6 Duties You Probably Didn't Know Were in the Paralegal Job Description
Anyone interested in the world of law has probably wondered about the paralegal career. Being part of court cases and complex legal proceedings without taking on the long journey of law school sounds great. Despite not having the “name brand” appeal of being a lawyer, becoming a paralegal can be an excellent career choice. In fact, the 2017 median annual paralegal salary was just over $50,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and job openings for paralegals are expected to grow at a faster rate than the national average for all occupations.1
But all these positive aspects are meaningless if you don’t like the actual job. What are the most common paralegal duties? Do paralegals get to be involved in cases? What are the daily tasks?
If you are curious about the paralegal job description—read on! We combined research with advice from professional paralegals to give you a closer look at what life as a paralegal is really like. That includes the responsibilities you might not see in the official paralegal job description.
What paralegals do: The official job description
Paralegals, also called legal assistants, organize files, conduct legal and case-related research, and draft documents to support lawyers, according to the BLS.1 The average paralegal might gather the facts of a case; research relevant laws and regulations; correspond with clients, witnesses and vendors to schedule meetings; and assist lawyers to prepare for trials and hearings.
Managing and utilizing electronic systems is often a big part of the job as well, since law firms rely on software to file and maintain client information; to index keywords, laws and topics in a database; and to maintain the high levels of privacy and security necessary in legal proceedings.
It’s important to keep in mind that paralegals might have different duties depending on which branch of law their employer deals with. Corporate law, litigation law, and specializations in personal injury, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law and real estate can all change the specific duties a paralegal performs.
“It surprised me to learn how many different paralegal positions there are,” says Nicholle Pendergraft, paralegal at Clear Counsel Law Group. Pendergraft explains that duties between types of paralegals can vary greatly.
“In my current office we provide three types of law and each paralegal deals with completely different documents and deadlines,” Pendergraft says. “I couldn’t just cover for a probate paralegal without specific training.”
You can find a more detailed breakdown of different types of paralegals with our article, “8 Types of Paralegals Who Specialize in Different Fields of Law.”
Paralegal duties you don’t always see in the job description
Now that you have the official description of what paralegals do, let’s get more specific. We dug deeper and asked paralegals to share some of the lesser-known or overlooked responsibilities they take on.
1. Balancing professionalism and empathy
“What surprised me the most about my job was how procedural family law can be,” says Cindy Murillo, paralegal for a divorce attorney in Naples, FL. “Although family law deals with very personal problems and issues, the divorce process is filled with impersonal forms, even though we work with some really good people at their worst moments.”
Helping clients navigate each step of the process can be tricky when they are dealing with heavy emotions in a crisis and need to disclose private or embarrassing information. “It is a balancing act,” Murillo says.
2. Specializing in one phase of case work
Paralegals in small firms usually have the widest variety of tasks, handling anything that comes their way. But paralegals in larger firms might spend all their time working on a particular phase of every case, instead of working on the entire thing, according to the BLS.
In a large firm, one paralegal might collect and organize evidence for every hearing, becoming more and more of an expert in what is needed and when—as they go. Or a paralegal could be responsible for maintaining reference files on every case or scheduling meetings with new clients.
3. Remembering the little things
As a paralegal, your job is to be the one who doesn’t forget things. Following through on every aspect of your work is extremely important, according to Pendergraft. “It goes hand in hand with responsibility, which is usually mentioned in a job description, but follow-through is just as important.”
“In order to retain case-sensitive information, you must have some type of organizational skill in place,” says Izzy Salgado, paralegal at the Law Office of Russell D. Knight. Salgado explains that part of the job is to remember and apply the law toward cases you are assisting with. “Being organized has helped me grow as a paralegal.”
4. Attending court
“One responsibility I have that isn’t on the average paralegal description is going to sit in at trials and hearings,” Salgado says. “Most paralegals do not get to sit in during court calls to see the issues be addressed and litigated.”
While this might not apply for every paralegal position, don’t be surprised if in some roles you’re occasionally making a trip to the local courthouse to assist with proceedings.
You may not have known that paralegals can become supervisors as they advance in their careers—but they can! The BLS reports that experienced paralegals might take on a more managerial mantle, overseeing team projects or delegating work to other paralegals.
6. Investing in the cases
As mentioned above, some paralegals spend more time with the entirety of a case than others. But your situation as a paralegal could lead to a very heavy investment in the cases that come through your firm.
“The thing that surprised me the most about my job is the one-on-one interaction you have working with the attorneys,” Salgado says. “The amount of time invested in a case and seeing a good outcome from it are very rewarding. I expected the paralegal position to be more of an administrative position but it was the complete opposite.”
Researching the paralegal job description can be tricky, since different employers and branches of law can change each paralegal’s duties. But the upside of that is a career that offers options. If you start a program and realize you want nothing to do with family law but are fascinated by immigration—you can look for work to match that preference.
A great paralegal program will teach you how to thrive as a paralegal and show you the kind of options out there for your career. Check out our article, “I Want to Be a Paralegal … Now What?” to learn more about building a satisfying career in the legal sector.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed February 7, 2019] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and include workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.