Paralegal Specialties – Career Choices for Success

The paralegal profession is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States. In 2009 Money Magazine published an article stating that paralegal employment is projected to grow by 22% over the next ten years from 2006 through 2016.  The paralegal profession offers stable income and good benefits, as well as above average job satisfaction.  The paralegal profession provides a professional career option to individuals unable or uninterested in investing the time and/or financial resources needed to attend law school or pursue other professional careers.

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Because the law is complex and often ambiguous, paralegals must be intelligent with an analytical and logical mind. They must be able to recognize and evaluate relevant facts and legal concepts. Paralegals have the ability to organize, analyze, communicate, and administer. Other interpersonal skills that serve paralegals are resolving conflicts, negotiating, and relating well with various types of persons, often when these persons are in distress.

As paralegals became more integrated into the legal team and the work delegated to paralegals became more substantive in nature, attorneys began to include time for both attorney and paralegal services in fee petitions permitted by state or federal statutes. In the early 1980s courts began to recognize that paralegals were separate from support staff and encouraged attorneys to provide legal services in the most efficient manner possible. Courts awarding fees for paralegal services consistently point out that if the work had not been done by paralegals, charging fees based upon attorneys’ rates would have been necessary.

It is extremely important as you begin your paralegal career to remain constantly aware of how particular Model Rules of Professional Conduct apply to paralegals.  Those two of specific importance to paralegals are Rule 5.3 and 5.4 which deal with Responsibilities Regarding Non-lawyer Assistants and Professional Independence of A Lawyer.  Give particular attention to all your activities and conversations as you are beginning your career so you will avoid an unintended violation that could result in serious repercussions.  Before you realize it, these things will become second nature to you.

There are three basic types of paralegals and many specialties with them. The distinctions between them are important because a paralegal degree or certificate impacts each differently.

  1. Career paralegals are individuals intending to stay in the profession for most, or all, of their career.  They frequently gravitate towards specializing in a particular area or field if employed by a larger organization.  Those working in smaller or sole practitioner law offices tend to work across a variety of practice areas.
  2. Transitional paralegals are individuals intending to attend law school and work as a paralegal for some period of time to gain experience and in many cases to finance their continuing education. Many are also making a limited time commitment to determine if attending law school is the right choice for them. Also counted in this category are those who work in a paralegal position during the day while attending law school at night.
  3. Temporary and/or part-time paralegals are individuals working in the legal field to earn a living because they have the skills and abilities to do so while they are deciding on other career options, or actively pursue careers in other areas which are more personally, rather than financially, rewarding. The most common difference between these paralegals and transitional paralegals is that these paralegals are not planning to use their paralegal employment or skills as a step towards law school or some other legally-related job.

Based on the type of paralegal career you are planning, there are a variety of choices for paralegal education and paralegal specialties. Associate’s degrees commonly are awarded by community, junior, or business colleges after a two-year course of study, but also can be obtained through online or long-distance programs. This is a good choice for those who seriously are interested in a paralegal career but can’t make the financial or time commitment of a four-year degree.

The American justice system is divided into two main types of litigation: civil and criminal. Criminal cases involve violations of the rules of society codified into laws. Robbery, assault, murder, and drunk driving are all examples of things which would be found among criminal cases. Civil litigation covers all the remaining areas of the law that aren’t criminal, such as disputes over contractual obligations or property ownership and family matters such as adoptions, divorces, and guardianships. A litigation paralegal is a specialist who handles specialized job duties or job duties in specific limited contexts.  A litigation paralegal may interview witnesses, analyze, and summarize legal documents, investigate facts, perform legal and factual research in a specialized or limited subject area, draft pleadings, legal memoranda and briefs, keep track of court dates and deadlines, assist with trial preparation and presentations at trial (but may not conduct the trial), and assist in drafting and preparing appeals.

A paralegal working as an estate or probate specialist creates court documents for guardianships or conservatorships, which are legal arrangements that respectively govern the care of children or adults.  Paralegals who specialize in estate planning and probate are typically responsible for interviewing clients, arranging for collection, valuing and transferring assets, administering estate accounts, drafting and filing state and federal tax returns, drafting wills, and other estate planning documents.

Corporate paralegal specialists deal with the formation of business entities and the execution of business transactions such as mergers or stock offerings.  A corporate paralegal’s work often includes drafting partnership and corporate formation documents, maintaining corporate minute books and resolutions, fulfilling securities reporting requirements, helping prepare and file annual financial reports, conducting due diligence for business transactions, drafting shareholder agreements and stock-option plans, monitoring and reviewing government regulations to ensure legal business operation, conducting patent and trademark searches, and preparing documents for board meetings.

Paralegals specializing in real estate law are involved in the purchase, sale, financing, and leasing of residential or commercial property. Paralegals working in a real estate practice deal with the documents that allow for the legal transfer or use of property such as titles, deeds, mortgages, and leases. When a deal closes, real estate paralegals are often responsible for making sure things go smoothly. Typical duties of a real estate paralegal include drafting transaction documents, preparing for closings, performing due diligence, managing and indexing transaction documents and closing binders, coordinating closing of escrow, and researching title and administrative processes involved in land use and environmental regulations.

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A government paralegal is a specialist who may work for any local, state, or federal government agency. Many paralegals find jobs working for the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department, or even the White House. Depending upon the agency or area of practice, government paralegals perform a wide range of duties, including conducting investigations and collecting and evaluating evidence.

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