by Hildegard Warner %i^
A new legal specialty has emerged during
the seventies—the paralegal, or legal assistant—offering a professional career opportunity for women. Although it has grown
out of the traditional concept of law
clerk, paralegals are recognized as professionals by attorneys and clients. Paralegals
are not legal secretaries, although, at this
time, their salaries are about equal.
Because the paralegal position is so
new, there is no clear-cut definition of job
duties, according to Lee Kooistra, director
of Texas Paralegal School in Houston.
"Paralegals are able to do many of the
tasks traditionally done by an attorney and
accept greater responsibilities than a secretary or clerk," she said.
Paralegals are coming into their own
because of increased demands placed on
lawyers, Kooistra said. Legal services, once
a right for only the elite and well-to-do,
are now available to all groups in society.
"More and more people seeking legal counsel put an attorney in a position of needing assistance," Kooistra added.
But soaring costs have put legal services
out of reach of the poor and lower socioeconomic groups. Norma Stewart of the
Houston Legal Assistants Association
(HLAA) said attorneys are recognizing
that paralegals can perform services for
their clients at a lower cost.
The State Bar of Texas reports,'The use
of legal assistants is not only desirable but
in the future will become essential to the
furnishing of competent legal services at a
price which clients can afford to* pay."
"Paralegals can enable attorneys to take
on different types of cases, and add to
their clientele," Kooistra added.
Paralegals work in all areas of the law:
corporate, family practice, estate administration, civil and criminal litigation, probate, taxes, copyrights and trademarks,
real estate and labor.
The job potential in Houston is great,
with over 8000 licensed attorneys in the
area, according to John Sharp, coordinator
of the legal assistants program at Houston
Although Houston has a large number
of attorneys, many of them need to be
educated regarding the use of paralegals.
"The attorneys have a need they do not
know how to fill," Kooistra said. "They
are carrying a heavy load. We want to educate them to use paralegals to fill this
need. Paralegals can lighten their load."
While paralegals are not considered
legal secretaries, their salary range has not
yet surpassed that of the secretaries. According to Stewart, coordinator of the
HLAA job bank, large law firms are hiring
beginning paralegals at $850 per month.
Texas Paralegal School graduates start at
$1100 to $1200 a month, Kooistra said.
A beginning legal secretary also starts
at $850 a month, according to Mariella
Testa, past chairperson of the employment
committee of the Houston Association of
Legal Secretaries. "A very qualified legal
secretary will start at $1200 to $1400 a
month, plus paid parking if she works
downtown," she explained.
Although many legal secretaries, such
as Testa, look at paralegals as "glorified
secretaries with a special title," the paralegals consider themselves on a professional level with the attorneys. Often they
have secretaries of their own.
Connie Landers said her position in the
office changed after she became a paralegal. She formerly was a secretary before
her boss put her through Texas Paralegal
School and promoted her with "a substantial increase in salary."
"Before I had to run after him like a
puppy dog to get him to answer questions.
Now when I say I need to talk to him, we
go into his office or mine and he pays attention," Landers said.
"When you become a paralegal, you
move up from being a clerk or secretary,"
Theresa Emmitt added. You are thought
of as a professional and have more responsibility. You have to make decisions on
your own. You are expected to do your
own thinking and organizing."
Anderson and Stewart believe that
paralegals working for small firms are given
the greatest amount of responsibility. In
large firms duties are more clerical and
paralegals are 'gophers,' getting coffee
and typing,"Anderson said.
But paralegals Emmitt and Brook Dold
do not agree. Emmitt works with four
other paralegals and 30 attorneys in the
patent and copyright division of Arnold,
White and Durkee. She was a legal clerk
in the firm for six months prior to her
"My duties include gathering required
information and documents for persons
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Soaring costs have put legal services out of
reach of the poor and lower socio-economic
groups. Paralegals can perform services for
clients at a lower cost.
The main difference between a legal
secretary and a paralegal lies in the performance of duties and the amount of
responsibility on the job. Legal assistants,
like attorneys, work under a legal code of
ethics because they work directly with
"I feel the responsibility very heavily,"
Donna Anderson, a paralegal student said.
"A person could go to prison because a
brief I prepared failed."
A paralegal assumes as much responsibility as she can handle, Landers said. "I
interview clients, file divorce petitions, do
research, draft documents, prepare inventories and workmen's compensation claims,
handle probate and maintain the books for
six corporations," she explained. Her boss
had not taken probate cases or kept corporate books before she became a paralegal. He added these services to his practice because she is now able to do the work.
wishing to obtain patents in foreign countries and investigating the tax structures
of the countries so the clients can fulfill
their tax obligations properly," Emmitt
Dold works in the area of municipal
financing and water districts for Vinson &
Elkins, the second largest law firm in the
country. She has been at her present position for six years.
"I consider myself a professional," Dold
said. "I work independently of my boss on
a day-to-day basis and have had a growth
of responsibilities each month since I have
been here." She handles all the administrative duties of the water districts her boss
represents. "My job never gets boring,"
Occasionally paralegals find themselves
in jobs where they are not treated professionally. Sheila Boydstun and Edith
Gonzalez both attended paralegal school
and went to work for firms which handled
collections. Neither firm would delegate
responsibility and the women became
frustrated and left.
"I was tied to the typewriter. I wasn't
trained to be a legal secretary. I would like
to have gotten into the law books and
gone to the courthouse," explained
Gonzalez. She changed careers and now
works as an aide to U.S. Representative
Like professionals in other fields, paralegals are forming groups to provide solidarity and support among members and to
educate others about the paralegal career.
Within the last six months, a group of local paralegals has formed the Houston Legal Assistants Association, which now has
about 100 members, according to Dold,
corresponding secretary. The Houston
organization has not yet affiliated with the
state or national associations.
There are three paralegal schools in
Houston which are approved by the Texas
Education Agency to train legal assistants.
Each school's curriculum has courses in
law theory, as well as in special areas of
law—real estate, family law, torts, wills and
trusts. The schools prepare general practice
paralegals, although most graduates get
into specialized areas of law on the job.
Each school offers a different type of
training program. Students attend Texas
Paralegal School for nine months, completing 720 hours of classes. Kooistra
said it is a strenuous program: "The work
load is equal to taking 20 hours of college
credit a semester." Students may participate in an optional intern program, working on actual cases for attorneys.
The Southwestern Paralegal Institute
offers a three-month program, according
to Janet Covington, director, while Houston Community College offers a two-year
course leading to an Associate of Applied
Science Degree in Legal Assistant Technology. Sophomore students work 20
hours a week in a lawyer's office as part
of a cooperative program, coordinator
John Sharp said.
Not all paralegals have attended special
schools, however. Paralegals at Harris
County Child Welfare (HCCW) have received training while on the job as case
workers and moved into legal work, said
Judy Hay, community relations director.
Dold, who has a college degree, said she
has also received her paralegal training on
the job. "There is no training school for
the work I do," she said. "My job does not
require paralegal school and what I have
learned here will easily transfer to another position."
Paralegals come from a variety of backgrounds, whether they have attended paralegal school or received on-the-job training. Most have baccalaureate degrees;some
have advanced degrees. Some cannot find
jobs in their major fields; others are
switching careers. Many are former legal
secretaries. Some paralegals have ambitions to attend law school at a later time;
others say they plan to make paralegal
work a career.
With the rapid population and corporate growth occurring in the Houston area
and a corresponding need for additional
legal services, it is inevitable that the demand for paralegals will grow.
Hildegard Warner is a UH journalism
student and an intern at Breakthrough.