The paralegal profession has experienced significant growth over the past twenty years arising from the increased utilization of paralegals by a variety of employers who seek to deliver cost-efficient legal services.
Paralegals have assumed many of the duties that were once the sole responsibility of attorneys. However, they are still explicitly prohibited from providing legal advice, setting fees, or representing clients in court.
The specific job duties of a paralegal will vary depending on the type of legal setting in which you work. Below is a brief description of the two most common practice areas.
Corporate law offers a wide variety of sub-specialties, such as patents and trademarks, copyright, entertainment law, banking, and securities, among others.
Partial list of responsibilities:
- Assist in the preparation of contracts;
- Draft corporate resolutions, shareholder reports, and annual financial reports;
- Prepare documentation for mergers and acquisitions;
- Review and monitor government regulations to ensure compliance;
- Assist with dissolution of businesses;
- Maintain calendar of quarterly and annual shareholder meetings;
- Prepare notices of incorporation.
- Draft buy/sell contracts, leasing agreements, and promissory notes for business loans
There are also several subspecialties within the area of litigation law: family law, criminal law, medical malpractice, employment law, bankruptcy and torts (product liability).
Specific responsibilities include:
- Analyze legal documents and maintain case files;
- Collect and analyze evidence for use at agency hearings or trial;
- Help prepare witnesses for testimony;
- Conduct research of case law in preparation for trial using such legal databases as Lexus and Nexus, as well as review of legal articles in practice area journals.
- When authorized by state law, may represent clients at administrative hearings (e.g. housing court).
- During trial, paralegals may assist with developing legal arguments, draft pre-trial motions, obtain witness affidavits, and organizing evidence files so they are easily accessible to attorneys.
Other areas include real estate law where paralegals may prepare mortgage and closing documents for both residential and commercial properties, and represent clients at property closings. Paralegals working in the field of probate law help clients prepare wills, become involved with property transfers, and perform asset verification.
A career as a paralegal is an excellent choice for those interested in pursuing a legal career but don’t wish to pursue a law school degree. Paralegals have become essential members of the legal team, enjoying competitive wages and a career offering diversity and challenge. Those with several years experience may be promoted to Senior Paralegal, performing traditional paralegal duties, along with office management and supervision of junior paralegals.
If law school is in your plans, working as a paralegal is also an excellent stepping stone as it provides you with exposure to many practice areas so you may decide which interests you the most. Depending on your employer, you may also be eligible to have at least part of your law school tuition paid for by the firm in which you work!
The majority of paralegals are employed in law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies. Most work is performed in office environments or law libraries. Paralegals typically work a 40 hour week but may be required to put in significant overtime in preparation for trials.
Employment of paralegals is expected to grow by 28 percent through 2018, which represents a much faster than average rate of growth. This growth arises from the needs of employers to reduce legal costs, as well as the expanding specialties of environment law, health care law/medical malpractice, and elder law. The emergence of pre-paid legal plans should also contribute to the rising demand.
Paralegal Education and Training Requirements
While there is no mandatory education requirement to become a Paralegal in Texas, the majority of candidates now entering the field possess at least an associates or certificate in Paralegal Studies. Programs are also offered at the bachelor’s level.
It is to your benefit to attend a program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) as these programs have met strict quality-based guidelines with regard to curriculum, materials, and internship experiences.
Associate degree programs in paralegal studies
Associate degree programs are offered by two-year community and junior colleges. The curriculum includes general liberal arts study, electives, along with paralegal-specific coursework. In most cases, an associate’s program will prepare you to work as a generalist in the field. You will receive instruction in such areas as introduction to the paralegal profession and law, methods of research, torts, business law, estate planning, criminal law, family law, and real estate.
Upon graduation you will receive an Associate in Science or Associate in Applied Science degree.
Baccalaureate programs in paralegal studies
Several colleges and universities in Texas have developed four-year programs in Paralegal Studies. Courses taken during the final two years of study in a bachelor’s program are more in-depth and advanced than is the case with associate’s programs and allow students to develop a specialization in one or more legal areas. Some programs also include coursework in the management of a law office.
Graduates of Bachelor’s Paralegal programs typically earn a B.S. or B.A. degree. Paralegal programs may be found under the umbrella of different departments, such as Political Science, Business, or Criminal Justice.
Certificate programs in paralegal studies
Certificate programs are offered by community colleges, 4-year institutions, and private schools. Certificate programs are geared toward those who hold either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a different field of study. Coursework is similar to that of an associate’s degree with specializations offered in business law, litigation, real estate, and estate planning.
Certificate programs may be completed on an accelerated schedule, usually within four months of full time study but up to two years for those attending part time. Part time schedules are flexible with courses often available during evenings and weekends, as well as during the summer session.
Many paralegal programs offer an internship experience as part of the curriculum. The internship permits students to gain “real-world” experience in a variety of settings, including private law firms, corporate law departments, government agencies, and legal aid organizations.
For a list of ABA approved paralegal programs in Texas visit: http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/paralegals/directory/tx.html
As per the Texas Board of Legal Specialization (TBLS), Texas has no mandatory certification requirements for paralegals. This is primarily due to the fact that regulatory laws are designed to protect consumers and paralegals do not work autonomously with consumers but are under the supervision of attorneys. However, most paralegals do pursue voluntary certification to enhance their employability and be recognized by employers as having a certain level of expertise in the field.
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has established standards for the certification of paralegals. These standards include a combination of experience and education. Those who meet these requirements are able to sit for a two-day examination, now administered exclusively online. Upon passing you will receive the designation Certified Legal Assistant (CLS) or Certified Paralegal (CP).
To be eligible to sit for the examination, candidates must:
1. Graduate from a paralegal program that is:
- Approved by the ABA; or
- An associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies; or
- A bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies; or
- A post-baccalaureate certificate program in Paralegal Studies; or
- A certificate program consisting of 60 semester hours of which 15 hours must involve legal-related coursework; or
2. A bachelor’s degree in any field with 1+ year’s experience as a paralegal. Successful completion of 15 hours in legal coursework will constitute the equivalent of one year experience; or
3. A high school diploma with 7 years experience as a paralegal under the supervision of an attorney and 20 hours of continuing legal education completed within two years of examination date.
4. The application must be completed in full and submitted with all supporting documents, such as attorney references and official school transcripts. Application for the exam may be found at: http://nala.org/FORMS/CLAAPP/CLAapp.htm.
5. The fee to sit for the Certified Paralegal examination is $250. for NALA members and $275. for non-members.
For additional information regarding the NALA certification examination, visit: http://www.nala.org/examinee.aspx
Certification is valid for five years during which time paralegals need to complete 50 hours of continuing education coursework to renew their credential.