A paralegal provides support to lawyers in a variety of ways, including investigating facts related to a case, interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting legal documents, and performing legal research.
Paralegals cannot give legal advice and always work under the supervision of an attorney. However, they're essential to the legal profession, as they assist attorneys in most aspects of case research and preparation.
The terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” used to be interchangeable, but that is slowly beginning to change within the industry. Legal assistants often have more administrative roles, while paralegals perform more duties directly related to the law.
The Path to Becoming a Paralegal
Those interested in legal careers but who aren’t sure they want to go to law school are often good candidates for becoming paralegals. However, making the decision to become a paralegal does not mean that you can’t become a lawyer down the line. It's often recommended that people interested in the law but not decisively sure they want to go to law school work as a paralegal to gain experience in a legal field and to see if they like the work.
Law school can be very difficult and very expensive, so if you are not sure if it’s the right move for you, finding work as a paralegal is a more cost-efficient investment while you decide.
Skills and Job Duties
Just about anyone can become a paralegal with the right education. However, there are some specific skills that paralegals should possess. Communication skills are necessary since they serve as a liaison between clients, experts, vendors, and the parties of a litigation or legal transaction.
Paralegals must also have top-notch writing skills to draft correspondence, contracts, memos, pleadings, discovery, motions, briefs, and more. They also need both traditional and internet research skills to be able to find and analyze information and cite legal authority for cases.
And juggling all of these duties for many cases at a time requires top-notch organizational skills.
Generally, paralegals work at least 40 hours per week, but sometimes put in more time than that to meet deadlines. They usually work in an office setting, but may travel to accompany lawyers to trials, gather documents, or do research.
There are several ways to become a paralegal: Certificate programs, two-year programs, and four-year programs can all lead to becoming a paralegal. The route you choose to go depends on your current role, educational status, and what your eventual goals are.
Many employers prefer paralegal candidates with four-year degrees. However, because many colleges don't offer four-year degrees in paralegal studies, people often earn a four-year degree in a related area. They'll then earn a certificate in paralegal studies through another program. These types of programs usually include coursework related to legal writing, legal research, and computer programs, as well as different areas of law, such as corporate or international.
Some firms prefer candidates with some experience working in a related setting, and others will hire people straight out of college and train them on the job.
The American Bar Association offers a directory of approved paralegal education programs. If a program isn't listed in the directory, then it's not ABA-approved.
Job Outlook and Pay
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for the paralegal profession is pretty promising. It's projected to grow by 12% between 2018 to 2028, which is faster than the average projected growth of 5% for all occupations.
In May 2019, the median annual wage for paralegals was $51,740, according to BLS. The lowest-paid 10% of people in the profession earned less than $32,160, and the highest-paid 10% earned more than $82,500 in May 2019.
If you’re interested in a career that is growing faster than average, or if you possess the necessary skills and are interested in the legal profession, a career as a paralegal may be for you.