Paralegal Career Choice: Public Service or Private Practice

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.

Paralegals and legal assistants held about 345,600 jobs in 2020.

The largest employers of employees and legal assistants were as follows:

Legal Services 73%

Federal Government 5%

Local government, excluding education and hospitals 4%

Finance and Insurance 3%

State government, excluding education and hospitals 3%

Obtaining a legal certification or a degree as a paralegal offers an opportunity to seek a variety of career opportunities. Oftentimes, public service is overlooked. There are a few ways a paralegal can enter public service, depending on their interests.

Paralegals can find jobs on a local or municipal level by researching their town, municipality, or County for positions within a prosecutor’s office or public defender’s office. They can also find positions on the State level, such as the Attorney General’s Office, and finally, opportunities exist at the Federal level with various agencies such as the Department of Justice, Military, Courts, Social Security Administration, CIA, Department of Transportation, and IRS to name a few.

TIP: A great resource for finding federal jobs is USAJobs.gov.

What is a Government Paralegal?

A government paralegal works to support the legal team of the designated government agency. Much like that of a private firm, the specific role in the government agency may vary slightly based on the agency and the type of work performed by the agency, i.e., prosecutorial, defense, administrative or investigative in nature.

paralegal career choice

What are the Responsibilities of a Government Paralegal?

Before deciding on your paralegal career choice of public versus private practice, first be clear on how the job responsibilities can vary. The job responsibilities of a government paralegal will be specific to the needs of the agency. For example, working for a local State’s Attorney’s Office or District Attorney’s Office will be different than working for a Federal US Attorney’s Office. To begin, the type of law being enforced is different.

Laws are different for local municipalities versus Statewide law versus Federal law. Working for the IRS will focus on tax law as opposed to working for your local State’s Attorney’s Office. A local State’s Attorney’s Office will have a Criminal and Civil Bureau as well as an Administrative Bureau. Similarly, a Federal US Attorney’s Office will have both a Criminal and Civil Bureau. In general, the Criminal Bureau will prosecute matters on behalf of the State’s Attorney or US Attorney.

The bureaus are often divided into divisions, Felony Trial, Special Prosecutions, Sexual Violence / Child Protection, and Investigations. Each office and District is unique and will vary. The Civil Bureau includes handling a wide array of both defensive and affirmative limitations on behalf of the government, its agencies, and its employees. Affirmative matters include civil rights (such as fair housing, disability access, environmental (including pollution and wetland cases), food and drug cases, civil fraud cases, and health care fraud cases.

The job description of a paralegal will largely depend on the agency or office and its role within the government.

paralegal career choice

Generally speaking, a government paralegal working for a municipality or county, State or Federal Level might be expected to perform duties that include:

  • organizing, maintaining, and indexing evidence
  • preparing and producing discovery
  • drafting contracts and pleadings
  • corresponding with companies, individuals, courts, and other agencies
  • managing large caseloads, including multiple investigations
  • confer with attorneys and case agents to discuss case strategy and overall case management
  • respond to public inquires
  • perform research and analysis
  • prepare and participate in trials
  • draft legal documents including legal memorandum, briefs, answers or replies, drafts of petitions, various motions, and court orders for attorneys

Paralegal Career Choice

Whether or not your career takes you in the direction of public service or private practice, one thing is for certain. To be successful in the legal field, paralegals must have certain qualities that will help them work their very best.

A great paralegal has:

  • a profound interest in the law
  • strong analytical skills
  • great attention to detail
  • excellent communication and writing skills
  • computer knowledge
  • technology efficient
  • interpersonal  skills
  • solid research skills
  • sound ethics
  • and strong organizational skills, which include being flexible, independent, and precise

How to Find a Government Job

First, determine what level of government interests you. Many states run job sites through the Department of Labor or State Employment Sites. Here in Illinois, www.2.illinois.gov is the State level government website that contains job listings by location or position. At the Federal level, USAjobs.gov also provides access to job postings by agency, location, or occupation. On the County, local or municipal level, always check with the Village, Township, or County in which you reside.

Something to keep in mind when searching, regardless of what level of government you choose, do not limit yourself to a “paralegal” search. More often than not, depending on the level of government and or agency in which you apply, the titles will vary. At the Federal level,  the position can be classified as a  Paralegal Specialist, whereas working for the State of Illinois Attorney General’s office can be classified as Paralegal I or Paralegal II. A comprehensive review of all positions posted is highly recommended.  One may find an area of interest that isn’t necessarily commensurate with the exact title of a paralegal.

What are the benefits of working in Public Service?

Public service can allow one to achieve greater goals beyond earning a paycheck, such as:

  • Working to effect societal change
  • Supporting an important public cause or
  • Providing equal access to justice to under-served individuals and organizations

Helping underserved people, groups, and causes, and furthering the public good by engaging in pro-bono work can provide a feeling of personal satisfaction and achievement that one may not gain by defending large corporations or entities in private practice. Contrary to the stereotype of government drones who waste time and barely work, one will have to be prepared to work hard in public service.  2                                                                                                                                                           

That said, one will be rewarded with flexible work practices and professional development, and overall personal satisfaction. The public sector offers job security and conditions of service that the private sector may not have to offer. The compensation is generally a step below that of private industry standards. However, there is always the life balance equation to consider.

In summation, while both public service and private paralegal jobs have their advantages and disadvantages, the key is finding a subject area of the law that you are passionate about and becoming a master of your craft. Paralegal career choice: ask yourself, What is your why? The answer will lead you to the right path.

1 Paralegals and Legal Assistants: Occupational Outlook Handbook: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov)

2 The Advantages and Benefits of Public Service Work (thebalancecareers.com)

Christine Rekash, paralegal

Meet the Author

Christine Rekash, RP, is a Criminal Paralegal Specialist with the United States Department of Justice and serves on the Illinois Paralegal Association Board of Directors.

As a graduate of Bradley University, she began her legal career at the law firm of McDermott, Will and Emery in Chicago. She received her paralegal certificate from the ABA-Approved Roosevelt University’s Lawyer Assistant Program. Christine has shared her expertise as a paralegal guest lecturer at Northwestern Business College and a part-time adjunct instructor at Roosevelt University. Along with serving on the IPA’s board, she is also a member of the Harper College Advisory Board for Paralegal Studies. Throughout her 30-year career, she has worked in litigation, from the private law firm to the governmental sector, civil and criminal.

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Comments

  • Mary Mayer May 9, 2022 at 7:34 pm Reply

    Hello, really good information. If possible, I would like to reach out to Christine, as her credentials are what I am looking to become. I am currently an Advanced Certified Paralegal in Criminal Litigation and work for my Count Public Defenders. It would be great to network with Christine.

    Thank you.

  • Kristin T-K May 23, 2022 at 10:34 pm Reply

    In California, you can search and apply for jobs with the State at the CalCareers website: http://jobs.ca.gov. Legal Assistant and Legal Analyst are the closest “Paralegal” equivalents for candidates who have completed Paralegal training, but those still in school might qualify for the Senior Legal Typist or Legal Secretary classifications.

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