When you’re easily bored, you want a career that provides you with something new every day. If you thrive on solving problems that always have a twist to them, becoming a paralegal might be the right career choice for you. What is a paralegal? In a nutshell, a paralegal does a lot of work an attorney does, but only under the attorney’s supervision. As a paralegal, you won’t be able to give legal advice, but you can interact with clients, do legal research, and sometimes, you might even go to court for various reasons.
The Difference Between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) clumps paralegals and legal assistants in the same job description, the two are very different. A legal assistant provides administrative services for an attorney or for the firm, such as taking messages, filing, or even light legal research, while someone trained in paralegal services drafts pleadings and correspondence, assists attorneys in trial prep, interacts with clients and preps discovery. A paralegal must be able to communicate successfully via the written word.
If a smaller firm hires you as a paralegal, you might take on the responsibilities of both jobs. However, with a high caseload, doing administrative duties takes away from your ability to help an attorney where your help is most needed. This scenario works fine for one or more attorneys with light-to-medium caseloads, but you could find yourself overwhelmed if an attorney with a high caseload doesn’t have a legal assistant to help with the administrative duties.
Additionally, a legal assistant needs a minimum of a high school diploma and possibly some law firm or secretarial experience. A paralegal, however, rarely gets hired if he or she doesn’t have a certificate or a degree in paralegal studies.
The Responsibilities of a Paralegal
Every paralegal job is different. An attorney might have you do more or less than another attorney. You will always have different cases to work on, and each case comes with its own obstacles—or sometimes none at all. Some tasks you should expect from an attorney include:
- Sit in on initial consultations to take notes. Some attorneys may ask you to contribute to the interview, and others might have you conduct the initial consultation.
- Create summaries of witness testimony.
- Draft legal correspondence, pleadings, interrogatories, subpoenas, briefs and appellate notices.
- Set deposition, mediation and arbitration dates.
- Arrange for visual aids during a court hearing or trial.
- Legal research, which may be extensive and may include using online services such as Lexis or researching law books.
- Assist the attorney in a court hearing or trial, especially when the case has a lot of discovery or evidence.
- Create trial notebooks.
- Attend a hearing in place of an attorney to file a speaking motion in oral court.
Your duties depend on the practice area you choose to specialize in. A contract paralegal might draft real estate contracts, mergers and acquisitions or might draft employment contracts. A family law paralegal might draft dissolution of marriage petitions and marital settlement agreements, compile discovery and compute child support. A criminal paralegal might work with bondsmen, might go with the attorney to visit a client in prison, and might draft complaints, pre-trial motions, and other court pleadings filed in the criminal court.
The Paralegal Work Environment
Your work environment depends on the size of the firm and the practice area you choose. You might work for a solo attorney, which could include doing paralegal work and administrative tasks. When working for a small boutique firm with two or three attorneys, you might do all the paralegal work for all the attorneys while a legal assistant provides all the administrative services. Or, if the firm has a small-to-medium caseload, you might have the responsibilities of both roles.
In a large firm that has many attorneys, you might be one of two or more paralegals who work for one attorney. Though it’s not common, you might be one of several paralegals working for a group of attorneys in a large firm. And, if the firm has the resources, you could share your duties with another paralegal, and each of you would have a legal assistant. In the right firm, you could work your way up to be a senior paralegal on the team.
Private lawyers are not the only legal professionals who use paralegals. You could have a job in a local, state, or federal entity, including clerking for judges.
Most paralegals work at least 40 hours, if not more. Overtime is often expected, especially when working with tight deadlines. Firms are not past offering bonuses when a case settles or the client wins in court, or when a paralegal goes above and beyond by working many extra hours on a case.
You must have a strong personality and the ability to express yourself verbally and in writing, though a paralegal uses written communication skills more than verbal, unless he or she also takes on the responsibilities of a legal assistant, including more client contact.
How Much Does a Paralegal Make?
A paralegal’s salary is based on the size of the firm, the amount of work experience you have, the amount of schooling you have, the practice area you choose, and the state you live in. According to the BLS, a paralegal’s median pay in 2018 was $50,940 or $24.49 per hour. PayScale gives a range of salaries from $33,000 to $70,000 per year.
The outlook for paralegal jobs through to 2028 is 12 percent, which is much faster than average. By 2028, the BLS expects the industry to add 39,000 jobs.
If you are looking for a stable career with room for advancement, a career in paralegal services might be perfect for you. Start by looking at an online school that offers a certificate solution—start by looking at Post University. We offer the credentialed education you’ll need to get any sort of consideration from most firms. We’re here to help.