What Is a Paralegal? A Discovery of This Legal Role
By Brianna Flavin on 04/27/2023
There’s something undeniably intriguing about the legal world. There’s a sense of power and importance when you work in a field guiding the rules of society. After all, decisions in courtrooms can change millions of lives, and the mountains of paperwork legal offices generate add up to very real consequences.
You might be interested in this field, but the seven-plus years of education and training it takes to become an attorney may seem like a heavy commitment. A career as a paralegal sounds interesting, but like any good legal mind, you want to do your research first.
What is a paralegal, exactly? And how does someone get into this career?
We connected with paralegal pros and dug into the numbers to find out exactly what the paralegal profession entails. Pay attention to this insider insight to help you 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.”
Ricci 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—working directly for a corporation or in 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 a case from filing lawsuits, to assisting in 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.
Paralegals can also specialize in certain areas of law and go deep into niche areas of expertise. Check out “8 Types of Paralegals Who Specialize in Different Fields of Law” for a look at some of those options.
Where do paralegals work?
Most paralegals (nearly 75 percent) 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 tight deadlines that may require paralegals to work more than 40 hours a week, but it varies depending on the law firm.
There are two primary legal sectors paralegals work in: corporate and litigation. 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. Many companies opt for 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 logistical 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?
What can you expect from the job market as a paralegal? 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 14 percent from 2021 to 2031, which is well above the 5 percent national 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 2021 at $56,230.1 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 2021 median annual salary of $69,680, while paralegals working in law firms make closer to $48,270 per year.1 No matter the setting, the median annual salary for paralegals still outpaces the national average of $45,760 for all occupations.1
What skills do paralegals need?
Paralegals need a mix of technical and transferable (or “soft”) skills to excel at their profession. If you don’t have these skills yet, don’t worry. An accredited paralegal program will help you develop the knowledge and skills you need.
- 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.
- Litigation: Paralegals assist with depositions, witness preparation and 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
If all of this sounds pretty good to you, it’s time to think about the career journey. How does someone become a paralegal? To get started, you’ll likely need a college education.
A paralegal program will 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 if you already have a college degree in another field, a certificate program could help bridge the legal skills gap relatively quickly—in fact, the Rasmussen University Paralegal Certificate program can be completed in as few as 8 months!2
Paralegals also have advancement opportunities that are worth knowing about if you are considering this career. Check out Paralegal Career Paths: What You Should Know.
Can you see yourself as a paralegal?
Whether you are interested in justice and the legal process or you’re primarily looking for a stable career in a lucrative industry, working as a paralegal could fit the bill. Can you picture it for yourself?
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 January, 2023] 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.
2Completion 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 2023. Insight from Ricci remains from original article.