Volunteering as a Paralegal

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Author: Thomas Wendt, Center for Disability and Elder Law
Last updated: May 2014

Non-profit legal services are designed to provide efficient, pro-bono legal services to some of the most deserving, yet least represented, members of society. In a time when funding for non-profit legal services has decreased and demand for services has increased, the utilization of volunteer paralegals is an efficient and cost-effective way to provide services to legal-services organizations and their clients. For many legal service providers, volunteer paralegals play an integral part of their organizations. From intakes to legal research to assisting staff and volunteer attorneys with representation and presenting initiatives, volunteer paralegals are an indispensable component of many legal service providers.

Where do I start?

As a paralegal or paralegal student considering pro bono work, it is important to research the organization for which you are considering volunteering. Many legal service organizations recruit volunteers from paralegal associations. Some organizations will post volunteer opportunities on their own website. Other organizations post on websites such as idealist.org and volunteermatch.org, through outreaches at law firms and corporations, and through illinoisprobono.org. These are all excellent resources to help you determine which opportunity may work best for you in time, topic, skills, experience and location.

Before contacting an organization, you should view the service provider’s website, if applicable, and, if possible, speak with another volunteer or even a former client. Also, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistants has developed a guide entitled “How to Utilize Legal Assistance in Pro Bono Publico Programs” which provides some helpful guidance in the recruitment and utilization of volunteer paralegals.

When you contact an organization concerning volunteering, do not be shy about asking the following two questions:

  1. What will I be doing?
  2. What will I get out of volunteering?

Both of these questions are not only valid, but necessary. Non-profit legal service providers must always be cognizant of the fact that you are offering your time and experience for free to assist the organization in delivering their services. The legal service providers have a duty to provide you with as positive and, hopefully, rewarding an experience as possible. There is a delicate balance between providing sufficiently beneficial work for you, while not over taxing you, either in time or in responsibility. This balance is critical for the effective utilization of volunteer paralegals in non-profit legal work.

What will I be doing?

Even after researching an organization and speaking to its volunteers or clients, you may still have little information on exactly what tasks you will be performing and what will be expected of you. It is important to make sure that the tasks you are assigned are clearly defined. The “What will I be doing?” question involves realistically managing your expectations as a volunteer paralegal and those expectations of the organization.

For a more rewarding volunteer experience, you should make sure that the organization is adequately matching the tasks it gives to you to your own interests and experience. If the organization does not ask you about your time commitment and experience level, tell them about it. The legal-service provider is responsible for creating tasks to challenge, yet not overwhelm, you. Or, conversely, if the organization has very specific tasks that it assigns to its volunteer paralegals, the organization is obligated to explain those tasks to you so as to fully disclose exactly what you “will be doing.” For instance, one legal services organization has its paralegal volunteers perform primarily intake interviews. Because the organization’s staff set its volunteers expectations from their first meeting, the volunteer paralegals had long and fulfilling experiences with the organization. Whatever your assignment is as a volunteer, you have a right to know exactly what your role will be in the organization’s day-to-day operations.

In addition, a legal service organization should attempt to create a team atmosphere with its volunteers. If you become frustrated in your volunteer experience because you have either too much or too little to do, then you should communicate this immediately to your volunteer supervisor.

Another component to consider when asking “what will I be doing” is training and supervision. The organization should have sufficient training and support mechanisms in place to adequately assist you in performing the tasks that are asked of you. Ask about the organization’s training manuals and training procedures. Also ask about daily supervision and review periods. The more the organization supports you as a volunteer, the more positive your volunteering experience will be.

You may be volunteering for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons may be:

  1. to give something back to the community;
  2. to learn new skills;
  3. to practice and hone skills that you already possess, and;
  4. to meet new people in the legal community.

The task of public service volunteer coordinators is to create work experiences that meet these challenges. While not all work that the legal service provider may offer will be exciting or appear to be important, remember that the tasks assigned to you do contribute to the clients and the organization as a whole. If you are not able to see how your tasks fit into the organization’s mission, you should ask the organization’s staff to explain it to you. Legal service providers have an obligation to you as a paralegal volunteer to demonstrate how your work is an important component of the overall services provided to the clients.

Many legal service providers work diligently to provide meaningful, substantive tasks for their volunteer paralegals. Under the supervision of staff attorneys, you may perform initial client interviews; draft client letters requesting documents or supplemental information; participate in weekly case conference meetings; perform legal research and write memoranda; participate in organization-sponsored initiatives and outreach; and provide file management and support tasks for staff and volunteer attorneys. In the interest of retaining its volunteers, the organization should try to provide a relaxed and fun, yet professional, environment to you, one that fosters your continued participation in the program.

What will I get out of volunteering?

Secondly, you will want to ask what you can expect for volunteering. Do not consider this to be a self-serving question. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Volunteering is a symbiotic relationship between you and the organization and both sides need to know what is expected. It is only fair that you expect something out of the relationship.

What you can expect to get is exactly what was discussed previously, a chance to learn new skills and gain experience, the chance to hone the skills you already have developed through training and experience, as well as the satisfaction of being able to assist those in need. In addition, there are often networking opportunities available, opportunities to establish credentials and foster relationships, even potential employment opportunities (or at least to get a good letter of recommendation). Again, the effective management of expectations is of paramount importance; both you and the organization you work for should communicate your expectations as thoroughly as possible.

However, do not expect that a volunteer opportunity will automatically lead to a job or job offer.  Many legal aid agencies utilize volunteer paralegals because they cannot afford to hire paralegals.  However, it should lead to positive references for future employment and, if the legal aid agency does hire paralegals, it could lead to you being considered for such a position.  

If you are a paralegal who is just starting out in your professional career, do not be afraid to volunteer. New paralegals and paralegal students can gain invaluable experience through volunteering while providing beneficial services to clients, the organization, and the legal community as a whole. Pro bono work is an important lesson to learn early in your career and one that should continue throughout it.

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