Paralegal or Legal Assistant jobs involve supporting lawyers in doing their work, and may include a range of tasks almost as broad as that for attorneys: client and witness interviews, case investigation, legal research, document preparation, etc. In some offices, the work might be relatively routine, while in others, it can be very substantive. Some paralegals, in particular in legal aid offices, actually represent clients in administrative hearings (under the general supervision of an attorney). The outer limits of paralegal practice are those established by the “unauthorized practice of law” statutes in each state, and generally prohibit appearing in court on behalf of a client, giving legal advice, and holding oneself out as an independent attorney or advocate. Paralegals must do their work under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
Just as the work of a paralegal may vary widely, so do the job requirements. Some require prior experience, some require (or prefer) paralegal certification, and some are entry-level jobs suitable for recent grads.
Working as a Paralegal
Our alumnus Hassan Mokaddam (2012) disusses his work as a paralegal.
What is your job?
I serve as a Paralegal at a mid-size law firm that specializes in immigration law.
What is the broader field of industry in which this work exists?
My firm’s most recent focus has been on EB-5. For those who do not know what EB-5 is, they can see the YouTube link provided below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YklKFs28u1c
What, in general, do you do as part of this job?
Part of my job is to help the attorney’s handle their cases. Attorneys have so much on their plate, and bring in a lot of cases for the firm. In order to get things done, paralegals, such as myself, help prepare the paperwork for them. Whether it is filing applications, drafting memorandums, or communicating with the client directly via phone or email, we handle all aspects of the case. Our attorneys oversee us and give us direct advice on how to go about things. So I’m basically filling in a lawyer’s shoes.
Now there are two paralegals at my firm. Though we both handle various cases, we both are delegated with specific duties. I handle the marketing aspects of the firm, and our client’s projects. My co-worker handles the finances for the firm. As we are delegated to handle specific duties, we are expected to be responsible to handle the tasks and complete them in a timely manner. I think the most important part about this job is you have to be responsible. If someone counts on you to do a job, you have to get it done no matter how long it takes you to do it. And sometimes, some tasks are harder than others, and you have to stay later to get it done. There are always deadlines to meet for lawyers, and as busy as we get, we still have to get them done. That’s just the nature of the job.
What are the pros and cons of this kind of job?
PROS: Steady income, working around educated people, great team effort is made at a law firm so you learn to work with others, work ethic here is very good (work hard, play hard), you dress nicely for work, and I would have to say you learn SO much. There’s not a day I’m not learning something new, as all cases are different and everyone has a different situation. I haven’t gone to law school, but I’ve definitely learned a lot working with 4 attorneys on a daily basis.
CONS: Sometimes it can be long hours, the work is stressful (especially when meeting deadlines), and sometimes you have to realize it is still a job. As much as you may take things for granted, you have to work hard at where you work. You can be replaced at any time, as many other people want the position you have. I personally like the challenge, but for those who are looking to do routine jobs, this isn’t that kind of job. This job keeps you on your toes (figuratively speaking). I actually consider the BIGGEST con of this job is the sitting aspect. I used to be a lifeguard, and I was super active when I was young. Now that I am sitting in a desk for around 8-9 hours a day, it’s hard keeping active. There’s sweets everywhere in the office, and once I’m finished with work, I’m sometimes too exhausted to hit the gym, but that’s only in the beginning. Once you get used to the job, you pick up the pace and you learn to figure out a routine schedule that works for you.
What skills did you learn as an English major that you use in this job?
Proof reading was one of the biggest skills I picked up as an English Major. I used to hate reading. I used to not read enough. So once I went to John Jay, I decided to switch out of my Criminal Justice Major and choose classes with dense reading and lots of writing. I needed to practice reading more thoroughly and writing clearly. My first day on the job, I had to proof read a 150 page business plan. I was like, damn, do I really have to read all of this? I just sucked it up, put my mind to it, and got it done within 4 hours. If I didn’t take all those English courses in college, I would have been struggling with this job. Also, when I draft memorandums, my bosses HATE to see typos, or silly mistakes. You’d be surprised how many errors I picked up on the first month of the job. I had to re-write forms 3-4 times a day. But I was new, and I was getting used to the accuracy expected from me at the job. Now that I’m comfortable and used to the work, I’m happy with the work. And I am super grateful I became an English Major. It really helped me out in the long run. I was chosen for jobs simply because my resume had no mistakes! Haha.
How have you learned to do this job?
Practice. You make a mistake, learn from your mistake, and never do it again. No one wants to repeat a million times how to do something. So whenever I did something wrong, I would never feel bad as it was my first time. If I got it wrong again, shame on me! It’s important to be detail oriented with these kind of jobs, and I definitely learned how to be super sharp since working in the office.
How did you get this job?
The Pre-Law Institute sent out a blast email with job postings every week. Once in a while I would take the time to apply for some of those jobs. One day the office called me in for an interview, and it happened to be that the person working the front desk also graduated John Jay. So the alumni connection was there! Of course, once I came for the interview I killed it, but having a John Jay alumna push for me was definitely satisfying. I felt like I wasn’t alone in the job anymore.
My diversity and my background has made me a strong candidate in the work force. People in the work force are starting to respect CUNY’s, and I’m loving it!
For current students interested in this line of work, do you have any recommendations on what they can do now to start directing their career path?
If there’s something I wish I could have done in the past, I would have interned. I was all about making money. I took a hotel job that paid me extremely well, and I refused to intern anywhere. But once I graduated college, the hotel job was not fulfilling for me anymore. I wasn’t challenged enough. I had a degree that wasn’t put to use, and that bothered me. So I decided to take a step back, and intern.
I worked at the hotel, and interned at the same time. I was able to have a flexible schedule to do both. I was never going to intern, but my girlfriend, who graduated from Fordham, gave me a whole speech about how interning can help open doors for you. So once I accepted the reality of the new job world, I decided to intern. I interned at a law office for 3 months. Before when I was applying for Paralegal jobs, no one was accepting me. They needed “experience” in the field. I was thinking, “How do I get experience if you don’t give me a chance?” That’s where interning filled in the gap. My 3 month experience at the previous firm gave me a resume builder. Once I had one law firm on my resume, I started receiving a bunch of phone calls from other law firms to hire me. So that’s when I realized INTERNING DOES PAY OFF. You learn from professionals, you also learn things that you wouldn’t learn in college, and their recommendation can potentially take you far with future jobs.
If there’s anything I recommend to students, it’s start interning. Learning doesn’t only begin in a classroom, you need to be in a working environment too. The job market now is tough, and jobs are competitive. Do whatever you can to educate yourself and stand out!