Paralegal profession seeing growth spurt

Paralegal Shannon Cassidy goes through files at Randall Harris’ law firm Friday in Clovis. Many schools and universities are offering paralegal courses that can certify successful graduates in less than two months. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

The clock is ticking and the paperwork is piling up.

Two-hundred pages to brief, 30 minutes till court and little room for error.

Welcome to the paralegal profession.

“There is never a day that you are caught up,” said Shannon Cassidy, who works as a paralegal at Randall Harris’ law firm, as she thumbed through the files still on her desk late Friday afternoon. “There’s generally never two days that are the same.”

Despite the challenges, the paralegal profession is projected to grow faster than the average of all occupations through 2012, according to statistics compiled on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site. The paralegal profession is the sixth-fastest growing field in America, and paralegal jobs are expected to increase by 62 percent nationwide by 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In New Mexico, paralegals were expected to increase by 58 percent from 1998 to 2008, according to state estimates.

The growth in the profession can be attributed to law firms and other employers hiring paralegals to cut costs and increase the availability and efficiency of legal services. However, competition will stay strong as more people study to become paralegals as the market expands, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site shows.

Cassidy said the challenge and rewards of the paralegal profession drew her to it. She contemplated law school, but wasn’t willing to make the time commitment to earn her degree. Instead, she enrolled in a two-year paralegal program at Albuquerque Career Institute and came to Clovis to work in the legal profession.

Responding to the growing need for paralegals, Eastern New Mexico University is offering an 84-hour, boot-camp-style paralegal course that will certify successful graduates in less than two months.

Although Cassidy went through a two-year program, she said a boot-camp-style program may be sufficient, because paralegals learn much of their trade on the job.

The ENMU program has been offered before, but this year students can participate through correspondence, online classes or live lecture, a press release from the university shows.

Portales attorney Eric Dixon said the curriculum teaches a lot of practical, hands-on skills, like looking up cases and writing briefs. The ENMU class meets twice a week and once on Saturday over the course of the intensive six-week period, he said.

“A well-trained paralegal is worth their weight in gold,” said Dixon, who taught the same course last year.

He said paralegal professionals can work in a variety of industries, at abstract companies and private corporations.

According to the press release, paralegal professionals earn $36,292 on average in and around Portales. That’s just about $1,500 behind the national average for the profession.

The spring course will begin Jan. 25 and finish in March.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor reports that approximately 600 schools offer paralegal programs. Some programs are as short as a few months and others are as long as four years.

Most certificate programs provide intensive paralegal training for those who already hold college degrees, while associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs combine paralegal training with courses in other academic subjects.