As Market Grows for Paralegals, their Training Can Lead to Further Enriched Careers
There were no typical days for Robert Verry after he became a paralegal. On any given morning, he might have been working on a homicide case — interviewing witnesses, meeting with clients and signing depositions. An hour later, he might have found himself working on a real estate case and turning the keys over to a new home owner.
“Every day is unique,” said Verry, assistant professor of Political and Government Affairs, Paralegal Studies and Criminal Justice at Centenary University, formerly Centenary University. “If you like that type of uniqueness, then that’s the career for you. It’s not all paperwork — although there is a lot of that — but it changes as freely as the next client who walks into the room and the next email that you receive.”
That kind of excitement and diversity is one of the driving factors behind the growing job market for paralegals and legal assistants. The field has been identified by Hanover Research as one of the top 14 growing occupations by the year 2020. Hanover also has projected a 21.3 percent increase in the number of individuals employed as a paralegal and/or legal assistant by 2020.
Depending on their law firm’s size, paralegals and legal assistants can make between $50,000 and $60,000 a year.
Part of that growth can be attributed to changes in technology, globalization, and how paralegals and legal assistants are viewed. Technology has made it possible for paralegals to find their own clients, conference with attorneys and clients from the other side of the world, and work as an independent contractor for several different firms, all from their home office, according to attorney John Bermingham, with Foreman & Gray in Whippany, assistant professor of Paralegal and Legal Assistant Study at Centenary University.
Bermingham said a paralegal often serves as a lawyer’s “right-hand person.” They can write motions for the attorney, do discovery requests and answer interrogatories. A paralegal — who can do just about everything a lawyer can do except give legal advice — is the next step up from a legal assistant, who helps attorneys with certain administrative tasks, including running to a court room or to a court house to file a document and putting exhibits together.
“An attorney will not do well in representing a client if he or she doesn’t have a good paralegal or legal assistant,” said Bermingham, who began his career as a paralegal. “As I’ve said in the past, you can be the best quarterback in the world, but if you don’t have a good offensive line blocking for you, opening holes, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re not going to succeed. Good paralegal work is basically the backbone of any effective legal representation.”
To meet the growing need for paralegals and legal assistants, Centenary University is launching an Associates of Arts degree in Paralegal and Legal Assistant Studies and a minor in Paralegal and Legal Assistant Studies starting in the fall.
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Paralegals and legal assistants can make between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, depending on the size of the law firm they work for. Others can make between $70,000 and $90,000 at a large firm in New York City, Bermingham said.
“What’s interesting is that you can get an associate degree in paralegal studies in two years, so as soon as you have that, you can start working at law firms while you’re still in college working on your four-year degree,” he said.
To meet this growing need, Centenary University is launching an Associates of Arts degree in Paralegal and Legal Assistant Studies and a minor in Paralegal and Legal Assistant Studies starting in the fall. Course offerings include Legal Research and Writing, Law and Litigation, Wills and Probate, Family Law, Immigration Law, Juvenile Delinquency and more. The program includes mock trials, hands-on work and field studies and internships. Some of the courses directly associated to the Paralegal and Legal Assistant program also will be desirable for other career tracks, such as social work, sociology, criminal justice, and political and governmental affairs.
“Everybody can use this,” Verry said. “It doesn’t matter what your career path is: Sooner or later you’ll need legal advice, and it certainly helps an individual who is involved in any type of legal matter to understand the law, to understand what you’re reading.”
Verry said having a legal knowledge can help anyone. Legal research and writing will teach students to improve their writing skills while learning how to research case law. Real estate law will, of course, assist anyone looking to become a home owner, or business people who need office space or who want to become landlords. And of course, most everybody will be able to use a background in wills and probate law.
“You can be a social worker, an education major, and English major — it doesn’t make a difference,” Verry said.
One thing a degree or minor in Paralegal and Legal Assistant studies will provide is a solid background for a career in law — a steppingstone to becoming a lawyer and an understanding of the terms lawyers use, and how lawyers work and think.
“Before I became a lawyer, I was a paralegal,” Bermingham said. “I had to just jump into it, asking an attorney that I knew what the heck I should do. Luckily, I had someone I knew who was willing to support me and teach me from the ground up. In today’s marketplace, that’s not going to work. You’re going to compete with others, whether as a paralegal or attorney in the future.”
While a degree in Paralegal and Legal Assistant studies can lead to a good career and provide a path for more, it is important to note that, as with everything, the position is changing. While paralegals are not permitted to give legal advice, some states are allowing them to represent a client, which provides a new avenue for paralegals to make their mark.
“The courts, depending on the state, are giving a lot more leeway for paralegals,” Bermingham said. “In certain states, paralegals can represent clients. As the courts understand their role better, they are giving them more latitude.”
Professors at Centenary are aware of this new development, and will make sure that students understand the difference between representing a client and providing advice.
“There’s a fine line between giving advice and just being there to give representation,” Bermingham said. “It’s a new area and we have to be very careful with that.”
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