What Is a Paralegal? A Discovery of This Legal Role
You’re eager to jump into the field, but you’re not willing to invest seven or more years training to become a lawyer. You know that becoming a paralegal could be a great option for you, but what exactly is a paralegal?
We connected with paralegal pros and dug into the numbers to find out exactly what the profession entails and the skills you’ll need to be successful. Pay attention to this insider insight to help decide whether this career is right for you.
What is a paralegal, anyway?
Paralegals are typically employed by a lawyer or law firm, acting as a jack-of-all-trades for their respective employer. They may assist with administrative duties, case prep and any other elements that help ensure a law office runs smoothly. “My paralegal is my right hand,” says Elizabeth Ricci, Esq. “A good paralegal is vital to the success of any law practice.”
She adds that her paralegal maintains her calendar, keeps clients informed of the status of their cases and performs legal work under her direction. Paralegals tend to have a hand in several aspects of the business, toeing the line between legal secretary and entry-level lawyer, depending on the practice and the paralegal’s experience.
What are some common paralegal job duties?
Though paralegal duties tend to vary depending on work setting—corporate or law firm—and firm size, you can likely count on these duties in most job descriptions:
- Interacting with clients: Helping interview clients, gathering details of a case or touching base to schedule appointments
- Research and writing: Fact-checking, conducting research and writing reports on your findings
- Assisting with case preparation: Gathering evidence, proofreading or taking notes during the trial
In small firms, paralegals may find themselves assisting in nearly every aspect of the case from filing lawsuits, to assisting court and scheduling depositions and meetings. However, in large firms, paralegals may be assigned to a specific phase of an individual case—like gathering research or collecting and organizing evidence.
Where do paralegals work?
Nearly 75 percent of paralegals work in law firms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 Law firms specialize in many areas including personal injury, international, family, estate planning and intellectual property law. Paralegals in law firms do the vast majority of their work within the office setting, but at times they may travel to do research or assist during a trial. This type of work is often fast-paced with lots of products and tight deadlines that may require paralegals to work more than 40 hours a week, but varies depending on the law firm.
There are two primary types of sectors that paralegals work in. Corporate paralegals often work for in-house legal departments within large companies—assisting with employee contracts, shareholder agreements, stock-option plans and keeping tabs on government regulations. More and more companies are opting for an in-house legal staff, instead of hiring outside law firms to help them lower costs.
On the other hand, litigation paralegals work wherever there is legal action to be taken, often organizing evidence, getting documents from clients, doing research and prepping for trials including making logistic arrangements. These types of paralegals often work for law firms and make up the majority of the paralegal workforce.
What is the job outlook for paralegals?
While the day-to-day duties of a paralegal might have you interested, you’ll still want to know what to expect of the job market for these legal professionals. Let’s take a closer look.
Paralegal career growth
If you’re considering becoming a paralegal you’ll be happy to hear that, according to the BLS, employment of paralegals is projected to grow 15 percent from 2016-2026, which is well above the 7 percent average projected growth in employment for all occupations.1 Law firms are likely to hire more paralegals as they work to lower costs for their clients since trained paralegals can perform much of the work done by entry-level lawyers.
The BLS reports the median annual salary for paralegals in 2019 at $50,940.1 Similar to most professions, your earning potential can increase as you acquire valuable experience. Paralegal pay varies according to setting as well. Federal government paralegal roles tend to pay more, with a 2019 median annual salary of $67,340, while paralegals working in law firms make closer to $48,880 per year.1 No matter the setting you end up in, you’re likely to make a respectable salary while playing an integral part in the legal field.
What skills do paralegals need?
There’s a good chance that you already have many of the transferable skills that can help you excel as a paralegal. Check off the ones you know you’ve got—
- Attention to detail: Paralegals must pay attention to the smallest details as an entire case can depend on them.
- Interpersonal skills: Paralegals need to communicate effectively with supervising attorneys and represent their firms well when working with clients.
- Organization: Paralegals juggle deadlines and need to keep tabs on complex research and paperwork, so strong organization ability is key.
Though it’s likely that you have many of those characteristics, you’ll also need some specific technical skills to be the best paralegal you can be. We analyzed 77,791 paralegal job postings in the last year to find out what technical skills paralegal employers are really looking for.2
- Litigation: Paralegals assist with depositions, witness preparation, legal research, and act as an assistant during trial.
- Microsoft® Office and productivity tools: Paralegals create and maintain important documents for legal research and litigation support.
- Administrative support: Paralegals schedule appointments, keep track of deadlines and generally help keep law offices running smoothly.
- Research: Paralegals need to know how to effectively conduct legal research.
- Customer service: Paralegals who interact with clients or others outside of the firm must be courteous and professional in their demeanor.
How to become a paralegal
Being a paralegal sounds exciting, but how do you actually become one? To get started in a paralegal role, you’ll need a college education. These college-level programs offer courses covering topics like legal research, legal writing, corporate law and international law. For those without college experience, a Paralegal Associate’s degree program is a great starting point. But for those who already have a college degree in another field, a certificate program could help bridge the legal skills gap relatively quickly—in fact, the Rasmussen College Paralegal Certificate program can be completed in as few as 8 months!3
Can you see yourself as a paralegal?
Now that have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of this career, can you see yourself as a paralegal? If yes, it’s time to take the next step! Dive into some expert insight about what it’s really like in the field in our article “What I Wish I Knew BEFORE Becoming a Paralegal.”
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed July, 2019] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 77,791 paralegal job postings, July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019)
3Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
Microsoft Office is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019. Insight from Ricci remains from original article.