"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead
One measure of success is the ability to do meaningful work with a lasting impact. A paralegal career gives countless opportunities to make a difference in the lives of many people. The role of the paralegal in the legal field often directly intersects with individual lives, local communities, and even the future direction of the law.
When we think of paralegals who changed the world, most people are familiar with the work of Erin Brockovich in spearing the effort to help those affected by contaminated water, or the whistleblowing activities of Merrell Williams in bringing down the deceptive practices of the Tobacco industry. Yet, the day to day work of countless, unsung heroes is a common theme in the paralegal profession.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), expresses a commitment to the involvement of paralegals in pro bono work, as “paralegals can benefit the community, the private bar, the judiciary, and the paralegal profession by volunteering their time, abilities, and skills as trained legal professionals.”[i]
The NFPA hosts an annual Pro Bono conference and an award is given to a paralegal for Pro Bono involvement. During the 2011 conference, NFPA recognized the work of paralegals in “Innocence Projects” across the country, whose aim is to provide legal representation for people wrongfully convicted of crimes[ii].
A multitude of organizations rely on the pro-bono and paid advocacy work of paralegals addressing a variety of social issues, such as the needs of children, families, the elderly, the military, immigrants, and even international causes. In addition, nonprofit legal firms often hire paralegals to do advocacy work on behalf of disadvantaged populations.
In their day to day work, paralegals develop an intimate and personal view of the legal challenges. This is a valuable tool to the lawyers they serve, and their clients, because it gives a more intimate, human view of the law.
A recent article, “Paralegal Superstars: An Ode to the Unsung Heroes of Law” in The National Law Review likens paralegals to the backbone of a law firm; their detailed work keeps the cog of many firms running smoothly. Bermudez speaks of the personal connection many paralegals develop to their clients’ lives:
In some cases, you will literally and metaphorically hold a client’s hand through a case. . . By the nature of their work, paralegals have extended contact with clients. In some cases, you will be intimately familiar with a client’s personal life. You might have to deal with a client going through a difficult time in their life. Family law paralegals, for example, will guide a client through often distressing divorce and custody proceedings. You will help people draft wills, get compensation for their injuries, or file an immigration application. Some paralegals help the most vulnerable people in our society find justice. -Eddy Bermudez, May 7, 2017.[iii]
There are a variety of opportunities for paralegals to make a difference in their communities, both as volunteers and as employed activists.
Here are 6 examples of the grass-roots work paralegals do:
1. Pro Bono work. Supporting Pro Bon work gives back to local communities in immeasurable ways, and at the same time, is a valuable career tool. According to Adam Friedl, of Pro Bono Net in NAFPA’s 2014 annual conference webinar, the demand for paralegals in Pro Bono work is on the rise, and this opportunity provides valuable growth in professional development.[iv] In addition, the NAFPA instituted a guideline in their Codes of Ethics and Professional Responsibility, that paralegals should aspire to contribute 24 hours to community service work annually.[v] Volunteering under the direction of a lawyer, might afford ways to build substantive skills such as negotiation, give exposure to new experiences like jury trial, or provide ways to build your resume in particular fields.[vi] Friedl adds that when considering employment and the opportunity to do pro bono work, paralegals might consider the size of the firm, ways to present opportunities to in-house legal teams, or their unique skills, such as a second language.
2. Serving as Paralegal Community Advocates – Paralegals play vital roles in advancing community initiatives through their work in supporting advocacy projects. For instance, the Equal Justice Center in Dallas, Texas, a “non-profit law firm and systemic justice organization that represents low-wage working men and women who are exploited in the workplace. . .” hires paralegals to create outreach strategies, assist lawyers with discovery and investigations, as well as interact with communities to build relationships with disadvantaged or immigrant populations[vii]. The work paralegals do is often at the frontlines of advocacy efforts, and is an important part of legal social justice efforts.
3. Directly provide relief to their local communities. Paralegals can volunteer their time during national disasters by supporting organizations such as the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center. This organization serves the important role of linking communities facing unexpected circumstances to legal organizations, enabling families to normalize their lives again.[viii]
4. Paralegals can often have extended opportunities to serve causes they care about. Paralegals might help specific populations, such as those who serve our nation. For example, the Wills for Local Heroes program started after September 11, 2001, provides free estate planning to first responders, a large percentage of whom often do not prepare wills in advance[ix]. A variety of other initiatives, such as the Military Pro-Bono Project assists junior-enlisted, active-duty personnel with civil legal issues, many whom may be serving abroad in zones of conflict while addressing legal concerns[x]. Other organizations address the needs of veterans, caregivers, and military families, as well as a broad range of groups that give back to society without asking for anything in return.
5. Paralegals can have direct influence on changes in their profession. Some paralegals take it upon themselves to change rules or access to opportunities in the paralegal domain, affecting the future of the profession. One such paralegal is Charlene Sabini, who embarked on a mission to persuade her local Bar Association in Oregon to extend ‘affiliated membership’ to non-lawyer support professionals, allowing them greater access to educational opportunities, invitations to events, and greater visibility in the legal community[xi]. She shares her experience in her article, “Making a Difference 101”:
“The growth of the legal assistant/paralegal profession is now, in some firms, greater than merely a secretarial slot. We are no longer simply assistants to a profession—we are a profession unto ourselves. . .””[xii]
6. Paralegals act as change agents on a global level. According to Stanford Graduate School of Business, paralegals have affected wide-reaching changes by empowering marginalized groups with legal resources and advocating for people in historically difficult periods, such as during apartheid and conflict in Sierra Leone.[xiii] U.S. Non-Profit organizations such as the Open Society Justice Initiative work with Community-based paralegals in other countries, to support human rights initiatives and the rule of law[xiv]. Although, paralegals cannot directly perform some of this work in the US, they can volunteer time to organizations and initiatives that do so.
The paralegal profession is rewarding in that it provides individuals diverse opportunities to do work related to specific causes close to their heart, where they wish to make an enduring impression.
Before beginning a paralegal career, you might want to consider how to include Pro Bono work in your portfolio, for more information, visit https://www.probono.net/
If you have specific questions about this aspect of a paralegal career write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 800-446-6931 and we would be happy to guide you in creating a future plan.
[i] National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Pro Bono-NFPA Commitment, online at https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3308 (Visited May 12, 2017).
[ii] National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Pro Bono-Additional Information, NFPA Pro Bono Conference Recap 2011. Online at https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3309 (Visited May 12, 2017).
[iii] The National Law Review, “Paralegal Superstars: An Ode to the Unsung Heroes of Law”, May 3, 2017. Bermudez, E. Online at http://www.natlawreview.com/article/paralegal-superstars-ode-to-unsung-heroes-law (Visited May 12, 2017).
[iv] National Federation of Paralegal Associations, May 2014 Pro Bono Webinar: How to Start and Succeed at Pro Bono for Paralegals.. Fried, A., Online at https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3309 (Visited May 13, 2014).
[v] National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Pro Bono-NFPA Commitment, online at https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3308 (Visited May 12, 2017).
[vi] National Federation of Paralegal Associations, May 2014 Pro Bono Webinar: How to Start and Succeed at Pro Bono for Paralegals.. Fried, A., Online at https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3309 (Visited May 13, 2014).
[vii] Equal Justice Center, Opportunity- Paralegal Community Advocate online at http://www.equaljusticecenter.org/about/opportunity---paralegal-community-advocate-dallas.html (Visited May 14, 2017).
[viii] National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center, online at https://www.disasterlegalaid.org/ (Visited May 14, 2017).
[ix] Wills for Heroes Foundation, The Need. Online at http://www.willsforheroes.org/need.htm (Visited May 15, 2017).
[x] Military Pro-Bono Project, A Project of the American Bar Association and the Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel online at https://www.militaryprobono.org/ (Visited May 15, 2017).
[xi] National Association for Legal Professionals, NALS docket, “Making a Difference 101”, Sabini, C., October 3, 2016. Online at http://www.nals.org/blogpost/1359892/258121/Making-a-Difference-101?hhSearchTerms=%22pro+and+bono%22&terms= (Visited May 15, 2017).
[xii] National Association for Legal Professionals, NALS docket, “Making a Difference 101”, Sabini, C., October 3, 2016. Online at http://www.nals.org/blogpost/1359892/258121/Making-a-Difference-101?hhSearchTerms=%22pro+and+bono%22&terms= (Visited May 15, 2017).
[xiii] Innovation: Using Paralegals for Grassroots Justice. Chandler, M., Non Profit, Social Impact, Supply Chain, Insights by Stanford Business. Online at https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/innovation-using-paralegals-grassroots-justice (Visited May 14, 2017).
[xiv] Open Justice Society Initiative, Open Society Foundations. Online at https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/about/programs/open-society-justice-initiative (Visited May 12, 2017).