What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is a legal professional who supports attorneys in various aspects of their work. While they cannot practice law themselves, they perform a range of tasks that contribute significantly to the legal process. These professionals provide valuable assistance to lawyers, helping to prepare for trials, hearings, and corporate meetings, as well as performing extensive legal research and documentation.
They work in various legal fields, including corporate law, criminal law, family law, immigration, and intellectual property. They are a vital component of the legal system, enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of legal services by providing high-level support. Their role facilitates the provision of legal services to more people and contributes to the effective functioning of law firms, corporations, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations.
Duties and responsibilities
The duties of a paralegal often encompass a broad range of tasks that support the work of attorneys. They conduct legal research, gather relevant information, and prepare legal documents such as contracts, affidavits, and pleadings. These professionals assist in the preparation of cases for trial by organizing evidence, preparing trial notebooks, arranging for witness interviews, and managing electronic databases and files.
They often handle administrative tasks such as maintaining and organizing files, drafting correspondence, and managing schedules. In some cases, they may also be tasked with direct client communication and case management under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
Paralegals typically work in offices within law firms, corporate legal departments, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations. They often work alongside attorneys and other legal professionals in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment that requires attention to detail and the ability to multitask.
Their work often involves significant time spent on computers conducting research, reviewing legal documents, and preparing reports. Given the sensitive nature of legal work, maintaining confidentiality and adhering to professional ethics are paramount. While the work can be demanding, it can also be intellectually stimulating, providing exposure to various facets of the law.
Typical work hours
Paralegals usually work full-time, and their hours often mirror those of attorneys. A typical work week is Monday through Friday, with standard business hours. However, depending on the demands of the case or project they’re working on, they may need to put in extra hours. This is especially true when preparing for a trial or meeting a filing deadline, which can involve long hours and work during weekends. Despite the potential for extended hours, many professionals find the job rewarding due to their significant contributions to the legal field.
How to become a paralegal
This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a paralegal. The journey involves obtaining an educational foundation in legal studies, gaining practical experience, and, in some cases, acquiring national certification.
Step 1: Complete a high school diploma or GED
Like many professional careers, this path starts with finishing high school or obtaining a GED certificate. Completing English, history, government, and economics courses can help build a useful foundation.
Step 2: Pursue a legal studies program
The next step is to pursue education in legal studies. Aspiring paralegals can opt for a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree in legal studies or a related field. Some schools offer a paralegal certificate as an addition to a degree program, which provides focused education in legal concepts.
Step 3: Gain practical experience
A crucial part of pursuing this career is gaining practical experience. Many educational programs include internships that provide this opportunity. Other options include entry-level positions at law firms, legal departments, or government offices where general administrative tasks are performed. This initial experience provides exposure to the legal environment.
Step 4: Obtain certification (optional)
While not always a requirement, certification can enhance job prospects. Various national professional organizations provide certification exams. These commonly include the Certified Paralegal Exam from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the Paralegal Certification Exam from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).
Step 5: Apply for jobs
With the appropriate qualifications and experience, next up is entering the job market. Many law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies hire paralegals. Responsibilities vary depending on the employing organization, ranging from supporting lawyers with case management to conducting legal research and drafting documents.
Step 6: Seek continuing education and skill development
Even after securing a job, these professionals must stay current with the latest laws and regulations and continually develop their skills. Many employers, as well as national associations, offer continuing education programs. Also, developing skills in newer areas like e-discovery and legal technology can be highly beneficial in the evolving legal landscape.
How much do paralegals make?
Paralegal salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors affecting their compensation can include the size and prestige of the law firm, the range and complexity of legal cases handled, and specific areas of legal specialization.
Highest paying industries
- Federal Executive Branch – $73,490
- Scientific Research and Development Services – $72,120
- Computer Systems Design – $70,760
- Software Publishers – $68,730
- Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing – $68,130
Highest paying states
- California – $74,720
- New York – $72,750
- Massachusetts – $70,400
- Illinois – $69,830
- Connecticut – $68,170
Types of paralegals
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for paralegals.
Within the corporate world, paralegals often serve essential roles. They assist in preparing documents, handle regulatory filings, and perform due diligence during major transactions. Their familiarity with corporate law is not only needed for daily operations, but they are also indispensable during mergers or acquisitions.
Litigation paralegals are focused on supporting trial attorneys and legal teams during courtroom proceedings. They are vital in researching legal precedents, filing motions, and organizing evidence for use in court. Their highly detail-oriented work is essential to achieving success in the courtroom.
Real estate paralegal
Paralegals seeking a specialization in real estate law face tasks such as drafting property agreements, doing due diligence on property sales, and facilitating communication between various parties involved in real estate transactions. Their expertise is instrumental in ensuring seamless property dealings.
Estate planning paralegal
Estate planning paralegals work closely with attorneys to prepare the documentation and legal tools necessary for clients’ post-life planning. This may include drafting wills, trusts, and other pertinent documents. Their ability to navigate complex laws surrounding estate matters is pivotal to planning for their clients and their families’ futures.
Paralegals specializing in immigration issues assist lawyers in filing paperwork, communicating with clients in various languages, and keeping up with the frequently changing regulations surrounding immigration law. They may also accompany clients to immigration proceedings, making their role active and vital in aiding clients through the immigration process.
Top skills for paralegals
This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as a paralegal.
Legal research involves digging through case law, statutory law, administrative regulations, and more to collect relevant information for legal proceedings. Sifting through copious amounts of data efficiently and extracting pertinent facts is essential in this role.
These professionals spend significant time drafting legal documents, such as contracts, affidavits, and briefs. The work requires precision, attention to detail, and the ability to distill complex legal concepts into understandable language.
They typically have to juggle multiple assignments or cases simultaneously, requiring efficient organization and prioritization skills. Managing a complex calendar, keeping track of deadlines, and maintaining accurate and organized files is critical.
Analyzing and critically assessing legal data plays a significant role in their routine. This involves examining large quantities of information and translating it into a digestible and concise format. Good analytical skills provide a basis for legal arguments and contribute to more effective case strategies.
In a field where confidentiality and integrity are paramount, possessing sound ethical judgment is necessary. Professionals in this role are obligated to uphold legal ethics, practice confidentiality, and avoid conflicts of interest. Understanding professional responsibility can safeguard them and their firm from potential misconduct allegations.
Paralegal career path options
Starting a career as a paralegal offers many diverse opportunities for growth and specialization. They might find career advancement in a wide variety of fields, such as litigation, corporate law, criminal law, intellectual property law, and many others.
Beginners typically start in supportive roles. They work directly under the guidance of experienced colleagues and are responsible for managing case files, conducting legal research, and drafting documents. With experience, they may begin to take on additional responsibilities and more complex cases.
For those interested in management, becoming a senior or supervising paralegal is a viable career path. In such roles, professionals are tasked with overseeing work within a firm’s paralegal team and can also be involved in recruiting or training new staff.
Branching out to special areas can significantly enhance a candidate’s career. Some professionals might obtain additional qualifications in a particular field, like real estate or immigration law. Acquiring specialized knowledge can bring a higher salary and can also lead to the creation of an independent legal consulting service.
It’s not uncommon for someone to use this position as a stepping stone to become a lawyer. Such a path requires further education, as law school and passing the bar exam are mandatory. Another avenue can be working in a corporate environment, performing compliance or rules and regulation duties.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook for paralegals
Entering this profession presents diverse prospects for career advancement. As businesses and law firms continue looking for cost-efficient strategies, they gradually increase their dependence on these professionals for assorted tasks. This is prompting a shift in roles and responsibilities, with more complex tasks assigned, thus expanding the field beyond traditional boundaries.
Powered by technological developments, paralegals are now expected to handle sophisticated legal software and perform online research, making technological proficiency a must-have skill. On the other hand, the steady increment in legislation relating to different areas like healthcare, environment, and data privacy is causing a surge in specialized roles. This gives aspiring paralegals many options to explore and specialize in, providing them with scope for diversification and growth.
As per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals is projected to grow by about 14 percent through 2031. This growth rate is much faster than the average for all occupations. The demand for these professionals should continue to increase as they assume a wider variety of tasks in legal offices.
Paralegal career tips
Understand the scope of paralegal work
A paralegal plays an essential role in the field of law, assisting lawyers in various tasks such as conducting legal research, drafting documents, and preparing for trials. A comprehensive understanding of what this job entails will give you a clear picture of your responsibilities and ensure you can perform your tasks efficiently and effectively.
Master legal research and writing
One of the main tasks in a law office is conducting legal research and writing concise reports. These are necessary skills for any legal professional and can greatly impact a case’s outcome. Thus, investing time in improving these abilities will benefit your career goals.
Stay updated with law changes
Law is a broad and constantly evolving sector. To stay competitive, it’s important to keep yourself updated with any legal changes related to your practice area. This could involve reading legal blogs or attending courses on recent legal updates.
Gain practical experience
Experience is key in the legal field. To give depth to your legal knowledge, try to gain practical experience. This could involve internships, apprenticeships, or entry-level roles in law firms or legal departments of companies. A hands-on approach will not only help you understand the theoretical aspects you’ve learned but also give you a realistic view of the situations you may encounter in your practice.
Build a professional network
Building a strong network within the legal profession can open doors for future career opportunities. Try attending legal conferences or joining professional organizations to connect with other paralegals and lawyers.
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
Prioritize continuous learning
Given the dynamic nature of law, it’s paramount to prioritize continuous learning. This could be through on-the-job training, professional development courses, or earning advanced degrees. Here are some avenues to consider for continuous learning:
- Law magazines and blogs
- Seminars and webinars on evolving legal trends
- Continuing Legal Education courses
Pursue relevant certifications
Additional certifications can help you secure more advanced roles and enhance your professionalism. The Certified Paralegal (CP) and the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) are both widely recognized certifications that may help you progress in your career.
Where the paralegal jobs are
- Jones Day
- Kirkland & Ellis
- Latham & Watkins
- Baker McKenzie
- White & Case
- New York
Top job sites
What qualifications do I need to become a paralegal?
You typically need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field. A certificate program in paralegal studies is another option. You can also opt for a bachelor’s degree in a different field and then complete a paralegal certificate program. On-the-job experience can be just as important as formal education, so internships and entry-level positions that offer training are beneficial. Soft skills like research ability, attention to detail, communication skills, and ethical judgment are also important.
What kind of law should I specialize in as a paralegal?
The kind of law you should specialize in depends on your interests and long-term career goals. Some prefer family law, while others might enjoy corporate, criminal, environmental, or estate law. Exploring different areas of law through internships or entry-level jobs is advisable to decide what suits you best.
Is a licensing or certification necessary for a paralegal?
While a license is not typically required, some employers may prefer or require paralegal certification. The certification process usually involves a combination of education, work experience, and passing an examination. Requirements may vary by state, so it’s important to research what is expected in your specific location.
What are the primary tasks and responsibilities for a paralegal on a daily basis?
Their typical daily tasks include conducting legal research, drafting legal documents, organizing and maintaining files, and communicating with clients. They might also assist attorneys with trial preparation, including evidence and witness coordination. They generally perform numerous administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments and keeping track of deadlines.
What skills are important for a paralegal to be successful?
In addition to a broad understanding of law and legal terminology, they need strong communication skills, research and investigative skills, and organizational abilities. They must be able to work well as part of a team, demonstrate discretion when dealing with sensitive information, and be proficient in using standard office software programs and legal research platforms.
How is the work-life balance for a paralegal?
Work-life balance can vary greatly depending on the type of law one specializes in and the individual employer. Some may put in long hours, particularly when preparing for trials, while others might experience more regular hours. Most positions offer typical business hours, but overtime can occasionally be necessary.
Are there opportunities for remote work or freelancing for paralegals?
Yes, there can be, particularly in today’s increasingly digital work landscape. Freelance and contract-based work is available for those who wish to work independently. Additionally, more firms are adopting remote work policies, allowing them to work from home part-time or full-time.
Can the role of a paralegal lead to becoming an attorney?
Yes, many people use this role as a stepping stone toward becoming an attorney. The experience and knowledge gained can provide a strong foundation for law school and the eventual practice of law. However, becoming an attorney requires additional education and passing the bar exam.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a paralegal?
The most rewarding aspect can differ from person to person. Some might find satisfaction in the detailed research and preparation tasks that go into supporting a successful legal case. Others may find fulfillment in the ability to help clients through difficult legal issues. Gaining an in-depth understanding of the law and its implications can also be intellectually rewarding.
What are the biggest challenges of being a paralegal?
Their work can be quite demanding, with tight deadlines and the need for extreme attention to detail. Dealing with clients going through difficult situations can be emotionally taxing. Maintaining up-to-date knowledge of constantly changing laws and regulations can also be daunting, but it is essential for success in the field.