Paralegal Career For Dummies®


by Scott Hatch, JD, and
Lisa Zimmer Hatch, MA




About the Authors

Scott and Lisa Hatch have prepared students for careers in the legal field for over 25 years. While in law school in the late ’70s, Scott Hatch taught LSAT preparation courses throughout Southern California to pay for his education. After graduation, he went out on his own and, at the urging of one of his students, added paralegal courses to his course offerings. Using materials he developed himself, he then prepared thousands of eager career seekers to work as paralegals, legal nurse consultants, legal secretaries, legal investigators, mediators, and victim advocates.

Scott and Lisa kindled their romance in the classroom. Lisa took one of Scott’s LSAT preparation courses at the University of Colorado and improved her love life as well as her LSAT score. Lisa’s love for instructing and writing allowed her to fit right in with Scott’s lifestyle, teaching courses and preparing course materials. They married shortly thereafter.

Since then, Scott and Lisa have taught students worldwide. Currently, over 300 universities and colleges offer their courses through live lectures, correspondence, and online, and Scott and Lisa have written the curriculum for all formats. The company they have built together, The Center for Legal Studies, provides courses for those who desire careers in the field of law (including paralegals, legal secretaries, legal investigators, victim advocates, and legal nurse consultants) and who need preparation for the gamut of standardized tests.

Scott has presented standardized test and legal career courses since 1980. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado and his Juris Doctorate from Southwestern University School of Law. He’s listed in Who’s Who in California and Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities, and he was named one of the Outstanding Young Men of America by the United States Jaycees. He was a contributing editor to The Judicial Profiler and the Colorado Law Annotated series and has served as editor of several award winning publications.

Lisa has been teaching legal certificate and standardized test courses since 1987. She graduated with honors in English from the University of Puget Sound, and received her master’s degree from California State University. She and Scott have co-authored numerous law and standardized test texts, including Paralegal Procedures and Practices; A Paralegal Primer; and SAT II U.S. History For Dummies, SAT II Biology For Dummies, and SAT II Math For Dummies (Wiley).



We dedicate our For Dummies series books to Alison, Andrew, Zachary, and Zoe Hatch. Rather than file missing persons reports on their parents with local law enforcement agencies, they demonstrated extreme patience, understanding, and assistance while we wrote this book.


Authors’ Acknowledgments

This book wouldn’t have been possible without the extensive research and writing contributions of Martin Rollins, JD, and David Newland, JD. Their efforts greatly enhanced our information gathering, and we’re deeply grateful to them.

We also need to acknowledge the input of the thousands of paralegal, legal secretary, legal investigator, and legal nurse consultant students who’ve completed our law career certificate courses over the last 25 years. The classroom and online contributions offered by these dedicated learners have provided us with lots of input about what prospective paralegals want and need to know most.

The editing professionals at Wiley Publishing greatly facilitated our writing process. Our thanks go out to Elizabeth Kuball for her support and attention to detail, Peggy Kirk for her insights into the paralegal career, and Tracy Boggier for initiating us to the process and being available whenever we had questions.

Finally, we want to acknowledge our literary agent, Margo Maley Hutchinson, at Waterside Productions in Cardiff for introducing us to the innovative For Dummies series.

Wiley Publishing has to be commended for its pioneering efforts to make finding out about new careers fun. We thrive on positive reinforcement and feedback from our students and encourage our readers to provide comments and critiques at


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our Dummies online registration form located at

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Elizabeth Kuball

Acquisitions Editor: Tracy Boggier

Editorial Program Coordinator: Hanna K. Scott

Technical Editor: Margaret J. Kirk

Media Development Specialist: Angie Denny

Editorial Manager: Michelle Hacker

Editorial Supervisor and Reprint Editor: Carmen Krikorian

Media Development Manager: Laura VanWinkle

Media Project Manager: Laura Moss

Editorial Assistants: Erin Calligan, David Lutton

Cover Photos: © Terry Why/Getty Images, Inc.

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Patrick Redmond

Layout and Graphics: Claudia Bell, Lauren Goddard, Joyce Haughey, Clint Lahnen, Barry Offringa, Alicia B. South

Proofreaders: Leeann Harney, Jessica Kramer, Aptara

Indexer: Aptara

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Joyce Pepple, Acquisitions Director, Consumer Dummies

Kristin A. Cocks, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Michael Spring, Vice President and Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Gerry Fahey, Vice President of Production Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services




About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : A Snapshot of the Exciting and Lucrative Paralegal Profession

Chapter 1: Discovering the Paralegal Profession

Almost a Lawyer: What a Paralegal Does

On the Job: Where Paralegals Work

What It Takes: The Skills, Knowledge, and Training You Need

Chapter 2: Membership Has Its Privileges: Paralegal Associations and Their Certification Exams

To Join or Not to Join

Deciding Whether to Get Certified

Chapter 3: The Hunt Is On: Securing a Paralegal Position

Finding the Perfect Job

Creating the Documentation

Setting Up Shop: Starting a Freelance Paralegal Business

Part II : Important Legal Concepts Every Paralegal Should Know

Chapter 4: “All Rise”: The American Judicial System

Everything Old Is New Again: The Importance of Legal Precedence

Checks and Balances: Branches of U.S. Government

Playing Fair: Levels of the U.S. Judicial System

Judge and Jury: The U.S. Jury System

Chapter 5: The Big Three: Categories of Law

Cutting Through the Red Tape: Administrative Law

Eliminating Any Reasonable Doubt: The Nature of Criminal Law

Maintaining Polite Society: Civil Law

Chapter 6: Taking a Case to Trial: The Litigation Process

Constructing the Criminal Case

Carrying Through a Civil Case

Chapter 7: How It’s Done: Important Rules of Civil Procedure and Evidence

Distinguishing Between Procedural Law and Substantive Law

Following the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Sticking to State Procedural Rules

Figuring Out the Federal Rules of Evidence

Chapter 8: Because I Said So: The Categories of Legal Authority

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Review of Stare Decisis

Who’s the Boss? The Premises of Primary and Secondary Authority

Applying the Law: Mandatory and Persuasive Authority

Helpful But You Can’t Rely On It: Nonauthority

Chapter 9: The Substantive Law Areas Most Commonly Practiced by Paralegals

Facing the Family: Domestic Law and Estate Planning

Building the Boom and Blanketing the Bust: Business and Bankruptcy Law

Compensating for Pain and Suffering: Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice

Getting It in Writing: Entertainment and Real Estate Law

Part III : Putting It into Practice: The Paralegal in the Civil Litigation Process

Chapter 10: The Paper Chase: Preparing Documents

Communicating in Writing: Types of Legal Documents

Worth the Paper They’re Written On: Effective Document Drafting

Chapter 11: Elementary My Dear Watson: Legal Investigation

Searching for Clues: Gathering Evidence

Keeping Track: Identifying and Protecting Evidence

Keeping Order: Organizing the Evidence

Chapter 12: Chewing the Fat: Legal Interviewing

Getting to Know You: Initial Client Interviews

Completing the Story: Witness Interviews

Preparing Clients and Witnesses for Testimony

Chapter 13: Burning the Midnight Oil: Legal Research

Conducting Legal Research in Four (Easy?) Steps

Tools of the Trade

Getting Technological: Computerized Legal Research

Citing Cases Properly: Citation Format

Chapter 14: Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Trial Performance

Creating the Ultimate Source of Information: The Trial Notebook

Selecting the Jury: The Paralegal and Voir Dire

Keeping Track of Witnesses

Weighing Testimony: The Paralegal’s Take on the Jury’s Reaction

Preparing Questions for the Attorney

Settling Up: Preparing the Cost Bill

Blood from a Turnip: Collecting a Difficult Judgment

Chapter 15: The Official Word: Ethical Codes for Legal Professionals

Doing What’s Right: The Importance of Ethics

Abiding by the Rules of Professional Conduct

Sorting through the Codes of Paralegal Associations

Part IV : Skills Paralegals Need to Soar Ahead

Chapter 16: Write On: Presenting a Clear, Concise Legal Writing Style

Careful Correspondence

Grammar: The Foundation of an Effective Writing Style

Sentence Structure: Positioning the Sentence’s Elements

Punctuation and Mechanics: Mastering the Rules

Organization: Structuring the Finished Product

Proofreading: Polishing the Finished Product

Avoiding Plagiarism

Chapter 17: The Latest Thing: Using Technology in Law

Operating Computer Hardware and Networks in the Law Office

Getting Savvy on Software Applications for the Law Office

Surfing the Net: Online Resources

Carting Computers into the Courtroom

Chapter 18: Law Office Management 101

Buying Time: Management Systems

Keeping Account: Billing Systems

A Place for Everything: File Management

Part V : The Part of Tens

Chapter 19: The Ten Most Important Rules of Ethics

Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Law

Maintaining Client Confidentiality

Disclosing Your Paralegal Status

Reporting Ethics Violations of Other Legal Professionals

Disclosing Information to Prevent Death or Serious Bodily Harm

Sharing Information with Your Supervising Attorney

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

Obeying All Applicable Attorneys’ Ethics Rules

Giving Something to the Community: Pro Bono Services

Making Your Voice Heard: Supporting Efforts to Improve the Legal System

Chapter 20: Ten Things Every Paralegal Should Know

How to Ask for Help

Your Role

How to Communicate Effectively

The Value of Being Organized

Your Limitations

How to Research

How to Use Technology

The Rules of Professional Responsibility

How to Draft Fundamental Legal Documents

How to Weigh the Value of Paralegal Organizations

Chapter 21: Ten Survival Tips to Thrive in the Legal Environment

Continue Your Education

Keep a Good Legal Dictionary Nearby

Maintain the Integrity of Your Profession

Be Polite and Patient with Court Clerks

Take a Mind Reading Course

Enjoy Problem Solving

Refrain from Badmouthing Other Paralegals and Attorneys

Never Act as though You’re Irreplaceable

Don’t Count on a Normal Work Schedule

Resist the Urge to Gossip about Clients

Part VI : Appendixes

Appendix A: Glossary of Important Legal Terms: A Mini Legal Dictionary

Appendix B: About the CD

System Requirements

Using the CD

What You’ll Find on the CD

Documents on the CD

Links to Web Sites


Wiley Publishing, Inc. End-User License Agreement


America has a fascination with courtroom dramas. Dozens of TV shows and hundreds of movies have been based on the legal profession. Hollywood has even made musicals with courtroom scenes! Real courtroom dramas receive nearly constant attention on the news networks, and if CNN’s coverage of every detail in a trial is not enough, there’s always Court TV, where Americans can get all trials all the time.

You may not have noticed, but one thing’s missing from most of these legal dramas: the behind-the-scenes work of the paralegals (or legal assistants as they’re sometimes called). In the media, lawyers give flawless and impassioned pleas to the jury, and the force of their arguments turns the case, or, under relentless cross-examination, the defendant suddenly admits to the crime. In reality, these events rarely happen — cases are won and lost based on what takes place outside of the courtroom even before the trial.

The vast majority of the work for a civil or criminal trial is done before the trial begins, and after a trial starts there are usually very few surprises. But just as the networks choose to broadcast the Olympics, but not the four years of training in between, so the focus of dramas is on the action in the courtroom and not all the investigation, interviewing, writing, and research that builds the case. So, when you’re watching Law & Order or Court TV, you’ll usually see the lawyers in the courtroom, but not the paralegals whose research allows the trial to take place.

Whether you’re researching the paralegal profession to see if it peaks your interest or you’ve worked as a paralegal since Reagan was in office, you can find a wealth of pertinent information in this book. This book is a fun and informative resource for anyone who loves the law and wants to find out more about it. You’ll want it within easy reach as a reference to consult throughout your paralegal career or to explain the nuances of what you’re watching on Court TV. This book offers something for everyone.

About This Book

If being a paralegal appeals to you, you’ve come to the right place. Since 1980, we’ve instructed people from all walks of life and with a variety of goals on how to work as paralegals. This experience has shown us what information you absolutely need to know before you apply for a paralegal position and what information is best learned on the job. So, this book won’t cover things you don’t need to know — we want to focus on what’s most important.

This book is designed to help you decide whether a paralegal career is right for you. It also directs you to the resources you need to get the right education and experience to make your dream a reality. The best part is that it actually goes into great detail to teach you the vital skills you need to work as a paralegal or to act as your own pro se litigant.

As if the amazing information in this text wasn’t enough, we’ve also included an accompanying CD-ROM. From the CD, you can access useful forms, sample résumés and cover letters, and other references, as well as valuable Web sites.

Finally, this book is a reference book, which means that you can keep it at your desk and reach for it whenever you need some more information. You don’t have to read it from beginning to end — you can just dip into whatever chapter or section is most interesting to you today, and come back to the book later as your needs and interests change. Of course, if you want to read the book from cover to cover, we won’t stop you!

Conventions Used in This Book

We’re confident that you’ll find this book easily accessible, but we use a few conventions that you should be aware of.

The book highlights information you should remember in several ways. Lists are bulleted and marked with a solid bar to the left of the lists. New terms are italicized with definitions shortly following (often in parentheses immediately following the term). And e-mail addresses and Web addresses ( URLs), appear in monofont.

What You’re Not to Read

Throughout the book, you’ll find sidebars (gray boxes of text). Sidebars contain information that we think may interest you but that isn’t necessarily essential to your paralegal career. If you’re trying to whip through this book, so you can work as a paralegal tomorrow, you can skip the sidebars.

You can also safely skip anything marked by a Technical Stuff icon. ( More about icons in the “Icons Used in This Book” section, later.)

Foolish Assumptions

We make a few assumptions about who you are, as the reader of this book.

Maybe you’ve always had an interest in law, but you don’t want to spend the time and expense on law school. ( Besides, who wants to be the brunt of all those lawyer jokes!) Or, if you don’t mind the jokes, you could be considering law school, but you want to be sure that law’s a good match for you before you invest in three or four more years of education. Because paralegals do almost everything an attorney does, working as a paralegal will let you know right away whether you love the law as much as we do. Plus, a job as a paralegal would be a perfect way to make money while you’re in your last two years of law school. You may even decide you’d rather stick with a paralegal career, especially considering that the Department of Labor consistently ranks the paralegal career as among the top professions in terms of job growth.

Maybe you’re working as a legal secretary and thinking that you could do a lot more of the legal work in the office. Wouldn’t it impress your supervising attorney if you could come up with a vital piece of legal research discovered as a result of your newly honed legal research skills? Or it could be that you worked on one of your own legal nightmares either as a pro se litigant or as an assistant to your attorney. You may have had an epiphany that you could do as good a job as (or a better one than) the attorney who worked on your case and that you could actually get paid for your efforts!

Whatever level of interest or experience you bring to the table, this book is for you.

How This Book Is Organized

In an attempt at logic, we’ve laid out this book so that it starts with an introduction to the field of paralegalism and then progresses through the general and more specific information you need to know to thrive in the profession.

Part I: A Snapshot of the Exciting and Lucrative Paralegal Profession

If you’re new to the paralegal profession (and even if you’re not!), you’ll want to get familiar with what makes being a paralegal special. This part introduces you to the profession and helps you make decisions about the kind of paralegal you want to be and whether you want to join a local or national paralegal organization. You’ll also discover some valuable job-hunting techniques particular to the paralegal profession to help you launch your new career.

Part II: Important Legal Concepts Every Paralegal Should Know

To understand the concepts we address in the other parts of this book, you need a basic understanding of the U.S. legal system and the role paralegals play within that system. So, this part is devoted to giving you this vital knowledge base.

Part III: Putting It into Practice: The Paralegal in the Civil Litigation Process

You may be wondering exactly what paralegals do. This part explains to you in detail the activities you’ll perform in the immense variety of paralegal work.

Part IV: Skills Paralegals Need to Soar Ahead

This part focuses on sharpening skills you may already have so that they apply directly to your work as a paralegal. These skills aren’t necessarily law-related but are nevertheless vital to a successful paralegal career. We show you how to craft a clear, effective writing style; apply computer knowledge to the workplace; and hone your organization prowess so that your law office never misses a deadline or an important event.

Part V: The Part of Tens

Top-ten lists are a For Dummies staple, and this part highlights always crucial ethical rules and tips to help you succeed in a paralegal career. If you’re short on time but want a lot of bang for your buck, the Part of Tens is a great place to head.

Part VI: Appendixes

The book ends with vital information. Appendix A is a mini legal dictionary and Appendix B tells you how to use the informative CD that accompanies this book.

Icons Used in This Book

One helpful feature of this book is the icons that highlight especially significant portions of the text. These little pictures in the margins alert you to certain kinds of information:


Throughout the book, we give you insights into how you can enhance your performance as a paralegal and your knowledge of how the law works. When we highlight something especially helpful, we flag the paragraph with a Tip icon.


The language of law can be puzzling. Whenever you see one of these icons, you know that we’re providing (sometime excruciating) details on a complex legal concept. If you’re not as into the minutiae as we are, you can safely skip these paragraphs and get the main point.


Working as a paralegal isn’t all fun and games. As a paralegal, you can do — or fail to do — things that have devastating consequences. Heed these cautionary timebombs to avoid pitfalls that can cost you your dignity and maybe even your job.


This book gives you gobs of information, and some of it’s so important we may just have to say it again. When we talk about something especially important for you to remember, this icon will be nearby.


On the CD that comes with this book, you’ll find all kinds of handy forms and sample documents. When we mention something that’s on the CD, we flag it with this icon.

Where to Go from Here

If you’re new to the paralegal profession and want to see what it’s all about, start with Chapter 1, which gives you a great introduction to a paralegal career. Then read the chapters in Part II to gain a general understanding of the field of law. From there, choose chapters that sound interesting to you to better determine if this exciting career up your alley.

If you’ve worked as a paralegal or legal secretary, use this book to find out more about what you do on a daily basis. For example, if your law office is finally moving into the 21st century, Chapter 17 introduces you to the kinds of new technology that make working in a law office much easier. If your supervising attorney wants you to take on more responsibility, such as legal research (Chapter 13), document drafting (Chapters 10 and 16), and interviewing (Chapter 12), read the specific chapters that pertain to your new duties. Or if you’ve always wanted to know about the legal system to get a better understanding of why you do what you do, read Chapter 4.

Although we’re pretty confident about the comprehensiveness of this book, you’ll probably need more education if you’ve never worked in a law office before or if you have but don’t feel confident about the depth of your skills. Enroll in a quality program through a recognized university or college (like the one we offer) and impress your instructors with the expertise you’ve gained from reading this book!

You may want to join a state and local paralegal association to find out more about your chosen career and gain valuable networking resources. Above all, don’t be timid. Get out there and apply your newly found knowledge to a real live job. If you think you need a little experience first, volunteer your services to a local nonprofit law office, such as Sierra Club, Legal Aids, or the public defender’s office in your area. You’ll be surprised about how much you know with this book as your guide!

Part I

A Snapshot of the Exciting and Lucrative Paralegal Profession

In this part . . .

P aralegals do all sorts of exciting things, but you may know just a little about the profession or nothing at all. This part gives you a peek into the wide variety of jobs that paralegals can perform and introduces you to the areas of law where paralegals are most in demand. You’ll find out about associations you can join to learn more about your new profession and gain helpful networking avenues. When you’re ready for the job market, you can use the valuable information in this part to put together a killer cover letter and résumé and advertise your skills to the law offices, courts, and corporations that can’t wait to add you to their legal teams.