What is a Paralegal and What Do They Do?
The general role of a paralegal is to assist attorneys in a variety of ways. Paralegals research case law, prepare motions, summaries, and transcripts that prepare the attorney for court and provide service to their clients. Paralegals also serve as the point of contact for clients when answering general questions, providing updates, and scheduling meetings with their attorney. A paralegal career path can have many directions.
Paralegals traditionally work in law firms and government agencies, but they can also freelance as independent contractors. Paralegals cannot represent a client as an attorney and can never provide legal advice, but there are still many things a paralegal can do if they choose to be independent.
- Assist clients in preparing documents and filings in certain areas; Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and divorce are two examples.
- Contract with law firms or individual attorneys on a case by case basis. This might include doing research or preparing briefs. It might also include client outreach on behalf of the attorney to schedule meetings or follow up on pending items.
Whether you choose to be a traditional paralegal or an independent one, each option comes with advantages and disadvantages. Independent paralegals can typically set their own hours, work from home, and have a lot of flexibility. That said, they don’t always have the job security of a traditionally employed paralegal.
Areas of Law for Paralegals
There is a need for paralegals in all types of law. The most prominent areas of law where paralegals can practice include litigation, real estate, family, immigration, government, estate planning and probate, entertainment and corporate law.
- Litigation paralegals prepare attorneys for trial by interviewing witnesses, obtaining discovery, creating charts and other visuals. They also assist in finding evidence to support their client’s position. In some cases, paralegals can even act as investigators in discovering evidence that opposing counsel would likely argue.
- Real estate paralegals assist with cases that pertain to zoning laws, foreclosures, and create the paperwork that allow real estate purchases.
- Family law paralegals help attorneys in divorces and child custody cases. They also correspond with clients and draft pertinent correspondence to send to clients and opposing counsel.
- Government paralegals assist county attorneys, state prosecutors, and public defenders.
- Estate planning and probate paralegals assist attorneys in preparing wills, trusts, deeds, and distributing property.
- Lastly, corporate paralegals review contracts and research regulations to assist attorneys.
My Areas of Practice as a Paralegal
Much of my career as a paralegal was spent in government law. My Bachelor’s degree is in Criminal Justice and criminal law is a passion of mine. I interned with the Commonwealth of Kentucky in undergrad, I worked for the Public Defender’s Office, and I also worked for the State Attorney’s Office. Therefore, most of my career was in criminal law – from prosecuting, to defending, to prosecuting again. After my time in government law, I was really in search of a change.
This started my search for freelance/independent paralegal work. In my undergraduate studies I took classes on estate planning and probate law and found both areas very interesting. I found independent paralegal opportunities on UpWork. I helped the elderly prepare their wills, as well as medical power of attorney forms. Working as a freelance paralegal provided me the freedom to control my own schedule and allowed me to work mostly from home.
From Law to Legal Studies to Conflict Resolution
Initially I went to law school and I realized pretty quickly how much I hated it. After completing a portion of the program, I knew it wasn’t for me. At that point I transitioned and earned my Master’s in Legal Studies. Even after earning my degree, I was still unsure what I wanted to do. I think this is common for many people in my position with somewhat broad degrees.
I had learned about conflict resolution in law school and found it extremely interesting and decided at that point I would pursue a career as a conflict resolution practitioner. Instead of preparing motions, petitions, and correspondence for attorneys, I primarily mediated different types of laws.
Looking Back…Different Career Options?
If I were to do anything differently, I would have earned my Masters degree either prior to working in government agencies or while working with them. The simple reason for this is that I learned so many skills on conducting research, gathering evidence, and the finer details of legal writing. Additionally, I would have focused more on legal writing. Legal writing is different from academic writing and it requires you to know how to properly cite legal cases and is an extremely valuable skill to hold.
In my work with government agencies, I found it difficult to move-up-the-ladder. Many paralegals in that sector are viewed as legal secretaries, even though many have advanced degrees. It is also challenging to find work outside of these government agencies when transitioning to the private sector.
I found that firms prefer a paralegal who has experience in the private sector to work in family law, corporate law, real estate law, etc. If I were to start over, I would find an area of law that I truly feel excited about. I would spend more time investigating areas of law to see how they have and are currently evolving. And finally, I would consider on a deeper level what I want to do long term. If I am looking at family law now, would I be interested in a different area of law later?
If you are considering a career as a paralegal, you should proceed with confidence. Your role is extremely valuable and as long as the LAW exists, there will be a need for your services. It’s just important to consider what areas of law will be most fulfilling for you personally and set you up for a rewarding career.
For more information on the Paralegal Career Path, read US News article on what is a paralegal.
Are you an independent paralegal, looking to expand your career opportunities? Learn more about joining the NPN network.
Conflict Analysis and Resolution