Paralegal Job Overview
Career Profile of a Paralegal
Paralegals, also sometimes known as legal assistants, are individuals who are trained to assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. They might work for law firms, corporations, the government, and 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.
Types of Paralegals
This is not a one-size-fits-all profession, and not all paralegals assume the exact same duties. It largely depends on who they work for and, in the case of law firms, what kind of services that law firm provides.
Someone employed by a family law firm might specialize in custody matters, arranging mediation or expert psychological evaluations. A paralegal who works for a corporation might specialize in contracts. Someone working for a nonprofit might focus on human rights law.
A litigation paralegal would not necessarily share the same skills as one who works in estate planning. On-the-job duties for the first position would involve far more in the way of trial preparation and a behind-the-scenes presence in the courtroom. An estate planning attorney tends to find herself in court far less often, so her paralegal would most likely be more proficient in the area of drafting documents such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
It's not uncommon for a paralegal to establish a specialty or an area of expertise after joining a firm. She might possess an overall, fundamental knowledge of the law but 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.
Other possibilities include labor law, criminal law, and real estate law.
Paralegal Job Duties
Paralegals assist attorneys in resolving lawsuits. They might investigate the facts of a case, interview clients and witnesses, and perform legal research. Paralegals often draft pleadings, including deposition notices, subpoenas, motions, certifications, and briefs.
They might handle discovery—the exchange of certain information pertinent to a case between opposing parties—and organize and manage files, documents, and exhibits. Paralegals file documents with federal and state courts and assist at hearings, arbitration, mediation, administrative proceedings, closings, and trials.
Although what a paralegal cannot do is established by law, what he can do is highly dependent on his employers. Some attorneys find delegating easier than others. A paralegal's prime purpose is to free up the attorney's time so the attorney can do those things that only lawyers can do, like advise clients and appear in court.
Paralegals must have a solid knowledge of legal terminology, federal and state rules of legal procedure, and substantive law. They must have excellent organizational skills to manage voluminous case files and exhibits, which can number in the hundreds for a single case.
Communication skills are crucial because paralegals regularly interact with clients, experts, vendors, court personnel, and attorneys other than their employers. Strong research and writing skills are also necessary for drafting pleadings, research memorandums, correspondence, and other documents.
An ability to handle pressure and looming deadlines can be crucial in some specialties, particularly litigation.
Education Required for a Paralegal Position
Although some paralegals possess no formal paralegal training, many have two-year associate degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees. Some colleges offer courses toward a paralegal certificate. Most certification bodies require that a paralegal pass an examination and possess at least one year of experience in the field.
Paralegals with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a college degree in any field combined with a paralegal certificate generally have the most career prospects. Some paralegals work their way up, though, starting as legal secretaries within a firm and taking on more and more responsibility as they learn the ropes. They become indispensable to the firm and can still enhance their professional status through paralegal certification.
Paralegal salaries hinge on many factors, including experience, education, practice environment, and geographic location. The median paralegal salary was $54,169 as of June 2018 with a range from $47,903 to $61,163.
Paralegals working for metropolitan firms typically earn more than those who work in smaller cities and more rural areas. 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 $20,000 a year.
The Paralegal Job Outlook
Ranked as one of the 20 best jobs in America by CNN Money, opportunities in the paralegal field are plentiful. Factors contributing to growth include job attrition and a healthy legal market.
Due to rising legal fees, more and more clients are demanding the use of paralegals over high-priced attorneys whenever possible. Increasing caseloads have encouraged lawyers to delegate tasks formerly reserved for attorneys and other professional staff, creating more opportunities for paralegals.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that paralegal positions will increase by 8 percent from 2014 through 2024.