What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is an individual who carries out law work often for a lawyer or law firm, but does not have the same qualifications as a lawyer.
The official definition from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations notes that 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.”
Although paralegals cannot directly provide legal services to the public, they are indispensable assets for lawyers, law firms, and other legal organizations.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals perform numerous job duties, some of which are also performed by lawyers. These job responsibilities often involve reading and researching information on a computer, but some can take paralegals out of the office for client interviews and additional research. The following list of duties gives an overview of the most common work.
Perform Legal Research
One of the most common tasks performed by a paralegal is acquiring legal information through research. Research involves reading old cases, discussing cases with law officials, and gathering the facts of the current case. Gathering relevant articles and cases can involve a large amount of reading, making copies of pertinent information, and organizing the information to present to a lawyer or law firm.
Paralegals may interview clients to gather case-based information. The first interview is often performed by a lawyer who knows which questions to ask and what type of information to gather, however the paralegal can be present. Paralegals are often called upon to gather additional details or conduct additional interviews. Paralegals may also be tasked with interviewing witnesses in a case and giving the information back to the lawyer.
Appear in Court
Legally, paralegals cannot interview witnesses on the stand or represent a client. They still appear in court to support a lawyer, particularly if they conducted a significant amount of legal research or interviewed a number of witnesses. They may organize important documents for lawyers to reference while in court and be consulted by the lawyer during a trial. Paralegals will also assist lawyers in other matters like will drafting, real estate closings, or basic administrative hearings.
Manage Case Files
Building a case produces a large amount of paperwork and information that needs to be organized. Paralegals are responsible not only for collecting a lot of this information but also making sure only the relevant information is kept organized. Everyone involved in a case needs to be able to quickly and easily access the gathered information.
Write Legal Documents
Utilizing their skills in legal communication and writing, paralegals are often responsible for writing petitions, subpoenas, and legal briefs, to name a few. These are often approved by a lawyer but having a paralegal draft these initially can save a law firm or other companies money.
Law Office Administration
Paralegals are increasingly taking on job duties traditionally performed by legal secretaries, which may require management of multiple cases and extensive organization with in a law firm. These duties may also include answering phones, client outreach, and basic file organization.
What is the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant?
According to many legal documents and stipulations, there are no differences between a paralegal and legal assistant in the eyes of the law. Historically, these two titles were used interchangeably and are often still considered the same thing today.
One trend that has gained traction is to give certified legal assistants the title of “paralegal” while uncertified assistants are referred to as legal assistants. This often gives paralegals an advantage in terms of responsibility and salary in the workplace. However, legal assistants and paralegals will often perform similar duties within a law firm.
Importantly, these two titles are distinct from legal secretaries. Individuals within this career track are not certified to conduct legal research or interview witnesses. They are often tasked with administrative duties such as filing papers and organizing cases.
What are the Working Conditions of a Paralegal?
Paralegals spend the majority of their time working in an office, often in front of a computer or physical documents. Most of their time is spent sitting. Paralegals may occasionally leave the office to attend a hearing in court, visit a law library, or meet with witnesses or clients that are unable to come into the office. Many paralegals work a standard 40-hour work week, however some occasionally put in more hours.
Paralegals often work for law firms which can range in size, however they may also work for independent organizations. Paralegals often work in teams with lawyers, other paralegals, and legal secretaries. Depending on the structure of the organization, paralegals may experience differences in working conditions.
Can a Paralegal Work from Home?
Working from home gives paralegals the option of attending to personal and family matters while still utilizing their skills to stay employed. Small law offices that cannot afford to employ full-time paralegals are increasingly calling on virtual paralegals who work from home. A virtual paralegal can perform nearly all tasks that an in-office paralegal can, often with the exception of attending court or interviewing clients or witnesses.
Paralegals who work from home often have at least a few years of experience working in an office before choosing to become a virtual paralegal. Law firms are more likely to hire these paralegals who understand how day to day tasks are handled within a firm. Some virtual paralegals work for a single firm while others may choose to freelance and move between organizations. These individuals may work more or less than 40 hours per week.
What are the Requirements to Become a Paralegal?
The paralegal profession does not have any formal educational requirements; however, it is strongly advised paralegals obtain either an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree. Either of these degrees must be obtained through an American Board Association (ABA) certified program, which requires students take at least 18 semester hours with 10 of these hours taken in a traditional classroom.
An associate’s degree will often last about two years while a bachelor’s can last roughly four years. Prospective employers should be consulted to determine what types of requirements they would like to see. Often on the job training is more valued than educational training so a bachelor’s degree may not be necessary. Some graduate programs are offered however they are often looked upon as being unnecessary by employers.
Associate’s degrees are often taken in paralegal studies while there are few bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies, so students take courses in a related field such as law or business. The bachelor’s degree programs often offer a paralegal certificate (not the same as a certification) which demonstrates the degree has covered a number of paralegal related courses. The programs cover topics such as legal research, writing, and ethics. Bachelor’s degrees will give additional courses in general education studies like English or Anthropology.
Becoming a certified paralegal is a helpful way to find employment however becoming certified is voluntary. An important note is that being a certified paralegal is not the same as gaining a certificate through a legal program.
An official certificate involves taking an American Board Association (ABA) approved test. There are a few tests which are offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).
Both NALA and the NFPA tests are looked upon equally, however prospective test takers should check with their state to determine if one is valued over the other. The CORE exam is for students out of educational programs while the PACE exam is for paralegals who have been working for at least a few years in the field. It should be noted that some states such as Texas, Florida, and Ohio offer additional voluntary certifications or registrations.
What Do You Learn in a Paralegal Degree Program?
Paralegal degree programs certified by the American Board Association (ABA) are required to teach students a number of law-related courses. The following list does not cover all courses but gives an overview of typical courses taught in these programs.
- Law Ethics: Programs will teach students ethical considerations when practicing as a paralegal. Importantly, courses will emphasize that paralegals cannot represent the public or give initial client interviews at any point.
- Legal Writing: Paralegals are required by many law firms to undertake the majority of writing in the firm. Legal writing is a skill that is developed throughout paralegal programs which will be perfected when employed.
- Legal Administration: Paralegals are increasingly asked to take over the duties traditionally performed by legal secretaries. This includes knowing how to organize cases and properly file pertinent information for other employees in the law firm.
- Legal Research: Legal research is undertaken online as well as in law libraries. Students will learn how to read legalese and identify what type of information is useful in a case.
- Hands-On Experience: Many programs offer internships within their programs, particularly in bachelor’s programs. This is a way for students to put their knowledge into practice before undertaking a career. This can also be a good way for the students to network with potential employers.
- Criminal Knowledge: As students may need to attend court hearings, they will need to understand protocols and standards of conduct when in court. They may also need to interview clients and witnesses, who may be in the criminal system.
- Real-Estate Transactions: Some programs will offer courses in real-estate transactions which is a specific type of law paralegals will gain employment in. These courses may be optional in some programs or not offered in others.
- Knowledge of Wills and Trusts: Like real-estate transactions, some programs will offer specifics on how to write and carry out wills, trusts, and other legal documents. Not all law firms undertake these, so this is not often a requirement in programs.
- Interview Skills: While paralegals should already have some basic social skills, knowing how to interview clients and witnesses is an important skill to have. Programs will teach the basics throughout courses, such as which questions to ask and how to maintain professionality during interviews.
What is an Online Paralegal Degree?
Paralegal degrees are offered online in addition to traditional classroom programs. Online degrees cover similar topics as traditional degrees but use virtual material like videos and written material. Both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are offered online and can take a shorter length of time than traditional programs.
A very important note is that fully online paralegal degrees are not recognized by the ABA as they require at least 10 semester hours to be taken in a traditional classroom. While employers may still recognize this type of degree, it makes the student ineligible to become certified which can limit the number of employment options.
The best option for students who wish to gain a degree online is to enroll in a hybrid course. These are offered by universities and allow students to take some courses online and others in the classroom. Students will still need to live close to the campus at least for a couple semesters, however they may be able to take a few courses online.
What Does It Take To Be a Paralegal?
Paralegals need to have a variety of skills to excel at their job. Paralegals are often busy and have demanding jobs so certain personality traits and skills are helpful. The following is a sample of skills needed to be a paralegal.
- Information Retrieval: Paralegals need to understand how to retrieve information whether with software tools, online search engines, or utilizing library databases. Each of these may use different search protocols which need to be mastered.
- Reading Comprehension: When conducting legal research, paralegals will need to differentiate between helpful and irrelevant material. Also, quickly comprehending documents will make research easier and more efficient within a firm.
- Desktop Publishing: Certain types of software allow paralegals to formally write certain legal documents like wills, subpoenas, or legal briefs. These can help keep documents standardized within a law firm and between paralegals and lawyers.
- Professional Composure: Throughout a paralegal’s career, they need to maintain a sense of professionalism. This is especially pertinent during interviews with clients or witnesses and also while writing sensitive documents.
- Document Management: Mastery of certain types of document management software (e.g., Adobe Acrobat) helps paralegals properly manage cases and gathered research.
- Organization: Organization skills are becoming increasingly necessary as paralegals take over job duties of legal secretaries. Organization also is beneficial when conducting research and keeping track of research documents.
- Presentation: Paralegals will from time to time need to present relevant information to lawyers and law firms. This requires understanding presentation software such as PowerPoint and being able to speak and clearly communicate to groups.
- Rational Reasoning: Although paralegals take most direction from lawyers, they are required to make decisions on which tasks are more relevant and be a decision maker.
- Relationship Management: Customer relationship management (CRM) software is helpful for paralegals to understand in order to organize client data and information.
What are the Pros of Being a Paralegal?
Becoming a paralegal has a number of benefits. They are protected under the law and often find their day to day work fulfilling a satisfying. Below is a number of benefits of being a paralegal.
- Non-exempt Profession: The paralegal profession is classified as non-exempt, meaning that they are paid for every hour of overtime worked. Other professionals often have to work more than 40 hours despite a fixed salary.
- Legal Protection: Paralegals are protected under the law, namely in that if something goes wrong in a case, the paralegal is protected. Enough mistakes will result in termination, but a paralegal can’t be sued for accidental misconduct.
- Quick Education: Although a paralegal is paid far less than a lawyer, they are able to work in a legal setting with far fewer years of education and without taking the Bar exam. Some paralegals choose to start work directly after high school without gaining any additional education.
- Job Opportunities: Paralegals are sought in a number of industries outside of law offices. This gives paralegals a number of options when seeking employment.
- Work Satisfaction: Winning a case for a client can give a lawyer but also the paralegals a certain amount of satisfaction. Paralegals do a large amount of legwork on a case so should feel some pride when their work is recognized.
- Teamwork: Working within a team can be a benefit, particularly when long-term relationships are created. This may also create networking experiences that can help a paralegal during their career.
- Opportunity for Growth: Within larger firms, paralegals can take on supervisory roles. They may also consider taking on the path to becoming a lawyer, however this requires additional education as well as passing the Bar.
What is the Job Outlook for Paralegals?
Individuals interested in becoming a paralegal will be pleased to know the number of paralegals is expected to increase in the future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be a 15% increase in paralegal positions in the next decade compared to a 7% increase for all jobs in the United States.
This increase in paralegal positions is mainly attributed to law firms and other organizations looking to cut costs. For instance, it is far cheaper for a medical institute to have in-house paralegals perform basic leg work before hiring on an external lawyer. Law firms can also take numerous cases at a reduced cost to clients when multiple paralegals are employed.
Paralegals are also expected to take on more job duties than before. Paralegals can handle more responsibility once only taken on by lawyers or legal secretaries. This makes paralegals a diverse asset for companies to have employed in house.
What Professions are Similar to Paralegal?
Arbitrators and Mediators
These professionals serve as neutral third-parties to handle disputes between two or more members or organizations. They may set up meetings and facilitate dialogue between members and their counsel but are often not responsible for representing a side. They may handle fees and process binding documents between the parties.
The majority of paralegals work under at least one lawyer who may own or co-own a firm with other lawyers. Lawyers are legally able to represent members of the public in court or in other legal settings. They utilize research and their knowledge of legal matters to win cases for clients among a number of other legal matters.
Claims Adjusters and Appraisers
These individuals handle insurance adjustments and appraisals for individuals and organizations. They are responsible for ensuring the proper insurance payment is made, that claims are not fraudulent, and that settlements are properly negotiated. Many of these individuals may work on direct insurance claims like auto and home owners insurance.
Legal secretaries perform a limited scope of job duties compared to those performed by paralegals. They often do administrative tasks such as case and data filing, coordinating meetings between lawyers and clients, and handling payroll within the smaller firms. The number of legal secretaries is decreasing as paralegals can take over many of these tasks.