New Trends in the Legal Profession & What it Means for Paralegals

New Trends

New Trends in the Legal Profession & What it Means for Paralegals

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the paralegal profession is expected to grow by eighteen percent (18%) between 2010 and 2020. That is about four percent (4%) more than the average expected growth for all occupations.  So, the profession is growing, but exactly where is it headed? If the history of the paralegal profession is a clue to its future, we can expect it to change drastically over the next 40 years. Many of those changes have already begun to occur, and will grow and adapt until they are simply the way things are done. So what new trends in the legal profession are going to change the way paralegals work? You really just need to take a look around to see where things are heading.

Electronic Filing

Already required for many federal filings and used in several states for certain types of cases, electronic filing (“e-filing”) will someday soon be the standard for all Courts. Quick, easy, and cost effective, e-filing has become increasingly popular, and will continue to do so until it is the preferred or only way of filing pleadings with the Court.

What it means

You may need to develop some new skills and learn to use various online software systems. Many e-filing systems require documents to be in pdf format, which means that in order to sue them, you will need to have a program that can convert your word processor documents to pdf. You may also need to know how to create pdf documents from scratch and modify existing documents.

Even if you do not generally file anything in the federal courts, it is a good idea to keep up with the times and know how to use the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (“CM/ECF”) system. This may be an even more important skill to have if you live in a county or state where e-filing has not yet been implemented. Knowing how to use one e-filing system, will very likely make it easier to learn how to use another when your local courts do start requiring that pleadings be filed via electronic means.

You may also want to look at the National Center for State Courts’ Electronic Filing Resources page for more information about e-filing including state/county specific rules and guides.

Licensing, Registration, and Certification for Paralegals

There are currently 6 states that license, register, and/or certify paralegals; Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, and New York. Licensing and certification requirements and procedures are different in each state, and may or may not be voluntary, depending on the state and exactly what type of legal work a paralegal intends to do. For example, licensing is not required for paralegals in Washington who wish to work under the direct supervision of an attorney, however those paralegals who want to practice law, in a limited capacity, without having a supervising attorney, must complete the licensing process.

Three national organizations, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (“NFPA”), the National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”) and the National Association of Legal Secretaries (“NALS”), now the Association for Legal Professionals, also offer Certification to paralegals who wish to become certified. Each organizations certification is a little different, but all three require paralegals to meet certain qualifications, pay a fee, and pass an exam in order to be become certified. For more information about certification from these organizations, see Paralegal Certification – Do I need it?

What it means

At some point in the near future, you might need to obtain a license or some sort of certification to continue working in the industry. While this can be a hassle, regulating the paralegal profession in this way can come with some benefits, such as:

  • Greater responsibility. Becoming certified will show your boss that you are a competent legal professional, which should lead to some more responsibility around the office.
  • Higher pay. Along with greater responsibility, having a new credential can lead to higher pay.
  • More respect. Working in a regulated industry and maintaining professional credentials can help a paralegal gain more respect from employers, co-workers, and the public.
  • A greater number of available jobs. As the pool of working paralegals becomes more competent, more firms will be looking to hire paralegals in order to replace some of the lawyers, and save the company the expense of an attorneys’ higher salary.

Electronic Discovery

With the increase in consumer electronic use, has come a whole new world of discovery called Electronic Discovery (“e-discovery”). E- discovery is just like regular discovery, only the documents being asked for now include such things as text messages between cell phones, Microsoft Word files in electronic format (so that document properties are viewable), e-mail with all of the headers left intact, voice mail messages, and even entire databases, in working electronic format.

What it means

You may want to acquire some new technological skills. Do you know how to retrieve a text message from a phone and forward it to another party? How about view the properties of a Word document to determine who authored it and when? Skills like this will come in very handy as e-discovery becomes more popular.

To start learning more about e-discovery right now for free read through FindLaw’s eDiscovery Guide, review the white papers and webcasts at discoveryresources.org, and then check out ediscovery.com, a site that is all about e-discovery.

Virtual Law Offices

Virtual law offices are law firms that exist online only, and do not have a brick and mortar office. Law office staff work from home or wherever else they choose, and the attorneys meet with clients in rented conference rooms, home offices, local restaurants or coffee shops, or through the internet using software such as Skype. Staff and clients communicate with one another via e-mail, instant messaging, phone calls, and shared workspaces. While most law firms who utilize virtual workers still maintain traditional offices and employees, more and more are moving towards the completely virtual office by doing more outsourcing, hiring out large projects to paralegals who work solely online and allowing employees to work from home more often.

What it means

You may eventually find yourself working at home or with co-workers who do. While face to face meetings will always be important for those in the service industry, most tasks done by paralegals in law offices could just as easily be done from a home office with the right technology and organization. Maybe not soon, but one day, most of us will be working from home offices, at least a couple of days a week.

Independent and Contract Paralegals

The number of paralegals working on an as-needed basis for attorneys and/or preparing legal documents for the public is growing. This year Washington and New York began working on certifications, rules, and procedures that will allow paralegals to practice law in certain areas (such as estate planning) and in a limited capacity and other states are expected to follow suit. This will likely cause the number of independent and contract paralegals to continue to grow.

What it means

You could find a whole new world of opportunities. With the ability to prepare certain legal and business documents, bankruptcy petitions, and now to practice law, in certain areas, and in a limited capacity, paralegals may start finding that going into business for themselves or with paralegal partners is more challenging and lucrative than working for someone else.

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About Shelley Riseden

Shelley M. Riseden is a freelance paralegal providing research, document preparation, and writing services to both attorneys and non-attorneys. She is an expert at conducting legal research and has a natural ability to grasp complex legal issues.Phone: 765.667.5139, E-mail: smriseden@earthlink.net or shelley@virtuallylegal.net, Skype: shelley.riseden, Yahoo: Virtually_Legal

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