Paralegal Training - Getting Started With A Career In Law
Who is to give the graduate of paralegal training the experience that he so badly needs? This is the biggest concern among paralegals who lament that no one wants to hire newbies, as employers insist on experienced workers on their teams. But if no one is willing to give them a chance to earn their stripes, how then will they ever gain the much needed experience to qualify for better paying opportunities?
It can be very frustrating to have completed training to become a paralegal only to end up doing something that wastes the time and resources spent for getting an education. And paralegals are quick to make a distinction: they are not legal secretaries. However, it is not unheard of to hear someone with paralegal training taking on the job of a legal secretary just to get his feet inside the door of a law firm.
Why become a paralegal?
There are two reasons why you choose to become a paralegal. First, you want to use it as a jump-off point for becoming a lawyer. It will take time and a considerable amount of resources to finish law school. But working as a paralegal will not only orient you with the legal world, it will give you experience, insight and even the encouragement to go one step further into becoming a lawyer.
Second, the law interests you. And even in a limited way you want to help people with legal problems without your having to spend so much time and money to achieve this goal. This may not necessarily be your paralegal career, but it gives you enough know-how to know your way around the subject matter.
Whatever your reason, take this under advisement: never take up paralegal studies if you show the slightest hint of quitting law school. The legal profession is not suited for you and downgrading yourself isn't going to improve things.
Paralegals themselves will tell you the bulk of the responsibilities is to do the grunt work for lawyers to get the job done and make them (legal counsels) look good and charge the clients high fees. If you can't take this beating on your ego, then forget any aspiration of becoming one.
Your job includes filing, organizing, researching and preparing the documentation needed for each case. If you prove yourself, you may even get to interview witnesses and prepare drafts for motions or closings, especially if it's a litigation case. Technically, what are assigned to paralegals are substantive legal work which a lawyer is responsible for.
Some people are perfectly happy serving as paralegals and make a career out of it. Others eventually study further to become a lawyer. And still others who invested in a paralegal training and gained experience realize they are not cut out for it, but use their knowledge and exposure for some other field that is their real calling.
What makes up paralegal training?
Gone are the days when a paralegal, or legal assistant as they are also referred to, were hired even without any formal education and just trained on-the-job. Today, even with training - either through a paralegal certificate program or a degree program - getting hired can be a quite a challenge. If you can't physically be in class consider completing your paralegal training online.
Aside from law firms, you can find work with government agencies, corporations, commercial outfits and even educational institutions who need your expertise in law matters but don't necessarily require the services of a lawyer.
What is it that they teach you in paralegal school? How is it different from law school?
There are paralegal training programs that are approved by the American Bar Association, and there are those which are not. Some say you stand a better chance of getting the job if your resume indicates completion of an ABA-approved program. But ultimately, it is your performance and your capability as a worker that will determine if you deserve the position or not.
There are four core courses in most paralegal courses whether you opt for the certificate, associate or bachelor programs. Torts and Personal Injury, Contracts, Legal Research, Writing and civil Litigation and Legal Ehtics and Professional Responsibility make up the foundation of this course.
If you take up the certificate program, which can be completed in as little as seven months, mastering these areas will give you a good leg to stand when you finally land a job. You will usually take up advanced and specialty courses, usually four, that can range from real property, criminal law, employment law, constitutional law and criminal provisions, to drafting contracts and contract provisions. One PLG course is legal document preparation that you really need to master.
A two year-associate program may run for 15 months, and will give you ample time to concentrate on several other aspects of law like business law, taxation, bankruptcy and civil litigation.
For those seriously considering law school later, a bachelor degree that may last from three to four years will be considerable preparation.
Where do I gain experience?
If it is a question of gaining experience after finishing paralegal training to qualify for better paying positions in big law firms or corporations, where is a good training ground leaving school?
Choose a small law firm, or a one or two-lawyer practice. They are often more willing to hire fresh graduates, although don't expect to receive a high compensation. The latter is one good place to learn as much as you can about the legal profession.
You can also go the route of a legal secretary. While the position is actually less than what you trained for and know, it offers a great opportunity for the experience in a legal setting that you can eventually use when applying for a paralegal job later.
Internship is also an option, although this will likely mean working without pay. Free help is always welcome and if you prove your worth, they may end up hiring you as a paralegal. What's important is you get that much needed experience that will boost your stock once you apply for positions with bigger law firms or other establishments requiring the services of a paralegal.
Does being a paralegal pay?
Not in the same league as a lawyer, of course, even if you practically do much of their work for them except give legal advice, represent a client in court and bill them for services.
Your location and the work setting will also have much bearing on your paralegal salary, especially at entry level. According to payscale.com, there are paralegals who earn less than $10 an hour if they've been at the job for less than a year. But it is also possible to be making up to $19.
Other than courts and law firms, you can also perform paralegal tasks cause-oriented organizations, and businesses needing legal work done. These are not likely to pay you top dollar for your service but you will probably be working regular hours.
A law firm, especially a big one, can be very demanding of your time. Working beyond the normal office hours, including weekends and holidays is common in these places and a paralegal will sometimes have to forget his life to survive. But it is here where you can expect to earn more. They do pay overtime and give holiday pay so the annual $29,000 to $35,000 can hit as high as $50,000.
Should You Become A Paralegal?
At present, the profession is not regulated so you technically do not need formal education to become a paralegal. Although you can be admitted to paralegal training with only a high school diploma or GED, especially at community colleges, most paralegal training programs will require an undergraduate course even if it is not related to the legal field. There are other avenues to explore if you want to work as a paralegal outside of law firms and courts. These will likely be the places where you can gain experience if you later on decide to work with law offices. However don't waste your paralegal training if you are half-hearted about it because the job is not for the faint of heart.