Becoming a Paralegal: Pros and Cons
Becoming a paralegal or legal assistant doesn’t just happen overnight. You usually begin as a receptionist or some other entry level position and then work your way up. Paralegals and legal assistants make a lawyer’s life bearable. Without the support to do the tedious tasks, a lawyer would be bogged down and unable to produce quality work for her client.
The Positive Side of Becoming a Paralegal
Being a paralegal can be rewarding, and many in the field find that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. However, before deciding on a career in the field, one should be aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of the job.
On your first day as a paralegal, you probably will not be given anything challenging, or probably even the least bit exciting, and oftentimes not even every day after you have worked as one for 20 years, but there are interesting and challenging issues that arise from time to time that can help make the work fun. Issues that your firm has never handled, those of first impression in your district, and very complex cases can all give a paralegal something stimulating to work on, even in a small law office.
Being of Service
Whether you choose to do pro bono or volunteer work, or you have a paid job working for a law firm, the opportunity to help others is almost always present in a paralegal’s job. Answering clients’ questions, assisting the attorney in coming up with solutions to their legal problems and holding clients’ hands though difficult situations can be quite rewarding to a paralegal that enjoys helping people. Family law, probate, and bankruptcy offices are all great places to work if you enjoy helping others and making a difference in people’s lives.
Being a Professional
Paralegals are trained professionals in their field and many enjoy others looking up to them as such. Working in an office, learning how to master the necessary software, wearing nice clothes, and interacting with other professionals can really make a paralegal feel like a pro. Paralegals may also join professional associations such as the state or local bar, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (“NFPA”), the National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”), or the National Association of Legal Secretaries (“NALS”), now the Association for Legal Professionals, in order to learn from and network with others in the legal field. Some paralegals can also obtain additional training (such as diversity training) through various course enrollment to enhance their work knowledge.
Large law firms and corporations may require that paralegals work more than 40 hours per week, but most small firms are more flexible, and require little to no overtime. However, no matter where you work as a paralegal, your hours will almost certainly be first shift hours, beginning between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and ending sometime between 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., even with overtime. Paralegals often have flexible break and lunch times as well.
The Downside of Becoming a Paralegal
One of the biggest disadvantages of being a paralegal may be that there is very limited room for career advancement, particularly for those who work in small to medium sized law firms. Smaller law firms may have a handful of paralegals with one or two holding the title of office manager or senior paralegal, and no further opportunity for promotion. Many small firms may not even have senior paralegals or office managers, and your first position as a paralegal might be as far as you can climb up the career ladder. Larger law firms and corporations may have more opportunities for career advancement; however, without earning a law degree, one can still only go so far in his or her career as a paralegal.
Lack of Respect & Acknowledgment
Because paralegals cannot sign pleadings or briefs, or give legal advice of their own to clients, they may lose credit for much of the work that they do. The attorney signs the pleadings and passes your advice along to a client, as if it were his or her own work, because legally, it is. Some paralegals may also find that their own boss does not show them the respect they deserve, and may not fully utilize them as a paralegal, but instead assigns them only secretarial and administrative tasks. As more and more attorneys begin to utilize paralegals in a more substantive way and states begin licensing paralegals and allowing them to perform some work directly for the public, the lack of respect and acknowledgment paralegals face today will fade, and both attorneys and non-attorneys may begin to recognize the value of a paralegal.
Menial Task Assignments
No matter what area of the law you work in as a paralegal, you will likely find that the majority of menial tasks around the office fall to you. Entering data into a spreadsheet, preparing an accounting or inventory for the Court, calculating the total value of a marital or probate estate, and entering client information and payments into the accounting and file management systems are all common chores performed by paralegals on a daily basis. Of course, as you gain experience working as a paralegal, you will also be assigned more substantive tasks, and if you choose to work in a large firm or corporation, you may be able to delegate some of the more menial tasks to less experienced staff members.
One of the biggest disadvantages of being a paralegal is the stress of the job. Whether you work for a large corporation and do not have clients or you work in a small law firm dealing directly with clients every day, you will have deadlines to meet and your boss will frequently need things yesterday. Not meeting a deadline, not being prepared for a hearing or trial, or losing a case are all concerns that paralegals may have on a daily basis. Those who work directly with clients may also become attached to them and feel the added stress of wanting them to win their case or worry about what will happen if they do not get a good outcome.
For some paralegals, work hours can be a huge disadvantage. While most of them may be first shift, late nights, weekends, and lack of vacation time can be a problem. Paralegals working for large corporations and law firms may find that they need to work longer weekday, or even weekend hours, in order to keep up with the workload. Oftentimes, paralegals who work more than 40 hours a week are not paid time and half for those hours, as the Department of Labor’s overtime pay rules provide an exemption for legal professionals. Those working for small law firms or for solo practitioners may have difficulty getting time off, as there may not be any other paralegals at the firm to cover the hours missed.
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