Legal assistants (also called paralegals) help lawyers prepare for trials, hearings, closings, and corporate meetings. They often prepare written reports that attorneys use in determining how cases should be handled. Unlike lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants are not allowed to accept legal cases, give legal advice or represent clients in court. However, like lawyers, they conduct client interviews, do legal research, locate and interview witnesses and draft legal documents. Work as a paralegal or legal assistant can be an ongoing learning experience with plenty of variety. At times, the workload can be heavy and the issues of the cases disturbing.
Day in the Life of a Paralegal or Legal Assistant
Legal assistants play an essential role in the functioning of a law firm or corporate legal department. Not only do they do much of the legwork for lawyers, they also serve as another trained set of eyes on important cases and documents. Legal assistants help lawyers by investigating facts and double-checking information. They identify laws, previous judicial decisions and legal articles that an attorney can cite in trial to strengthen his or her case. Paralegals typically prepare information for reports that help lawyers decide how to approach a case. Legal assistants also draft pleadings and legal motions filed in court. They are responsible for assembling and tracking all information about a case and having it at hand for attorney reference. Legal assistants perform a variety of other legal-related functions, including drafting contracts or separation agreements, establishing trust funds or planning estates.
In general, paralegals are divided into two distinct types:
- Corporate paralegals assist attorneys with business details like employee contracts, benefit plans, compensation agreements, contracts and more. These paralegals rarely enter a courtroom.
- Litigation legal assistants, on the other hand, work with attorneys on court cases, conducting research, analyzing legal matters, organizing paperwork, and preparing materials for agency and public use. They may accompany the attorney to court.
The size and specialty of a law firm or corporate legal department may also present a legal assistant with different types of opportunities. In a large law firm, a paralegal in a management position may coordinate the efforts of other legal assistants. In a small firm with a regular clientele, a paralegal can build long-term relationships with clients.
Important Characteristics for a Paralegal or Legal Assistant
What traits make for a great paralegal or legal assistant? Due to the nature of legal work, the ability to understand complex legal subject matter and terminology is important. Excellent research and investigative skills are critical. Other helpful characteristics are being organized, and proficiency using computers. Finally, you should be able to communicate clearly in writing and speaking, especially with attorneys and clients.
Typical Steps for Becoming a Paralegal or Legal Assistant
Most aspiring paralegals attend a school that offers a formal program that typically leads to a certificate and/or an associate or bachelor's degree. Here are some of the typical steps to take in order to meet the legal assistant education requirements:
- Take math and economics classes in high school, if possible. Paralegals need to know a lot about law, but they also need to have excellent math skills, and to know Excel and other spreadsheet programs.
- Earn an associate or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies, legal studies or a related field. Some paralegals and legal assistants have associate degrees, but some employers prefer to hire those with a bachelor's degree. Students who hold a bachelor's degree in an unrelated subject can gain intensive paralegal training through special paralegal certificate programs. Job prospects improve with a credential from a paralegal school or legal assistant school approved by the American Bar Association.
- Choose a specialization. While not required, some students may wish to specialize in a certain kind of law. If you are interested in a particular field, consider taking additional elective courses on topics such as elder law, corporations, immigration law, intellectual property and more.
- Obtain certification through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). This step is optional and is generally not required by employers, but it can be a helpful supplement and it may improve your job prospects. In some cases, certification may be required as part of paralegal career training.
- Get an internship at a law firm. Ideally you should try to get an internship while you're still in school. Many employers like to see that you've had some practical experience in law, government or at least a general office setting. Another way to gain hands-on experience is to start your career doing basic secretarial duties in a law office and training with other legal assistants and attorneys.
- Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
- Summary Report for Paralegals and Legal Assistants, O*NET OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-2011.00