Although all paralegals share some tasks in common, the kind of law firm you find yourself working in will have a big influence on shaping your daily work… estate planning, immigration, family law, intellectual property, bankruptcy, personal injury, criminal defense, real estate—these are a few of the areas of law that legal firms specialize in handling. And you’ll find yourself developing specialized knowledge just by virtue of the type of law the firm you work for practices.
Sometimes you don’t choose your specialty so much as it gets handed to you by way of experience after working hundreds of cases in a particular area of law.
All programs designed for entry-level paralegals provide a broad overview of these different areas of law. This is for good reason. Most paralegals in most firms are going to be working on cases in different areas of law and need a broad enough education to understand the unique aspects of each.
Virtually all programs above entry-level certificates offer at least some opportunity to tailor the program by selecting electives specific to a particular area of law, or otherwise have established tracks to choose from.
When we talked to Dana Medley-Vogel, who has been working as a paralegal for the last ten years, she told us, “My paralegal educational program gave me a taste of everything. There’s the research aspect, which is important for every type of law. We did bankruptcy law, family law, criminal law—we basically covered all the different disciplines… Everybody had their kind of law that they were interested in.”
By studying aspects of different areas of law, paralegals are prepared to step into any role, and while some additional coursework will prepare you to better serve a firm that specializes in a particular area of law, it’s really through experience that you become a specialist.
Don’t Feel Stuck in One Area of the Law
We also had the opportunity to speak to Kristy Russell, who has worked as a paralegal for eight years. And over those eight years the types of cases she found herself working on changed.
“I started my paralegal career at the Attorney General’s Office working in Public Safety, specifically with the Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) Unit. That job was not easy, but I did it knowing I was doing the right thing and helping people. That type of law is all I dealt with at that point. I wish I had known how intense it can be at times. There were times that I felt I couldn’t do it because of being easily overwhelmed, but you learn how to handle it,” Kristy said.
Currently, Kristy works in an office where she handles all types of law. “The office consists of me and the attorney and she practices everything from Estate Planning to Family Law to Civil Litigation. Because this is a general practice office, you really have to be diligent and pay attention to the law for each specific matter. I have been at this job for 6 years and I’m still learning new things every day, but I am more confident in my ability. I have learned how to switch from Estate Planning to Family Law without losing track. I have been able to quickly change my mindset from one type of law to another,” she said.
When working in a general practice office, it’s crucial to have a solid foundation in many different types of law. If your paralegal education program focused on a specific area of law, it’s always a good idea to take part in training seminars offered by national or regional paralegal associations, which will dive a little deeper into the changing rules and regulations surrounding different types of law.
Even your state NALA or NFPA chapter is going to offer annual conferences and continuing education courses.
Another good way to keep up? Ask questions. As Kristy put it…
“If I have learned anything, it’s that you must always be willing to learn something new. Law is ever changing and you have to stay informed and up to date. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, that is how you learn. I still ask questions and I’ve been here for 6 years.”
If You Don’t Like the Cards You’re Dealt, Find an Area that Works for You
Both Kristy and Dana expressed that family law is a particularly difficult area of law. Working in the Sexually Violent Predator unit or even just with adoption and guardianship reveals the ugly side of humanity.
“One thing is that you don’t realize how involved you’re going to get in some of these matters,” Kristy said.
“You bring your work home with you sometimes. We do a lot of guardianship cases, and we really go above and beyond when it comes to kids. I wish I would have known how involved it would be. When I was an official in the sexual predator unit in the attorney general’s office, I saw a lot of heavy stuff, heard a lot of stuff. All different types of law require you to get involved, but when it involves children, it’s a little more intense,” she explained.
“You definitely don’t want to do guardianship or even family law if you can’t handle it, as it can get pretty ugly sometimes,” Kristy said.
Dana echoed Kristy’s sentiment about the difficulty of family law: “We dealt with a lot of child abuse, and a lot of abused women and children. That was very hard, and very disturbing. At the same time, it was very rewarding to feel like you helped people,” she said.
In her current position, Kristy often works with land disputes and civil litigation. “To me, it’s interesting to see what exactly they’re fighting over or what the issue may be. There’s a lot of work that we do with the assessor’s office and I like to see what the big deal is that causes those conflicts,” Kristy said.
While Kristy enjoys working with estate planning, Dana finds real-estate law interesting, saying “I’m one of those people that likes to learn and I find a lot of different things interesting and fascinating.”
Kristy advised, “Don’t just stick to one area of law because it’s what’s set in your mind, because you never know what you’re going to love.”
“I was so adamant that I would never do Estate Planning and I absolutely wanted to do Family Law. We practice both in this office, and my preference has flipped. I do not enjoy Family Law, but I really do like working with Estate Plans. It’s all about preference, of course, but I recommend keeping an open mind. Figure out what it is that you want to deal with every day,” Kristy said.