What Is a Paralegal?
Paralegals provide skilled support for licensed attorneys. These legal professionals usually work at law firms or in the legal departments of businesses or government agencies.
Though paralegals perform many of the same tasks as lawyers, they do not need to earn a license. Most entry-level paralegal jobs require an associate degree. This role may appeal to people who have not earned a law license but want to work in the legal field.
Most of a paralegal's duties require the supervision or approval of a licensed attorney. Typical responsibilities include drafting legal documents, corresponding with clients, and researching relevant laws and cases. Since paralegals handle many cases at the same time, they need strong multitasking and organizational skills.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 12% growth in paralegal and legal assistant positions from 2020-2030, which is faster than average. Continue reading to learn more about this in-demand job.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals help licensed lawyers with a variety of tasks in law offices and other legal environments. They work directly with the public, handling legal functions rather than acting as clerical assistants. Paralegals can assist with trials, interview witnesses, and draft legal documents. However, these tasks require the close supervision of licensed lawyers.
Paralegals cannot legally perform functions that require a license to practice law. These functions may include representing clients in court, signing pleadings, and accepting legal evidence.
Paralegals may face strict scrutiny, since their work becomes the supervising lawyer's responsibility.
Paralegals can't give legal advice, accept clients, or set fees for legal representation, either. These limitations may vary depending on state laws. Some states, like California, maintain laws that specify who can use the title "paralegal."
Law students can gain experience working as paralegals in law firms. Paralegals may face strict scrutiny, since their work becomes the supervising lawyer's responsibility. As such, detail-oriented and meticulous workers may thrive in this position. The sections below cover in more detail which soft and hard skills a paralegal should possess.
Key Soft Skills for Paralegals
Strong Communication: Paralegals often communicate their findings and research in writing. They also share important information with clients and supervisors.
Interpersonal Skills: Paralegals regularly work with the public. Legal cases can involve stressful and sensitive topics, so paralegals must handle each situation with care.
Research and Organization: The job requires extensive research on relevant laws, past rulings, and other case-related information. Paralegals may juggle many cases at once and must meet strict deadlines.
Key Hard Skills for Paralegals
Strong Writing: Legal writing requires advanced language skills and a knowledge of style guidelines. Paralegals should know how to write concisely and accurately.
Project Management: Paralegals often work on cases from start to finish. They should know each step of the process and anticipate any potential issues.
General Technology: Paralegals use document management systems and other software like Microsoft Office and Google Docs to draft and prepare files. Paralegals should also know their way around copy machines and other office equipment.
A Day in the Life of a Paralegal
Paralegals often spend their workdays in office settings. They may travel to conduct research, meet clients, or assist lawyers in court. During a typical work day, paralegals switch among different cases, updating each as needed. Many employers value paralegals' ability to prioritize tasks according to importance and upcoming deadlines.
Paralegals must maintain accuracy and attention to detail while performing tasks such as:
- Corresponding with clients and updating them with new case developments.
- Assisting supervising lawyers with meetings, witness interviews, and trials.
- Conducting legal research on past rulings and legal battles related to current cases.
- Drafting and sending legal documents to supervising lawyers.
- Fact-checking files, documents, and research.
Areas of Specialization for Paralegals
Paralegals can work in almost any specialization within the legal field. Since many law firms specialize in particular types of cases, paralegals can look for jobs related to their areas of interest.
The table below details some popular specializations for paralegals.
|Specialization||Description||Required Education||Preferred Certificates, Certifications, and Licenses||Career Titles Within This Specialization|
|Corporate||Corporate paralegals navigate federal and state laws for a company instead of individual clients. They mostly work behind the scenes, reviewing contracts and regulations.||Associate degree||Business law certificate||Corporate paralegal|
|Estate Planning and Probate||These paralegals help create and enforce their clients' last wills. They may handle grieving clients and other high-emotion situations while distributing property and other estates.||Associate degree||Chartered trust and estate planner certification, certified trust and fiduciary advisor credential||Trusts and estates paralegal, wealth management paralegal, elder law paralegal|
|Family Law||Family law paralegals also handle high-emotion situations, with cases involving divorce and child custody. These paralegals may spend more time on each case since custody battles can last a while.||Associate degree||Family law specialist certificate||Child support paralegal, family law paralegal|
|Immigration||Immigration paralegals handle legal documents such as visa applications and deportation petitions. These paralegals may find jobs in law offices or larger corporations.||Associate degree; fluency in more than one language||Immigration law specialist certificate||Business immigration paralegal, immigration paralegal|
|Real Estate||These professionals help clients understand the paperwork and legal implications of purchasing real estate. They also deal with zoning disputes and foreclosures.||Associate degree||Real estate agent license||Real estate paralegal, commercial real estate paralegal, paralegal and transaction manager|
|Intellectual Property||Intellectual property paralegals work with patents and trademarks. They help file patent applications and handle issues like copyright infringement.||Associate degree||Intellectual property law specialist certificate||Patent paralegal, intellectual property paralegal,|
How Much Does a Paralegal Make?
According to the BLS, paralegals and legal assistants earned a median annual salary of $52,920 as of 2020. Wages can vary depending on whether a paralegal works in the private or public sector. Specializations, location, and size of the community or firm can also impact the rate of pay.
According to the BLS, paralegals and legal assistants earned a median annual salary of $52,920 as of 2020.
The BLS also projects 12% job growth for paralegals and legal assistants from 2020-2030. By comparison, the 2020-2030 projected average growth of all occupations is 8%.
Many aspiring lawyers become paralegals to gain experience and prepare for the bar exam. Since all law fields hire paralegals, the job provides an opportunity to explore the field before committing to law school.
Median Annual Salary: $52,920
Next Steps on the Career Path
After spending time as a paralegal, candidates can enroll in law school and sit for the bar exam to earn their licenses. While a law license opens up many potential career opportunities, paralegals can also advance to related work in other positions.
With the right education and experience, paralegals can become:
- Hearing officers
Where Can I Work as a Paralegal?
Paralegals can work in the private or public sector across most industries. According to Data USA, legal services employed 78% of paralegals and legal assistants as of 2019. Justice, public order, and safety activities formed the second largest group of employers at 5%. Insurance carriers came in third, employing just under 2%.
Data USA notes that the highest-paying industries for paralegals as of 2019 were internet publishing, broadcasting, and web search portals; computer systems design; and non-depository credit establishments.
Since state laws impact paralegals' duties, location plays a key role in the job. Paralegals may find more job opportunities near large metropolitan areas and surrounding suburbs. According to Data USA, areas like Atlanta, Georgia; New York City; and Miami, Florida boast the highest concentrations of paralegals and legal assistants.
How to Become a Paralegal
It takes 2-5 years to become a paralegal, based on candidates' education level. The BLS reports that most paralegal positions require an associate degree. However, you do not need to earn an associate degree in paralegal studies to find a job.
Many candidates earn degrees in other fields before pursuing a certificate in paralegal studies. Since paralegal positions vary, there is no one way to become a paralegal. However, the steps below form a general idea of what to expect.
- Earn an associate degree.
- (Optional) Pursue a bachelor's degree.
- (Optional) Earn a certificate in paralegal studies to round out your CV.
- (Optional) Pass the required exams for paralegal certification.
- Apply to paralegal jobs.
Education Requirements for Paralegals
Many prospective paralegals pursue an associate degree in paralegal studies. Four-year programs for paralegal studies are less common than associate degrees. Candidates with a bachelor's in another subject may supplement their degree with a certificate in paralegal studies.
Graduate schools offer law programs such as legal studies, which may open up new career paths. While some schools provide graduate-level paralegal programs, law licensure is more common and may create better career opportunities. However, becoming a licensed attorney requires several more years of education, then passing the bar exam.
Prospective students may want to find paralegal programs based in the state where they wish to work. While a quality program can prepare students regardless of location, the curriculum may reflect some local laws and requirements. The faculty's familiarity with state law can also help students understand nuanced, area-specific topics.
License and Certification Requirements for Paralegals
One of the most appealing aspects of becoming a paralegal is the chance to work in law without a license. Even though Utah has created a licensing program for paralegals, the state does not require paralegals to hold licensure.
Voluntary certifications allow paralegals to demonstrate knowledge and experience. These credentials typically require participants to meet educational requirements and pass an exam. While employers value these certifications, applicants do not need one to work as a paralegal.
Voluntary certifications allow paralegals to demonstrate knowledge and experience.
Paralegal certifications include:
- Certified Paralegal: The CP credential is the only paralegal certification with accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) also offers an advanced CP program.
- CORE Registered Paralegal: Candidates can earn the CRP™ credential after passing the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam®. CORE stands for "competent, organized, responsible, and ethical."
- Professional Paralegal Certification: Paralegal program graduates and individuals with work experience in the field may qualify to take the PP exam.
- American Alliance Certified Paralegal: The American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI) administers the AACP credential and qualifying exam. Applicants must hold AAPI membership.
Required Experience for Paralegals
Employers may hire fresh graduates without any previous experience. However, higher-paying senior positions may require 3-5 years of related experience. Employers seeking specific types of paralegals (e.g., litigation, corporate, etc.) may prefer applicants with a background in the specialized field.
According to PayScale, new paralegals with less than a year of experience earned an average annual salary of $39,680 as of September 2021. Midcareer professionals with 5-9 years of experience take home an annual average of $50,980, while late-career paralegals can garner over $60,000 a year.
Internship experience can help candidates boost their resumes. Students may find internships with law firms through their school or other institutions.
Frequently Asked Questions About Paralegals
What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant?
Employers sometimes use the term legal assistant to refer to paralegals, but the two professions differ. A legal assistant's job description emphasizes clerical work. Paralegals focus on law-related tasks and directly assist attorneys.
What is the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer?
A lawyer has passed the bar exam and earned a state license to practice law. A paralegal has not earned a license and cannot practice law without close supervision by a licensed attorney.
Should I get a paralegal degree?
This depends on your background and career goals. Earning a paralegal degree can offer a direct path to careers in the field. However, paralegals can hold diverse educational backgrounds. Applicants can earn degrees in other subjects, then complete paralegal certificate programs.
Are paralegal programs available online?
Yes, postsecondary schools offer online paralegal programs at most education levels. While online education allows you to take classes almost anywhere, schools located in your home state may devote more curriculum space to laws and regulations specific to your area.
Professional Organizations for Paralegals
Formed in 2003, AAPI focuses on advancing the field through personal and professional development. Members can access resources including a job board and newsletters.
NALS partners with companies like Aflac and Google to offer its members discounts and services. The association also hosts conferences and produces industry publications.
Created in 1974, NFPA provides a career board, several publications, events, awards, and scholarships. The federation serves over 9,000 members through more than 50 member associations.
NALA focuses on continued education and development for paralegals. Members enjoy access to courses, webinars, networking opportunities, and industry reports.
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