Also known as legal assistants, paralegals provide a variety of support services to lawyers. The type of work these professionals do can vary depending on the firm that employs them. However, the following are all common tasks performed by paralegals.
- Researching laws and gathering evidence to assist with cases.
- Organizing documents and maintaining files.
- Writing summaries, reports and correspondence for review by attorneys.
- Scheduling appointments with clients, witnesses and other parties.
Paralegals may specialize in different ways. For instance, they may focus on a certain type of law or perform a specific task at a large law firm. The following are two examples of common specializations:
- Corporate paralegals work with lawyers to assist business clients. They may help prepare contracts, agreements and annual financial reports as well as research applicable business laws.
- Litigation paralegals are employed by lawyers who appear in court. They may organize evidence, maintain documents and ensure an attorney has everything needed in the courtroom.
How to Become a Paralegal
Although some paralegals are trained on the job, the following steps are common for those interested in a legal assistant career.
- Enroll in a paralegal degree program. Most employers are looking for legal assistants who have some formal paralegal education. An associate degree is common, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), but bachelor's degrees are also available at some schools. In addition to paralegal degrees, colleges may offer certificate programs.
- Become certified. Although not required, voluntary certification can help you stand out from other job candidates. For instance, NALA -- also known as the National Association for Legal Assistants -- offers a Certified Paralegal credential.
- Take continuing education courses. Laws and regulations are always changing so taking continuing education classes can be a smart move. Some colleges and organizations offer online courses that make it convenient to keep your skills and knowledge current.
For a visual guide to keep handy when mapping out your career path, here's an infographic on becoming a paralegal.
Important Skills and Abilities for Paralegals
Paralegal careers involve complex responsibilities, and professionals must have the following skills and abilities to do their job well.
- Reading Comprehension: Paralegals and legal assistants spend a significant amount of time researching documents, reviewing transcripts and performing other tasks that require them to read, understand and report back their findings.
- Active Listening: Lawyers may provide verbal instructions to a legal assistant, who must be able to listen careful and ask appropriate questions in order to complete the work correctly.
- Speaking: In addition to talking to attorneys, paralegals need to communicate clearly to clients, witnesses and others.
- Near Vision: Given the amount of time paralegals spend reading or working on the computer, good eyesight is important.
- Written Expression: Attorneys rely on legal assistants to provide them with correspondence, summaries and other documents that are clearly and concisely written.
Career Outlook and Salary for Paralegals
As with most jobs, what a paralegal makes depends on factors like experience, education level and location. For an idea of what paralegals might expect to make in the coming years, as well as predicted job growth from the BLS, take a look at the table below:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Paralegals and Legal Assistants||309,940||$54,500||14.6%|
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Accessed July 2019, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
- About Us, NALA, Accessed July 2019, https://www.nala.org/about-nala
- Paralegals and Legal Assistants, O*Net OnLine, Accessed July 2019, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-2011.00