Should I Be a Paralegal? 6 Things to Consider About This Legal Career
By Brianna Flavin on 03/30/2020
If you find the legal system interesting, odds are you’ve wondered about turning that interest into a career. The first legal profession most people think of is lawyer—but that’s not the only way to make a living while immersed in the legal field.
Enter the paralegal career. This appealing option can put you in the heart of a law firm in as few as 8 months if you already have a Bachelor’s degree or 18 months if you’re starting your college journey with a Paralegal Associate’s degree program.1
While pursuing a paralegal career might sound like the better option for you than becoming a lawyer, you might want some more specifics on what the job is actually like from the inside. You want to consider as many angles as possible to make sure this career could bring you where you want. Here’s some information that can help.
What you should know about a paralegal career
“Most people don't appreciate how many different tasks we handle on a daily basis,” says Lisa Bigelow, Paralegal at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers. “We handle far more than just a supporting role for the lawyers in our office.”
If that sounds interesting, read on, and consider some of the nuances of being a paralegal.
1. Paralegals do get involved in cases
The very baseline job description for a paralegal involves a variety of tasks to support attorneys, including maintaining and organizing files, conducting legal research and drafting documents. But according to paralegals on the job, that barely scratches the surface.
“Being a paralegal isn’t just typing, phone calls, organizing files, and court filings,” says Emily Brooks, paralegal at Pate, Johnson & Church. “There are also ongoing—sometimes daily—interactions with people who have difficult things going on in their lives and very much need our help.”
Brooks was initially surprised at the level of involvement she had in each case and the resulting investment she felt in the work. “It really surprised me how appreciative clients could be of my time and efforts to try to help them.”
“One of the most important roles as a paralegal is to be there to help in any way you can, so you need to be okay with doing whatever daily tasks are necessary to support the attorneys, the firm or the client’s case,” Brooks says.
“I was surprised by how much independence and client contact I have,” Bigelow says. “In our practice, I regularly meet with clients independently of attorneys. I also handle much of the day-to-day fielding of client calls and contacts regarding the status of their case.”
Paralegals help with client contact frequently, but Brooks points out that they cannot give legal advice. They should, however, be ready to field questions clients have about what is happening and know how to respond.
This aspect of the job can be one of the bigger challenges when you first get going. Bigelow says learning enough about the type of law you are working in to be able to handle clients’ concerns and questions takes time. “After working in the field of personal injury law for the past six years, I feel like I am much better at addressing these issues than I was able to do so when I began.”
2. Formal education will help
As you can see, paralegals need a particular base of knowledge and skills to help the legal team function as well as possible. While there are no bar exams for paralegals, and no national guidelines for licensing, many employers tend to look for paralegals with certain credentials.
Two common paralegal educational paths are a Paralegal Associate's degree, or a Bachelor’s degree in any field combined with a Paralegal Certificate. These programs focus on teaching broad knowledge about the legal field and important standards in ethics, privacy, legal research and working on case files. A good paralegal program will also offer exposure to many different types of law—for example, family law, criminal law, civil litigation, and so on—to help paralegals home in on a specialty or preferred environment.
3. The earning potential and job outlook for paralegals is solid
Like most anybody, you want to know if a potential career is a viable option for you financially. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what salary range will work for everyone reading this, we can take a look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to help you get an idea of a paralegal’s earning potential. According to the BLS, the 2018 median annual salary for paralegals and legal assistants was $50,940.2
The setting a paralegal works in will also influence earning potential. The BLS reports that paralegals who worked in firms with the federal government earned a 2018 median annual wage of $67,340 and paralegals working in state government earned a 2018 median annual wage of $46,970.2
The paralegal job outlook is also fairly bright. The BLS projects a 12 percent growth in paralegal employment from 2018 through 2028—a rate much faster than the 5 percent national average for all occupations.2 So what’s driving that strong projection? The BLS states that law firms are attempting to increase the efficiency of their legal services without increasing costs.2 As part of this equation, many firms might anticipate hiring paralegals who can take on extra duties that once belonged to other legal support workers.
4. You can choose the area of law you prefer
Laws dealing with corporations and big businesses are a whole different world from laws focused on immigration. A divorce case is completely different from copyright infringement. You could find yourself in an office that works with criminal charges, hazardous waste regulations or labor unions. There are many different fields of law to work in and even specialized subsets within those fields.
Bigelow says working in an area of law you truly like makes a huge difference and says she feels fortunate to work in the area of personal injury and medical malpractice law.
“We only represent individuals, never companies,” Bigelow says. “I like the fact that I get to help real people with real problems. I feel as though I am actually helping them with the legal process.”
5. You’ll need to be organized
“Organizing, reviewing and producing discovery (evidence) in a case can take significant amounts of time, depending on the size of the case,” Brooks says. It’s not just a matter of sorting information but also of understanding which types of documents matter most and organizing it in a way that makes the most sense to the attorneys.
Paralegals play an essential role in keeping complicated case information streamlined, private and secure. “If your firm has to utilize electronic case filing—which federal courts use exclusively and many state courts are moving towards—it will definitely require both technical skills and a learning process to navigate,” Brooks says.
6. You’ll need to be a good communicator
The BLS cites communication as one of the most important paralegal skills—and for good reason.2 Working as a paralegal necessitates frequently clear communication. Paralegals need to be comfortable handling phone calls, face-to-face communication and written communication.
And this kind of communication goes beyond the basics. Brooks says paralegals interact with attorneys, clients and their families, law enforcement officials, court officials, and even other paralegals who are often under pressure or facing difficult situations.
“It is important that you are not easily upset or offended by people or the types of cases the firm handles.”
Are you a future paralegal?
Only you will know if these aspects of a paralegal career excite you. But if you are thinking this sounds like a good career option, look even closer at the day-to-day with our article, “6 Duties You Probably Didn’t Know Were in the Paralegal Job Description.”
1Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed February, 2020] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.