Choosing your profession can feel like one of the most crucial decisions you will make. It’s understandable to second-guess yourself. Shows like Law and Order, How to Get Away with Murder or Better Call Saul may have piqued your interest in the legal realm, but is that interest enough to fuel a career?
Of all the potential courtroom jobs out there, a paralegal career is one of the fastest tracks you can take to your first day on the job. But the year or two it takes to gain certification or a degree is still an investment. You want to be sure that it’s worth your time.
Take a moment to learn some of the gritty details of working as a paralegal — from the mouths of paralegals and the lawyers who hire them. These experts in the field responded to help you make the most informed decision possible.
For starters, let’s cover the basics …
What does a paralegal do?
You’ve likely done some research on your own, but it’s always beneficial to have all of your information in one place. What does a paralegal do? Basically, they help their attorneys keep it together.
Those duties, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), can include assisting attorneys during trials, organizing case files, preparing trial notes, performing legal research, preparing legal briefs and sometimes conducting client and witness interviews.
“Most paralegal jobs require paralegals to work on contracts, real estate, civil lawsuits, and other legal needs,” says Kirk Olson, a lawyer and professor at Rasmussen College. “One case may require multiple areas of law. For instance, a divorce often requires a paralegal to obtain and review real estate, pension, insurance, business, and estate planning documents, not just child custody studies.”
Paralegals are generally detail oriented, organized and efficient. Because duties can vary greatly based on the size of the firm or the supervising attorneys, they must also be adaptable.
Starting out as a paralegal
The path to becoming a paralegal can look very different from one person to the next.
But the most common education that leads to work as a paralegal, according to the BLS, is an associate degree, which generally takes about two years.* And, if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s or associate degree in a different field, a paralegal certification program can provide you with the precise knowledge base you’ll need on the job without requiring more years of schooling.
One of the purposes of higher education is to prepare students for what life will be like working in their chosen professions. Paralegal students learn there are many perks to becoming a paralegal. Being able to help others is rewarding, and the competitive salary is tough to ignore. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to dip your toes in the pool of legal professions, getting a taste of what the criminal justice system is really like.
A paralegal degree will provide you with the skills needed to succeed in the field, but there will be a host of things you won’t learn until you’re on the job. For some additional insights, we asked paralegal professionals to share the things they wish they’d known before starting their careers.
What to expect as a paralegal
“You will work hard and long hours, but it's worth it,” says paralegal and Rasmussen professor Julia Gordon. Gordon explains that paralegals carry a lot of weight on their shoulders and every detail matters.
“There is no room for error in tracking deadlines and working with court scheduling,” says Kevin Queenan of The Queenan Law Firm, P.C.. “Mentoring legal assistants, I hear the same issue every time: I did not know you meant that detail oriented!” Queenan emphasizes that little mistakes can have big consequences in the legal world. Having a bad day won’t cut it as an excuse if your mistake costs the firm a case, or worse, accusations of malpractice.
"You will work long, hard hours, but it's worth it."
Yet, Queenan points out, people with the right personality can flourish in this position. Paralegals can take jobs with varied daily tasks and experiences if that is what they are looking for. “In a general civil practice ... the legal assistant may be answering discovery one day and driving out to meet a new client the next day.”
“For those who like more structure or repetition, there are law practices involving cookie cutter lawsuits and issues. I talked to a legal assistant yesterday, and her last position involved filing 1,000 credit card lawsuits per month.”
“Don't go into the job with rose colored glasses,” Gordon says. You might picture working in an office full of driven individuals who want to help their clients fix injustices. But it isn’t always like that.
“Not all attorneys are nice, and not all attorneys are ethical,” Gordon says. “Be aware of your ethical rules and guidelines and never compromise your integrity. Nothing is worth losing your self-respect. You have your clients’ lives in your hands. Treat the position with the highest reverence.”
Professional paralegal potential
In this legal career, certain personalities with certain skillsets are better poised for success than others. If you are considering work as a paralegal, make sure you fit the bill by the time you apply.
“An effective legal assistant must be user-friendly and computer savvy,” Queenan says. She adds that good legal assistants don’t overreact under pressure, are highly organized and care about the little details.
“Being kind and helpful is a good start,” Olson says. But Olson emphasizes that helpfulness won’t land you the job. “Lawyers hire paralegals because a good paralegal will find flaws in documents and assist with billing and other detailed functions that keep a law office working. A good paralegal is a ‘deadline cop’ who keeps the law firm on track.”
Olson says paralegals are expected to catch errors made by others and remind everyone of important dates. “Finding and warning of a deadline that others missed may prevent a loss of a client’s case and may save a $10,000 deductible in a lawyer’s malpractice claim!”
All that detail checking includes spelling and grammar. Olson says paralegals correct citation mistakes, grammar mistakes, and other errors. Fine-tuning your writing and editing abilities are vital for success as a paralegal. That, as well as technical proficiency.
“A person considering becoming a legal assistant should take the highest level of available training on Word, WordPerfect and Westlaw,” Queenan says. “A technologically proficient legal assistant will wow his or her lawyers more often and command a higher salary and raises.”
Getting ahead in the industry
Detail-oriented professionals with strong writing and computer skills are important in this profession, but what can you do to stand out even more?
Queenan recommends getting training in client interactions, etiquette and communication skills. “I called a lawyer’s office yesterday and his legal assistant said ‘yeah’ instead of ‘yes.’ I thought I was calling the plumber!”
Additionally, Queenan suggests learning more about research materials on the internet. “We are suing a major manufacturer, and my legal assistant found several articles that were helpful to our lack of warning claims. The information was free!”
Olson suggests asking for examples of completed case files when you take work as a paralegal to see examples of what completed and professional work looks like for that firm. “And be assertive. If something does not look right, insist that it be explained or fixed.”
Paralegals play an integral role in a firm’s success — every document filed, every interview conducted and every ounce of collected research matters. You might find that the profession allows you to contribute to the work a legal firm does in a satisfying way.
The paralegal profession may be a first-rate career for you. Not only will it help you support your family, but it will challenge you intellectually and provide you with valuable professional experience to reach your long-term career goals.
The insights here should answer many of your lingering questions about becoming a paralegal. But there’s always more to learn. If you're thinking this is the career for you, learn more by reading I Want to Be a Paralegal ... Now What?
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2016.