Paralegal and Legal Assistance as a Sustainable Livelihood

Paralegals have assumed more of the work lawyers do, such as research, drafting contracts and pleadings, and preparing for trials. At the same time, paralegals make basic legal services affordable by people who cannot pay the high costs of hiring a lawyer. Today more than a quarter of a million paralegals, who are called legal assistants in some places, are at work either as employees or as self-employed independents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In rural communities, particularly outside the U.S., where there is not a nearby lawyer, paralegals provide needed services.  A free download is an eBook entitled Community-based Paralegalsm, A Practitioner’s Guide, published by the The Soros Foundation.

Paralegals emerged in the 1960s largely as “faux” lawyers, in that their responsibilities were the practical parts of the law practice, freeing attorneys to work on developing clients, face-to-face negotiation, matters of legal theory, etc. Today paralegals may be the entire firm, providing practical services at lower fees. Many independent, freelance or contract paralegals operate virtually, providing as needed legal work to law firms and their clients using the web, email, and other forms of digital communication.

 Today’s paralegal is educated, trained, and often certified. You can find college-level courses and training at many community colleges. A large number of private schools now include paralegal training in their catalog and many exclusively train paralegals. Certification can be earned from professional organizations and educational institutions. If you wish to become a practicing paralegal, you must have training.

While most paralegals are employed, to work independently and have one’s own practice, there are two principal approaches: virtual firm and storefront firm. The storefront paralegal firm has grown in popularity in recent years. In a storefront operation you either operate under the license of an attorney to provide basic legal services or do document preparation in states that allow this without the visible support of a member of the bar.

 The virtual paralegal does similar work to the storefront paralegal. Virtual Paralegals are contract, independent or freelance paralegals that are hired by lawyers, smaller law firms or overextended large firms law firms, and in-house legal departments to provide paralegal support services on an as needed basis. Services being supplied through the use of technology such as the Internet, e-mail, fax and remote access systems. Like any virtual service, you can operate your business for less; your expenses are lower and your hours are your own. So a virtual paralegal can be someone who has a day job or child care responsibilities, because much of this work can be done at night.

Different states regulate these firms differently, so you must contact the appropriate state agency and often the state bar. A few of the basic legal services include drafting wills and divorce papers and reviewing legal documents, such as leases. As a paralegal you do not offer legal advice. You also cannot charge either hourly or contingency fees.

Specialization is part of the fun. If you become expert in the practical aspects of one part of the legal profession, you can pursue a particular interest of your own while becoming invaluable to a firm with the same specialization. Paralegals specializations include litigation, both civil and criminal, commercial estate planning and probate, corporate work, employment law, matrimonial real estate law, and government.  These are a few examples of general specialties. Within these can be even more specialization: death penalty matters, driving while under the influence, sale or purchase of residential real estate, business mergers or dissolutions, prisoner advocacy, and Medicare matters to name a few.

This is the field for you if you are a detail-oriented person who likes every i dotted and every t crossed. It’s also ideal for a person who has always been interested in the law but didn’t have the time or money for law school or for someone who wants to focus on bringing legal services to an underserved part of the community. There is much here to satisfy you.

You can learn more about the paralegal field by checking sites like these:

 Associations, a number of which offer certification: American Alliance of Paralegals International Paralegal Management Association NALA – The Association for Legal Assistants/ParalegalsNALS – The Association for Legal Professionals, and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations

The Standing Committee on Paralegals, American Bar Association

The Center for Legal Studies provides courses taught at colleges and universities in many states.  

For an initial free consultation to explore this or another sustainable livelihood that bests suits your personality and your community, contact us.

Comments on the substance of the blogs are welcome. If you have other questions, please contact me directly for a consulting appointment.



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