The roles and duties of a paralegal go beyond being an assistant to a lawyer. According to the American Association for Paralegal Education, paralegals are trained to perform substantive and procedural legal work which can also be performed by an attorney in their absence. Paralegals gain their knowledge through education, training, and work experience.
The paralegal field falls under what is referred to as the “unregulated” sector. This means that there are no specific rules and qualifications that all paralegals must have. However, in West Virginia and other regions, paralegals are expected to demonstrate a good understanding of legal matters and the legal system in general. Employers may insist on a certificate or diploma in legal studies, a foundation degree in paralegal practice or legal studies, and a paralegal practice award. The qualifications will depend on the type of job being applied for.
The requirements will hinge on the job level and the employer’s specifications. Generally, aspiring paralegals are expected to demonstrate a good command of the legal system and good administration skills. Eligible candidates can enroll in a community college to get their associate degree. According to industry trends in West Virginia, most of the employers prefer to work with individuals who have at least earned a diploma or a degree. Relevant work experience may also be a requirement especially for senior paralegal positions. Again, depending on the job, some employers will require the candidates to have certain legal specialties. For instance, a corporate law firm may require the applicants to have an understanding on tax and corporate law.
Paralegals are also required to have a certain skills set:
Interpersonal skills- part of the job description is interviewing clients, and this calls for good interpersonal skills.
Communication skills-reporting the findings and drafting reports are skills expected of a paralegal.
Organization skills-paralegal work entails lots of paper work and data that need to be organized for future retrieval. Computer skills are also needed.
Attention to detail and high accuracy levels
Ability to follow and execute instructions
Initiative and team work
Time management skills
Respect for confidential data and information
Patience and tact
Ability to process and absorb large amounts of complex data
Problem solving skills
Legal interpretation know-how.
Better job prospects are available for candidates who gain further experience through training programs and practical experience. Various schools will offer internship programs for their students. These opportunities can also be sought from legal aid organizations, private law firms or even government agencies. The training offered in these programs equip candidates with experience and a better grasp of the job market. In most cases, employers also provide in-house on-the-job training. This training may cover, company procedures, case management systems, administrative procedures and in-depth training in specific areas of law. It is worth noting that, non-lawyer assistants such as paralegals must be supervised by lawyers. Lawyers are tasked with the responsibility of guiding paralegals in matters of professional conduct, ethics and confidentiality.
There are several paralegal schools in West Virginia. The Mountwest Community college offers approved paralegal associate degree. This course is approved by the American Bar Association. Student who graduate from Mountwest can be transferred to the Marshal University, which offers a degree in legal studies for a period of four years. The advisory committee and the West Virginia State Bar collaborated to offer the course of study offered at Marshall University. Courses in these institutions are offered on a fulltime, part time and online basis.
Paralegal Job Outlook
Projections and industry trends show that the paralegal profession in West Virginia is likely to grow by about 6.8 percent. This figure may be lower than major states, however, it is higher than the surrounding states. In 2014, about 2, 180 paralegals were hired. This is expected to increase as a result of the growth from the sector. In future, most of the jobs are expected to come from existing firms, while others will come from new firms. More job opportunities are available in Charleston. A paralegal seeking employment can find opportunities in legal departments and law firms.
On average, a paralegal in West Virginia earns $40,830 per year. This figure is lower than what other legal assistants earn in other states. However, the cost of living in West Virginia is significantly lower, in fact, about 14 percent lower than the national’s average. This means that more can be done with the salary earned. The legal sector is changing and law firms are in a constant pursuit of finding ways to increase efficiency. In order to achieve this, many firms are opting to hire more paralegals and legal assistants. The future is therefore expected to come with more integrated roles for paralegals. This also means more job opportunities.