What’s a Paralegal and How to Become One: Career Guide

What’s a Paralegal and How to Become One: Career Guide

Erin Gobler picture
Erin Gobler Contributing Writer
Updated April 29, 2024

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Are you considering a career as a paralegal? This could be a good time to make your move into this field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals earned a median annual wage of about $53,000 in 2020, and demand for this job is expected to grow considerably over the next decade.

There is also a wide range of paralegal jobs to pursue. For example, you can work for a private law firm or in the public sector to perform support tasks for attorneys. You might assist an attorney by preparing for hearings or maintaining communication with clients, or you may help to complete the court filings or documentation in a case.

Thanks to the many types of law that exist today, there are plenty of options for specialties you may go into as a paralegal. If you’re interested in this field, keep reading to learn the typical duties of a paralegal, how to become a paralegal or legal secretary, and some of the benefits of this type of job.

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Paralegal Description

Paralegals play an important role in the legal system, performing a variety of tasks to assist and support attorneys. Though the exact role a paralegal plays is likely to vary depending on their specialty and place of work, these professionals perform many of the administrative tasks that happen behind the scenes of a law office.

Paralegal Duties

Paralegals have many important roles in a law office. Some of the tasks they perform may include:

  • Investigating the facts of a case
  • Collecting documents from a variety of sources
  • Researching legal cases
  • Writing reports and legal documents
  • Drafting pleadings and motions to be filed with the court
  • Assisting attorneys during trials
  • Preparing civil documents such as wills, contracts, mortgages, and separation agreements
  • Interviewing witnesses and clients
  • Maintaining communication with clients

Paralegal Tasks

A day in the life of a paralegal will look very different from job to job, and depending on the type of law you work in. Some paralegals work for attorneys who are frequent presences in the courtroom. In that case, a typical day is likely to include investigating the facts of a case, drafting pleadings and motions, and assisting attorneys during trial.

Other paralegals work for attorneys who rarely spend time inside of the courtroom. In that case, a typical day might include reviewing and cataloging documents, drafting correspondence, or preparing legal documents, such as contracts and mortgages.

The duties of a paralegal job also depend on the size of the firm in which the paralegal works. Large law firms often have hundreds of paralegals on staff, each of which has a very specific role. On the other hand, a small firm might have just one paralegal to support the attorneys. Therefore, paralegals at smaller firms are likely to take on a greater variety of tasks out of necessity.

Client contact may also be extensive or minimal depending on the practice for which the paralegal works. However, it’s important to note that 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 instead.

Steps for Becoming a Paralegal

So you know you want to become a paralegal. Now what? We recommend the following steps to give you the best chance of success in your chosen career path:

  • Attend a paralegal degree or certificate program

    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 or certificate, the National Federation of Paralegals Association asserts that employers are increasingly requiring paralegals to 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 (NFP), recommend choosing a program that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). You can find out more about available paralegal programs through our Paralegal Degree Center.
  • Earn your certification

    Though no certification is technically required to become a paralegal, it can go a long way in making you a better candidate for jobs in the field. A formal training course may also help you to earn more over the course of your career. Plus, some employers may choose to hire only job candidates with certification. Many organizations offer certification for paralegals, including the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and the Association for Legal Professionals.
  • Choose a Specialty

    Law is an incredibly broad field, and just as attorneys in the field must typically choose a specialty to be successful in their careers, so must paralegals. Once you gain experience in your chosen specialty, you’ll have an easier time moving up the ranks and finding future jobs, since employers will see you as an expert in your specific law niche. Possible specialties for paralegals include Litigation, Criminal law, Corporate law, Family law, Immigration law, Real estate law, Estate planning, Intellectual property
  • Get hired.

    Paralegal programs typically require students to complete an internship in a legal setting. An internship provides hands-on experience and, in some cases, may lead to an employment offer after graduation. 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 departments 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.
  • Get paralegal job training while working.

    Paralegals who gain experience may find many opportunities for advancement, including being promoted to management positions. You will likely gain some experience during your internship in school, but you can also expect to learn on-the-job once you take your first position. Use this opportunity to figure out what aspects of the field you like and which aspects you don't care for so that you can be more focused in your next job search and seek out a paralegal job that best suits you.
  • Other Helpful Skills and Experience

    While not mandatory in most 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. Read more about certification options for paralegals on ourParalegal Certification page.

    Types of Paralegal Careers

    Paralegals assist lawyers with preparing for trials, hearings, and corporate meetings. In addition to working for law firms, paralegals often provide assistance to the legal and finance departments in large corporations as well as nonprofit and government organizations. Below are descriptions of possible 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 additional steps of varying degrees of complexity.

    Corporate Paralegal

    Corporate paralegals assist lawyers with the organization and 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 and comply with all applicable federal and state laws. A paralegal specializing in corporate law must have a thorough understanding of mergers and acquisitions, investments, employment laws, contract law, banking, finance, and securities.

    Criminal Law Paralegal

    A criminal law paralegal supports the work of criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors. They will perform duties similar to that of other paralegals (filing paperwork, conducting research, interviewing witnesses and defendants, corresponding with clients, etc.). Their work, however, will specifically support the building of cases for or against accused criminals. Criminal law paralegals may also be known as criminal defense paralegals, criminal litigation paralegals, or simply criminal paralegals. To read more about criminal law paralegals, see ourCriminal Law Paralegal Career Guide.

    Immigration Paralegal

    Immigration paralegals work for immigration attorneys, who specialize in helping clients navigate immigration laws to obtain visas, become naturalized citizens or legal residents, and solve other immigration-related issues. They may also assist attorneys who help US citizens complete the adoption process of children from abroad. They work for law firms, corporations or government agencies. Immigration paralegals generally assist attorneys and help clients through the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, a legal resident, or to help a US citizen go through the immigration process for adopting a child from abroad. They typically assist attorneys in researching the facts of each case, writing reports and assist lawyers during trials.

    Legal Assistant

    A legal assistant is another general term for a paralegal. 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."

    Legal Secretary

    The term legal secretary was once synonymous with the term paralegal, but over time the occupations have become differentiated. While paralegals perform attorney support tasks such as legal research and drafting legal documents, legal secretaries provide administrative support to attorneys and paralegals, focusing on day-to-day tasks such as answering phones, setting appointments, scheduling meetings, and maintaining automatic reminder systems. Legal secretaries provide administrative support under the direction of the attorneys or senior paralegals with whom they work.

    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 cataloging facts in the case file. Pleadings, which the litigation paralegal may 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 pretrial and 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, which makes it necessary for personal injury paralegals to possess a wide skill set. Major duties include interviewing clients, taking notes and creating detailed records, conducting legal research, acting as a 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 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.

    Related Careers in the United States Court System

    There are many other law-related careers that you may be interested in if being a paralegal interests you. While each career has its own education and/or certification requirements, they are all found within the legal and court system. Following are a few other job paths that may be available for legal studies and paralegal studies majors. Keep in mind that more education will be required to become a lawyer.

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    Why Becoming a Paralegal Is a Promising Career Choice

    The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as follows: "a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible." Put in simpler terms, a paralegal is a professional staff member who performs allowable legal tasks under attorney supervision.

    If you're seeking a challenging and engaging position in a growing field, consider pursuing this career. Paralegals are a vital part of any legal team, and they take on interesting, important assignments that often vary on a daily basis. If you enjoy investigating facts, performing research, writing, and working with people in a fast-paced atmosphere, chances are you may enjoy this career path.

    Interesting and Engaging Work Environment

    The exact job duties of a paralegal (sometimes called a "legal assistant") can vary depending on where they're employed and the area of law in which they work. Paralegals perform tasks such as conducting legal and factual research, drafting court documents and correspondence, reviewing and summarizing records, filing documents with the court, maintaining files, and communicating with clients. They can do many of the same tasks that an attorney can do, with the exception of accepting cases and setting fees, giving legal advice, and representing clients in court. About 76% of paralegals work for law firms according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but governmental agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations also utilize these professionals.1

    Many Options for Education

    In most states, there are no specific education requirements to become a paralegal. Many community colleges, technical schools, and universities offer specific degree programs to prepare for this career, including certificates as well as associate's and bachelor's degrees in paralegal and legal studies. It's also possible, but increasingly rare, to obtain a position based on other work experience and on-the-job training. When deciding on a school, consider choosing one with an ABA-accredited paralegal program. ABA-accredited curricula must meet strict criteria established by the ABA, and by choosing an ABA-approved program you can rest assured that you're getting a quality education. For more information about paralegal degrees, read ourParalegal Degree Center.

    Strong Employment Outlook

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the paralegal job field is expected to grow at a rate of 10% through 2029.1As law firms and other employers continue to cut budgets while the demand for legal services increases, employers are choosing to utilize paralegals whenever possible since paralegals can perform legal tasks at a lower cost per hour than attorneys. The BLS predicts that the industries with the strongest job growth for paralegals over the next few years will be finance firms, insurance firms, consulting firms, and healthcare providers.1

    Competitive Salary & Benefits

    So, how much do paralegals make? A 2020 National Association of Legal Assistants & Paralegals (NALA) study on paralegal salaries indicated that the average annual paralegal wage was about $68,240.2 This survey reported that this average compensation increased 1% over 2018 and 11% over 2016.2 The BLS offers a significantly lower number, listing the average wage for paralegals about $52,920 as of 2020, with the highest-earning 10% of paralegals making over $85,160 per year.1The main driver for the disparity is likely the level of professional involvement of self-selected respondents to the NALA survey as well as sample sizes; the NALA survey results are based on 1,607 responses, whereas the BLS uses much larger data sets compiled from nationwide long-term population information from the US Census Bureau and other state and federal agencies.1,2

    Within the salary ranges available, it's important to understand that how much an individual paralegal makes depends on many factors including their background, job performance, type of employer, and area of law. It is possible for an experienced paralegal working in a highly specialized or technical field to make a six-figure salary. Most paralegal positions also include numerous other benefits such as medical, dental, life, and disability insurance, paid time off, and company-matched 401(k) or IRA accounts. Many employers also provide tuition reimbursement or pay for classes and seminars.

    Average Annual Salary by State

    A paralegal career offers the opportunity to perform engrossing, meaningful work in a professional atmosphere. The typical educational requirements can be completed in as little as two years with an associate’s degree or even less with a paralegal certificate, and the starting salary is reasonable – with plenty of room for growth. Paralegal salaries can vary significantly by geographic area; those in large cities tend to make more, while those in states where paralegals are in high demand will also typically see higher salaries. The ten highest-earning states for paralegals are:

    Median Annual Salary
    District of Columbia$83,170
    New Jersey$57,530
    New York$57,490

    Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2020.3

    Paralegal Interviews

    We interviewed paralegal leaders from across the country to provide professional career advice.

    • Kristine M. Custodio, President of the San Diego Paralegal Association
    • Karen R. George, President of the South Florida Paralegal Association
    • Lori Boris, President of the Minnesota Paralegal Association
    • Lynda Cmara, President of New Haven County Association of Paralegals in Connecticut
    • Rachel Nesbit, Vice President of the Mississippi Paralegal Association
    • Best Paralegal Career Advice From 17 Leaders in the Paralegal Field
    See All Paralegal Interviews

    Frequently Asked Questions

    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. Aspiring paralegals who are still in school should take advantage of internship opportunities and the services of their school's career placement office. Joining a local paralegal association can also lead to opportunities.

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    Additional Resources

    • American Association for Paralegal Education: A paralegal resource providing conference and education information.
    • American Bar Association: All about the benefits of ABA membership for paralegals.
    • Free Criminal Justice and Law Lectures: Our Free Criminal Justice Lectures resource provides video and audio lectures from 15+ criminal justice and law-related college courses that are available to watch or listen to online for free, taught by professors from top US universities like Harvard, Yale, New York University, and UC Berkeley.
    • 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 Certification: Learn about the different paralegal certification options available and the requirements for earning certification.
    • The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.: A membership-driven professional resource for paralegals.
    • Top Paralegal Blogs: Criminal Justice Degree Schools has published a list of the Top Paralegal Blogs from thought-leading bloggers to provide insights and career advice for aspiring paralegals who are interested in acquiring a degree and beginning a successful career in this field.
    • Top Criminal Law Blogs: Learn about the criminal area of the legal field by viewing our top criminal legal blogs.
    • Top Divorce Law Blogs: Read about divorce law on our top divorce law blogs list.
    • US Directory of Paralegal Associations: Our comprehensive directory features over 140 US paralegal associations organized by state. Joining a paralegal association can help you network and advance your career. Find the associations near you.

    1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants:https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
    2. 2020 NALA National Utilization and Compensation Report: https://www.nala.org/sites/default/files/files/users/2020UtilizationSurvey%20-%20FINAL%20-%20Summary%20of%20Findings.pdf
    3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020 Occupational Employment and Wages, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm#st

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