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Senior Paralegal: Immigration Law (Political Science and Communication Studies, BA)

Ruth Hogeterp, 

Ruth graduated from Laurier with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Communication Studies in 2002. Following graduation, she did not have a clear career path in mind, but instead gained valuable cultural experiences while travelling. Upon returning to Canada, Ruth began waitressing for a period of time, but acknowledged that she wanted to put to use her undergraduate degree, which taught her useful skills in how to research and write constructive arguments. Ruth had always had an interest in law, but was not interested in pursuing law school. For that reason, she did not think that a career in law was an option until a former roommate informed her of the paralegal profession.

By conducting research into paralegal and law administration programs, Ruth found that Seneca’s Regulatory Law Administration Program touched a great deal on governmental issues and policies, which she felt was a nice compliment to her political science degree. Through a field placement, Ruth landed a job offer and so began her career as an immigration law paralegal/law clerk.

For Ruth, a typical workday is from nine to five, Monday through Friday. However overtime is not unusual, depending on the workload. The role of a paralegal involves prioritizing cases that require drafting, which for example in immigration law involves writing legal arguments and documents to support work permit or permanent residence applications, or outlining how an applicant qualifies for their Canadian immigration. Ruth’s role also requires a great deal of correspondence with clients, which can occur both in-person as well as by email and telephone. Maintaining billing records and updating databases is also a crucial and ongoing aspect of her daily workload.

According to Ruth, the best parts about her job as a paralegal are the wonderful colleagues she gets to interact with, and she has found great joy in the opportunity to help clients realize their Canadian immigration goals. Further, as Canadian immigration law changes frequently with new policies and procedures, it is enjoyable for Ruth as a former political science student to hold a position where she gains a firsthand account of how our government systems work. Ruth values the opportunities her career affords her to discuss and debate the efficacy of government systems.

Heavy workloads and tight deadlines can be a drawback to this line of work. For this reason, Ruth stresses that one of the most important skills required of a paralegal is time management, in addition to well-developed research and writing skills. In terms of personal attitudes, Ruth finds that employees who maintain positive and friendly demeanors tend to excel in this line of work; interpersonal skills are crucial, seeing as paralegals are often the main point of contact between clients and their employers.

In terms of the best training route for becoming a paralegal, Ruth believes that a variety of relevant skills can be learned while completing a bachelor’s degree, regardless of the field of study, as well as any client/customer oriented experience. For example, Ruth honed this experience in the food industry and was able to aptly transfer these skills to her legal role. Although you may enter paralegal training without a degree, Ruth’s experience has been that most paralegals will also possess some sort of degree, coupled with their college diploma. Ruth feels that her degree is what taught her how to do her job, but the diploma field placement is what helped her get an ‘in’ with the industry. “I strongly believe that if I did not have the experience of my degree, I would not have excelled in this career. Every day I use the skills I adapted while at university – the most critical being reviewing facts, isolating what is important, formulating an argument, and writing a substantive argument in a tight deadline”.

Ruth points out that while each law office is different, it is not often necessary to obtain a paralegal licence (through The Paralegal Society of Ontario) if your career objective is to act as support staff to a lawyer. If your goal is to provide legal advice and/or represent clients at a regulatory level (e.g. such as tribunals – Human Rights Tribunal, Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals, Rental Housing Tribunal, vs. in courts which can only be done by lawyers), you will be required to obtain a paralegal licence.

Over the years, Ruth has held various different job titles at different law firms including legal assistant, law clerk and paralegal – although her role has remained relatively the same despite these differing titles. Ruth points out that different law offices and companies will choose different position titles, depending on their preference. Given this, if you are seeking employment opportunities as a paralegal, be sure to research these other job titles as well.

Of course the field of law boasts many career possibilities. Students may also consider legal assistant positions, which are at the administrative level, and so require less training. The main responsibilities of this role would be taking notation, writing basic letters, updating databases and doing the mail intake. Ruth began her career as a legal assistant and then within a few months became more focused on research and writing. Ruth points out that a legal assistant role is a good way to start in the legal field by getting some basic understanding of how a legal office functions and exposure to the field. Other legal positions, such as mediators and conflict resolution specialists require further training and certifications, but would be options for students who enjoy meeting with individuals to understand their specific requirements and to isolate solutions that would satisfy both parties. Ruth points out that a paralegal training could also possibly lead to a human resources environment in a role related to labour law. A keen interest in the legal field may also motivate one to explore further education and pursue a career as a lawyer.