What is a paralegal?

A paralegal, also known as a legal assistant, supports attorneys and lawyers in corporate offices, public law offices, and private practices. By working behind the scenes, helping prepare statements and arguments for closings, hearings, trials, or corporate hearings, paralegals form an essential part of every legal team. In busy law offices, a lawyer may ask a paralegal to conduct research, analyze data, write memos or motions, and present findings. More experienced paralegals, especially those with greater experience and training, may be hired to help draft contracts, mortgages, tax returns, separation agreements, and estate agreements. Because a paralegal is not a licensed attorney, he or she cannot charge legal fees, present cases in court, or provide legal advice. Instead, paralegals often perform clerical, secretarial tasks by organizing files and other documents, maintaining schedules, and keeping financial records.

Many paralegals are preparing for careers as attorneys, and some firms will offer financial assistance to paralegals that are pursuing law degrees, and paralegals can also benefit from their position by gaining important connections that will help them find later employment. Because paralegals have become more trusted and more in demand, some paralegals are choosing to specialize in a specific type of law, such as criminal law, corporate law, litigation, personal injury, intellectual property, labor law, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate.

Working as a paralegal can be a profitable career with benefits that may help individuals reach their future goals. In consideration of this career, a potential paralegal should ask him or herself questions such as:

  • Am I interested in the criminal justice system?
  • Is it my goal to attend law school and become a licensed, practicing attorney?
  • Can I work to deadlines, juggling a number of different tasks?
  • Am I comfortable working carefully with computers and managing electronic files?
  • Am I willing to become familiar with legal terminology and legal documents?
  • Am I comfortable following the orders of others, and working for several bosses?

How do I become a paralegal?

In some cases, if an applicant has certain connections, he or she may be hired for a paralegal position with only a high school diploma. In that case, a paralegal can be trained on the job, which generally means that they will only have a working knowledge of the legal system as it applies to their work. However, the majority of applicants have at least an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, criminal justice, or communications. There are 260 paralegal programs in the United States that are approved by the American Bar Association, making it convenient for individuals to gain the proper credentials. It is essential for paralegals to have excellent writing skills and research abilities, as well as the ability to communicate well in groups. Paralegals who are proficient in Spanish or other common languages spoken in the United States can also make themselves stand out in a large pool of applicants.

What can I expect in a career as a paralegal?

Law offices are becoming more and more reliant on paralegals to perform legal tasks because the criminal justice system is growing so quickly. Also, some law offices have found that the more work paralegals can take on, the fewer lawyers and attorneys an employer must hire. Paralegals earn a lower salary than a licensed lawyer, which can save employers thousands of dollars. Consequently, openings for paralegals are expected to grow by 28% by 2018, but because of their growing popularity, job competition is expected to be considerable.

Paralegals earn an average annual salary of $46,120, but those employed by the Federal Government and large corporations can command the highest salaries, upwards of $55,000 per year.