Computers have also become an important part of the legal system, so students must possess strong computer skills. Many more courses are being geared toward computers and law, so students should expect to use a computer to complete their coursework.
Paralegal studies courses span the entire educational spectrum. The law is involved with all aspects of the arts and sciences, including math, philosophy, literature, environmental studies, history, ethics, sociology, psychology, and writing. Students should expect to take courses in all these areas, learning how they relate to paralegal studies and how to apply them in a legal setting.
The legal system relies upon documentation and accurate record keeping. When people think of "studying law," they often get caught up on the idea that going to school for law is just for lawyers. However, lawyers need a staff of trained legal professionals working alongside them to handle the vast amounts of paperwork that accumulate during litigation.
Paralegals and legal secretaries need as much knowledge and training in legal processes and documentation as any lawyer, as they handle these documents daily. And, since they don't need to go to trial, they operate as the legal office's backbone, filling in for the lawyers while they are in the courtroom and keeping everything under control
Many people who consider a degree program in paralegal studies are committed professionals with a sincere interest in the American legal system, but who do not have the time or inclination to go through law school. There are, after all, many ways to be involved in the legal process without being a lawyer.
Paralegal studies degree programs and paralegal careers require excellent organization skills and high attention to detail. Since the law requires comprehensive documentation, the paperwork can quickly overwhelm you if you don't have a top notch filing system.
Good communication skills are also necessary for pursuing a career in paralegal studies. Paralegals and legal secretaries often meet with clients while the lawyer is in the courtroom or out of the office. This means that the paralegal must be able to communicate to the client what certain legal documents mean and how their case is progressing.
Since paralegals and legal assistants will often be in charge of whole cases, they must be goal-oriented. Paralegals must be able to begin a project, knowing that they will see it through to the end. Planning these projects is an important part of being a paralegal. In larger law offices, teams of legal assistants or paralegals will be assigned to larger cases, so teamwork is also very important. Also, a lawyer will be overseeing the case most of the time, so paralegals must be able to effectively follow directions.
Most paralegals work in an office environment, so those pursuing a career in paralegal studies must be able to sit behind a desk or at a computer for hours on end. Occasionally, paralegals will be required to deliver document to the courthouse or run errands for the lawyers, but most of the job happens in the law office.
Some students enter a paralegal studies degree program directly out of high school, but it is more common for people to choose this career track after a year or two of college or working in a clerical or secretarial position.
There are many ways to prepare for a degree program in paralegal studies. These include:
Work experience in a secretarial or clerical position
Keyboarding and word processing courses
Business math courses
Computer literacy courses
Social studies and law courses
American culture courses
Spanish and Latin courses
Technical writing courses
A familiarity with the judicial system is essential. Visiting your local courthouse to witness a few trials and hearings can give you a familiarity with the process and the language that will aid you in your education.
Post-Bachelors Certificate Programs
Designed for the student who already holds a Bachelor's Degree in paralegal studies or a related field, these certificate programs provide specialized paralegal training beyond what the student would have learned in undergraduate school.
Many larger law firms require this kind of specialized training before they will consider an individual for employment. This specialized education is a must for those seeking employment with larger, more established law firms where the salaries are higher and the benefits more complete.
Master's Degree Programs
Students wishing to study the more advanced and complex aspects of being a paralegal after undergraduate school or while working as a professional in a legal setting should consider a Master's Degree in paralegal studies. These programs usually take two years to complete, and often offer afternoon, evening, and weekend classes. This allows the student to begin or continue a career as a paralegal while studying.
Master's Degree programs in paralegal studies are substantially more specialized than undergraduate degree programs. Master's Degree programs focus on specific aspects of law office activity, as well as how they relate to the client in specific instances. Students are given the opportunity to take specialized classes based on what their interests are and in what direction they want their careers to move.
Most courses in paralegal studies at the graduate level are geared toward critical and analytical thinking, legal research, and technical writing. Students come out of Master's Degree programs in paralegal studies able to apply legal theory to real world situations, seeing the entire legal process through in an efficient and accurate manner.
The degree requirements of most institutions vary substantially, but students should expect to take advanced legal coursework, as well as complete a graduate thesis in their second year. Some typical courses offered at the Master's Degree level are:
Philosophy of Law
Advanced legal procedures
Legal research and citation
Legal analysis and writing
A Career as a Paralegal
Being a paralegal can be exciting, fast-paced, and stressful. People who decide to become paralegals usually work very well under pressure and can perform many tasks at once. Unless they have been assigned to a very large and important case, paralegals will usually be working on more than one case at a time.
Paralegals must fact-check and conduct research for lawyers and clients. They must help them prepare for trials and hearings, as well as for meetings with other lawyers. This involves filling out legal documents for clients and lawyers, contacting and interviewing witnesses, and helping to build a flawless argument to be presented in court by the lawyer. They will turn this information into a general summary and draft an argument for the lawyer to approve.
The research a paralegal does can be very intensive. They must search legal records for court cases similar to theirs and see how they were ruled and for what reasons. They must check every fact thoroughly to make sure of its truth before giving it to the lawyer to present to the court. They also must be sure that all this research is thoroughly organized and readily accessible to the client or lawyer.
Paralegals are usually responsible for filing legal documents with court clerks, such as pleadings, wills, marriage certificates, and divorce papers. Filling out these documents accurately is also the responsibility of the paralegal. This part of the job requires meeting certain deadlines and working under pressure, making sure nothing falls through the cracks.
In some larger law firms, paralegals will act as supervisors for legal secretaries and assistants. This means that the paralegal will have to know how to delegate tasks and make sure they are done properly. They must also have good leadership and communication abilities. They must also make sure the law firm's library and software are up to date.
Law firms that specialize in property and real estate may require the paralegal to appraise property and assets. They may also act as a go-between for clients selling a piece of property and clients purchasing property. They will draw up all the necessary paperwork required for the transaction to go through and mediate negotiations between the clients.
Paralegals are often required to continue their education throughout their career. The law is constantly changing, so paralegals must stay abreast of the changes in the legal system to do their job effectively. Also, paralegals will often have to take classes on how to operate new computer software that will help them more effectively research or file.
Paralegal positions are often high pressure and stressful. Everything must be one hundred percent accurate, even the smallest error can lead to serious legal problems for the client later. Paralegals must work flawlessly under the shadow of tight deadlines, often while working on two or three other cases simultaneously. This career is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Salary Information for Careers in Paralegal Studies
Paralegals usually earn between $28,000 and $48,000 a year, depending on the law firm and the paralegal's previous experience and education. Competitive benefits packages are usually offered, as well. Most employers offer their paralegals at least one week of paid vacation a year.
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