Specialties: picking your path as a paralegal

Specialties: picking your path as a paralegal

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The areas of law in which a paralegal can specialize are extensive, because the law itself reflects the needs of people in business and their personal lives. A good starting point if you are trying to decide of what area of law in which to specialize is to look at your interests and evaluate which areas of the law most closely meld with those interests. Are you interested in the detailed work of finance and banking? Are you drawn to working with families and helping individuals? Are you an avid outdoors person with an interest in the environment, or do you watch “Law and Order” and enjoy the idea of helping to put together a criminal defense? No matter what your interests are, there are areas of law that will intersect with those interests.

Criminal Defense Law

Criminal defense law is probably the most familiar to the general public, even if it’s from the overdramatized standpoint of television shows like “Law and Order,” legal commentators like Nancy Grace dissecting provocative cases in the news or real-life, high-profile cases involving celebrities like O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. What people don’t see is the work that goes on behind the scenes leading up to those dramatic moments, and the impact that work has on so many peoples” lives. The real legal legwork doesn’t take place in 48 minutes plus a lot of commercials, nor is the case decided in that small window of time.

Paralegals who work in criminal defense law can be involved in all stages of a case. First is the pretrial work, which entails helping attorneys with the initial interview process. You may gather a client’s basic information such as their work history, whether or not they have a prior criminal record, family information and what kind of education they have.

You can also be involved in aspects of the investigation. Your research skills will come heavily into play as you search for various records and get copies of related documents. School, work, military and medical records will need to be found. In addition, you will need to get copies of court documents such as arrest warrants, statements made to police, bond information, records of previous arrests and reports from the crime lab. Summaries of this information will need to be drafted for review by the attorneys.

In criminal law as well as other areas of the law, the law library and your computer skills will be vital tools in locating case law (law based on judicial decisions made in past cases) pertinent to the case you are working on. This will be an instrumental element in successful pretrial motions and later during the trial. Under the supervision of the attorneys, you may draft motions and responses to requests, as well as file documents with the court. You may even visit the crime scene, prepare diagrams, photograph the scene and keep up-to-date records on evidence found.

You could also play a role in jury selection. The venire is the jury pool and, as a paralegal, you could be involved in reviewing this pool and drafting questions for the attorneys that will help them identify jurors who may be advantageous to your case or prejudiced against the client.

In the trial phase, the paralegal is the one who prepares and updates the trial notebook. This will include the results of the aforementioned research, motions, pleadings, exhibits, visual aids and lab results. Some paralegals will have the privilege of sitting “second chair.” In this position you may help with jury selection, and you will take notes on the proceedings, aiding the attorneys in keeping track of the exhibits and sometimes reminding them of questions not asked.

Even when the trial is over, it’s not really over. There may be an appeal and you will assist in preparing that appeal, along with dealing with the post-trial documents and filing materials appropriately.

The role of the paralegal in criminal law is both demanding and rewarding. The variety of aspects in putting together a case and seeing it through ensure that this is a diverse and dynamic area of the law in which to work.

Banking and Finance Law and Related Fields

For those who are more interested in working outside the courtroom, there are many other areas of law in which you’re sure to find the challenge you’re looking for. If you’re interested in finance there are several areas you should look into:

  • Banking and Finance Law
  • Bankruptcy Law
  • Corporate Law
  • Estate Planning, Probate Law and Trusts

All of these areas of law will require that you gain some knowledge of finance and accounting.

In banking and finance law you will often be working with bonds. Cities and others entities may issue bonds in order to bring in funds for projects without taking out loans. Bonds are regulated by a variety of ordinances and laws, and as a paralegal in this field, you will need to research them in order to assist legal counsel in making sure that the issuance of bonds complies with federal, state and tax laws. You will also need to draft documentation for contracts, deeds, agreements and issuing of the bonds, as well as file requests for the government’s approval and submit other documents to the IRS, the state and the applicable division of bond finance. Finally, you will review the financing and closing documents to ensure that all conditions have been met. Again, these are only a few aspects in which you, as the paralegal, may be involved within in banking and finance law, whether you are working for the underwriter counsel, the bond counsel or some other interested party.

Estate Planning and Trust Law

Just as banks have divisions for trusts and estate planning, you could work for a law firm that specializes in one or more of these areas. If you work in estate planning, you will help to gather information on clients assets, complete tax calculations on various plans, make sure that estate plans conform to current state law and draft any required changes. You’ll also get insurance policies from clients, prepare beneficiary forms and draft wills and other documents, including documents relating to any real estate owned by a client and regarding joint tenancy (which can have an effect on whether a property goes into probate upon the death of one individual, or whether the deed is transferred in total to the surviving beneficiary). In all of these tasks, you will be helping someone prepare their legacy for the people they will be leaving behind when they pass away.

Real Estate Law

Real estate law can be as simple as making sure that title searches have been done, loan documents have been reviewed, insurance has been issued, agreements have been drafted, disclosures have been complied with and deadlines aren’t missed. However, it can be extremely challenging when it involves large real estate deals such as the development of new housing projects or businesses. Knowing local, state and federal statutes will be critical to getting the job done, as will arranging for environmental impact reports and drafting and filing documents necessary to comply with regulations. You may even help with public relations when a project needs community support in order to be completed.

Family Law: Helping People Through Troubled Times

If you’re a real people person, family law may be the area in which you wish to apply yourself. The practice of family law can include divorce, child custody issues, property settlements or, sadly, restraining orders if violence is involved. Again, you will help to gather evidence, question witnesses, draft documents, analyze financial information, retain appraisers for real estate, find expert witnesses, attend hearings with attorneys in order to take notes and assist with the client and exhibits. After the proceedings you will prepare and file documents for transfer of property, child support and other documentation necessary for compliance with court orders, child welfare agencies and state statutes. In all of this it will be import important for you, as the paralegal, to remain up-to-date on changes in statutes and laws through periodicals, review of new legal decisions and awareness of new legislation passed.

Overlapping Areas of Law

Many areas of law intersect. Look back on the case made famous by Erin Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry: In that case, real estate law led to the discovery of medical issues due to tainted groundwater on the properties in question. That, in turn, led to litigation and a multimillion dollar settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG & E) for families who had been devastated by the effects of contaminated groundwater in Hinkley, California. While the movie “Erin Brockovich” brought this case into the public eye, the real case was not that simple or glamorous: the last case of the class-action lawsuit was settled over 10 years after the initial settlement. And, more litigation sits on the horizon: Although the PG & E began the environmental cleanup, residents are claiming that the chemicals used in the cleanup are showing up in the groundwater and that the toxic plume has expanded in area; however, PG & E contended that the plume map would naturally change because new areas were being tested.

This case highlights the personal impact that your work as a paralegal can have on clients as you assist an attorney. It also highlights the expanse of knowledge that a paralegal may be required to acquire. This is not just a case of knowing the law, but gathering medical information, environmental data and expert witnesses, and being involved in a high-stakes battle that can last for decades.

Choose a Specialty Special to You

Have you had a bad experience as a tenant? You may want to become involved in landlord/tenant law. If you want to be involved in the very fabric of the law you can specialize in constitutional law. Did you see someone mistreated on the job? You may find employment law fulfilling. Being a paralegal is a rewarding occupation in which you can stretch yourself, earn an excellent living and have an impact on the world around you, no matter which field of law you choose for your specialty.

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