Paralegals, also called legal assistants, facilitate the jobs of lawyers and attorneys. They work side by side with lawyers and attorneys to help them prepare for cases, conduct research, meet with clients, and organize their businesses. Many paralegals started their career by way of distance learning.
This article outlines the job requirements for paralegals, and details the necessary education and other requirements for the field. The 10-year employment outlook and the expected yearly earnings for paralegals are also discussed.
Paralegals are responsible for performing many of the same tasks as lawyers. However, they are explicitly prohibited from performing certain tasks that are considered to fall under the “practice of law,” such as setting legal fees, giving legal advice, and presenting cases in court.
Some of a paralegal’s essential duties include helping lawyers:
- Prepare for closings, hearings, trials, and corporate meetings
- Conduct research related to the case
- Identify relevant laws, judicial decisions, legal articles, and other materials
- Prepare written reports
- Help prepare legal arguments, draft pleadings, and motions to be filed with the court
- Obtain affidavits
- Organize and track files for important case documents
- Draft contracts, mortgages, and separation agreements
- Prepare tax returns, establish trust funds, and plan estates
In addition, they coordinate the activities of other law office employees and maintain financial office records.
Current technology does a great deal to assist paralegals in their daily activities. Online databases and imaging software and equipment, as well as other computer software specially designed for their purposes, are all helpful tools that paralegals use regularly.
Paralegals often work in law firms, legal departments of businesses and companies, and government offices.
They may specialize in:
- Personal injury
- Corporate law
- Criminal law
- Family law
- Real estate
A paralegal’s duties vary with his or her specialty. For instance, a paralegal specializing in immigration must keep up-to-date on the often-changing immigration laws in the United States and other countries.
Paralegals spend most of their time in law offices, libraries, and places where public records are kept. They may work a 40-hour work week, but they also may often be called in to work weekends and evenings, especially when assisting with the preparation of a major case. They work with a wide variety of people and sometimes need to travel for their work.
Education and Other Requirements
An associate’s degree is generally the minimum requirement to become a paralegal. Some paralegals have higher levels of training or only receive on-the-job training. Often, the level of education determines the level of responsibility a paralegal will receive.
Many community colleges offer paralegal programs. Also, students who already have an undergraduate degree can earn a paralegal studies certificate by completing specified courses.
Over 250 paralegal programs are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). While certification from an ABA-accredited institution is not required for paralegals, it can give them the edge in the job market. Requirements to enter these programs vary, but may include holding a bachelor’s degree, participating in personal interviews, or passing certain standardized tests.
10-Year Employment Outlook
Right now there are over 260,000 individuals working as paralegals. About two-thirds of these individuals work for private law firms, with the majority of the remaining third working for the government. A few paralegals are self-employed or work on a consulting or contract basis.
Competition for all law-related jobs is generally high, but the number of jobs available for paralegals is expected to grow much faster than the average for all professions. The biggest reason for the increase in demand for paralegals is that many businesses, companies, and government bodies are attempting to cut costs associated with legal fees. Because paralegals are paid less than lawyers, they can be hired to do work that a lawyer would otherwise do.
Preference is usually given to paralegal job candidates with a higher level of education, training, and work experience. Candidates who have chosen to specialize in high-demand areas will also have an advantage on the job market. Areas of expertise where jobs are most prevalent include:
- Intellectual property
- International law
- Elder issues
- Criminal law
- Environmental law
A paralegal’s income depends on his or her level of education, years of experience, and whether he or she works for a private business, for the government, or on a contract basis. Here are the average annual earnings for all paralegals:
- Median: $46,000
- Middle range: $36,000 to $60,000
- Overall range: $29,000 to $74,000