Careers in Law FirmsLaw Firms can be found in just about every town or city in the country. However, you don’t have to be a lawyer to work for a law firm.
The purpose of this article is to guide its readers through work within a law firm. In section one, you will find an overview of the legal field in general, as well as some of the occupations within it. Section two will dive more deeply into the job outlook, what employment looks like as well as expected wages for the occupation. The third and fourth sections are meant to show you the pros and cons of choosing the legal industry and what preparation for these careers looks like, respectively. Within each section, informational sources will also be provided.
Law Firm WorkA large part of the population within a law firm is lawyers themselves. These lawyers work diligently to represent their clients to the best of their ability in legal proceedings, as well as keep their clients informed of their responsibilities and rights as a citizen. There are many areas of specialty for which lawyers may choose to work, such as real estate, immigration, divorce, bankruptcy, criminal law, etc. Some law firms practice law for several of these areas, while some choose to focus on one area of expertise. Recently, lawyers totaled nearly 34 percent of all employees within the legal field. About 35 percent is made up of legal secretaries, legal assistants as well as paralegals, combined. Other offices within the legal realm include title offices and notary offices.
Law offices cannot run with lawyers alone, however. Like any business, law firms take many people to run smoothly. Some other occupations that are important within a law firm include: IT (information technology) specialists, operations managers, bookkeepers, and records clerks. These employees do much of the behind-the-scenes work to make sure the company has what it needs to function, including keeping the computer systems up and running and sending invoices to clients. Although important positions, these jobs make up a very small percentage of careers within the legal industry. In fact, some firms contract these positions out rather than hiring employees directly. In those cases, the positions aren’t considered part of the legal industry.
Many positions within law firms may overlap their duties. Legal secretaries, although hired to complete administrative tasks within the office (like scheduling meetings and filing documents), might find themselves doing some work that would normally be taken care of by a paralegal (like fact-checking and/or research), and vice versa.
LawyersIt is part of a lawyer’s job to be a representative and advisor for businesses and individuals on legal issues and matters. It is their job to know the law and be able to research current laws, rules and regulations in order to support their client’s case. In general, a lawyer will specialize in just one, possibly two areas of expertise. For example, corporate lawyers represent certain businesses through their legal matters like acquisitions, mergers and/or conflict; while criminal lawyers will represent and defend businesses or individuals when charged with crimes.
In order for the work to begin, the lawyer must first be hired by the person or business. Lawyers are hired not only to represent clients but also to give legal advice through certain pursuits, endeavors, and situations. It is their job to review all the documents available (for both their side and the opposing side) to determine what the facts are and how the case should be handled. After the documents are reviewed, they will also meet with their clients to interview them and retain additional facts pertaining to the case.
In addition, lawyers will also interview other individuals that might be relevant to their case. If people are reluctant to participate in a legal matter, sometimes the court might have to issue a subpoena urging they give the information they might know. The purpose of all this preparation is so the lawyer might be able to analyze and build their case, and come up with arguments supporting their client’s best interest. Lawyers must write documents supporting their case, which will then be submitted to the court. They also have to keep in touch with their clients to keep them abreast of the status of their case. Each law firm and lawyer differs in the time spent contacting clients, based on which type of practice they work within.
ParalegalsParalegals have a very broad job description. In general, they are there to support lawyers in whatever tasks needed. Many will do research, while some will write legal documents. Most will do fact-checking and correspond with the court and/or the client. Many of them will catalog and organize documents either chronologically or by subject matter using computer software and/or some sort of document management system. They will also review the documents of the case looking for specific topics or keywords, based on the case. Paralegals will help prepare for a case to go to court by organizing the lawyer’s documents so they are easily located. They might attend trials, in some instances, to give support as needed. Depending on the needs of the particular law firm, paralegals might also have the job task of taking care of administrative duties as well, such as filing documents, scheduling meetings with clients and sending documents/correspondence to interested parties. Similar to a lawyer, many paralegals specialize in a specific area of law, i.e. bankruptcy, divorce, criminal, etc. Their duties will differ based on the type and size of the law firm.
Legal SecretariesIt is the job of legal secretaries to support lawyers in administrative and clerical functions. Many spend their day typing correspondence, answering phones and organizing, filing and indexing legal materials and documents pertaining to the firm’s cases. It is also within their job description to proofread documents and keep track of important filing deadlines to keep the case running smoothly. They will additionally schedule all appointments and hearings, prepare travel arrangements as needed as well as keep the lawyer’s calendar updated.
Many legal secretaries will prepare needed financial reports as well as maintain the lawyer’s time sheet by keeping track of the number of hours spent on each case. Based on many factors, many legal secretaries will report to and support more than one lawyer at a time. Also, if a legal secretary is very experienced, they might be asked to help do research for some cases, review law journals, documents, and other resources.
Record ClerksRecord Clerks have the responsibility to keep track of, organize, and maintain a lawyer’s case files. Most record clerks will prepare files and documents for storage and easy retrieval. This involves packing file boxes, inventorying all items within each box, documenting and labeling said boxes and coordinating the pickup to an offsite storage location. It’s imperative that they do their job thoroughly and they are very detail-oriented so that when a paralegal or lawyer needs a file, they are able to locate and retrieve it quickly for them.
Some law firms might use a management software system to keep track of files. If so, it might be the responsibility of the record clerk to help upload documents within each file to this management system. It might also be within their job description to do some checking to determine there will be no potential conflict of interest in dealing with certain clients. A firm wants to ensure they are not representing both sides of the same legal matter. It is once again, imperative that the records clerk is very thorough when running their reports to make sure nothing is missed.
Some record clerks (titled Court Clerks) work for and support the courts system rather than a law firm. Their job would be similar in maintaining and organizing records for the court. They might also maintain the calendar of cases (called the docket), send reminders for upcoming court appearances to lawyers and/or witnesses as well as receive, file and forward and pertinent documents to relevant parties in each case.
BookkeepersIt is the responsibility of bookkeepers to keep track of and maintain the financial records of the law firm. They will prepare and send out invoices, collect payments, as well as keep track of any overdue payments. It is their responsibility to keep an eye on the firm’s bank account(s) and always know their status, process any incoming checks as well as handle payroll for the firm. Much of their job remains the same day-to-day and consists of a lot of data entry work.
Not only do the bookkeepers keep track of the finances, they also run financial reports for management to keep them aware of the health of the firm’s finances. These reports can help management determine which cases to accept and deny and where to allocate staff to increase efficiency.
A bookkeeper might also handle some administrative/clerical tasks for the firm, for example, they might be asked to fill in for the receptionist or be responsible for opening and closing the office.
Computer OccupationsInformation Technology (IT) employees, in several different positions are responsible for managing the computer systems at any law firm.
IT Directors or Computer and Information System Managers have the responsibility of making all manner of improvements and upgrades to a firm’s computer systems. This involves more than just the physical computers within the building. With today’s technology, lawyers have to be able to access their important documents and information from their smartphones or mobile devices and laptop computers. This is part of the computer systems an IT Director manages. Being able to help the clients whether in the office or out, is priority number one. There are a number of risks associated with using remote access. It is imperative that the security and confidentiality is maintained at all times.
Employees occupying other IT positions within the firm will oversee the day-to-day operations of the IT systems. A Computer Network Architect and/or a Network or Computer Systems Administrator would manage the employee’s work stations, email and data storage systems and ensure they are properly connected to the network. Computer and software training and fixing problems related to computer functions would be handled by the Computer Support Specialists. The creation of document management system software to ensure the security and safety of confidential information would be taken care of by a Database Administrator as well.
General and Operations ManagersGeneral and Operations Managers (also called Legal Administrators within a law firm) have the job of managing the firm as a whole. They handle the law firm on the business-end, always looking for ways to improve business, reduce costs, increase employee efficiency, and continually meet the ever-changing demands of the clients while maintaining the highest quality service possible.
Generally, it is also a Legal Administrator’s responsibility to oversee the day-to-day work and efficiency of the support staff of the firm, including the bookkeepers, record clerks and legal secretaries. This might also involve overseeing the operating budget as well as the daily cash flow, and possibly hiring, training and/or firing new staff. They might help on the bookkeeping end by sending out invoices or bills and receiving clients’ payments. They also might be responsible for ordering supplies, scheduling office upgrades and ensuring the company is well-maintained and safe for the employees and clients.
Most Legal Administrators will be expected to participate in the preparation of the financial plans and business strategies. They have the most insight into the challenges of the budget and are an important tool in making these plans. They use their creativity to come up with ways to stretch the company dollar and ways to save a buck here and there.
In some firms, General and Operations Managers are not hired. Instead they break the responsibilities down by department and hire many specialized managers to do this work on a smaller scale. These positions can include Financial Managers, Administrative Services Managers, and Human Resources Managers.
Employment, Outlook and WagesAlthough the legal industry took a bit of a hit in the early 2000’s, it has since begun to recover as far as job outlook goes. It has been projected that the industry will continue to grow through 2022, adding nearly 90,000 jobs; although the projections for individual positions within the field will vary.
Legal occupations by far outweigh other jobs within the legal industry and most are projected to see decent growth throughout the next decade. The median income for all of these positions varies greatly, but each one has been at least $35,000 since 2012.
As was previously stated, lawyers make up the largest occupation within the legal industry with paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries coming up right behind. The majority of people holding these positions choose to work within the legal industry, while a smaller portion hold their positions within management, business and administrative fields.
Law firms have been, and will continue to see many changes made in the way they function over the next ten years. Clients’ demands are high and efficiency of the law firm as a whole is important to meet these demands. Due to this, legal secretaries continue to see a decline in employment while paralegals and lawyers are asked to pick up some of their duties. In addition, legal assistants and paralegals are projected to face a much higher than average increase in employment due to similar changes. They are now taking on tasks that previously lawyers handled on their own in order to decrease costs and increase efficiency.
Projections made have indicated that lawyers, auditing clerks, bookkeepers, accountants and general and operations managers should see about an average increase, depending on growth of the legal industry as a whole.
In years past, the average annual wages within the legal industry have been over $53,000 as a whole, which tends to be higher for these positions than outside the legal industry. Legal Assistants generally get paid about the same wages which have been around $46,000 in this industry, while records clerks and information clerks would make less, around $29,000 in the legal industry.
Legal secretaries seem to make about the same no matter which industry they are working for, about $43,000. Of course, lawyers make much more (on average about $118,000, within the industry).
People are generally attracted to the legal industry, especially careers as a lawyer, because of the money potential it holds. However, just like with any other industry, potential employees must be aware that wages will vary based on a number of factors. Not only will the size of the firm make a difference, but the employee’s own experience, knowledge, and education, as well as where the firm is located, will also make a difference on the amount of money a position is paid.
Pros and Cons
As with any career in any type of business, employees in a law firm have particular likes and dislikes about their jobs. Many love knowing that they are helping their clients through something difficult; but law firm are fast-paced, high stress environments. Depending on the day or week, an employee might experience extremely long hours and have to deal with stressful situations and people. Clients might feel they should be your number one priority, even though you might have several cases you are working on at once.
Being employed with a law firm often means an unpredictable schedule. A law firm is not the same, week-to-week. There are major constraints on time when you have a particularly packed work week. The demands are also very high. You are dealing with other peoples’ problems and situations and the outcome of your case might change their lives. Most lawyers and legal support will typically end up working more than 40 hours a week (weekends, holidays and evenings included). Additional staff might be called in to help in these times as well, especially during trials.
These long days can be made longer when your work is tedious. Legal support staff and lawyers alike often have to review multiple documents for each case. These documents can be extremely long, which can make for an exhausting task. Workload and billing requirements vary by the size, location and type of law firm. Because of the crazed work schedule, many law firms offer flexible schedules as well as telecommuting to try to build some sort of work-life balance into the employees’ lives. In addition, not all law firm workers have crazed schedules. But, because of the nature of the business, their frustrations might lie in the fact that it feels like their work goes unnoticed.
PreparationFor someone looking to get into the legal industry, know that you have options. Each occupation has different skill, education and experience requirements.
No matter the career you choose in this field, communication is an important skill to possess. Lawyers must be able to clearly communicate with their clients and must have the persuasive skills needed to effectively argue their case and summarize the most important key points. They also have to communicate effectively to their support staff so they know where they are needed and what work should be done. If a lawyer cannot communicate effectively, they could easily complicate their own case.
Another essential skill is being able to work well with others. Cases are often assigned to teams, each consisting of legal support, and lawyers, all with their individual responsibilities and duties. Because your team relies on you to complete your work, everyone must be flexible, focused, organized and have the ability to prioritize tasks. Deadlines are usually very tight and days can be filled with stress. So being very detail-oriented is imperative because small mistakes can lead to big consequences when working in the legal field.
Education and Training
Each occupation has separate education and training requirements ranging from high school diplomas to professional degrees depending on the position.
High School Diploma
Positions that require a high school diploma are record clerk, legal secretary and bookkeeper. These are considered entry-level positions, and therefore do not require any education beyond high school. That being said, many law firms might prefer an employee with some college education, but as long as an applicant has office and computer skills, they qualify for the job. On-the-job training will be required to learn the ins and outs of the firm and the position. Legal secretaries must be versed in legal terminology, and therefore will receive training in that area. Also, bookkeepers and record clerks must know the firm’s software needed for record and bookkeeping.
Although a bachelor’s degree might be preferred for a position as a paralegal, typically the requirements include an associate’s degree in paralegal studies or any bachelor’s degree with a certificate in paralegal studies. These degrees will intertwine training needed to be a paralegal with other general academics. Some other paralegals might be hired with no formal paralegal education but might complete on-the-job training to gain job competency.
Typically a bachelor’s degree in information or computer science is required to obtain a career as a network architect, information systems manager or a database or systems administrator. Some positions as a computer support specialist might require a bachelor’s degree; however some might only require a small amount of college or possibly an associate’s degree. There will of course be training on-the-job, and employees will start out working on the simplest problems first, and moving to more difficult projects as they gain more experience. General and Operations Managers should plan on getting their bachelor’s degree in business administration, human resources or finance and usually don’t need additional training to be competent to do their job.
Lawyers are required to gain a degree beyond a bachelor’s degree. They must continue their schooling until they receive their Juris Doctor (J.D.) Degree from an accredited law school. Coursework they will be taking in law school includes classes in topics such as legal research and writing, contracts as well as tax law. They don’t usually need additional training to qualify for positions; however they will need to be licensed and become a member of the bar. Requirements for practicing law vary from state to state.
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