- Gaining the basics to be a paralegalyoung lawyer image by Alexey Stiop from Fotolia.com
No hard-and-fast industry standards exist to become a paralegal. You need not have majored in pre-law in college just to apply for a position; for that matter, you need not have attended college at all. There are, however, some general preferences that show up regularly in job postings; these preferences are essentially standards of paralegal positions. These preferences form the basis of paralegal programs, but such programs are not the only route to acquire the necessary skills.
- Research skills are the most crucial for a paralegal, since this is largely what distinguishes a paralegal from a legal secretary: paralegals often perform the lion's share of research that attorneys need to build their cases. An effective paralegal knows how to find certain kinds of information: that is, not only where that information may be found, but how to sift through material to find what is needed. Many kinds of information can be accessed via the Internet, either by a general search, or by specialized search engines like Lexis-Nexis that serve the legal profession. This means that prospective paralegals must be familiar with Internet searches, and must know how to sort trustworthy information from unreliable.
In some cases, however, the Internet is not a viable method, and paralegals must know how to conduct information searches through card catalogs, government archives and other hard-copy data. Perhaps the most common form of non-Internet search that paralegals must conduct is document discovery review, in which paralegals (and sometimes attorneys as well) must personally look through large bodies of paper-copy files that opposition counsel has provided as a matter of legal obligation. In such situations, the reviewers generally have a broad idea of what kind of information is being sought, but unlike most kinds of data searches, the information has not been arranged for maximum convenience. An effective paralegal must have a sharp eye for information that could prove useful, but that does not necessarily announce itself to the reader. The ability to read carefully and relatively quickly through large volumes of documents is crucial for a successful paralegal, since such research can ultimately determine the strength of an attorney's case. Experienced paralegals sometimes develop such thorough knowledge of the discovery documents that they are requested to help the attorneys formulate effective arguments.
- Knowledge of legal filings is a specialized skill that paralegals use every day. Paralegals are often called upon to draft court documents from a general template, tailoring each document to the needs of the case at hand. People often acquire this skill while working in some capacity at a law office, but it can also be taught as part of a formal program. There are a wide variety of legal filings for civil and criminal law, and paralegals often specialize in a few of them---frequently as a function of their law firms' concentrations. Thus, paralegals who acquire their familiarity with court documents by working in a family law practice may not gain much experience with the kind of filings required by a business law practice. You need not learn every kind of legal filing, but the extent of your knowledge helps determine your job prospects: for example, it is usually easier for a civil litigation firm to hire a paralegal who already knows how to create civil filings, rather than hire a paralegal with criminal law experience and train.
- Office organization is always a good skill to have, but there are a few particulars that paralegals use beyond the basics. Law firms must keep their clients' files scrupulously confidential, which means that anyone who files a document must take care that it not go astray. This is not just a potential delay in the work day and embarrassment to the employee, but potentially a legal problem as well; clients are not supposed know about each other's cases, and since documents are often the foundation of a legal case, a misplaced document can mean actual financial loss for the firm. While attorneys are formally responsible for all cases, and often work closely on them, the responsibility for keeping all papers properly organized, photocopied and filed most often rests with the paralegals assigned to support the attorneys.
- Like workers in many office jobs, paralegals must compose formal correspondence, both within the office (memoranda) and between the office and clients (letters). In both cases, law offices generally expect paralegals to write in clear standard English, with proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. Moreover, such correspondences is phrased in relatively formal style, even in memoranda between two co-workers who know each other well. Since the style of correspondence can reflect on the firms and the attorneys themselves, law firms expect their paralegals to adhere to formal style at all times. Virtually any document that a paralegal creates could theoretically be reproduced and given to opposing counsel as part of a discovery procedure, which means that informal office style is frowned upon. This also extends to email, even though many office workers treat email as far more informal than letter correspondence.