Paralegal Career Guide

A paralegal, or a legal assistant, typically works in private law firms or in the public sector and performs many of an attorney’s tasks. Paralegals assist attorneys by preparing for hearings, trials, and meetings and by maintaining communication with clients. These legal professionals can provide numerous legal services, although those tasks that are considered practicing law, such as representing a client in court, are prohibited.

Paralegal Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Paralegals investigate the facts of a case, collect documents from a variety of sources, research legal cases, write reports and legal documents, draft pleadings and motions to be filed with the court, and assist attorneys during trials. Outside of courtroom preparation, legal assistants may prepare civil documents such as wills, contracts, mortgages, and separation agreements, interview witnesses and clients, and maintain communication with clients. Client contact may be extensive or minimal depending on the organization for which the paralegal works. However, paralegals are prohibited from doing tasks that are considered “practicing law.” Providing legal advice, representing clients, accepting a client’s case, and determining a client’s fee are all prohibited tasks for paralegals and must be performed by a practicing attorney. Visit our paralegal degree page to learn how to become a paralegal.

How to Become a Paralegal: Requirements and Qualifications

Paralegals generally must have some formal education to find employment. Community colleges typically offer two year paralegal programs while colleges and universities feature four year programs. While some organizations will hire candidates with a two year degree, the National Federation of Paralegals Association asserts that employers are increasingly requiring paralegals who possess a four year degree and recommends that all aspiring paralegals work toward a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies and legal studies are both common. Most professional organizations, including the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegals, recommend choosing a program that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). A directory of the ABA’s approved paralegal programs can be found at http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/paralegals/directory/home.html.

Paralegal Job Training

Paralegal programs generally require students to complete a mandatory internship. An internship provides hands-on experience and, in some cases, may lead to an employment offer after graduation.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

While not currently mandatory in the United States, paralegal certification may provide an edge during the employment process. Legal assistants have several options for certification. The National Federation of Paralegals, the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the American Alliance of Paralegals all offer certification programs. Prospective legal assistants should have strong analytical skills, should know the importance of attention to detail, and should be prepared to stay current with technology.

Examples of Possible Job Titles for this Career

  • Legal assistant
  • Paralegal

Career Opportunities and Employers

Those paralegals who gain experience may find many opportunities for advancement including being promoted to management positions. Paralegals may find employment at a range of organizations, including banks, insurance companies, private law firms, professional trade organizations, real estate firms, and the legal department of corporations. Opportunities also abound in the public sector. State and federal government agencies, consumer organizations, public defenders’ or prosecutors’ offices, and community legal services programs all hire paralegals, according to the American Bar Association.

Paralegal Salary and Outlook

paralegal studies degreeA paralegal’s salary often depends on education, training, years of experience, job location, and law firm size. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for paralegals in the United States is $46,990 and the top 10% earn more than $75,410.1 A paralegal career affords benefits such as bonuses, vacation, paid sick leave, health and life insurance, and reimbursement for participation in continuing legal education seminars. The BLS projects that job growth for paralegals will be 17% from 2012-2022.1 Demand for paralegals grows as the legal profession grows. Recent growth in areas like intellectual property law, healthcare law, elder issues, and environmental law contributes to the demand, and thus the increased need, for paralegals in those specialties. The best employment opportunities are for experienced paralegals and legal assistants with formal education and training. Earning a national paralegal certification can also help improve employment prospects and typically requires a paralegal degree from an accredited school.

Types of Paralegal Careers

Bankruptcy Paralegal

A bankruptcy paralegal navigates a debtor (someone who owes money) through a federally approved process that allows him or her to be relieved of that debt by negotiating a deal with creditors and the court. Bankruptcy can involve many steps, including attending meetings between attorneys for both parties to take notes and to make records, drafting applications, petitions and schedules, conducting real property searches to establish known assets, ordering appraisals, interviewing various individuals, and preparing for hearings. Some bankruptcies can be very complex and involve many more steps of varying degrees of complexity.

Corporate Paralegal

Corporate paralegals assist lawyers with the organization and the planning of corporate transactions and business matters. Corporate paralegals ensure that companies have all the necessary paperwork (filings with the Secretary of State, for instance) completed and filed for all applicable Federal, State, and SEC (Securities and Exchanges Commissions) laws for any type of business. A paralegal specializing in corporate law must have a thorough understanding of mergers and acquisitions, investments, employment laws, contract law, banking, finance, and securities.

Legal Assistant

Legal assistants and paralegals both assist lawyers in trial preparation and research. However, only individuals who have earned certification as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) can use the title of legal assistant.

Litigation Paralegal

A litigation paralegal’s job begins with discovery and an investigation into the facts of a case. Paralegals may assist in deposing witnesses and collecting and cataloguing facts in the case file. Pleadings, which the litigation paralegal will write and file, may also occur during this time as attorneys attempt to maneuver their clients into the most favorable positions. The paralegal will also be involved in the pretrial and the trial by organizing exhibits and evidence, conducting research, and helping the attorney establish the case for the client, which may involve preparing witnesses, evaluating jurors, and acting as a liaison between all parties to the process. The litigation paralegal often assists with the settlement of the case and an appeal, if necessary, which includes organizing and analyzing data, communicating with the necessary parties, and acting as a liaison with court officials.

Personal Injury Paralegal

Personal injury can take many forms and can occur in many different ways, which creates the need for a wide skill set in a personal injury paralegal. Major duties will include interviewing clients, taking notes and creating detailed records, conducting legal research, acting as liaison between interested parties, and ensuring proper documents are filed with the court in a timely manner. A personal injury paralegal may deal with medical personnel and documents, so a familiarity with administrative procedures used in the medical field will prove helpful. Personal injury cases often lead to trial. Therefore, the ability to prepare documents for the court is beneficial. If the case does not go to trial, the paralegal may assist in a settlement negotiation, which also involves research and analysis.

Frequently Asked Questions About This Career

Why should I choose a bachelor’s program instead of an associate’s program?
More employers are now requiring paralegals to hold a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or legal studies. A bachelor’s degree provides legal assistants with more job opportunities, and typically a higher starting salary.

Are online programs a good alternative to a traditional program?
Yes. In fact, the National Federation of Paralegals asserts that distance programs provide flexibility and a “viable alternative” for self-motivated individuals.

What type of schedule does a paralegal generally work?
Paralegals typically work a full time, 40 hour a week schedule. However, overtime may be necessary.

What is the best way to find employment?
Making a good impression as an intern may lead to an offer of employment. The American Bar Association also recommends that aspiring paralegals, who are still in school, should take advantage of their school’s career placement office. Joining a local paralegal association can also lead to opportunities.

Additional Resources

American Association for Paralegal Education – A paralegal resource, including conference and education information.

American Bar Association – The benefits of ABA Membership for paralegals.

National Federation of Paralegals – Education, news, certification, and other information for prospective and current paralegals.

NALA: National Association of Legal Assistants – A nationwide paralegal organization offering professional development programs and continuing education for paralegals.

NALS: The Association for Legal Assistants – An education and certification resource for paralegals and legal assistants.

National Paralegal Association – An international resource for paralegals and other legal professionals.

The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. – A resource for paralegals.

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References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
2. American Bar Association: http://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals/resources/career_information.html
3. NALA for Paralegals and Legal Assistants: www.nala.org
4. National Federation of Paralegals: http://www.paralegals.org/default.asp?page=17

Page Edited by Charles Sipe.