Choosing to work as a paralegal can be a very rewarding career path. Paralegals often work in exciting fast-paced environments and help serve clients at critical times in their lives. Paralegals are an integral part of the legal system and provide essential services to their employers. If you enjoy writing, research, and helping others, then a career as a paralegal may be right for you.
In the broadest definition, a paralegal is a professional who works to assist a lawyer in delivering legal services. Paralegals work in a wide variety of environments and perform countless different types of duties. This page will help you learn more about what paralegals do and how you can begin to take the necessary steps to become one.
What does paralegal mean?
According to the current definition provided by the American Bar Association, a paralegal is “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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
What does a paralegal do?
When describing the job duties of a paralegal, it is helpful to first understand what a paralegal cannot do. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants, paralegals are not allowed to give legal advice, accept a case, set a fee for a case, or represent someone in court. In order to perform those tasks, one must be a licensed attorney. While paralegals cannot perform those specific tasks, they perform most of the other tasks that make the work of the attorney possible and are often the backbone of the firm. An attorney can delegate almost any task (exceptions noted above) to a paralegal as long as the lawyer maintains responsibility for the work-product of the paralegal.
Paralegals allow lawyers to deliver more cost effective services to their clients. In a private firm, the work of a paralegal is often billed to the client, but at a lower hourly rate than that of the attorney, thus making it possible to offer more legal service at a lower price to the client.
The most common place of employment for a paralegal is in a private law firm, but there are other entities which utilize paralegal services. These include federal, state, and local governments as well as the legal departments of insurance companies, hospitals, or other large corporations. Paralegal services allow attorneys to delegate some of their legal work at a lower billing rate and can thus save money for their employers.
Paralegals have many different job duties depending upon the firm in which they work. Some of the most common tasks for paralegals are:
- Perform initial client intakes and interviews
- Collect evidence and information to support legal claims
- Conduct legal research
- Draft documents or correspondence on behalf of the attorney
- Draft pleadings (formal written statements of claims or defenses against civil actions)
- Maintain client relations
- Calendar deadlines, dates, and meetings for court and trials
These are some of the more basic duties which a paralegal will perform. A paralegal may specialize in certain parts of the law such as corporate law, real estate transactions, or bankruptcy filings. Depending on the type of paralegal, these basic duties may be expanded to include things like assisting an attorney at trial or attending depositions and hearings.
For the job descriptions of the various types of paralegal specialties, see our Paralegal Job Descriptions page.
What is a paralegal salary?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2014 the national paralegal/legal assistant average salary was $51,840/year, which equates to $24.92/hour. The average salary for a paralegal can vary widely around the country depending on geographic location. It also differs based on variations in employment history, job experience, education, and areas of specialty. In the United States, the top five areas with the highest annual mean salaries for paralegals are: Alaska, California, New Jersey, Washington D.C. and Washington state. It is predicted by the BLS that the occupations of paralegal and legal assistants will trend up with an average job growth rate from 2014 to 2024 of 8%, creating a strong job prospects for paralegals in the forseable future.
For a more detailed analysis on paralegal salaries, including salaries of specialized paralegals and additional geographic salary information, see our article on Paralegal Salary.
What is a paralegal assistant/legal assistant?
In most cases, the title of paralegal and legal assistant or “paralegal assistant” are used interchangeably; however, it is common in law practices for employees referred to as “legal assistants” to perform more generally administrative duties such as answering the telephone, filing, and dictation. Some law offices utilize both titles in order to identify which employees perform the administrative tasks and which employees perform work such as legal research and drafting. In 1997 the American Bar Association (ABA) added the term “paralegal” to the definition of “legal assistant” as the terms have grown to become synonymous. The ABA also notes that the preferred term differs based upon where the paralegal/legal assistant is practicing as different regions of the country use different terms.
What do you need to be a paralegal?
Working as a paralegal can be very rewarding, but it can also be very demanding. Paralegals often work with clients who are going through difficult times in their lives. Whether it is a bankruptcy, a divorce, or recovery from an injury, many clients will have emotions running high during these stressful life situations. A paralegal should be able to remain calm and professional while dealing with their clients in a compassionate manner. It is important that a paralegal can make the client feel confident that they are well represented and comfortable sharing details about personal events in their lives which may be difficult to discuss.
Paralegals should also have strong written communication and organization skills. The legal process involves a lot of paperwork and very important court deadlines. Paralegals are often in charge of managing the law firm calendar and making sure that the attorneys are meeting all necessary deadlines within their cases. Missing a deadline during litigation can mean losing the entire case, so it is crucial that paralegals are organized, efficient, and timely.
What degree do you need to be a paralegal?
The specific education requirements necessary to practice as a paralegal are not neatly defined and are not standardized from state to state, or even between law firms. Unlike attorneys, there is no association or organization that oversees certification or licensure for paralegals, and there is no such thing as a “licensed paralegal.” There are, however, some qualifications that employers generally look for when hiring paralegals and there are ways to become a certified paralegal.
When an attorney is looking to hire a paralegal, he or she will likely consider several factors. One of these factors is the type of education the candidate has received. Paralegal degrees come in many forms. There are programs offering associates degrees in paralegal studies and also schools which offer Bachelor of Science degrees in paralegal studies. A paralegal certificate can also be obtained through a certification training course after someone has already received a bachelor’s degree in another field. Although a most states do not formally require a degree in paralegal studies to practice as a paralegal, a potential employer will likely consider the education qualification of a paralegal as a very important factor when hiring.
What is a certified paralegal?
There is no mandatory test or licensure for paralegals; however, there are ways to become a certified paralegal. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) defines professional certification as “a voluntary process by which a nongovernmental entity grants a time-limited recognition to an individual after verifying that the individual has met predetermined, standardized criteria.” Certification is obtained through testing performed by a non-governmental organization. The paralegal certification examinations test areas of knowledge such as federal law and procedure, legal ethics, legal terminology, communication, and writing skills.
By taking and passing one of these examinations, a paralegal earns the professional designation of Certified Paralegal (CP), Certified Legal Assistant (CLA), or Registered Paralegal (RP). Several organizations offer these tests including NALA, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), and the National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS). Completing a paralegal certification education program and passing an exam to become a certified paralegal are two different things. A paralegal certificate indicates that one has completed the necessary schooling and training to earn that degree while a certified paralegal has completed voluntary testing in order to receive that designation.