Monday, February 19, 2007

Outside the Box: Opportunities for Paralegals Outside the Firms

Attorneys are not needed for many routine legal tasks, such as research and drafting documents. Paralegals can easily fill this gap, and at a lower cost to a company or client. This value is becoming more apparent, and as a result, more job opportunities for paralegals are springing up outside the traditional law office. Paralegals are often employed by corporations and government organizations to assist attorneys with critical legal work, or to handle document preparation and act as liaisons between a company and its outside counsel. In addition, paralegals are finding work in nonprofit organizations, legal aid clinics, consumer groups and paralegal service companies, all due to the increasing need for basic legal services without the high cost of an attorney.

Corporations are the second-largest employer of paralegals, but only 15 percent of paralegals work in corporations. Banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms and manufacturing companies are all examples of corporations that employ paralegals.[1]

In corporations, paralegals work with corporate law topics and laws of the specific industry of the corporation, assisting corporate attorneys with employee contract and benefit plans, shareholder agreements and stock option plans. Corporate paralegals often send meeting notices and take notes at these meetings as well. The corporate-employed paralegal also stays abreast of all laws and governmental regulations that relate to the company’s industry.[2]

In recent years, some companies have chosen to have their legal department consist of just a paralegal, since much of the legal work involved does not require an attorney. In such a case, the paralegal would draft documents and work with outside counsel on the final versions. The paralegal would also be responsible for identifying when outside counsel is needed.[3]

Paralegals may be attracted to corporate positions because billable hours are not required. In a corporate position, the paralegal would need only to keep track of one client -- the corporation -- as opposed to a law firm’s many clients. These factors contribute to a significantly lower-pressure environment than in a law firm. However, the work can often be monotonous, since there is only one client. Depending on the paralegal’s preferences, the heavier emphasis on business and administrative tasks and lighter legal research duties can be a selling point or a drawback.[4]

Federal, state and local government agencies also employ paralegals. On the federal level, paralegals are employed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, among other agencies. On the state level, they can be found in state agencies and offices of state attorneys general, and in district attorney, public defender and city attorney offices.[5] In addition, paralegals are often employed by the courts as court administrators to manage its docket and personnel and possibly conduct legal research for the judge. Positions exist for paralegals in the government that are not necessarily known as paralegal jobs. These include export compliance specialists, who investigate commodities and data being exported outside the United States, and patent examiners, which aid in researching inventions that are eligible for patents.[6]

The federal government has developed two classifications for paralegals: paralegal specialist and legal clerk/technician. A paralegal specialist is similar to that of a private practice paralegal that specializes in one area, while the legal clerk/technician is similar to a case assistant and is more clerical.[7]

Paralegals seek government jobs for the security and the higher starting pay that they offer, but often are repelled by the bureaucracy involved in the hiring process. The very stringent procedures are often an additional disadvantage.[8]

Nonprofit organizations also employ paralegals. Advocacy groups, such as poverty law organizations that assist disadvantaged people or activist groups such as civil rights, women’s or environmental groups all hire paralegals. Most paralegals in these positions find their jobs very rewarding, in the non-monetary sense. However, paralegals looking to own a BMW would be disappointed, as positions in non-profits are low-paying but rewarding if the paralegal is working for a cause he or she champions.[9]

In addition to these opportunities, paralegals can freelance, working with attorneys on a case-by-case basis. Self-employment allows for more freedom in terms of structuring time, but it also requires paying one’s own business expenses and includes a sense of uncertainty about the next job.[10]

Some paralegals turn to temporary agencies that place workers in a plethora of jobs. There is more security than in freelancing and some flexibility over time. It also allows paralegals with newly minted degrees to test drive different specialties before settling down at a permanent job. Temporary assignments often can lead to permanent positions. However, temp work does offer less security than permanent employment, and there will be periods when the agency does not have any assignments.[11]

Paralegals can also choose the independent route, working directly with clients without an attorney’s supervision. These paralegals primarily fill out forms for bankruptcy, estate planning and taxes, treading a fine line between assisting and giving legal advice. This type of paralegal job is best for a paralegal with several years’ experience, because it is possible to cross the line and practice law without a license by giving legal advice.[12]

Whether employed by an organization or corporation or freelancing, paralegals are able to find work outside the traditional law firm as the value of paralegals becomes more obvious. Sometimes these jobs do not carry the title of paralegal but do require the skills and knowledge gleaned from paralegal training programs. Paralegals themselves are no longer limited to working for a firm and can explore other options that may interest them. In the end, both companies and paralegals benefit: companies save money, and paralegals find interesting, challenging and rewarding work.

[1] Barbara Bernardo, Paralegal: An Insider's Guide to One of Today's Fastest-Growing Careers (Paralegal)(Princeton, New Jersey: 1993, Peterson’s Guides) 29.
[2] Jo Southard, Paralegal Career Starter 2e(New York: 1998, Learning Express) 18-19.
[3] Southard, 20.
[4] Bernardo, 30.
[5] Bernardo, 31.
[6] Southard, 20.
[7] Bernardo, 31.
[8] Southard, 21-22.
[9] Southard, 22.
[10] Southard, 22.
[11] Southard, 22.
[12] Southard, 22.

Originally published in the June/July 2003 issue of the National Paralegal Reporter.

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