Paralegal careers have been around since the 1960’s when Congress, along with the American Bar Association, and other bar associations began trying to create a legal representation that was accessible and affordable to more people, regardless of socioeconomic positions. In 1971, the American Bar Association made the profession of paralegal legit, defining paralegals as “ a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Learn more cool facts about paralegal careers by reading on.
WHAT IS A PARALEGAL?
A paralegal is a person who is trained in legal matters but is not entirely qualified to work as a lawyer. Paralegals are integral to the legal system by acting as support to attorneys and working within other relevant industries such as corporations. Forty years ago, no one knew quite what to do with paralegals, so they worked as administrative assistants or secretaries. Nowadays, they take on much of the employing attorney’s caseload and are capable of doing pretty much everything an attorney does with the exception of trying a case in court. Tasks for paralegals will vary depending on where they are employed.
STEPS TO BECOMING A PARALEGAL
- Step One: Graduate High School or get a GED. You may need to provide proof when applying to schools so hold on to your high school diploma or GED certificate.
- Step Two: Choose which type of paralegal program you want to enroll in. There are so many options available. Two-year associate’s degree programs through community colleges, a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, or vocational school which can last three-18 months. Make sure the program is accredited by the American Bar Association.
- Step Three: Finish your chosen paralegal studies program. More firms are looking for paralegals who have specialized so check with your program to find out if specializations are offered. If your program is not an accredited one, you may have problems finding a job.
- Step Four: Consider becoming certified. While not all employers require their paralegals to be certified, it can add a nice shiny gold star on your resume. The National Association of Legal Assistants offers certifications for paralegals. Certification is voluntary and is not enforced.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PARALEGAL, LEGAL ASSISTANT, AND LAWYER?
Once upon a time, paralegals and legal assistants were considered one and the same. More recently, legal assistants now provide more of the administration help, where paralegals assist the attorney as they work up the entire case from start to finish, with the exception of presenting it to the court.
The difference between a paralegal and a lawyer, while they do have some similar responsibilities, are far greater than the differences between the legal assistant and paralegal. Lawyers have to go for more schooling, and they take an exam called the Bar Exam which allows them to practice law on their own. Paralegals can only work under the direct supervision of an attorney. Paralegals can sit in on depositions, but only the lawyer can conduct them. In addition, attorneys do receive a higher salary compared to that of a paralegal.
THE NECESSARY SOFT SKILLS
As with any career, there are skills you should have in order to succeed. Don’t worry if you don’t possess all the skills, some of them are taught and learned, as opposed to being born with them.
- Communication skills: Because there is a high volume of information being passed between the lawyer, the paralegal, and all other individuals connected to a case, it’s important to be able to document and present information in a clear and concise manner.
- Computer skills: Research, litigation, organizing documents are all done via a computer. So, having working knowledge of computers and the appropriate skills that go along with that are crucial to the role of paralegal.
- Interpersonal skills: Paralegals work with all types of people, from lawyers to clients. A good paralegal has superb people skills which allows them to connect easily with others.
- Organizational skills: Loads of cases come across a paralegal’s desk. If organization isn’t their forte, they may find it difficult to keep track of each case which could jeopardize the outcome, as well as their job.
- Research skills: Much of a paralegal’s job is spent doing research so it’s probably a good idea to perfect research skills if becoming a paralegal is being considered.
- Writing skills: Legal documents such as summaries and depositions need to be written. While it’s not necessary to be Hemingway, strong writing skills are still required.
- Highly Ethical: In law, there is a strong client-lawyer confidentiality. Paralegals are included in this commitment and are expected to adhere to these standards.
- Actual interest in the law: Paralegals, because they are working within the law, should actually hold a strong interest in the law and all its issues.
SO MANY DIFFERENT PARALEGAL SPECIALTIES
There are many different specialties for paralegals to consider. There are ten types of specialized paralegal careers, to be exact! Wherever lawyers specialize, so can paralegals.
- Intellectual Property Paralegal is one of the higher paid types of paralegal careers. Most of their time is spent researching so they have very little to do with client-facing interactions. Perfect type of position for those who enjoy the research aspect of law and aren’t necessarily a people person.
- Family Law Paralegals assist the attorney in matters of divorce, child custody, and other family matters. In family law, meeting with the clients is a necessary part of the position.
- Estate Planning aka Probate Paralegals deals in wills, trusts, and Power of Attorney legal matters. They may help prepare the estates of elderly clients (or those who believe in early preparation), or they may aid relatives who are trying to claim their inheritances.
- Corporate Paralegals are the corporate paralegals who spend a lot of time reading over documents or creating them, all to ensure they are in compliance with federal, state, and local laws. Corporate paralegals are employed by the actual corporations and work alongside the corporate legal team.
- Real Estate Paralegals work in all areas of real estate, performing title searches, preparing deeds, and looking over leases, contracts, and sales of all types of properties. Usually, law offices, government agencies, and real estate and title firms will hire Real Estate Paralegals.
- Labor and Employment Paralegals assist attorneys in matters of employment. Such as, hiring and firing, discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, and other issues employees may face.
- Bankruptcy Paralegal is one of the most common specialties, and there are a lot of jobs available. They help the attorneys on anything to do with bankruptcy, whether it’s for an individual or company.
- Litigation paralegals take care of clients who are being sued. They’ll file the documents, do research, interview, gather evidence, and other actions about the litigation.
- Immigration Paralegals help immigrants become citizens of the United States. It can be helpful for immigration paralegals to be fluent in other languages besides English so that they can better understand and assist their clients.
- Consumer Paralegals do not work directly with an attorney. The consumer paralegal is able to solicit their service directly to the consumer. Consumer paralegals will draft letters, and file complaints against a business or company on behalf of their client.
DEGREES TO CONSIDER
There are a few different educational path choices you can make if you’re thinking about becoming a paralegal.
Associate’s degree: These two-year programs through community colleges are the most typical and popular choice for becoming a paralegal. Two-year diplomas can also be achieved through online paralegal studies.
Bachelor’s degree: Despite the popularity of the associate’s degree, most employers are leaning more towards hiring paralegals who have their bachelor’s degrees.
Master’s degree: With a master’s degree in paralegal studies, you can teach those studying to be paralegals. Also, master’s degrees in paralegal studies allows you to specialize in areas such as intellectual property law, and some areas of corporate law.
INFO ON EDUCATION
Depending on which path you walk along will be the determining factor on how long it will take and how much it will cost to become a paralegal.
Length of time
5 months on average
2 years full time
4 years full time
Cost of education
Books and supplies
If you are attending a college or university and will be living on campus, keep in mind that there will be additional costs for food and housing. Financial aid options with your chosen school may be available so check with the financial aid office to find out the specifics.
PARALEGAL COURSES TO EXPECT
The course names may be different, but the basics are all similar, especially in accredited paralegal program classes.
The most common topics tackled in paralegal certificate and associate degree programs are:
- Intro to law which will provide the student with legal terminology.
- Legal Research, Civil Litigation, and Legal Writing are probably the most important classes in the curriculum because it teaches the students how to handle cases from beginning to end.
- Legal Ethics introduces students to the basics of ethical law.
Common Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies courses:
- Criminal law introduces the student to what defines crimes against people and property.
- Patents, trademarks, and copyrights teach intellectual property types and how to protect from infringement in the United States and overseas.
- Document preparation instructs the paralegal students how to draft, edit, and prepare legal documents.
AVAILABLE PARALEGAL SCHOLARSHIPS
There are so many scholarship opportunities available to those headed into paralegal study programs for all educational levels. The first step to take when trying to find scholarship money is to fill out the FAFSA.
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations: The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers a few scholarships that are available yearly. Some of their scholarships offer up to $3500 per year. There are qualifying factors such as academic excellence and essay writing skills.
- American Association for Paralegal Education offers the essay-based LEX Scholarship which awards $500 to students pursuing paralegal studies.
There are many scholarships available that are state or county specific, as well. Be sure to check with your financial aid office, they should be able to guide you toward the money. More scholarship information is available here.
A DAY ON THE JOB
Paralegals do much of the caseload workup, alongside the legal department or an attorney. Depending on where the paralegal is employed, and what their area of specialty is, will very likely determine what their to-do list looks like. Under the generic heading of the paralegal, here are some of the primary duties associated with the position of a paralegal:
- Investigating and gathering facts to prepare the case
- Conduct research, finding relevant laws, articles, and other information that would benefit the case
- Organize and maintain all the documents needed for the case
- Write briefs and summarize reports which aid the lawyer in case preparation
- Write legal documents such as wills, mortgages, or contracts
- Gather evidence for court
- Call the clients, and other individuals involved with the case for interviews, meetings, and depositions
EXPECTED JOB GROWTH
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the employment outlook for paralegals is expected to grow 12 percent by 2030. This is faster than the national average. The cause for the growth is based on law offices trying to make legal representation more affordable. Paralegals, while they bill hourly, are much less expensive than hiring an attorney. Another factor is corporations hiring law staff in-house which is more cost effective than keeping attorneys on retainer. Those paralegals who specialize, and who are formally trained and experienced should have an easier time finding a job in this highly competitive field.
WHAT YOU CAN EARN
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary of paralegals in 2021 was $58,830. Salaries are dependent on factors such as which industry and geographic location, as well as expertise.
Highest paying states for paralegals in 2021