Paralegals: how do they work?
August 20, 2010 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Should I become a paralegal?

I'm a college dropout and I don't think I want to devote so much time to getting a Bachelors degree so long after being out of school. I've always been interested in the law and I have been reading about a paralegal certificate program offered through the University of Delaware. It would be a career change for me certainly, but it does sound interesting.

Are the prospects for paralegals good currently? The program is 1 year at night twice a week and costs a little over $3000. Is this a good idea overall? What is the paralegal experience like?
posted by inturnaround to Education (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was a paralegal for a little over a year. I've had no formal paralegal training or certification. Make absolutely certain that you need certification in your area before paying for a program.

In my experience, as long as you can read, type, have decent grammar, and know how to use a copy machine, you already have all the requisite paralegal skills.

Check to see what the regs are where you live. (I live in Chicago.)
posted by phunniemee at 2:41 PM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: I loved being a paralegal. And I didn't go to school for it either, NOR did I have a bachelor's degree or any college degree.

So what the person said above, yes.

There's lots of different kinds of paralegal work. I did nonprofit paralegal work (though did some temping in law firms), which mean that actually I had clients and cases and wrote briefs and did systems advocacy work (entitlement programs, disability, immigration). It was a FANTASTIC experience (if, um, a lot insane) and I recommend it highly.

They will be very interested in your written language skills and your communication manner.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:46 PM on August 20, 2010

It depends. You might well like being a paralegal, as it can be very interesting, frequently challenging, and sometimes lucrative. I have always worked in big national/international law firms, and paralegals are valuable colleagues. At my first firm, we had a career paralegal in our department, though in general (in my experience) it's younger people passing through.

I don't think you need any training whatsoever to be a paralegal--at the end of the day, it's just an office job that requires a lot of attention to detail. Whether or not you decide to enroll, you should confirm with the program what their placement rate is, and ask if you can talk with some alumni. As I'm sure you're aware, the legal industry is in a lot of flux right now, and a lot of lawyers are being laid off. With the fortunes of the lawyers go the staff, as well--we've seen a lot of staff go over the past two years. Because paras are often just kids coming out of college, they are often viewed as easily replaceable, and so they are on the front lines of the lost jobs. You don't want to be in that position.

Given that the firms in DE are smaller, they may feel they have more of a personal investment in the paralegals--though the flipside is that they likely need fewer of them. Definitely do your homework before committing.

Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:10 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I worked for 8 years as a paralegal in California. To be a paralegal in California, you must meet certain educational requirements, stated in statute, and I recommend that you confirm what the requirements are where you live. Whether or not a degree, certificate, etc. is required, you definitely need particular job skills. At the very least, you will need to be able to write very well; to communicate confidently and professionally with clients (in person and by phone); to keep a cool head under extreme stress; to stay organized; to have a good working knowledge of local court procedures, forms, and deadlines; and to have a basic understanding of your firm or attorney's area of law.

I was a probate/trust administration paralegal. Before I completed my paralegal certificate program (which took a year, going to school at night, two or three times per week -- because I already had a bachelor's degree), I worked as a legal secretary for 7 years, and I learned a lot that way. I loved the work, but the workload was often uncomfortably heavy. That's one reason why the pay is good. I quit my job when I moved out of state, and I am not currently working as a paralegal. I do often think about doing volunteer paralegal work, perhaps for a local legal aid group.
posted by Boogiechild at 3:20 PM on August 20, 2010

I was a paralegal for 4 years. I loved it. I started out as a receptionist in a law firm and they quickly moved me into a paralegal position (in Arizona - paralegal certification was not required). I loved the writing aspect of it - writing motions, briefs, etc. There really wasn't anything I didn't like about it, actually. If you enjoy writing, secretarial and clerical duties, as well as meeting with people (both on the phone and in person), it very well might be a good match for you. Yes, it does get crazy and intense at times, but that was kind of fun, too.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:37 PM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: As others have said, figure out if you need to be certified. Realize that being a paralegal, depending on the firm and your experience and ability, can range from basically being a receptionist to being an almost-lawyer who just can't appear in court. Some firms are dropping staff from the big economic hit, but others are hiring paralegals to do the work that the lawyers they fired had been doing, so it will depend quite a bit on your market.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:45 PM on August 20, 2010

Many folks I graduated with were paralegals and then went to law school. They all had bachelor's degrees and the law firms recruited on campus.
posted by anniecat at 4:08 PM on August 20, 2010

My fiancee is doing paralegal work right now. She has no college degree; she started as a secretary in a law firm and was given more and more responsibility as she learned the ropes and demonstrated aptitude, until eventually she was drafting pleadings and other documents for the attorneys.

I get the impression that paralegals are definitely in demand right now at firms that handle bankruptcies and foreclosures.
posted by kindall at 4:30 PM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: Our guy is very good, in large part because of his insaaaaane attention to detail. Like, caring about minutiae that most people (including many lawyers, unfortunately) don't have the stomach for on a constant, daily, hourly basis.

If you're good, your lawyers will trust you and rely on you and won't check over your work (which is stressful). If you're bad, a whole bunch of unfortunate shit can result (missed limitation periods, poorly drafted court documents, etc. etc.) and that is also stressful.

He says he likes it because you get to think alot but also to cruise along sometimes doing more clerical stuff, which is a good balance. I did similar work a couple years ago and nearly died of boredom (more a forest for trees kind of person). To each his own!
posted by Pomo at 5:47 PM on August 20, 2010

Response by poster: I get the impression that paralegals are definitely in demand right now at firms that handle bankruptcies and foreclosures.

As a lot of companies are incorporated in Delaware, I'd think that the Bankruptcy Court here must handle a lot.

I've done some clerical work, sure, but my background has really been in customer service and quality assurance (mostly coaching people on bad phone habits and doing analysis to cut down our rate of escalations to corporate). I don't know if I could just jump right in without some sort of training, but there is no educational requirement to be a paralegal in the state of Delaware.

How does one make the jump?
posted by inturnaround at 6:24 PM on August 20, 2010

Before I got my current job, I was doing interviews to be a paralegal/legal secretary through Robert Half. I had a bachelor's and something like 5 years of clerical/fiscal work. My mom did a paralegal certificate through a community college while trying to decide if she wanted to do law school; she did internships through the program but then went to law school, so I don't think she ever worked as one on her own. Now that she's an attorney, she teaches paralegal classes at the community college she went to.

You may want to talk to your local bar association. They should have info about what you need to do. Local attorneys, including those who teach at your nearest law school, will have an idea of whether the particular institution you're looking at is worth the money.
posted by SMPA at 7:18 PM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: Work as a paralegal is pretty good if you're of the right temperament. I ultimately decided it wasn't for me though. Attorneys can be seriously draining unless you've got a thick skin. I went through a 1 year program and it was pretty meh. I think the best thing it did was get me in to more interviews. I didn't really land in a quality position until I finished my B.A. for what it's worth. If you can get in as a legal secretary / admin assistant you're probably going to get there just as fast as if you went through the courses.

My single greatest piece of advice if you decide to go down this path: beware of solo practicing criminal/family law attorneys. Many are okay but a not insignificant number of them are in that position because they have personality or professional "quirks" that make them unsuitable for working in a partnership or larger firm. Your job becomes part-time scapegoat, part-time nanny, and full-time aspirin chugger. At least that was my experience.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:10 PM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: I work in my states Attorney Generals office, and we hire paralegals a lot to do most of the grunt work that the staff and assistant attorneys don't want to do. Most of the time, that ends up being the more compelling parts of the work anyway; legal research, brief writing, filing of documents and charging papers, etc. Most of our paralegals have no formal certification, and a lot of them have BS or even AA degrees in Criminal Justice, Criminology or English. Often times, they end up making close to what our staff attys make, and they often make substantially more money than the county attys in smaller rural counties. From my desk, it seems to be a great field to go into, and regularly leads to not only a good jump on a legal education, but also an exceptionally valuable period of networking.
posted by broadway bill at 11:18 PM on August 20, 2010

I have to put a caveat to this: my friend finished her paralegal schooling right as the economy dropped out, and she still has no job 2 years later. So... yeah.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:05 PM on August 21, 2010

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