The paralegal, still sometimes thought of as a legal secretary or a legal office manager, has the expertise to perform many functions that many people likely do not attribute to the specialized skills of a paralegal. Paralegals do not just answer phones, take messages, or get coffee for the attorney as they have been portrayed in some television shows. They leave no stone unturned in their quest to help their legal teams do right by their clients.
The right paralegal studies program can help dedicated students develop the knowledgebase, skills and insights needed to pursue opportunities in the critical and in-demand industry of paralegal work. Let this overview act as an executive brief for your internal arguments as you weigh your personal pros and cons for pursuing a career in this field.
What is a Paralegal?
Paralegals perform a variety of important tasks that support the work of attorneys and that assist attorneys in the preparation for corporate meetings, court hearings, and even trials. The American Bar Association (ABA) adopted the current definition of a paralegal during a February 2020 meeting of the ABA policy-making body House of Delegates:
‘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.’
A definition that explains what is a paralegal, provided by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), reads: ‘A Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.’
It is important to understand that, although the current definitions of a paralegal from the ABA and the NFPA provides a paralegal overview, the paralegal does not give legal advice. Paralegals are also not authorized to perform any other duties that are exclusively reserved for licensed attorneys.
What Do Paralegals Do?
The American Bar Association makes important points that dispel some of the potential myths about paralegal job duties, and that provides more insight into a paralegal overview of responsibilities. The American Bar Association indicates to attorneys that paralegals are ‘not document preparers’ that work with the public, and that by definition, ‘clerical work is not substantive legal work.’
Understanding the substantive legal work performed by paralegals requires understanding the comprehensive duties of a paralegal and the fact that they work diligently to do them. Some of the specialized tasks and duties of a paralegal, as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and other sources, include:
- Contacting clients, witnesses, or other relevant parties to schedule interviews, meetings, or depositions
- Filing exhibits, briefs, appeals, or other legal documents with the court or with the opposing legal counsel
- Investigating and gathering information related to the facts of a case
- Getting affidavits and other formal statements that the attorney may use in court as evidence
- Gathering and arranging evidence and other legal documents for case preparation and attorney review
- Writing or summarizing reports that help attorneys prepare for hearings and trials
Some additional paralegal responsibilities include conducting research related to relevant laws and regulations and organizing and managing files and exhibits, either in paper or electronic systems. Paralegals also attend the execution of wills, real estate closings, and hearings and trials with the attorney.
The responsibilities of a paralegal potentially vary somewhat based on working in different practice areas. The paralegal working at a corporate law firm preparing contracts and reviewing government regulations will not likely interact with the family courts or child support agencies or the agencies associated with criminal courts, such as parole or probation officers. Similarly, paralegals working for attorneys that handle family court cases or that work in criminal law will not likely interact with corporations or other clients dealing with contracts, intellectual property, or shareholder agreements. This means that no two paralegal jobs are exactly alike, particularly when the paralegal has the expertise and experience to work in a particular specialization area.
Specialty legal areas open to paralegals can include family law, criminal law, personal injury law, employee benefits, real estate law, or immigration.
The Traits of a Successful Paralegal
Achieving success as a paralegal requires the ability to break down complex issues into manageable components after first gathering the facts and evidence of a case. Paying careful attention to every detail of the case is key. This requires that paralegals leave no stone unturned in their efforts to conduct research and investigate relevant information. Paralegals must possess exceptional organizational and analytical skills along with strong written and verbal communication skills.
Another important skill needed for success as a paralegal is the knowledge and skills required to use relevant technology and software. It is important that paralegals have necessary electronic database management skills as well as a working knowledge of the latest software used for electronic discovery in legal cases.
Assisting legal teams as a qualified paralegal also requires that the paralegal possess other in-demand traits, such as determination and other strong interpersonal skills. Interacting with distressed clients and other individuals requires that paralegals have nerves of steel to maintain an atmosphere of calm and to maintain their cool in potentially emotionally charged situations.
The paralegal that is strongly motivated to persevere in the face of the profession’s unique challenges, on a case-by-case basis, will likely rises to the top. Paralegals also need the ability to work with all sorts of personality types—attorneys come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities.
The successful paralegal realizes that making even a single mistake can make the difference between winning or losing a case, and possibly affects the reputation of the attorney, the law firm, and the reputation of the paralegal.
Where Do Paralegals Work?
Paralegals work in a variety of settings, including alongside an attorney in private practice, and in small or large law firms. Some paralegals work for vast law firms that have law offices in several cities. Some paralegals work for the legal department at large corporate headquarters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains that paralegals obtain employment in all types of organizations, including government agencies. The BLS also indicates that, in 2019, there were nearly 338,000 paralegals and legal assistants employed across the nation.
In looking at BLS data, you should know that paralegals and legal assistants are still sometimes grouped together in career discussions. The duties of a legal assistant and paralegal do sometimes overlap, but each has its own educational requirements, employment possibilities, and job duties that depend on a variety of factors.
Data shows that 76 percent of all paralegals worked in legal services, while smaller numbers of paralegals were employed by local, state, and federal governments. An estimated three percent of paralegals work in finance and insurance.
Most paralegals work full-time, regardless of whether they work for a small law firm or a large corporation. Many paralegals work overtime, in excess of 40-hours per week, garnering frequent overtime pay or bonuses.
How to Become a Paralegal
An individual that completes a paralegal studies program may be the only paralegal working for an attorney or may work alongside other paralegals in larger law firms or corporations. Many paralegals work alongside multiple attorneys and not just for a single attorney.
Paralegals need to have comprehensive education that prepares them for performing the important duties and support work that successfully assists attorneys and legal teams. The education that students gain provides more than a paralegal overview of duties and responsibilities. Students learn the legal terms and concepts related to working as a paralegal and gain a comprehensive understanding of specialized areas of practice.
Enrolling in a paralegal studies certifcate program goes beyond taking courses that explore basic skills and knowledge. Students learn to prepare legal documents, how to interview clients and witnesses, conduct legal research, summarize depositions, and to use technology to organize and manage electronic materials.
Graduates of a comprehensive paralegal education program possess the knowledge and skills related to integrity and ethical awareness. The ABA notes these important skills when discussing how a paralegal potentially improves a legal practice. Paralegals that become members of local or national paralegal associations are also required to abide by the ethical codes of those associations or organizations.
Paralegal programs are offered in the traditional classroom and are frequently offered in an online format. Some programs allow student to satisfy internship requirements by completing an internship within their own community or by completing upper level coursework. Paralegal education programs typically prepare graduates to enter the workforce upon graduation.
Paralegal Job Outlook and Salary
There is good news for individuals considering a paralegal program. No prior work experience is required in the field to work as a paralegal. This may vary with different law firms or organizations, according to their own individual job descriptions and staff requirements.
There is an exceptional future job outlook for paralegals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that there is an anticipated ‘much faster than average’ job growth in the field. The BLS expects that there will be more than 35,000 paralegal jobs added in the U.S. between 2019-2029, a 10 percent rate of job growth. Compare this to a meager three percent anticipated job growth for judicial law clerks, and an anticipated six percent decline in jobs for claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators.
The 2019 median salary for a paralegal was $51,740 per year, or $24.87 per hour. Remember that paralegals often work overtime and possibly receive bonuses. There are several factors that may influence the salary of a paralegal. A paralegal’s work is often billed to the client. Another factor is that the paralegal that gains additional, or supervisory duties likely commands a higher salary than the paralegal that started last week. Paralegals that are adept at conducting in-depth research and gathering evidence will also likely receive higher-than-average pay.
Law firms or corporations often encourage their paralegals to advance their education to further enhance their skills and knowledge. This allows for the opportunity to improve earnings.
Understanding how to become a paralegal and taking the steps to pursue an educational program starts prospective paralegals on the path to a rewarding future.
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