Paralegals can handle many facets of the legal process, including investigating the facts of a case;
and conducting research on relevant laws, regulations and legal articles.
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A crucial part of a lawyer's success is his or her paralegal.
"Attorneys depend on their paralegals," said Jac Brennan, attorney and director of the Paralegal Certification Program at the University of Houston School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "They can be indispensable."
Paralegals and legal assistants can perform many of the same duties as an attorney, but only under the supervision of the attorney.
They can handle many facets of the legal process including investigating the facts of a case; conducting research on relevant laws, regulations and legal articles; organizing and presenting the information; maintaining information related to cases or transactions in computer databases; creating reports to prepare lawyers for trials, and drafting correspondence and other documents, such as contracts and mortgages; and acquiring affidavits and other formal statements that may be used as evidence in court.
Paralegals and legal assistants help lawyers prepare for hearings, trials and corporate meetings. However, their specific duties may vary depending on the size of the firm or organization.
"There is a broad array of jobs and opportunities for paralegals," Brennan said. "And a variety of places to work and genres - a part of what makes the career choice interesting."
Legal assistants can work in large or small firms, corporations, nonprofits, universities, media outlets, hospitals, insurance companies, banks, government agencies and more.
Paralegal tasks may differ depending on the type of department or the size of the law firm.
In smaller firms, duties tend to vary and one may have a broader opportunity. This may include reviewing and organizing information and preparing written reports that help lawyers determine how to handle their cases, to drafting legal arguments and draft documents to be filed with the court.
In larger organizations, paralegals most likely will work on a particular phase of a case, rather than handling a case from beginning to end.
For example, a litigation paralegal might only review legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for lawyers, and collect and organize evidence for hearings.
Litigation paralegals often do not attend trials, but might prepare trial documents or draft settlement agreements.
Most paralegals and legal assistants have an associate degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another field and a certificate in paralegal studies.
"Paralegals are in demand," said ML Young, program director for the Houston Community College System's Continuing Education Business Program.
Young said earning a certificate lets people interested in a law career quickly enter the work force and find out what part of the law they like.
"It lets you test the waters, (and) find out if you enjoy the research, litigation or both," Young said.
While the courses for a certificate are shorter, they, like the job, are demanding.
"You have to be willing to work hard and be extremely dedicated," Young said.
"Lawyers put a lot of pressure on their paralegals," Brennan said. "There is a lot riding on what the paralegal does. It's important work."
The outlook for paralegals is positive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the employment of paralegals and legal assistants is to grow by 18 percent into 2020.
As employers try to reduce costs and increase the efficiency of legal services, they are expected to hire more paralegals and legal assistants.
Following cutbacks during the recent recession, some law firms are rebuilding their support staff by hiring paralegals. Paralegals can be a less-costly alternative to lawyers and they can perform a wider variety of duties, including tasks once done by lawyers.
Sheila Cartwright has extensive experience in the paralegal industry. She is well-versed in paralegal administration and function, attorney support and client relations, writing and research, and confidential correspondence. Her complete career profile is available on this site.