verifying and looking into the facts of cases to ensure that all points are thoroughly covered. They also identify appropriate laws, judicial decisions, legal articles and other materials that are relevant to assigned cases.

After they analyze and organize the information, paralegals may prepare written reports that attorneys use in determining how cases should be handled. Should the decision be made to file a lawsuit, a paralegal may then be given the responsibility to help prepare the legal arguments, draft pleadings and motions to be filed with the court, obtain affidavits and assist the attorneys during trial. Paralegals also organize and track files of thee all important case documents and make them available and easily accessible to the attorneys.

In addition to preparatory work, legal assistants and paralegals also perform a number of other vital functions. For example, they help draft contracts, mortgages, separation agreements and instruments of trust. In addition, may assist in preparing tax returns or estate planning. Some may even be given the responsibility to coordinate the activities of other law office employees and maintain financial office records. Of course, additional tasks differ, depending on the employer.

Legal Assistants and paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most are employed by law firms (about 70%), corporate legal departments and various government offices make up most of the remaining 30%. In these organizations, they can work in many different areas of the law, including litigation, personal injury, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, labor law, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate.

As the law has become more complex, legal assistants and paralegals have responded, like many professions, by becoming more specialized. And within specialties, functions are often broken down even further so that legal assistants and paralegals may deal with a specific area. For example, legal assistants and paralegals specializing in labor law may concentrate exclusively on employee benefits.

The duties of legal assistants and paralegals also differ widely with the type of organization in which they are employed. Those who work for corporations often assist attorneys with employee contracts, shareholder agreements, stock-option plans and employee benefit plans. They may also help prepare and file annual financial reports, maintain corporate minutes’ record resolutions and prepare forms to secure loans for the corporation.

Legal Assistants and paralegals often monitor and review government regulations to ensure that the corporation is aware of any new requirements and to ensure they are operating within the law. In addition, an ever increasing number of experienced paralegals are taking on additional supervisory responsibilities like monitoring team projects and serving as a communications link between the team and the corporation.

The duties of legal assistants and paralegals, working in the public sector varies between agencies. However, as a general rule, they analyze legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for attorneys and collect and analyze evidence for agency hearings. They may prepare informative or explanatory material on laws, agency regulations, and agency policy for general use by the agency and the public. Legal Assistants and paralegals employed in community legal-service projects help the poor, the aged and those in need of legal assistance by filing forms, conducting research, preparing documents and when authorized by law, representing clients at administrative hearings.

Legal Assistants and paralegals in small to medium-sized law firms usually perform a variety of duties that require a general knowledge of the law. For example, they may research judicial decisions on improper police arrests or help prepare a mortgage contract. On the other hand, those employed by larger law firms, government agencies or corporations are more likely to specialize in one aspect of the law.

Being computer literate has also become an essential skill of legal Assistants and paralegals. Using the internet to search legal literature and extracting vital information stored in computer databases and on CD-ROM is also an important skill set. In litigation involving many supporting documents, paralegals usually use computer databases to retrieve, organize and index various materials. Imaging software allows paralegals to scan documents directly into a database, while billing programs help them track hours billed to clients. Various software packages are also used to perform tax computations and explore different scenarios of various tax strategies for clients.

As you can see becoming a Legal Assistants and paralegals profession is an exciting and ever-demanding field that requires a wide range of skills and knowledge. If you’re looking for a career, not just a job and you have the willingness to push yourself then this field is ripe for the picking.