The paralegal profession has been in great demand over the past ten years or so arising from the needs of business and individuals to obtain cost-efficient legal services.
Paralegals now have responsibility for many of the tasks once the sole purview of attorneys. However, Paralegals remain prohibited from providing legal advice to clients, setting fees, or representing clients in court (with the possible except of administrative court proceedings).
The specific tasks of paralegals vary depending on their specialty. Two of the most common practice areas are described below.
Corporate law offers a wide variety of sub-specialties, such as contracts, copyright, commercial real estate, patents and trademarks, as well as banking and securities, among others.
Partial list of responsibilities:
- Assist in the preparation of contracts for various business dealings
- Prepare corporate resolutions and notice of incorporation for new firms and, quarterly reports for shareholder reports, and annual reports with financial statements;
- Prepare all paperwork for mergers and acquisitions;
- Review and monitor new government regulations to ensure the firm’s compliance—especially with regard to banking and securities law;
- Assist with dissolution and wind-up of businesses;
- Prepare buy/sell contracts, leasing agreements, and promissory notes for business loans for the purchase of commercial property.
- Prepare mortgage and closing documents for both residential and commercial properties, and represent clients at property closings.
There are also several specialties within the area of litigation, such as criminal law, civil law, medical malpractice, labor law, torts (product liability) family law, criminal law, medical malpractice, employment law, trust and estates, elder law and torts (product liability).
Specific responsibilities include:
- Analyze legal documents related to court proceedings and create/maintain case files;
- Collect and coordinate evidence for use at agency hearings or trial;
- Help prepare witnesses for trial testimony;
- Use such databases as Lexus and Nexus to conduct research in preparation for trial. May also research law-related journals for applicable case law.
- May represent clients at administrative hearings (e.g. entitlement and housing court).
- During trial, paralegals may assist with the drafting of legal arguments, prepare ay pre-trial motions, obtain witness affidavits if unable to appear, and organize all evidence files so they are easily accessible to attorneys during trial.
Working as a Paralegal is an excellent choice for those interested in exploring a legal career without the commitment to three years of law school. Paralegals have become important members of the legal team, combining interesting and challenging work with excellent earnings potential. Paralegals with several years experience may be promoted into positions of Senior Paralegals taking on advanced responsibilities, such as case management, along with training and supervision of junior paralegals.
Employment prospects of Paralegals are excellent with an anticipated growth rate of 28 percent through 2018, representing a much faster than the rate for most other occupations. This growth stems primarily from the needs of business to obtain cost efficient legal services, as well as by the expanding specialties of environment law, health care law/medical malpractice, and elder law. The rising popularity of pre-paid legal plans should also contribute to the rising demand.
While there is no mandatory education requirement to become a Paralegal in Florida, the large majority of candidates now entering the field possess a minimum of an associate’s degree or certificate in Paralegal Studies. Paralegal programs are also offered at the bachelor’s level, primarily within the divisions of Political Science or Criminal Justice.
It is to your benefit to attend a program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) since accreditation attests to the fact that these programs have met strict criteria with regard to curriculum, faculty background, and placement statistics.
Associate Degree Programs for Paralegal
Associate degree programs are offered by two-year community and junior colleges. The curriculum includes both general liberal arts study and paralegal-specific coursework. Coursework will include: Introduction to the Paralegal Profession, Legal Foundations, Research Methods, Business law, Litigation, Legal Research, Real Estate law, Trust and Estates, Criminal Law, and Real Estate.
Graduates will be awarded wither an Associate in Science (A.S.) or Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree.
Bachelor Degree Programs for Paralegal
Several colleges and universities in Texas have developed four-year programs in Paralegal Studies offered in te departments of business, Criminal Justice, or Political Science. Courses taken during the final two years of study in a bachelor’s program are more in-depth and advanced than those offered at the associate’s degree level and permit students the opportunity to specialize in one or more legal areas as noted above. Bachelor’ level programs also typically offer coursework in law office management.
Graduates of Bachelor’s Paralegal programs typically earn a B.S. or B.A. degree.
Certificate Programs for Paralegal
Certificate programs are offered by community colleges, 4-year institutions and private vocational schools. Certificate programs are tailored for those students who possess an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a different field of study and seek a career change. 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 day schedule lasting from three to six months. Up to two years may be required for those students working and only able to attend part time. Classes are typically offered in the evening and weekends and during summer session.
Many paralegal programs offer an internship experience that provides students with valuable “real-world experience.” Students may be placed in the legal departments of corporations, law firms, government agencies, as well as civil and criminal courts.
For a list of ABA approved paralegal programs in Florida visit: http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/paralegals/directory/fl.html
As per the Florida Bar Association, certification is not mandatory to work as a Paralegal in Florida. However, most paralegals choose to pursue voluntary certification out of recognition that this will enhance their job prospects. Certification also confers a certain degree of respect from both employers and colleagues as it attests to a paralegal’s commitment to the profession and expertise within a given specialization. Certification costs $145 (as of November 2011). Learn more about becoming certified by the Florida Bar.
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).
For additional information regarding application procedure and eligibility requirements visit http://nala.org/ex-overview.aspx.
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 will need to participate in 50 hours of continuing education coursework to renew their credential. This coursework may be completed via online or in-class study.
The following are median salaries for entry level Paralegals across all specialties in select Florida cities. Salaries will vary depending on your practice area, location, and level of education.
Salary.com as of November 2011