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A Day in the Life of a Paralegal

By Sophie Walton

My decision to become a paralegal was purely coincidence. I would like to say that I spent time poring over materials on career choices, but that would not be true. I flipped through a catalog, saw /colleges/online/browse/concentrations/paralegal/74.aspx "Paralegal Degree" and thought, "That might be a good career for me - I am interested in the law." Thus began my 20 years as a paralegal.

The terms paralegal and legal assistant have been used in the past interchangeably. However, while many may claim the title of "paralegal," if they have not obtained a degree in paralegal studies, their correct title should be legal assistant. A degree in paralegal studies can be obtained from several institutions, including traditional universities, community colleges and online courses. Most law firms require that their paralegals obtain their degrees from institutions that are approved by the American Bar Association. Typically, most paralegal degrees take two years to complete and include both general education classes and classes in legal theory, law and documentation. I completed my degree in one year because my college offered an accelerated schedule for those holding a bachelor's degree in any other field. When searching for a paralegal program, look for classes that are strong in legal writing, legal research and document preparation. While it is helpful to study legal theory and specific laws, a paralegal is more valuable to an attorney if she knows how to research, prepare briefs and draft pleadings. Trial preparation and document control are also very useful to an attorney.

Unfortunately, paralegals are not nationally or state certified, so beyond obtaining your degree there is no exam or certification you will be required to complete. There are several national paralegal organizations, such as NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) or The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc., that offer certification exams and specialty exams for paralegals who desire to add to their credentials. I recommend joining a national paralegal association as well as your local paralegal association and obtaining all certifications available to you. This increases your potential for employment with larger law firms and translates into higher salaries and more benefits. However, experience does add to the appeal of a paralegal because, while education and certification is valuable, a paralegal with a great deal of experience can hit the ground running. I obtained my certification from NALA within the first year after completing my paralegal degree and recommend doing so as soon as possible, while your classes are still fresh in your mind.

I find that large law firms utilize paralegals for much more than most people typically think. They do legal research, conduct client interviews, draft pleadings and attend trials with their attorneys. However, my days are a combination of secretarial work and paralegal duties. I now work for a smaller law firm and, while we do have a receptionist and secretary, I type my own pleadings, copy my own documents and prepare my own files. I am also the office manager, so I am the bookkeeper, human resource director, supply clerk, IT person and pretty much anything else that pops up. While this may not be what some paralegals consider being a paralegal, I have gained valuable experience that has helped me advance in my career and be a more proficient employee. I have also gained the ability to multi-task effectively, which is a vital quality for a paralegal.

I have enjoyed my career as a paralegal and working with the many people who have retained our offices during my career. I have worked in the areas of family law, probate law, real estate, bankruptcy and general litigation. Each area of law is quite different, especially bankruptcy because it is federal law; however, my experience has built upon itself, and I find that I pull from my past experience in cases that I work on currently. I have sat with widows to go through their husbands' probate, been in the middle of arguing spouses over custody, and sat with individuals filing bankruptcy as a last resort. I think the most rewarding part of my career is that I can help people during the difficult situations that arise in their lives.

If you are contemplating a career as a paralegal, the first step is to find an education program. The American Bar Association has a directory of ABA-approved paralegal education programs. It is essential that your program is ABA-approved or you may find your employment opportunities are limited. Once you have enrolled in a program, you would benefit from joining your local paralegal association. Many associations have special discount rates for students. This provides you with a network of paralegals that can assist you with employment opportunities and provide a strong support system throughout your career.

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