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Paralegals seeing more diversity in job choices

The paralegal profession has been named one of the hottest career fields in the first decade of the new millennium, and officials involved in training paralegals in Mississippi say increasing numbers of not only law firms but other types of businesses are seeing the value of putting a paralegal on staff.

“I’m seeing a lot more Mississippi attorneys learning the value of paralegals,” said Jim Davidson, director of the paralegal studies program at the Mississippi University for Women (MUW). “We have a lot of small firms in Mississippi whose attorneys are having to do a lot of the tasks that would be assigned to a paralegal in a larger firm. They are seeing that if they hire a paralegal, it frees them to concentrate on what they do best — the actual practice of law. It is also a lot more cost effective than expanding the firm by hiring an associate.”

Davidson said paralegals make sense for more than just law firms. Many different types of businesses can use paralegals to coordinate legal affairs, handle personnel problems and workers’ compensation, and simply to head off potential problems that can be costly and time consuming.

“We are telling paralegals, ‘Don’t just think about going to work for law firms’,” Davidson said. “Look at corporations, banks, insurance companies and small businesses. Another thing I’m seeing is that the salaries are going up quite a bit, and that is another incentive. As Mississippi attorneys recognize the value of paralegals, and they become more in demand, the rule of supply and demand comes into play and salaries are going up quite a bit.

“There are terrific job opportunities out there for a trained paralegal with salaries commensurate with that training. We had a paralegal graduate of our program come back last year and reported a six-figure income last year from paralegal work. She’s the exception, not the rule, at this point. But it shows what is possible.”

There are different types of paralegal programs available in the state including a certificate program which can cover a period as short as six weeks, two-year programs at community colleges and four-year programs at universities. Davidson said some of the community colleges like Northeast Mississippi Community College and Hinds Community College have excellent two-year programs.

He encourages students who get two-year degrees to continue on to obtain a four-year degree in order to have the better education and credentials that can translate into increased job opportunities and salaries. Four-year degrees are available at MUW and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

Currently paralegals aren’t licensed like many other professionals, but Davidson expects that in the future paralegals will be required to be licensed. He said Mississippi will be well positioned for licensing because of its four-year programs. He adds that The Mississippi Bar has been on the cutting edge of developments in the paralegal profession, which is a relatively new career, only about 30 years old.

Gail Lucas, a certified legal assistant specialist who is assistant director of USM’s paralegal studies program, said there is a high level of interest in the university’s paralegal program. Currently 63 students are majoring in paralegal studies.

“We have one group of students who have an interest in law and see it as a good opportunity to work in the legal profession,” Lucas said. “And we have some students who are getting a degree in paralegal studies with the intention of going on to get a law degree. They use their undergraduate degree in paralegal studies in preparation for that. Some believe it is good preparation for law school. They are more familiar with the area of law because they know the terminology and have some background and contacts before they go to law school.”

One change in the profession that Lucas sees is a trend towards specialty areas. Some of the hotter specialty areas are litigation, bankruptcy, real estate, criminal law, corporate law and intellectual properties.

Another trend is for paralegals to be involved in management of law firms. And Lucas sees that not only are more and more attorneys hiring paralegals these days, they are also being given more responsibilities.

“Job prospects are very good,” Lucas said. “The market is strong right now, and while most of the people go to work in private law firms, there are also opportunities in government and also with corporations.”

Lucas said pay varies a good deal. In Mississippi, beginning pay probably averages from the upper teens through the 20s. The national average for beginning pay is the lower 20s to the upper 30s. Experienced paralegals can command even higher salaries. Lucas said the pay varies depending on a number of factors including the size of the law firm and geographic location. The Southeast U.S. tends to be one of the lower-paying regions.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.


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