What Does a Paralegal Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

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Paralegals are trained to assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. They might work for law firms, corporations, the government, or in other practice environments, but always under the supervision of a lawyer. Paralegals can't give legal advice. They can't represent clients in court, establish legal fees, or sign documents that will be filed with the court.

Approximately 285,600 paralegals were employed in the U.S. in 2016, with 73 precnt of them employed by law firms and companies providing legal services.

Paralegal Duties & Responsibilities

Not all paralegals assume the exact same duties. It depends largely on who they work for and what kind of legal services their employer provides. Some responsibilities are common, however:

  • Arranging mediation or expert psychological evaluations in family law divorce and custody matters
  • Contributing to trial preparation in litigation practices
  • Providing behind-the-scenes support in the courtroom at hearings and trials, or in arbitration, mediation, administrative proceedings, and closings
  • Drafting legal documents and pleadings, including deposition notices, subpoenas, motions, certifications, contracts, briefs, and complaints
  • Investigating the facts of a case by interviewing clients and witnesses and performing legal research into case law and precedents
  • Handling discovery—the exchange of certain information between opposing parties to a lawsuit
  • Organizing and managing files, documents, and exhibits
  • Filing documents with federal and state courts

Although what a paralegal cannot do is established by law, what they can do is highly dependent on their employers. Some attorneys find delegating tasks easier than others do. A paralegal's prime purpose is to free up attorneys' time so the attorneys can do those things only lawyers can do, like advise clients and appear in court. 

Paralegal Salary

Paralegal salaries can hinge on many factors, including experience, education, practice environment, and geographic location. Those who work for the federal government tend to be the most highly compensated.

  • Median Annual Salary: $50,410 ($24.23/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $81,180 ($39.03/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $31,130 ($14.97/hour)

Paralegals who work for firms located in metropolitan areas typically earn more than those who work in smaller cities and more rural locations. Some experienced paralegals with special skills or management duties can earn in the six figures annually in large cities, while entry-level paralegals in rural areas might earn in the neighborhood of $25,000 a year.

Education, Training, & Certification

Some paralegals possess no formal training. They learn on the job under the supervision of attorneys, often assuming the position of paralegal and additional responsibilities after serving as a legal secretary or in another support role for a period of time. This isn't always the case, however.

  • Education: Many paralegals have two-year associate degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees. Many junior colleges offer courses toward a paralegal certificate.
  • Training: Even if they don't get it in a classroom setting, paralegals must have a solid knowledge of legal terminology, federal and state rules of legal procedure, and substantive law. Paralegals can gain this knowledge by working their way up from an entry-level position with a law firm or in other legal services.
  • Certification: This profession is not highly regulated, so having professional certification can really help a job candidate stand out from other applicants.
  • Licensing: Very few states have licensing or registration requirements for paralegals.

Paralegals with bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies, or a college degree in any field combined with a paralegal certificate, generally have the best career prospects.

Paralegal Skills & Competencies

Not everyone is capable of being a paralegal. Some inherent skills and traits can make all the difference between success and burning out.

  • Organizational skills: Paralegals must possess excellent organizational skills to manage voluminous files and exhibits, which can number in the hundreds for a single case.
  • Communication skills: Paralegals must interact regularly with clients, experts, court personnel, and attorneys other than their employers.
  • Strong research and writing skills: These skills are necessary for drafting pleadings, research memorandums, correspondence, and other documents. 
  • Nerves of steel: An ability to handle pressure and looming deadlines can be crucial in some specialties that involve a great deal of litigation.
  • An ability to multitask: This is a deadline-heavy profession, and multiple cases can demand action within the same limited time periods. You might have to perform various tasks on more than one case file almost simultaneously, taking a phone call on one matter while sorting through trial exhibits on another—and making mistakes because you're overwhelmed or distracted is not an option.

Job Outlook

Increasing caseloads have encouraged lawyers to delegate tasks formerly reserved for attorneys, creating more opportunities for paralegals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that paralegal positions will increase by 15 percent from 2016 through 2026, which is much faster than average.

This job growth can be at least partially attributed to the fact that attorneys can pass off more work to their paralegals at a lower hourly rate than they would personally charge for their time as clients resist high legal fees.

Work Environment

Paralegals tend to work in tandem with other personnel, such as attorneys and support staff, so being a paralegal is something of a people profession. Client interaction is also very common in certain areas of the law.

The vast majority of this work is performed in offices, but paralegals can occasionally be called upon to attend court proceedings with their attorney employers, or to travel for other reasons, such as to file documents or gather information.

Work Schedule

Being a paralegal is generally a full-time position performed during regular business hours, but overtime and evening hours are often necessary when deadlines loom and trials are imminent, requiring extensive preparation.

How to Get the Job

GET CERTIFIED

Take the National Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Examination (CLA/CP Exam) after you've received your associate degree or earned a certificate.

CHOOSE A SPECIALTY

It's not uncommon for a paralegal to establish a specialty or an area of expertise after joining a firm in an entry-level capacity. She might become proficient in certain areas through on-the-job training. In the end, it can come down to what interests you and what type of law and duties you're most comfortable with. You can then apply for jobs in that sector.

PREPARE FOR YOUR FIRST INTERVIEW

You can contact the National Association of Legal Assistants or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations for more information on paralegal careers.

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