How to Be a Paralegal

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If you're finishing college and you want to kill some time before applying to grad school--or just make enough money to avoid moving back in with your parents--consider working as a paralegal for a few years. If you have a college degree and decent grades, you're qualified to be an entry-level paralegal.
Some paralegal positions require a paralegal certificate--a diploma you get after taking an accredited course in paralegal studies. But these certificates, and the positions that require them, are mostly for people who want to be career paralegals. There are plenty of positions available to recent college grads that don't require a paralegal certificate.

Make Sure You Really Want the Job

  • According to the American Bar Association, a paralegal (or legal assistant) is defined as "a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."
    As a paralegal, you will perform administrative tasks like filing, retrieving and organizing documents, photocopying and numbering pages. Depending on the employer, you may get to participate in more glamorous tasks, such as interviewing witnesses or drafting legal documents.

    There are essentially two major types of law that are practiced in America: corporate and litigation. Corporate law deals primarily with the dealings of companies, which may, for example, be looking to merge or to acquire new entities, and need lawyers to prepare all the paperwork. Litigation is the more typical type of law, involving one party suing another.

    As a corporate paralegal, you will probably put together record sets. These are large binders filled with primary documents associated with particular business deals. Say a company buys a shopping mall -- a record set of the deal might include the contract to purchase the mall, the leases of all the current tenants in the mall, and all of the tax forms associated with such a purchase. You, as paralegal, would get to photocopy the documents, make sure that they are the final versions (i.e., no rough drafts or preliminary versions), and ensure that they are all in the proper order.

    As a litigation paralegal, you will handle the documents associated with trials: motions, which petition the judge for favorable rulings; briefs, which set out the arguments supporting your motions; and depositions, which are interviews of witnesses taken under oath but before the trial begins. You'll spend hours making sure the pages of all of these documents are identical in each set. You'll also do a lot of indexing -- describing the documents in a computer database, putting papers in boxes, and labeling them so attorneys can find them later.

    There are many benefits to being a paralegal. For one, the experience may help you figure out what to do with your life. It might help you decide if you want to be a career paralegal, if you want to go to law school or if you want to avoid the legal profession entirely.

    Being a paralegal might help you get into law school. Admissions officers may think your experience as a paralegal demonstrates that you have carefully considered your decision to enter the field. Also, if you can befriend and impress an attorney or two at your firm, their recommendations could be huge. Remember: Work hard and impress.

    A position as a paralegal may help you get another job. If you work as a paralegal at an investment bank, an insurance company or any other major business, there are opportunities to move laterally within the company.

    Paralegals' salaries fluctuate from city to city--and, to a lesser extent, from firm to firm. Currently, the average starting salary for a paralegal in the United States is $21,000 to $22,000. This is a base salary for working from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a 1-hour lunch break.

    The bad news is that many employers (particularly large law firms) won't let you escape with such normal hours. If there is work to be done on an important deal or trial, you may be expected to stay late, perhaps until 10 p.m. or so. You might also be expected to come in on weekends. Of course, these workloads and expectations vary, so ask before you sign up. And for a real answer, ask the paralegals who work there, not the person who is trying to hire you.

    The rest of the good news is that you get paid extra for these hours. In major New York City and Washington, D.C. firms, paralegals are paid time-and-a-half for overtime--any hours over the basic 35-hour work week. This amounts to $21 per hour. Also, you can often make double overtime if you work really crazy hours (anything after 3 a.m. or on Sundays and holidays). So if you put in long hours, you're looking at a salary as high as $60,000 a year. And when you work those long nights, your firm will probably give you free food and a cab home.

    All in all, being a paralegal is a relatively flexible position. Many non-law-firm jobs do not require (or even permit) overtime. On the other hand, crazy hours are impossible to avoid at many large law firms. So you can opt for a cozy lifestyle with livable hours or make some serious cash.

Decide Where to Apply

  • If you are interested in making a lot of money or are considering law school, apply for paralegal positions at major law firms. They provide many opportunities for overtime pay and have the greatest number of openings for paralegals. In fact, because of the annual turnover, most large law firms have a standing need for paralegals, whether or not they have advertised job openings.

    Unless your friends or relatives are attorneys, chances are you don't know one law firm from another. You may not even know the names of any. But you'll want to learn some quickly; you don't want to work at any old firm. You need to find a job at a place where you're going to be happy, which means avoiding the large crop of firms where the attorneys are lunatics.
    To find law firms you might like, begin your search by looking at one or both of the following books: "The Insider's Guide to Law Firms" or "The VaultReports.com Guide to America's Top 50 Law Firms." "The Insider's Guide" is offered on Amazon.com for about $45, but it really is an investment given the money you'll make when you're hired. All you have to do is register (for free) and you can look through complete entries on each firm. Of course, if you like the feel of a sturdy book in your job-seeking hand, you can buy either of these books for about $30.

    These books provide useful statistical and contact information (e.g., the total number of attorneys, starting salaries, minority representation, addresses of firms and contact information for their recruiting coordinators) for many of the nation's major law firms. More importantly, they provide an evaluation of each firm. These evaluations explain such matters as the firm's reputation, its high-profile cases, its culture and its political affiliations.

    Look at the firms that have offices in the city/cities where you want to work, and pick a few based upon the factors you consider most important to your stint as a paralegal. To be safe, choose 10 firms. "The Insider's Guide" is probably the best source for this task, since it includes a greater number of firms. However, "The VaultReports," which ranks firms, may be more helpful in ordering your choices--particularly if you are interested in reputation and prestige.

    If you don't wan to shell out the money for either book, and you don't like to register online for anything, you can begin your search with a less precise but less costly resource called Martindale Hubbell. "Martindale," as it is known in the business, is a directory of every single attorney in America, organized by city and then by law firm. Go to your school or local public library, find the Martindale volume for your city and start skimming. Read the abstracts at the top of each firm's entry, which describe the nature of each firm's work (corporate or litigation, entertainment or finance) and choose your firms based on features that appeal to you. Remember: The larger the firm, the more likely it is that there are current openings for paralegals.
    There is also a terrific service on the web which will allow you to learn (for free) about firms that have advertised for paralegals. Good places to start are Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com. If you go to these sites and look for paralegal openings, you'll be hit with a list of currently open positions.

    If you are looking for a job with set hours and the potential to move laterally to a non-legal job, apply for paralegal positions at insurance companies, investment banks or other private companies with in-house lawyers. Even the U.S. Government needs paralegals. Go to Monstertrak.com or the career-resource websites mentioned above and select targets based on your areas of interest.

Submit a Cover Letter and Resume

  • Once you've picked the firms where you want to apply, submit your request for an interview. All major companies have a professional staffer whose job it is to oversee the work of the paralegals. You'll need to find out who this person is so you can address your cover letter and résumé to her personally.

    If you found the opening advertised on Jobtrak or some other employment service, the contact person to whom you should send all correspondence will be listed there. If, however, you've used "The Insider's Guide," "The VaultReports" or Martindale, you'll need to do a bit more work. All of these books contain the main phone number of each law firm. Simply call that number and ask the receptionist for the name of the person in charge of hiring paralegals. Get the spelling of that person's name and his official title, as well as his phone number and email. Be courteous on the phone, and treat the receptionist with respect: You may be working with her someday.

    The cover letter and résumé you need to send are no different than ones you would use for any job.

Don't Blow the Interview

  • If things work out, you'll be called within a couple of weeks and invited in for an interview. If not, you'll probably receive a letter thanking you for your inquiry and politely suggesting you look elsewhere.

    Once you do land an interview, you're well on your way. You can, however, blow your chance if you make a few basic mistakes.
    The cardinal rule is to be effusive. Paralegaling can be involve some mindless work, and if the firm senses that you will not be up to slogging in the trenches, they won't waste their time with you. Assure them repeatedly that you know the job isn't necessarily glamorous, and that you're willing to work very hard at what may be repetitive tasks.
    The second rule is to be prepared. If you apply to law firms, know which area each firm specializes in, as well as the details of a big case the firm was recently on. This information is usually available on the firm's website or in their promotional brochures. Interviewers like it when you weave a tidbit about the firm into an interview answer.

    Sometimes, you may interview with current paralegals, and perhaps even a few attorneys. Above all, be relaxed. These people are testing you to see if they will be able be able to get along with you. They know the job isn't rocket science, so don't boast about your academic accomplishments. Simply emphasize your work ethic and try to appear like someone who will be fun to be around for hours on end.
    If none of your top 10 choices works out, you have two options: Pick 10 more places or change your focus.

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