How to become a paralegal
Paralegals have a variety of tasks in a wide range of settings, but their primary role revolves around supporting lawyers and the legal work done in their offices. Their jobs might vary based on the size of the law firm (paralegals in smaller firms might have more variation in their work, for instance), but typical paralegal duties might include the following:
- Conducting legal research
- Investigating the facts of a case
- Taking notes during client interviews
- Attending trials and depositions to assist the lawyers present
- File legal documents with the court or opposing counsel in a case
How to become a paralegal
For students who haven't yet begun their postsecondary education, a common way to pursue a job as a paralegal is by enrolling in and completing a paralegal studies degree program, often through a community college. If you already have a bachelor's degree and are looking to switch careers you can earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Some schools even offer master's degree programs in paralegal studies if you wish to pursue a graduate degree. Here is a typical path to becoming a paralegal:
- Graduate from high school or earn a GED
- Earn an associate degree in paralegal studies
- Complete an optional paralegal certification
- Find and apply for jobs
In some cases, law offices may decide to hire a few people to work as paralegals with no prior experience or education in law and give them on-the-job training, but applicants with a relevant degree are likely to have a significantly easier time finding opportunities.
How much can paralegals make?
While you may not make as much as a lawyer does, working as a paralegal can command a very good salary. The amount you make can depend on what state you work in, the law office you are employed by, and by your work experience, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the national mean annual salary for paralegals was $53,180 in 2016. The metropolitan areas with the highest average annual wages for this position in 2016 were:
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $75,290
- San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, CA: $74,830
- Rockford, IL: $74,760
- Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $71,920
- Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $71,920
Where can paralegals work?
Some areas of the U.S. may need paralegals more than other. This can be an important factor in figuring out where to apply for work, or whether this is a career with strong opportunities in the area where you live. The states with the highest concentration of jobs for paralegals in 2016, according to the BLS, were:
- California: 29,190 jobs
- Florida: 24,430 jobs
- New York: 22,210 jobs
- Texas: 22,120 jobs
- Pennsylvania: 10,800 jobs
Even more important than what city or state you can find work as a paralegal could be what industries are looking to hire a paralegal. According to the BLS, through 2026 the paralegal career field is expected to grow around 15 percent which is much faster than the national average.
Check out the following infographic to learn more about paralegal training, degree programs, earnings and more, and to see a full list of sources.
- 2013 National Utilization/Compensation Survey, National Association of Legal Assistants, http://www.nala.org/survey.aspx
- Occupational Employment and Wages: Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, May 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm
- Paralegals and Legal Assistants, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm