The court system is integral to our American democracy. While lawyers and judges may be the most visible professionals who keep the court system running, they aren’t the only crucial pieces of the puzzle. Paralegals, legal secretaries and court reporters are also necessary to make the legal system function properly.
People who are interested in working in the court system don’t have to attend law school to work in the field. With a widespread labor shortage, there are plenty of opportunities to work in the legal field in other positions.
Preparing for a job in the legal field always requires specific education or training, but some of the traits that make good legal professionals are inherent. “People who are naturally detail-oriented and think logically make some of the best paralegals or legal assistants,” says Cathy Davis, ACP, who chairs legal studies/criminal justice and is legal studies director at Faulkner University. “Being acutely aware of deadlines and details makes a good non-lawyer worker. Being a self-starter and someone who is able to work independently and not expect others to answer all your questions is important. Finally, thriving in a support role is key.”
Here’s a detailed look at some of those supporting roles that are vital to the court system.
Opportunities in the Legal Field
Most lawyers employ legal assistants and paralegals to help manage their workloads, and there is an ongoing demand for these professionals. “The job market is strong and attorneys are looking for qualified applicants,” Davis says. “Many firms are willing to take an entry level paralegal and work with them to train them in their area of law.”
According to Laura Reaves, ACP, with NALA: The Paralegal Association, paralegals provide a number of tasks to assist attorneys, such as factual research, client and witness interviews, drafting documents and attending official proceedings.
Paralegals can be a key asset to any law practice, and because they can perform many legal tasks in a cost-effective manner, many clients demand their presence in an effort to keep costs down, Reaves says.
“Paralegals are designed to make money for firms and if used effectively, open up the lawyer’s schedule by taking a part of their workload,” Davis says. “Effective paralegals improve office efficiency, client relations and the bottom line for the firm.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals and legal assistants was projected to grow 8% from 2014 to 2024. Starting salaries for entry-level paralegals can be in the mid-$40,000s, but experienced paralegals can earn much more.
Court reporting is another occupation that is vital to operating an effective court system and is experiencing a nationwide labor shortage. Some cities in Alabama, for instance, have no local court reporters, says Sandy Bain Moon, president of Bain and Associates, a court reporting firm with offices in Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery.
Court reporters are trained to listen and transcribe court proceedings verbatim, including discerning interruptions, arguments and fast speaking among participants in the courtroom or in a deposition. “Digital court reporting is illegal in the state of Alabama, so a live court reporter is required,” Moon says. “Digital reporting does not produce a transcript that is as high quality as a live court reporter. The digital recorder just gets whatever is loudest.”
Court reporters can work on a freelance basis or obtain full-time employment through the state or federal court system. Salaries range from $50,000 or $60,000 up to $100,000, Moon says.
Preparing for a Legal Career
To become a paralegal or legal secretary, most people earn an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in legal studies or a related field. Through the required classes, students learn about the court system and the vocabulary used by lawyers and courts, Davis says. They also get practice in writing, researching and reviewing documents for legal use.
Before entering a paralegal educational program, make sure it is approved by the American Bar Association, Davis recommends.
While in school, it’s a good idea to seek out work at a law firm, says Adrienne Berry, ACP, supervisory paralegal-criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office-Northern District of Alabama. “Be willing to start from the bottom,” Berry says. “Just let them know in the interview that your end goal is to be a paralegal, and find out the possibilities for advancement within that particular firm.”
Berry recommends taking part-time, full-time, temporary or internship work to get some experience, whether it’s clerical help, secretarial help, or working as a runner. It is often easiest to find some of these positions through employment agencies, she adds. “Some people shy away from employment agencies, but law firms often go to them to find employees to avoid the headache of finding employees themselves. Give it a try and check in with them often. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”
Paralegals are not required to be certified to work in the state of Alabama, but Berry recommends that would-be paralegals consider advancing their education through paralegal certification and continuing legal education (CLE) courses and include the information on your resume. “This will show your eagerness to learn and in keeping up-to-date on the ever-changing legal field,” she says. “If you are certified, ask your potential employer if he knows what this means and be willing to explain this in detail and what you had to do to obtain the designation.”
Court reporters, on the other hand, must be licensed as Certified Court Reporters (CCR) through the Alabama Board of Court Reporting (ABCR) in order to work in the state of Alabama. To become certified, you must first complete a court reporter training program that is approved by the ABCR. There are a number of online ABCR-approved programs, and a few in-person education programs — the only in-person program in the state is at Gadsden State Community College. The educational program includes training in judicial reporting, professional transcription, court and real-time reporting, captioning, scoping and proofreading.
“Alabama is one of the few states that still has a brick-and-mortar school offering an in-person degree in court reporting,” Moon says. “I recommend going to an in-person program because you learn not only the techniques of court reporting, but you also learn more about the legal system and get background in the types of cases you’ll hear, which better prepares you to provide clean transcripts in the courtroom.”
Learning the craft of court reporting “is like learning a whole new language,” Moon says. In addition to learning how to transcribe language verbatim on a stenographic machine, court reporters must learn to do so very quickly. To become certified, a court reporter must transcribe up to 220 words per minute with 97% accuracy.
After completing education, an aspiring court reporter can apply for a temporary license in Alabama. With a temporary license, a court reporter can work under the supervision of a state-licensed court reporter for up to 18 months. During that 18 months, the apprentice must pass the exams required to become a Certified Court Reporter. Students can also choose to skip the temporary license and earn the CCR immediately after completing an approved educational program. Earning the CCR involves a skills test and a written test.
Working in the Legal Field
After earning appropriate credentials, aspiring paralegals and court reporters can enter a job market where their skills are in great demand. To find the right opportunity, Berry recommends paralegal candidates create a mini-portfolio of some of your best work from school or internships, such as deposition summaries, complaints and legal memorandums. In addition, she recommends getting involved in the state’s paralegal organization.
“State paralegal organizations are gold mines,” Berry says. “Visit their websites and social media pages, attend their functions, ask questions, swim in them. Networking gets you far. A lot of these organizations keep job banks for their members to utilize. Not only that, if you are networking, you are constantly learning of who is hiring, who is moving, and what is changing. These organizations often host luncheons, seminars, CLEs and dinners. Use these to your advantage. Often, employers go to these organizations specifically to seek out potential employees.”
After securing a job as a paralegal, some professionals stay with the same attorney for many years. Others move around until they find an area of law that suits them best or the firm that offers the benefits they seek. Both large and small firms have their own perks, and paralegals should find the firm that is the best fit, Davis says.
“There are many factors to consider: do you want to be in the courtroom; doing independent research for briefs and cases; exhibit collection and review; tax; real estate or family to name just a few,” Davis says. “When you find your niche, you are likely to stay for many years. You are working with your attorneys for long hours and sometimes weekends and holidays. A true loyalty or family develops and you can’t imagine leaving them.”
Similarly, many court reporters specialize in specific legal areas, such as malpractice, personal injury or family court, Moon says. There are opportunities to work in the state judicial system, as a freelance court reporter, or as a contractor for a court reporting firm such as Bain & Associates.
The opportunities for court reporting also depend on the area of the state in which you live and your willingness to travel. For example, there is a dire need for court reporters in the Dothan area, and court reporters can earn travel fees in addition to their regular fees for working in such areas where there are no local court reporters, Bain says.
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Madison.
This story originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Business Alabama magazine.