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Paralegal Career For Dummies®

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America has a fascination with courtroom dramas. Dozens of TV shows and hundreds of movies have been based on the legal profession. Hollywood has even made musicals with courtroom scenes! Real courtroom dramas receive nearly constant attention on the news networks, and if CNN’s coverage of every detail in a trial isn’t enough, there’s are always continuous access to Law and Order reruns on numerous channels and streaming devices.

You may not have noticed, but one thing’s missing from most of these legal dramas: the behind-the-scenes work of the paralegals (or legal assistants as they’re sometimes called). In the media, lawyers give flawless and impassioned pleas to the jury, and the force of their arguments turns the case, or, under relentless cross-examination, the defendant suddenly admits to the crime. In reality, these events rarely happen — cases are won and lost based on what takes place outside of the courtroom even before the trial.

The vast majority of the work for a civil or criminal trial is done before the trial begins, and after a trial starts there are usually very few surprises. But just as the networks choose to broadcast the Olympics, but not the four years of training in between, so the focus of dramas is on the action in the courtroom and not all the investigation, interviewing, writing, and research that builds the case. So, when you’re watching TV dramas , you’ll usually see the lawyers in the courtroom, but not the paralegals whose research allows the trial to take place.

Whether you’re researching the paralegal profession to see if it peaks your interest or you’ve worked as a paralegal since Clinton was in office, you can find a wealth of pertinent information in this book. This book is a fun and informative resource for anyone who loves the law and wants to find out more about it. You’ll want it within easy reach as a reference to consult throughout your paralegal career or to explain the nuances of what you’re watching on television. This book offers something for everyone.

About This Book

If being a paralegal appeals to you, you’ve come to the right place. Since 1980, we’ve instructed people from all walks of life and with a variety of goals on how to work as paralegals. This experience has shown us what information you absolutely need to know before you apply for a paralegal position and what information is best learned on the job. So, Paralegal Career For Dummies, Second Edition, doesn’t cover things you don’t need to know — we want to focus on what’s most important.

This second edition incorporates updated information designed to help you decide whether a paralegal career is right for you. It also directs you to the current resources you need to get the right education and experience to make your dream a reality. The best part is that it actually goes into great detail to teach you the vital skills you need to work as a paralegal or to act as your own pro se litigant.

As if the amazing information in this text wasn’t enough, in this second edition, we include accompanying online resources at You can access useful forms, sample resumes and cover letters, and other references, as well as links to valuable websites.

Finally, this book is a reference book, which means that you can keep it at your desk and reach for it whenever you need some more information. You don’t have to read it from beginning to end — you can just dip into whatever chapter or section is most interesting to you today, and come back to the book later as your needs and interests change. Of course, if you want to read the book from cover to cover, we won’t stop you!

Foolish Assumptions

We make a few assumptions about who you are, as the reader of this book.

Maybe you’ve always had an interest in law, but you don’t want to spend the time and expense on law school. (Besides, who wants to be the brunt of all those lawyer jokes!) Or, if you don’t mind the jokes, you could be considering law school, but you want to be sure that law’s a good match for you before you invest in three or four more years of education. Because paralegals do almost everything an attorney does, working as a paralegal will let you know right away whether you love the law as much as we do. Plus, a job as a paralegal would be a perfect way to make money while you’re in your last two years of law school. You may even decide you’d rather stick with a paralegal career, especially considering that the Department of Labor consistently projects the paralegal career to grow much faster than the average for other professions.

Maybe you’re working as a legal secretary and thinking that you could do a lot more of the legal work in the office. Wouldn’t it impress your supervising attorney if you could come up with a vital piece of legal research discovered as a result of your newly honed legal research skills? Or it could be that you worked on one of your own legal nightmares either as a pro se litigant or as an assistant to your attorney. You may have had an epiphany that you could do as good a job as (or a better one than) the attorney who worked on your case and that you could actually get paid for your efforts!

Whatever level of interest or experience you bring to the table, this book is for you.

Icons Used in This Book

One helpful feature of this book is the icons that highlight especially significant portions of the text. These little pictures in the margins alert you to certain kinds of information:

Tip Throughout the book, we give you insights into how you can enhance your performance as a paralegal and your knowledge of how the law works. When we highlight something especially helpful, we flag the paragraph with a Tip icon.

Technical stuff The language of law can be puzzling. Whenever you see one of these icons, you know that we’re providing (sometime excruciating) details on a complex legal concept. If you’re not as into the minutiae as we are, you can safely skip these paragraphs and get the main point.

Warning Working as a paralegal isn’t all fun and games. As a paralegal, you can do — or fail to do — things that have devastating consequences. Heed these cautionary timebombs to avoid pitfalls that can cost you your dignity and maybe even your job.

Remember This book gives you gobs of information, and some of it’s so important we may just have to say it again. When we talk about something especially important for you to remember, this icon will be nearby.

In addition to the fountain of information contained in this book, you’ll find floods of handy forms and sample documents online. When we mention something that’s available online at, we also flag it with this icon.

Where to Go from Here

If you’re new to the paralegal profession and want to see what it’s all about, start with Chapter 1, which gives you a great introduction to a paralegal career. Then read the chapters in Part 2 to gain a general understanding of the field of law. From there, choose chapters that sound interesting to you to better determine if this exciting career up your alley.

If you’ve worked as a paralegal or legal secretary, use this book to find out more about what you do on a daily basis. For example, if your supervising attorney wants you to take on more responsibility, such as legal research (Chapter 13), document drafting (Chapters 10 and 16), and interviewing (Chapter 12), read the specific chapters that pertain to your new duties. Or if you’ve always wanted to know about the legal system to get a better understanding of why you do what you do, read Chapter 4.

Although we’re pretty confident about the comprehensiveness of this book, you’ll probably need more education if you’ve never worked in a law office before or if you have but don’t feel confident about the depth of your skills. Enroll in a quality program through a recognized university or college (like the one we offer) and impress your instructors with the expertise you’ve gained from reading this book!

You may want to join a state and local paralegal association to find out more about your chosen career and gain valuable networking resources. Above all, don’t be timid. Get out there and apply your newly found knowledge to a real live job. If you think you need a little experience first, volunteer your services to a local nonprofit law office, such as Sierra Club, Legal Aid Foundation, or the public defender’s office in your area. You’ll be surprised about how much you know with this book as your guide!

Part 1

A Snapshot of the Exciting and Lucrative Paralegal Profession


Explore the wide variety of jobs in the paralegal profession and sample those jobs where paralegals are most in demand.

Discover the skills and education necessary to succeed in a paralegal career.

Amplify your networking success through joining paralegal associations and decide whether certification makes sense for your path.

Prepare killer cover letters and effective resumes for securing a paralegal position.

Set up your freelance paralegal business and advertise your skills to law firms and other potential legal employers.