What are the Paralegal Career Paths?
A paralegal is trained to assist attorneys performing legal work. The exact responsibilities of a paralegal are delegated by the attorney. Most paralegals are retained by law offices, corporations, or government agencies.
Paralegals are usually required to have formal education in the field. Options include a pre-degree undergrad certification or an associate degree in paralegal studies. Four-year bachelor’s degree programs, as well as master’s degree programs, are also available in paralegal studies.
Usually, paralegals specialize in a particular area of law. Although not a complete list, below are some common areas of specialization for paralegals.
Bankruptcy paralegals assist a debtor through the federal court process, which allows businesses and consumers to get rid of their debt. Filing bankruptcy can be a complex process. Bankruptcy paralegals may be involved in determining debtor’s assets, conducting property searches, and scheduling property appraisals.
There are different types of bankruptcies including chapter 7 and chapter 13, which paralegals must be familiar with. Some bankruptcy paralegals specialize in one specific type of bankruptcy.
In addition to a two or four-year paralegal degree, individuals interested in working as a bankruptcy paralegal can earn an optional certificate as a bankruptcy law specialist through Association for Legal Professionals (NALS). Bankruptcy paralegals typically work for law offices that specialize in bankruptcy.
Corporate paralegals do not work with one single client at a time. Instead, they work for a corporation. Corporations may be involved in many types of legal transactions, which means the responsibilities of a corporate paralegal may vary greatly.
Paralegals working in corporations may research industry regulations, review contracts, and prepare forms for corporate mergers, transactions, and other business matters. Although it may vary by the corporation, paralegals should be familiar with state and employment laws, product licensing regulations, and employment agreements.
Working as a corporate paralegal is somewhat different from other types of paralegals. Corporate paralegals typically do not work with the courts or the public. Although it may vary, a two or four-year degree in paralegals studies is usually required to work as a corporate paralegal. An optional certification in corporate law is available from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.
Criminal Law Paralegal
Criminal law paralegals are either involved in assisting prosecutors or criminal defense attorneys. For example, some criminal law paralegals work for the district attorney’s office attorneys, which prosecute cases. Other paralegals in criminal law work for a defense lawyer or the public defender’s office helping mount a defense.
Responsibilities may include reviewing arrest warrants, police statements, and reports from crime labs. Paralegals may also interview witnesses, write questions for potential jurors during jury selection, and record exhibits, pleadings, and motions in court.
Most criminal paralegals are required to have a minimum of an associate degree in paralegal studies with a criminal law specialty. Some government agencies and criminal defense attorneys require a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a paralegal certificate. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations also offers a certificate for paralegals in criminal litigation.
Divorce paralegals support attorneys that are helping clients through the divorce process. Navigating through a divorce can be complicated in many ways including legally. Divorce paralegals may prepare various legal forms that may be required, such as real estate documents and spousal and child support requests.
Most attorneys require divorce paralegals to have a two-year associate degree in paralegal studies. Laws regarding divorce vary by state. So, paralegals must be experts in the divorce proceedings in the state they work.
Divorce paralegals work heavily with the public and may work with many clients. Most divorce paralegals work for law firms that specialize in family law.
Family Law Paralegal
Family law paralegals and divorce paralegals are similar. But family law paralegals also are involved in issues besides divorce. Family law paralegals are specialists that are involved in various legal issues that may affect families, such as property settlements, child custody, and divorce.
Paralegals working in family law may have varied responsibilities depending on the specific legal matter. For example, working on a child custody case requires different responsibilities than working on a property settlement. Job duties may include filing forms for child support, analyzing financial information for alimony payments, and finding expert witnesses for court cases.
Most family law paralegals have a certificate or an associate degree in paralegal studies.
Immigration paralegals focus on helping clients understand and navigate laws regarding becoming legal residents, obtaining visas, or other immigration issues.
Responsibilities of an immigration paralegal may include assisting United States citizens in the process of foreign adoptions, filing petitions for political asylum, and assisting attorneys during immigration hearings.
Most immigration paralegals have a two-year degree in paralegal studies. Speaking a foreign language is also a plus for paralegals working in immigration. Immigration paralegals work for attorneys or government agencies.
Legal secretaries usually have different responsibilities than a paralegal. Legal secretaries are involved in administrative support not legal support to an attorney. For example, legal secretaries may set appointments, answer phones, and draft correspondence between the attorney and other parties.
One-year certificate programs, as well as two-year associate degree legal secretary training programs, are available at community colleges, technical schools, and online. Some legal secretaries are also trained on the job.
Litigation paralegals are involved in proceedings involving two opposing parties to defend or enforce a legal right. Litigation paralegals may be involved in civil cases, such as medical malpractice, fraud, and employment law. Other opportunities exist for paralegals to work in criminal litigation on cases, such as stalking, domestic violence, and illegal drugs. Litigation paralegals may have some overlapping responsibilities with criminal law paralegals.
Responsibilities of a litigation paralegal may include assisting in deposing witnesses, organizing evidence, and filing court motions. Some cases are settled before they go to trial. Litigation paralegals might also be involved in settlement negotiations.
As with other specialties, a minimum of an associate degree in paralegal studies is usually required. Optional certifications in litigation and alternative dispute resolution are available through The National Federation of Paralegal Associations.
Nurse paralegals have training as a nurse and also in the legal field. They primarily act as a liaison between legal and medical professionals. Their role is often as a consultant to help attorneys understand medical information that is involved in a legal matter. Nurses that work as paralegals use their medical knowledge and expertise to analyze documents and prepare medical summaries.
Nurse paralegals must have a registered nursing license. Most are also required to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing. Some nurses also complete a paralegal studies program. The American Legal Nurse Consultant Certification Board also offers an optional certification as a nurse consultant. Nurse paralegals work for hospitals, insurance companies, and law firms.
Personal Injury Paralegal
Personal injury paralegals focus on an area of litigation that involves a person’s accident or injuries that occurred due to another party. Personal injury paralegals have many of the same duties as a litigation paralegal except their focus is even narrow, since it’s on personal injury claims.
Some personal injury paralegals may also work for firms that defend against personal injury lawsuits. Responsibilities of a personal injury paralegal may include interviewing witnesses and medical personnel and gathering insurance documents.
After completing an associate degree in paralegal studies, additional training in personal injury law is available for paralegals through online programs and continuing education classes.
Real Estate Paralegal
Real estate paralegals help businesses or individuals with the legal requirements of real estate transactions. Large amounts of paperwork are often involved in real estate transactions.
The responsibilities of a real estate paralegal may include title searches, coordination of property assessments and preparing closing documents. They may also review purchase and sale contracts.
In addition to an associate degree in paralegal studies, some law firms specializing in real estate prefer to hire a paralegal with a specialty certification. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers paralegal certifications in real estate land use and real estate principles.