While lawyers and judges may be the public face of the legal system, paralegals are behind the scenes helping ensure everything runs smoothly. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants, paralegal careers were first developed in the 1960s as lawyers looked for ways to work more efficiently.
By law, paralegals can't perform some functions of an attorney such as providing legal advice, accepting cases, setting fees or representing clients in court. However, these professionals have a wide range of duties including the following:
- Conducting research
- Locating witnesses
- Conducting interviews
- Drafting documents
- Summarizing depositions and testimony
- Attending hearings with an attorney
Individuals interested in paralegal careers typically must have a formal education and may also earn voluntary certification. While bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies are available, a two-year associate degree is sufficient for many jobs in the field. Law and litigation careers offer many paths for students, and the paralegal tract is no exception.
3 Types of Paralegals
Paralegal careers can be a good fit for individuals with a number of different long-term goals. The industry publication Paralegal Today notes there are three types of paralegals.
- Transitional paralegals: Transitional paralegals are individuals who are interested in a legal career but don't plan to always work as a paralegal. They may find work as a legal assistant to help them decide whether the field is a good fit for them, or they may use a paralegal position to earn income while they pursue their law degree.
- Part-time paralegals: Those who work on a temporary or part-time basis are another type of paralegal. Individuals in this category may use paralegal work to supplement their income and allow them to pursue other interests that may not be as financially lucrative.
- Career paralegals: Finally, some assistants aren't using their position as a stepping stone to other professions and instead plan their entire career as a paralegal.
Regardless of whether you want an engaging career in a growing field or need a temporary position to tide you over while pursuing other goals, working as a paralegal can be a smart choice. Depending on the education program selected, a degree in paralegal studies may serve as a basis to go on and earn a bachelor's degree or graduate degree as well.
Can Paralegals Specialize?
Just as attorneys may focus on a specific area of the law, so too can paralegals specialize. The Paralegal Alliance says the following are some common practice areas for legal assistants.
- Family law
- Estate planning and probate
- Intellectual property
- Labor and employment
- Real estate
Future paralegals may want to focus their studies on their preferred area while earning their degree. For current paralegals hoping to specialize, another option may be to take continuing legal education classes in their chosen field.