What I Wish I Knew BEFORE Becoming a Paralegal

Becoming a Paralegal

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 world of legal professionals.

But is that interest enough to fuel a career? Look closely at any of those TV shows involving a law office or law firms, and you'll notice some background characters who are doing a lot of the work: paralegals and legal assistants.

Of all the potential courtroom jobs out there, a paralegal or legal assistant career is one of the fastest tracks you can take to a dynamic law firm. But the time it takes to gain the proper knowledge and training 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 or legal assistant—from the mouths of paralegals and the lawyers who hire them. Use this expert insight to help you make an informed decision. Maybe you will end up working as a paralegal in the legal system.

First, let's cover the basics.

What does a paralegal do?

You've likely done some research on your own, but it's always helpful to have your information in one place. Here’s a quick refresh on the paralegal job description. What does a paralegal do?

Basically, they help their attorneys keep things organized and running smoothly by conducting legal research and doing important legal legwork such as helping to prepare legal documents and other duties. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a typical paralegal or legal assistant usually needs to1:

  • Collaborate with other legal professionals at private law firms and government agencies
  • Conduct client interviews to gather essential information
  • Review legal material and provide an analysis to attorneys
  • Prepare documents for court
  • Protect client privacy
  • Keep clients informed about the proceedings
  • Draft settlement agreements and other legal documents and correspondence
  • Research laws and regulations
  • Coordinate with government agencies to obtain necessary permits, licenses, and other required documentation
  • Schedule meetings, court dates and appointments

The above list is just a snapshot; paralegals and legal assistants - depending on the law firms that work with - often have other specific tasks.

What you might want to know before you decide to become a paralegal

A basic job description can only get you so far. If you really want to imagine yourself working in a legal firm, you’ll want to hear from paralegals and attorneys. Here’s some expert insight to give you a better picture.

Paralegals need to be continuous learners

“Most paralegal jobs require paralegals to work on contracts, real estate, civil lawsuits and other legal needs,” says Kirk Olson, a lawyer and instructor at Rasmussen University.

“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.” Paralegal programs will give you basic training in some of these things, but when you really get into a case, you will need to learn a lot more.

You could wind up doing a wide variety of tasks
Law firms run the gamut from small businesses to massive enterprises, and their size can have a big impact on paralegals’ tasks. If you work for a smaller firm, you might experience a wider range of duties.

“In a general civil practice ... the legal assistant may be answering discovery [requests] one day and driving out to meet a new client the next day,” says Kevin Queenan of The Queenan Law Firm, P.C..

You could also wind up with very repetitive tasks

If you like a lot of structure and repetition in your work, there are also plenty of law practices with cookie-cutter lawsuits, Queenan explains. You might work for a large organization that needs you to basically perfect a certain task over and over.

“I talked to a legal assistant yesterday, and her last position involved filing 1,000 credit card lawsuits per month.”

You need to triple check your work—and other people’s work

“There is no room for error in tracking deadlines and working with court scheduling,” says Queenan. When he mentors legal assistants, he constantly hears them responding “I did not know you meant that detail oriented!”

The legal industry can be intense, and even a tiny mistake can have big consequences, Queenan points out. A scheduling error, an incorrect date on a document, outdated forms, even the littlest thing could risk your case. Great paralegals make sure these kinds of mistakes don’t happen.

You’ll keep the whole legal office on track

As a prospective paralegal or legal assistant, you probably know that you will be assisting attorneys. A helpful attitude is obviously important here.

“Being kind and helpful is a good start,” Olson says. But helpfulness alone isn’t enough. The reason lawyers hire paralegals is to catch flaws, dig into the detailed work and keep everyone else on top of deadlines. “A good paralegal is a ‘deadline cop' who keeps the law firm on track,” Olson says.

You can specialize in different areas of law

You may not have heard much about specific types of paralegals, but those roles are certainly out there! If you have a passion for certain types of law or certain types of clientele, you can narrow your job search to focus in on what you love.

Paralegals learn a ton about how the legal system works. As you progress through your career, you can follow your interests and gain valuable expertise.

For a bit more on that, check out 8 Types of Paralegals Who Specialize in Different Fields of Law.

How to become a paralegal or legal assistant

If those insights excite you, you might want to know what kind of education you need to work as a paralegal—as well as how long it takes.

The path can look very different from one person to the next, and the profession is still evolving and growing.

The paralegal profession often requires an associate’s degree

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the most common educational path that leads to work as a paralegal is an associate’s degree, which can be completed in as a few as 18 months.1,2

That said, if you've already earned a bachelor's or associate's degree in a different field, a Paralegal Certificate program can provide you with the specialized knowledge base you'll need on the job without requiring more years of schooling—in fact, this Certificate program can be completed in as few as 8 months.2

What to expect from the Paralegal Certificate program

This program is designed to supplement education from a different field. If you already have an associate's or bachelor's degree in any area, a paralegal certificate program can give you the legal basics a paralegal needs to know while building upon the foundation of general education courses you've already completed.

In this kind of program, you'll take courses like Introduction to Legal Research, Legal Writing and Law Office Management. Ethical communication, interdisciplinary awareness and emerging technology are important objectives of this program.

What to expect from a Paralegal Associate’s degree program

If you don’t yet have a degree, a Paralegal Associate's degree program will give you an essential basis for work as a paralegal (as well as other careers) with foundational classes in English composition, math and the humanities.

But the bulk of your studies will focus on skill and knowledge areas specific to the legal world and the paralegal duties within it.

Courses like Torts, Contracts and Family Law zoom in on complex subjects in the legal realm, even criminal law, while other courses such as Computer Applications and Business Systems Concepts, Legal Writing and Legal Research help you build the critical skill sets paralegals and legal assistants need.

A Paralegal degree will provide you with the skills needed to succeed in the legal field now, 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 about the skills that matter most.


Which paralegal skills matter most?

In this legal career, certain personalities and particular skill sets 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.

Extreme attention to detail

Olson says paralegals and legal assistants 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,” Olson adds.

Writing skills

All that detail-checking includes spelling and grammar. Olson says paralegals and legal assistants correct citation mistakes, grammar errors and other inaccuracies.

Fine-tuning your writing and editing abilities is vital for success as a paralegal. Olson suggests asking for examples of finished case files when you take work as a paralegal or legal assistant to see samples 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.”

Comfort with technology

“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 [paralegal] will wow their lawyers more often.”

Paralegals also need to conduct legal research and learn the best ways to get the information they need. If you are a quick learner when it comes to technology and new platforms, that will serve you well in this role.

“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!” Queenan says.

Interpersonal skills

If you are mentally checking off some of these skill boxes—that's a great sign. While detail-oriented professionals with strong writing and computer skills are important in this profession, there are ways to stand out even more.

Queenan recommends seeking training in client interactions, etiquette and communication skills since presenting a professional image to clients is incredibly important.

Pay close attention to verbal slip-ups—no one wants to hear their legal help sounding careless.

You want to make sure you are representing yourself, your clients and, ultimately, your practice as best as you can. This includes being able to communicate in a professional manner.

What is the median annual paralegal salary?

It’s important to calculate your potential return on investment if you like the sound of this career. Like many other roles, paralegals salary can vary greatly depending on the type of law office they work in, their location and their professional paralegal experience.

The median annual paralegal salary in 2021 was $56,230, according to the BLS.2 Paralegals working in finance and insurance made a median annual salary of $64,740. Paralegals working for the federal government made a bit more than that with a median annual salary of $69,680.

Are you cut out to become a paralegal?

Paralegals and legal assistants play an integral role in a law firm's success and sometimes work for government agencies and in similar paralegal positions. Every document filed, every interview conducted and every ounce of collected research—from yourself and other paralegals and legal assistants—is vital to a law firm.

These important administrative tasks handling intellectual property and other assets are key, and formally trained paralegals and legal assistants keep the system running smoothly.

If you like organizing, problem-solving or making sense of complex information, a paralegal career could be perfect for you. Not only can it help you pay the bills, but it will challenge you intellectually and provide you with valuable professional experience to reach your long-term career goals.

If you're interested in paralegal studies, our paralegal education program might be for you. The Rasmussen University Paralegal Certificate and Associate’s degree page can explain more of how to get your legal career underway.


1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed May, 2023] 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.

2Time to completion is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each quarter.

Microsoft Word is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

WordPerfect is a registered trademark of Corel Corporation.

Westlaw is a registered trademark of West Publishing Corporation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2023. Expert insight remains from original version.

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a senior content manager who writes student-focused articles for Rasmussen University. She holds an MFA in poetry and worked as an English Professor before diving into the world of online content. 

Related Content

Related Content

This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen University to support its educational programs. Rasmussen University may not prepare students for all positions featured within this content. Please visit www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of programs offered. External links provided on rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen University does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced. Rasmussen University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

logo-accreditation-acen logo-accreditation-ccne chart-credential-laddering-associates-bachelors-masters 0 Credits 90 Credits 180 Credits 48 Credits Start Here HIGH SCHOOL GRADS Start Here TRANSFER STUDENTS Start Here SECOND DEGREE PURSUERS End Here ASSOCIATE'S DEGREE Start Here MASTER'S DEGREE PURSUERS End Here BACHELOR'S DEGREE End Here MASTER'S DEGREE chart-credential-laddering-associates-bachelors 0 Credits Start Here HIGH SCHOOL GRADS Start Here TRANSFER STUDENTS 90 Credits Start Here SECOND DEGREE PURSUERS End Here ASSOCIATE'S DEGREE 180 Credits End Here BACHELOR'S DEGREE chart-credential-laddering-msn chart-credential-laddering-nursing-programs chart-credential-laddering-post-grad-np chart-credential-laddering-nursing DNP MSN RN to BSN LPN to RN Bridge Accelerated BSN Professional Nursing ADN Practical Nursing Diploma Pre-Licensure Post-Licensure icon-colored-outline-bank icon-colored-outline-certificate icon-colored-outline-circle-dollar-sign icon-colored-outline-folder-search icon-colored-outline-hand-heart icon-colored-outline-head-blocks icon-colored-outline-head-cog icon-colored-outline-head-heart icon-colored-outline-health-plus-leaves icon-colored-outline-hospital icon-colored-outline-lifelong-learning icon-colored-outline-light-bulb-analytics icon-colored-outline-location-pin icon-colored-outline-magnifying-glass icon-colored-outline-monitor-healthcare icon-colored-outline-monitor-paper-search icon-colored-outline-nurse-rays icon-colored-outline-padlock-shield icon-colored-outline-person-presenter-screen icon-colored-outline-scales ras-logo-flame ras-logo-horizontal ras-logo-stacked icon-colored-advance icon-colored-arrows-cross-curve icon-colored-briefcase-star icon-colored-build icon-colored-bulb-analytics icon-colored-certificate icon-colored-continual-development icon-colored-duo-chatbox icon-colored-folder-mortarboard icon-colored-forward-ribbon icon-colored-gears-clock icon-colored-globe-pen icon-colored-growth icon-colored-hand-bubble icon-colored-hand-stars icon-colored-hands-gear icon-colored-head-blocks icon-colored-head-cog icon-colored-health-plus-leaves icon-colored-hospital-building icon-colored-laptop-cbe-skyscraper icon-colored-laptop-checkmark icon-colored-laptop-webpage icon-colored-location-map icon-colored-location-pin icon-colored-monitor-paper-scan icon-colored-mortarboard-dollar icon-colored-national icon-colored-people-chat-bubbles icon-colored-person-cheer-star icon-colored-person-laptop-checkboxes icon-colored-person-screen-instructor icon-colored-person-whiteboard icon-colored-phone-chatbox icon-colored-police-light icon-colored-prep icon-colored-presenter icon-colored-regional icon-colored-save-time icon-colored-shirt-hat icon-colored-skyscraper icon-colored-state icon-colored-student-centered icon-colored-support icon-colored-world-experience icon-triangle-arrow-up-plant icon-triangle-calendar-pencil icon-triangle-clock-rotating-arrows icon-triangle-display-gears icon-triangle-hand-right-speech-bubble icon-triangle-laptop-coding-brackets icon-triangle-mortarboard icon-triangle-paper-ribbon icon-triangle-person-cheer-star icon-triangle-person-juggle icon-triangle-triple-people-chat-bubble icon-modality-campus icon-modality-field icon-modality-online icon-modality-residential icon-arrow icon-bank icon-camera icon-filter icon-general-chart icon-general-connect icon-general-degree icon-general-discuss icon-general-email icon-general-find icon-general-hat icon-general-heart icon-general-laptop-building icon-general-laptop icon-general-leader icon-general-map icon-general-money icon-general-paperwork icon-general-people icon-general-phone icon-general-speak-out icon-head-heart icon-info-circle icon-mail-forward icon-mglass icon-play-solid icon-quote-mark-left icon-quote-mark-right icon-scales icon-share-square-o icon-simple-chat icon-simple-desktop icon-simple-find icon-simple-hamburger icon-simple-phone icon-spinner icon-tag icon-testimonial-quotes icon-util-checkbox-white icon-util-checkbox icon-util-checked-white icon-util-checked icon-util-chevron-down icon-util-chevron-left icon-util-chevron-right icon-util-chevron-up icon-util-circle-arrow-down icon-util-circle-dot icon-util-language-switch icon-util-loading icon-util-open-window-link icon-util-pdf-link icon-util-refresh icon-util-x rebrand-arrows icon-social-facebook-colored icon-social-facebook-square-colored icon-social-facebook-square icon-social-facebook icon-social-google-plus-square icon-social-google-plus icon-social-instagram-colored icon-social-instagram icon-social-linkedin-square-colored icon-social-linkedin-square icon-social-linkedin icon-social-pinterest-p-colored icon-social-pinterest-p icon-social-twitter-colored icon-social-twitter-square icon-social-twitter icon-social-youtube-play-colored icon-social-youtube-play graduate-cap-star-coin hand-coin hand-heart nurse-stethoscope-rays card-send-smile person-yoga-pose suitcase-star