Being a paralegal is not for everybody, but for those who don’t mind the stress and have the interest and ability, benefits can include interesting work, lots of autonomy, and a decent salary — with starting pay in Mercer County in the $25,000 to $30,000 range, rising to $60,000 with experience. Pay in New York City can be twice that amount.

“A paralegal,” says Eric Perkins, coordinator of the paralegal program at Mercer County Community College, “is a person who works either independently or with a law firm or the State of New Jersey and provides support to an attorney.” The areas of law most likely to use paralegals include real estate, to prepare for closings; worker’s compensation; civil litigation; personal injury work; trusts and estates; and bankruptcy. Paralegals function with more and less independence depending on the field in which they work.

Perkins offers “Role of the Paralegal,” the introductory course in Mercer’s paralegal program, on Monday evenings, beginning on Monday, August 28, at 5:40 p.m. The program runs through December 13. Tuition is $294.50. To register, call 609-570-3311.

The class introduces the field, explaining how a paralegal works in different areas of the law: family, real estate, contracts, wills and probate, civil litigation, and bankruptcy. It also provides an introduction to legal research. “The class serves a dual purpose,” says Perkins. “It is an opportunity for students to decide if they are interested in the program, and it gives me a chance to see if they are likely to succeed in it.”

The students are also required to take a course in legal research and writing — learning about the citation system used in legal briefs as well as the computerized programs used for legal research — and to complete an internship, the last course in the program.

For law firms, employing a paralegal often makes economic sense. “It is an extension of the attorney’s ability to work,” says Perkins. For example, paralegals may assist an attorney in drafting divorce complaints and foreclosure papers, each of which retain much of the same language from case to case. They also do legal research. For example, in a large class-action lawsuit, paralegals may help to compile information on the class to see if it is usable in the case or not.

In terms of charging clients, says Perkins, “it is legitimate to bill for a paralegal’s time separate from the attorney’s time.” Although real estate closing generally go for a fixed price, it is common to see a paralegal’s hours split out if the attorney is charging on an hourly basis.

Why do people choose to become paralegals instead of attorneys? “Some people like the diversity and excitement,” says Perkins about the paralegal profession, “and it’s fairly decent paying.” And there are good reasons why people may not be able to become lawyers: their grades or LSAT scores may not be high enough, they may not want to take the three years required to complete law school, or they may simply not be able to afford a legal education.

“We get students out of high school or coming back looking for skills to get employment,” says Perkins. “We have had students in the past who have gone on to law school, but it’s relatively uncommon, and there is no transfer of coursework.”

Perkins says that some of the stress of the legal profession is passed on to paralegals. “We are trying to handle more work than is humanly possible,” he explains. “It is more fast paced with the advent of computers and fax machines.” For example, real estate closings, which used to take 60 to 90 days, can now be done in two weeks — or less if absolutely necessary. But when large sums of money are involved, attorneys and their paralegals want to make sure everything is done right.

Born in Trenton, Perkins went to Princeton High School and graduated from Ohio University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. He received his law degree from Rutgers Law School in Newark

Perkins got started in education with the state’s now defunct department of higher education, where he did regulatory work, lobbying, testifying before the state legislative, and drafting laws. Then for two years he ran the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, an advocate group. In 1986 he was hired as Dean of Planning at Mercer County Community College, and in 1990 became a vice president.

Mercer’s paralegal program, one of the first in New Jersey, celebrated its 25th anniversary a couple of years ago. At present New Jersey has one four-year paralegal studies program, at Montclair State, and Pennsylvania has two. All of Mercer’s instructors are lawyers and all courses are offered in the evening. “Many of our students work in other careers, or law firms send them to us to enhance their skills,” says Perkins. Some students who complete Mercer’s two-year program go straight to work in a law office and others transfer to Rider or Rutgers.

Perkins tries to give his students a taste of how the law works by having them analyze a case that has already been reported. They might be asked to determine who is responsible in an automobile accident, using three decisions that have been rendered with similar circumstances. The students decide which facts are appropriate for the fact pattern they are given, and how the law may or may not be applied.

According to Perkins, law is now a very vibrant field, and one thing he preaches to his students is the changing nature of the law. He cites, for example, a recent front-page article in the New York Times on how Florida has changed its self-defense rule; now, instead of being required to retreat and try to get out of the way if assaulted, people who have behaved aggressively have not been charged in cases that would previously have been murder. And, after bankruptcy law changed a year ago, all of the paralegals in the field not only had to change the way they worked, but they also saw their workloads greatly increased.

In our increasingly litigious society, the paralegal field is full of opportunities. Perkins reports that Mercer County firms have been actively looking for paralegals this summer.

This is often mentally challenging work, and it is work that career changers can prepare for without quitting their current jobs. Like every other job, however, it has drawbacks, including lots of paper shuffling, and, at most firms, very limited opportunities to move up. (No matter how talented and hardworking, a paralegal will never be promoted to attorney.) This introductory course offers an excellent opportunity to ask Perkins hard questions about the realities of the paralegal profession.

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