How to Become a Paralegal
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.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
While specific tasks performed by legal assistants can vary depending on their specialty within the field of law, here's a list of common paralegal duties:
- Legal research: Paralegals are often charged with digging through a firm's bookshelves and databases to come up with case law, statutes and treatises that are essential to specific cases. According to Kimberli Taylor, a probate law paralegal in California, "it also means verifying that the law you are basing your case on is still good law and not overturned or repealed."
- Drafting legal documents: Writing can also make up the bulk of a paralegal's work day. "As long as the supervising attorney reviews it before it is signed or filed," Taylor says, "paralegals can draft anything the lawyers can."
- Office administration: Paralegals are sometimes given the responsibility to ensure that schedules are kept and important information is comprehensibly organized. Paralegals at smaller practices typically contribute to the execution of clerical duties, but larger firms are likely to have an office administration staff that operates separately.
- Attending court hearings: Paralegals who conduct considerable amounts of research relevant to a certain proceeding may accompany an attorney to court as an assistant. They may be responsible for running tech for the lawyers or displaying exhibits exactly on time.
Specializations within Paralegal Careers
Legal assistant careers can follow different paths depending on the type of firm you work for and whether you choose to specialize in a particular area. For instance, you 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.
Other common legal fields include administrative law, contract administration, bankruptcy, estates and trust administration, personal injury, intellectual property, workers' compensation, tax law, alternative dispute resolution or another unique segment of the law profession.
How to Become a Paralegal
Working as a paralegal can be a great fit for someone interested in a legal career without the time commitment of law school. 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 degree programs are also available at some schools. In addition to paralegal degrees, colleges may offer certificate programs. Look for programs approved by the American Bar Association.
- 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 your paralegal career.
Important Skills and Abilities for Paralegals
Paralegal and legal assistant 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 and others.
- Written Expression: Attorneys rely on legal assistants to provide them with correspondence, summaries and other documents that are clearly and concisely written.
- Analyzing Data or Information: When working on a case, paralegal duties often require reviewing a large volume of research and then using good judgment to determine whether certain laws or regulations apply
- Critical Thinking: Logic and reasoning are needed to decide on a research approach and to draft legal documents.
It's also wise to be mindful of other personal qualities that may impact your choice of paralegal careers. According to Deborah Anthony, M.A., J.D., Associate Professor in Legal Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, individuals who thrive in a fast-paced environment may be suited to litigation roles, while the more studious may be more comfortable in a transactional, corporate role.
How Much Do Paralegals Make?
As with most jobs, how much paralegals make 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, take a look at the national numbers in the table below:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Paralegals and Legal Assistants||329,870||$55,020||12%|
Professional Associations for Paralegals
To learn more about what's involved in paralegal careers, explore the resources available through these professional organizations.