Paralegals are unsung heroes of the legal system, often working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure lawyers have everything they need to perform their jobs smoothly. But despite their vital role, many people still don’t fully understand what paralegals do. Let’s take a closer look at the day-to-day responsibilities of a paralegal and help you decide whether it’s a career path worth exploring.
What Is a Paralegal?
A paralegal, also known as a legal assistant, is a professional who assists lawyers in various legal capacities, such as helping them prepare for hearings, trials or corporate meetings. Like lawyers, paralegals can specialize in multiple legal areas, including corporate law, personal injury, bankruptcy, immigration, family law and real estate.
Because paralegals are not qualified lawyers, however, they are not licensed to practice law or represent clients. In other words, they can’t give legal advice or independently prepare legal documents without a lawyer’s approval.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
According to Ryan Byers – an attorney at Rammelkamp Bradney who has worked with numerous paralegals throughout his career – the duties of paralegals can vary quite a bit depending on the law firm. To explain the role of paralegals, he uses the analogy of a nurse and a doctor.
He says that much like a nurse can undertake tasks in the medical field that do not amount to the practice of medicine, “a paralegal can take on different responsibilities in the legal field that aren’t equivalent to practicing law.”
Here’s what Byers says a typical workday may look like for paralegals:
- Preparing preliminary drafts of legal documents, whether that’s wills and trusts for an estate planning attorney, motions and jury instructions for a trial attorney or anything in between.
- Interviewing prospective clients or witnesses.
- Performing basic legal research.
- Helping attorneys prepare for upcoming hearings.
- Communicating with clients throughout the legal process.
- Fact-checking legal filing and documents.
- Organizing and maintaining legal documents in paper or electronic filing systems.
The specific duties of a paralegal could also vary depending on the size of the law firm. At smaller firms, paralegals may help lawyers handle cases from beginning to end. At large organizations, paralegals may work only on a specific phase of a case instead of owning the entire process.
What Skills Do Paralegals Need?
Paralegals handle the grunt work for lawyers and are indispensable in every legal team. Besides having a solid understanding of the legal system, here are some other skills and qualities you must have to be successful in this career field.
- Ability to write clearly. Because drafting legal documents is a major part of a paralegal’s role, the ability to write clearly and concisely is critical – and so is the ability to edit other people’s writing.
- Technology skills. In today’s fast-paced legal industry, paralegals are expected to have a basic understanding of computer systems and software. While you don’t need to be an expert in these areas, knowing how to create presentations, navigate document management software and use legal research tools like LexisNexis can make you a valuable asset in the workplace.
- Attention to detail. When it comes to legal matters, there’s little room for error. Byers says he values paralegals who are attentive to detail since “legal matters tend to involve quite a bit of nuance. And if one particular fact is missed, it can completely alter the analysis of an issue.” So, if a paralegal is detail-oriented and never misses a beat, they can make lawyers’ lives much easier.
- Time-management skills. Paralegals must be able to manage their time effectively because they typically work on multiple tasks simultaneously – which requires strong organizational skills and the ability to prioritize tasks to ensure deadlines are met.
- Customer service skills. Because many paralegal positions are client-facing, Byers says it’s essential for paralegals to have great customer service skills and be able to “empathize with individuals who are going through a difficult time – be it a divorce, criminal prosecution or the death of a loved one.”
How to Become a Paralegal
In most states, there aren’t any particular educational or certification requirements to become a paralegal. Some employers may even hire applicants without legal experience since they provide on-the-job training. However, if you want to stand out in a competitive job market, here are a few routes you can take to get a leg up on the competition.
- Complete a two-year certificate program. Many community colleges offer two-year paralegal certificate programs that provide the knowledge you need to excel in the field. For example, these programs may offer courses on legal research, legal writing and academic subjects, such as corporate law and international law.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree. Though not required, some law firms may prefer paralegals with a four-year education in paralegal studies or a related field like criminal justice.
- Gain internship experience. After earning your associate or bachelor’s degree, consider looking into internship opportunities to gain hands-on experience. Many private law firms and community legal service programs often offer internship opportunities that could potentially lead to full-time employment.
- Apply for an entry-level position at a law firm. “Because a paralegal position is typically one of the higher level non-attorney jobs in a firm,” Byers says that starting at an entry-level positions like administrative assistant could help you “determine whether the legal profession is the right environment for you before investing time into becoming a paralegal.”
Before enrolling in either an associate degree or paralegal certificate program, look at job postings for paralegal positions in your area to see what qualifications employers are looking for. You can also reach out to local law firms to ask about their hiring preferences.
Should You Become a Paralegal?
Being a paralegal offers the opportunity to work closely with attorneys and is a great way to gain hands-on experience in the legal field before heading to law school. If you’re wondering whether becoming a paralegal is the right career move, here are some factors to consider before taking the plunge.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegal employment is projected to grow 14% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average (5%) for all occupations. And over the next decade, the BLS predicts there will be around 45,800 job openings for paralegals each year.
Paralegals in the United States make a median salary of $56,230 per year, equivalent to $27.03 per hour. However, how much you make as a paralegal will largely depend on the type of law firm you work for and where you live. For example, paralegals in major cities like New York or San Francisco can make upward of $80,000 per year, especially if they work in a high-paying industry like finance.
Paralegals can work in a variety of settings, including law firms, corporate legal departments, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Though your work schedule as a paralegal varies depending on the employer, you may sometimes have to work longer hours or weekends to prepare for trials or meet deadlines for filing important legal documents.
Explore Different Career Options in Law
A paralegal is just one of the many career options available in law. If you have a law degree under your belt, you could become a practicing attorney, pursue a career in corporate law or criminal justice and even branch out into politics. The options are endless. Take the time to explore the different options available to make the most informed decision for your future.