Within the legal services industry, you will find many different areas of practice and types of cases. Paralegals may specialize in one or more of these areas, developing extensive skills in the legal tasks associated with that practice area. Not every paralegal chooses to specialize, and which specialty you pursue may impact everything from the amount of money you earn to the daily job duties you perform. Before deciding to specialize, it is important to think about the consequences – both good and bad – of being a specialist paralegal and weigh your options.
The Pros and Cons of Specialization
One reason it’s difficult for paralegals to decide whether to choose an area of specialization – and what area of law to choose – is because there are both benefits and drawbacks to specializing. When you specialize in one area of law, you develop a greater depth of understanding of that field. As a paralegal, you become more familiar with each of the different tasks involved in that area of law that fall under the scope of your work. While a generalist may be able to do an adequate job of writing a type of legal document, it takes a specialist to fully understand the nuances and develop advanced skills in crafting the perfect legal document needed for the case.
As you continue to cultivate your skills in your area of specialty and use those skills to acquire more experience and contribute to better client results, you will have something to offer potential employers that other paralegals do not. Lawyers who are looking for your unique skill set may be willing to pay you more as a specialist than you would earn as a generalist, and you may have more opportunities to move up into supervisory roles.
However, specializing in one area of law can also be limiting. Generalists may not qualify for specialized paralegal roles, but they have a far greater number of possible positions open to them. They may choose to work for a general practice law firm, handling a little bit of everything, or they may move into roles that don’t require an exceptional level of specialized knowledge in law firms that do specialize or in-house legal departments. The generalist skill set is more versatile, since even specialized attorneys don’t need all of their paralegals to be experts in one type of law. While a specialist paralegal may get rusty at tasks they don’t normally do in their area of practice, generalists develop and maintain proficiency in a greater variety of legal tasks.
Paralegals should also consider their personal interests and work preferences when deciding whether to specialize. Do you feel a calling to delve deeper into one area of legal practice, or do you enjoy the breadth of work duties you have as a generalist?
Popular Specializations for Paralegals
Among the most important specializations are corporate paralegal, which relates to contracts and other business legal matters, and litigation paralegals, which involve the lawsuit process, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These specializations primarily revolve around work setting, with corporate referring to work in the legal department of a company and litigation generally meaning work in a law firm. There are many other types of paralegal specialties, as well.
If you choose to specialize in family law, you usually will work closely with clients to prepare documents and files an attorney uses in child custody battles and other family legal matters. Some paralegals specialize in immigration law, in which they – in a supporting role under an immigration attorney – assist with filing documents and applications that relate to immigration status. As a real estate paralegal, you can help with the extensive legal paperwork and documentation involved in buying and selling properties and other real estate transactions. Some paralegals specialize in assisting attorneys with matters involving intellectual property – inventions and innovations that can be trademarked, copyrighted or patented.
Some paralegals balance different, but complementing, specializations. Both corporate and litigation paralegals may handle many types of legal matters, such as contracts and real estate transactions, The Houston Chronicle reported.
Both your type of workplace and your legal area of specialization impact your earning potential. Generally, corporate paralegals earn more – up to $10,000 to $20,000 more annually – but in intellectual property matters, paralegals in law firms tend to make more.
How Paralegals Specialize in an Area of Law
Most paralegal studies programs include coursework in numerous areas of legal practice. By gaining familiarity with all of these areas of law, students not only develop the foundation they need to succeed as generalist paralegals but also have the opportunity to explore what they like and dislike about each type of practice. Some paralegal studies programs offer students the opportunity to declare a concentration, but not all programs do this.
Fortunately, you don’t have to start specializing prior to starting your paralegal career, and you don’t necessarily need a formal educational program to do so. Many paralegals begin to specialize as they gain work experience in the field. You may opt to earn a certificate in an area such as contract law, criminal law, personal injury law or family law, or you may simply be qualified to apply for more specialized positions as a result of acquiring years of specialized work experience.
Aspiring paralegals who are eager to specialize can strategically search for internships in the area of law that interests them. Networking with attorneys and paralegals in that area of law and arranging to “shadow” them to learn more about their work is another option.