As job-seekers in a crazy and competitive world, many of us are drawn to traditionally steady and secure fields, and rightfully so. The legal field is widely recognized as one which leads to highly paid and, most importantly, very secure jobs.
However, the work of becoming a lawyer is also not for the faint of heart. Luckily, there are other positions in the legal field which avoid many of these high hurdles. One such job is that of the paralegal.
The work of a paralegal is extremely vital to the industry and often challenging as well. Without these detail-oriented and knowledgeable employees, most law offices as we know them today would cease to function. While they may not receive as much of the limelight as lawyers themselves, paralegals are still critical to the success of the legal field and represent a career path worth aspiring to.
What Is a Paralegal?
According to the American Bar Association, a paralegal is: “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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
In other words, a paralegal is a person who works in a law office and assists the lawyers employed there. Their job is to contribute to the success of the lawyers and the law practice as a whole by assuming responsibility for the tasks delegated to them. One helpful comparison may be to compare the legal office to a hospital. If lawyers are the doctors and surgeons, paralegals are the nurses. They can’t take cases of their own, but they provide invaluable assistance and support to the lawyers who do.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
There is no simple prescriptive list of activities which all paralegals must do to officially warrant the title of paralegal. Every law practice is different, and every lawyer and firm will have various tasks which they will assign to their team of paralegals.
Just a few of the activities which paralegals may find themselves doing throughout an ordinary day include:
- Managing cases, including coordinating different parties and ensuring necessary actions have been taken promptly.
- Filing important legal documents.
- Maintaining a calendar and ensuring crucial deadlines are not missed.
- Completing legal research and fact gathering, including online research and in-person research at libraries, archives, and newspapers.
- Interviewing clients and acting as their point of contact, under the supervision and direction of the lawyer.
- Drafting, editing, reviewing, and analyzing legal documents.
- Drafting legal correspondence — note that this is limited to correspondence which is informative and not prescriptive.
- Prepping for and assisting during trials and other legal proceedings.
- Finding and interviewing potential witnesses.
- Summarizing documents, proceedings, and communication for relevant parties.
- Attending legal proceedings as a support person for the employing attorney.
This is not an exhaustive list, and likely not all of these will occur in one single day. However, this list does a good job of capturing the broad scope of a paralegal’s responsibilities and duties.
In addition to these more legal-specific duties, a paralegal may also perform basic clerical and administrative tasks. They may check visitors into the office, answer emails and phones, take messages, fetch mail, and more. The majority of their time will be spent on legal tasks, and their typical pay rate will reflect this as they will certainly be paid more than a receptionist. If the office is large enough to employ separate receptionists and paralegals, it’s also possible these administrative tasks may not fall upon the paralegal at all.
Where Do Paralegals Work?
Paralegals work primarily in legal offices. If the office is large and home to a team of lawyers, more than one paralegal may be employed there, or it may be just one worker seeing to the needs of all lawyers. A smaller practice of just one lawyer is very likely to employ only one paralegal.
While this does account for a majority of the jobs for paralegals, this is not the only way for a paralegal to find work. These professionals can also work as freelancers, and they can own their own business. They can’t take on clients of their own or do much of the work we traditionally associate with lawyers, but they can offer legal information, document preparation, and most importantly, they can do it at a fraction of the cost a professional attorney will charge. This often makes them a desirable option for those who have legal questions but are looking to keep costs down.
Paralegals are not limited to one specific sector of the law. There are nearly countless different branches of law to pursue. Criminal law may be the one we most often think of, but it’s far from the only one. Other branches include real estate law, family law, copyright law, immigration law, and so many more. Paralegals can choose to specialize in one or more of these areas or keep things more general.
What Can’t a Paralegal Do?
Despite the many different hats a paralegal wears on a day-to-day basis and the range of tasks they’ll be expected to complete, it is important to note they haven’t been asked to pass the bar. Because of this, they aren’t lawyers, and there are many tasks they are not authorized to perform. A few of the most prominent ones include:
- Acting as a client’s representative during a judicial process.
- Accepting financial compensation for preparing documents establishing legal rights.
- Accepting financial compensation for representing a client in an attempt to seek compensation for a wrong.
- Making a career out of enforcing rights, obtaining settlements, or making demands.
What Skills Does a Paralegal Need?
Does the work of a paralegal sound like it might be interesting to you? If so, then the next step is to ask yourself if you have what it takes to thrive in the legal world. Here are just a few of the skills every good paralegal should have:
- They’re detail-oriented: In the legal world, the littlest mistake can lead to life-altering consequences for someone. For this reason, paralegals need to be aware of even the tiny details and ensure they complete tasks correctly.
- They’re good communicators: As a paralegal, you’ll often find yourself in the role of the communicator. Whether you’re acting as an intermediary between a lawyer and a client, reaching out to witnesses, or talking to family members of a client, you need to have excellent communication skills and be able to convey complicated legal jargon in simple terms.
- They’re good at research: Is your legal firm handling a case involving obscure details of a 100-year-old copyright law that no one knows off the top of their head? You’ll be the one in charge of doing research. Your research and investigation skills will need to be up to the task.
- They’re organized: The legal world is fast-paced, hectic, and confusing. If you’re going to thrive there, you’ll need to know how to stay organized and focused even when everything around you seems crazy. With a job this important, you can’t afford to be scattered.
- They’re quick studies: Paralegals need to be ready to tackle and adapt to unexpected situations at the drop of a hat. If you tend to be overwhelmed by new and confusing situations, this may not be a good fit.
How Much Do Paralegals Make?
Salary is a critical part of any potential job, no matter how much we might like to imagine otherwise. No matter how much a job might appeal to you, it’s difficult to pursue if you can’t earn a livable salary doing the work. So what about the salary of a paralegal? How much do they make?
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017, paralegals earned a median annual salary of $50,410. In addition to this, the field as a whole is expected to see an uptick in job availability. Employment is expected to grow by 15 percent between 2016 and 2026, with more jobs becoming available for up-and-coming paralegals.
Based on this information, we can conclude that this is certainly a profitable field worth your time, effort, and consideration.
How Do I Become a Paralegal?
Salary, necessary skills, and work environment — all these things sound like they appeal to you. So what are your next steps? What do you need to do to become a paralegal? What education is necessary to become a paralegal?
Becoming a paralegal isn’t difficult, provided you have a general awareness of the proper path to follow. Here is a basic outline of the steps to take to become a paralegal. Although not every process will exactly mirror this guide, it should give you a fair idea of where to start.
1. Get an Education
There is no specific degree required to become a paralegal. There is no bar exam you’ll be required to pass, and no graduate school or LSAT is needed. However, there are some paralegal education requirements.
Most law firms will want to hire someone with at least an associate’s degree. Even if the degree isn’t in anything law-related, this degree tells them you’ve spent time in a structured classroom and know how to study, follow instructions, and work as part of a team. Many other firms may prefer a bachelor’s degree, or some may only ask to see a certificate. Every firm will be different.
There is always the occasional law firm willing to hire those with no educational background in law or legal work, but these situations tend to be the exception and not the rule. Most other firms will be much choosier when it comes to hiring paralegals and look for someone who has studied the law. In cases like these, what types of programs are out there for prospective paralegals?
There are a few options. Some of the most common ones include:
- Certificate programs: These are programs designed to be completed either before or after earning an unrelated associate’s or bachelor’s degree and are often targeted at those wishing to switch fields. They will usually take between a year and 18 months, although they may stray outside this time-frame. Think of this as a crash-course in paralegal studies, with a short and highly-focused period spent studying the basics of the paralegal world. You won’t earn a degree in these programs, but they are short and are usually far less expensive than traditional degrees.
- Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees: These are like any other associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and allow you to major or concentrate in paralegal work. These will usually take two and four years, respectively, and will result in a full degree upon completion. This opens far more doors than non-degree programs might, and will help set you apart from other less-qualified candidates.
2. Find an Internship
Many paralegal programs come with an internship already incorporated into the program. To complete and receive your certificate or degree, you’ll need proof of the internship. Not every program will do this, and if yours doesn’t, it will be crucial to seek this out on your own time.
An internship allows you to add a section of related experience on your resume, thus greatly enhancing your employability. Employers will now see you have already successfully tested the waters and have some knowledge of what’s expected.
Beyond impressing your employer, an internship is also essential for you to gain confidence, knowledge, and skills in this new field. It can also help you narrow down which specialization of the law interests you most, and give you direction when it comes to time to apply to jobs.
3. Apply for Jobs
Once you’ve finished any schooling and internships, the process of finding a job is the same as it would be anywhere else. You’ll write resumes and cover letters, attend interviews, and respond to ads. All the ordinary rules apply here, and you’ll want to be sure to highlight any education, internships, and training you’ve received which are relevant to the legal field during your interviews.
Learn More About the Paralegal Program at Vista College
Are you intrigued by the idea of assisting lawyers and law firms run their cases? Do you enjoy legal research, preparing documents, and interviewing clients and witnesses? If so, you might be the perfect fit for paralegal work.
Start your paralegal career off right by earning your Associate of Applied Science in Paralegal degree here at Vista College. Completed in as few as 70 weeks, this course of study prepares you with the knowledge and skills you’ll need for a long-lasting career in the fast-paced world of paralegal work. Learn more about how our program can help you take the first steps towards your paralegal career.
The Paralegal program is offered at our El Paso campus as of 5/1/2021.