What is a Paralegal?A paralegal, also known as a legal assistant, performs substantial legal work under the supervision of a fully qualified lawyer. Most paralegals work in law firms, government offices, and corporate legal departments, but may also be found working anywhere that deals heavily with contracts, legal documents, and regulations. Paralegals are able to perform any task that a lawyer would do outside of the act of actually practicing law. For instance, both paralegals and lawyers research cases, prepare documents, and draft contracts, but only lawyers may provide services like legal advice, courtroom counsel, and setting legal fees. Paralegals often do most of the basic research for a case and prepare the documents¬ upon which the lawyers will rely. In the United States, there is no federal governing body for paralegals, but individual states may have their own restrictions on the title.
Duties of a ParalegalAs assistants to lawyers, the most important duties of a paralegal include researching cases and preparing documents for lawyers to use. Because lawyers usually manage several cases at any given time, they do not have the hours needed to manage all of the research, paperwork, and preparation for their cases themselves. Paralegals do the brunt of this work with the lawyer in a supervisory role. In this way, paralegals amplify the amount of work that a lawyer can do and free up lawyers’ time to practice law instead of preparing to practice law.
Outside of law firms, paralegals are often also found working in corporate offices performing duties like processing real estate, financial, and government paperwork or working in immigration, bankruptcy, or labor related fields. Paralegals are useful in any heavily regulated or otherwise legally tricky field like immigration, labor, and drafting contracts. An individual paralegal’s role may vary greatly depending on the needs of the office and the individual’s skill set. Most legal assistants research and prepare documents, but they may also fulfill other support roles such as managing files, organizing information, and ensuring that the office works according to government regulations. Paralegals may also specialize in certain aspects of the law.
Paralegal Certification Programs and TrainingParalegals are not licensed by the government and so there are no requirements set in stone by law to become a paralegal in the way that there are requirements to become a lawyer or a physician. However, paralegals are certified and voluntarily regulated by two national organizations: the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Both of these organizations administer certification exams. Passing the NALA or NFPA certification exams demonstrates that a certified paralegal meets sufficient standards of capability and education in legal matters appropriate to a paralegal’s duties. The exams cover critical subjects like communication, law office management, legal technology, ethics, the United States legal system, and criminal, civil, contract, estate, and family law.
Colleges across the United States offer associate and bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies. The curricula cover coursework in law, technical communication, legal terminology, and ethics. Many colleges that offer paralegal degrees also match their students with internships in which students work part time as legal assistants in order to gain working experience and begin to make industry contacts before beginning their career outside of college. Colleges may also have paralegal studies certificate programs for those who already have undergraduate degrees. Paralegals frequently begin their careers by earning an associate degree, beginning work, and completing a bachelor’s degree later on once they have some experience. Advancing in this way allows young legal assistants to gain valuable work experience before completing their education, which can help them decide which fields, if any, they might want to specialize in.
Job Outlook and SalaryThe Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that paralegal jobs in the United States will grow at a rate of 17 percent between the years 2012 and 2022, a rate significantly faster than the overall national job growth rate for the same period of 11 percent. This corresponds to the creation of over 46,000 new paralegal positions in that time frame. Based on 2012 data, the median annual income for paralegals and legal assistants was $46,990, averaging $22.59 per hour. Consequently, legal assisting is one of the highest-paid careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree or above in the United States. Overtime is not uncommon for paralegals because they have to meet deadlines consistently, which has its own positive and negative aspects.
However, the BLS also points out that legal assisting is already widely seen as highly desirable career, which means that competition for positions will be quite strong despite the vigorous growth in jobs. The low barrier to entry, only a two-year undergraduate degree, coupled with the high earning potential easily explains why so many people want to become paralegals. Completing an internship during one’s education and passing the certification exams can help new paralegals demonstrate competence, network, and gain experience, all three of which make finding a job easier after graduation.
Career AdvancementEducation, experience, and demonstrable competence factor very highly in hiring and promotion. While Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses are useful and expected of most paralegals, pursuing further education can be very helpful in advancing one’s career. For instance, a legal assistant who was passed the certification exams, has a couple of years of experience, and an associate degree in paralegal studies could significantly improve his or her employability and income by taking classes in order to earn a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, coursework in specialized areas in legal assisting like immigration, contract, criminal, or civil law, would give a paralegal an advantage in applying for jobs in those fields.
Experience and education in information technology, especially areas like computer systems and database management, are quickly growing in demand as law firms and corporate offices become more and more computer-dependent for information storage, retrieval, and communication. Many colleges with paralegal studies programs offer classes in legal technology, and most colleges offer general information technology and computer science courses that could be useful to legal assistants.