Paralegal degrees and certificates can open up doors to many different occupations, two of the biggest options being private law firm work or governmental department work. Both have benefits, and both have their less desirable aspects. Ultimately it is a personal decision that comes down to the kind of work environment, stability and compensation you are wanting out of a career.
Private practice can range from a law firm with just one or two attorneys to a large firm with multiple departments and a staff of over 100 professionals. In smaller firms, paralegals perform a wider variety of tasks, while larger firms usually assign paralegals to specific departments specializing only in one area of the law, such as family law, personal injury litigation or estate work. Private practice requires paralegals to bill their time in six minute increments, just as attorneys do, and this information is entered into each client’s invoice. Therefore, in the private firm setting, paralegals are expected to keep a detailed and organized log of time spent on each case. Most practices involve civil litigation, including family law, contract law, personal injury law and bankruptcy. Some attorneys work as public defenders under a separate contract, but these positions are smaller, as criminal law work is normally associated with government work.
Private practice involves being expected to work often more than the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. Unlike government offices, private firms normally do not close for government holidays with the exception of the select few, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. Any time off is expected to either be unpaid or taken from the staff member’s personal or vacation time.
Government work can range from administrative law in specific governmental departments or civil or criminal practice in prosecutor’s offices, the Department of Child Services offices, or in the court system. Professionals in these offices do work more than the normal office hours on occasion, but governmental work is not expected to be billed and offices have set hours for employees. Paralegals in these departments do focus on a specific area of the law rather than a little bit of everything as is the case in private firms.
In terms of compensation, government attorneys are normally paid slightly less than in private practice. Government employees are at the mercy of state and local government budgets and will only receive pay increases if authorized annually by the legislature. In private practice, however, pay is normally set annually and private employees are given pay increases depending on firm income. For paralegals involved in contested litigation cases, especially those working overtime on personal injury matters, they may receive a portion of the settlement received in the form of a bonus. Additionally pay in larger firms tends to be higher although this varies from city to city, state to state.
Private practice and governmental work both have their benefits, and not every paralegal is cut out for one or the other. Before taking a job in either consider the amount of time you wish to dedicate to your work, your budget, the type of work you would like to do, and the size of the office in which you would like to work, picking one field from there.