What Is a Paralegal?
Paralegals play a vital role in the legal system by completing essential legal tasks to ensure the delivery of quality legal services to clients with legal needs. Paralegals are responsible for a wide range of important legal activities and work on many of the same tasks as attorneys except for providing legal representation to clients or giving legal advice. Due to the dynamic nature of the US legal system and the constant need for legal services by individuals and businesses, a career as a paralegal can be an exciting and promising career. There is solid demand for paralegals; jobs are expected to grow by 18% for paralegals and legal assistants in the decade from 2010 to 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This site provides a launch pad for individuals interested in getting started as a paralegal with information on finding paralegal schools to getting your first job.
Read advice from 43 leaders in the paralegal field about how students can get hired to their first paralegal position after graduation.
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What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals typically work in a law firm office under the supervision of a lawyer to provide legal services to the firm’s clients. As mentioned above, paralegals are legally permitted to do many of the same tasks as lawyers with a few exceptions. The American Association of Paralegal Education notes that paralegals perform substantive and procedural legal work that would be performed by an attorney in their absence. While the specific tasks may vary depending on several factors like the area of law you choose to specialize in and the size of the firm, some common tasks include:
- Legal research.
- Reviewing and drafting legal documents.
- Interviewing clients and witnesses.
- Acting as liaison between the client and lawyer.
- Assisting lawyers to prepare for trial or hearings.
- Writing case status reports.
- Organizing case files.
- Managing other paralegals or legal secretaries.
- Office administration (at smaller firms).
Paralegal Job Description
A paralegal’s primary role is to provide support to lawyers. Paralegals may work specifically with one lawyer or work with a group of several lawyers. The work that paralegals do varies based on the size and practice area of the firm at which they are employed, but commonly includes such tasks as researching case law and legal precedents; drafting correspondence with clients and the court; and filing legal documents such as exhibits, briefs, and appeals.1 A paralegal’s work is differentiated from that of legal secretaries and clerical workers in that it is more technically advanced, and is differentiated from that of lawyers as paralegals are not permitted to give legal advice to clients or represent clients in court.2 Paralegals are prepared by their training to read, interpret, and summarize case law and other legal documents and may make recommendations to the lawyers that they work with.
Paralegals commonly specialize in one particular area of law, which may change the scope of responsibilities for a paralegal. For example, a paralegal working in administrative law, sometimes also known as public law, may work on compiling case law and evidence in preparation for a judicial review or contacting and preparing expert witnesses for an administrative hearing. 2 An administrative law paralegal working for a legislative agency may analyze legislation before it is introduced and may also prepare legislative and trial calendars.2 For a paralegal working in litigation, tasks related to alternative dispute resolution – such as preparing documents and scheduling meetings for arbitration and mediation – are typical and important.3 Criminal law paralegals may frequently spend part or all of their work day in court, making filings or taking notes for the attorneys they represent during a trial.3
By contrast, paralegals working in areas of law such as family law may find more of their work is transactional and takes place outside of the courtroom setting; in these areas of the law, paralegals may work on drafting and reviewing wills, trusts, partnerships, and other legal documents that plan for the future and aim to avoid litigation.3 In all cases, it is critical for paralegals to accurately track the time spent on each task, as law firms of all types tend to place high importance on billable hours in order to justify charges to clients and the courts.4
Experienced paralegals may gain supervisory responsibilities for other legal professionals, including law clerks and less experienced paralegals. Titles for this role include paralegal/legal assistant manager, director of practice support, and senior paralegal. This role typically involves such tasks as recruiting and hiring paralegals and legal assistants, providing training on the practice’s procedures, and delegating support tasks to the paralegal team.5 In general, the larger a practice is, the more likely it is that career openings for paralegal supervisors will arise; a paralegal supervisor’s work is also likely to be more complex in larger law firms.5
Finally, although no state licenses paralegals,6 most states, and many larger cities, have paralegal associations that provide continuing education opportunities. Many paralegals elect to join national associations that provide professional certifications, such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations and NALA, the Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegals. The International Practice Management Association is an association with professional development opportunities for paralegal managers. Pursuing voluntary certifications through these organizations can provide credentials that may increase paralegals’ value to their employers and their competitiveness in the job market by demonstrating professional competency and keeping up to date with changes in the law.
Paralegal Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increase of 18% in paralegal jobs from the year 2010-2020 which is even with the average occupation. Following the Great Recession, many law firms have replaced lawyers with paralegals on their staff as a way to reduce their costs which has increased demand for paralegals. Also, paralegal jobs are unlikely to be outsourced because a physical presence is required for job activities like filing important documents and attending hearings or dispositions. Since many law firms are located in urban areas, job availability is typically highest in these areas as well.
Types of Paralegal Specializations
Paralegal careers include a range of specializations that focus on a specific area of the law. The following section describes some of the common areas of specialization within in the paralegal field.
Bankruptcy paralegals are experts in bankruptcy law, an area of common law that is simultaneously arcane and constantly evolving. Since both individuals and businesses can declare bankruptcy and bankruptcy laws impacting the two can be different, bankruptcy paralegals sometimes declare a subspecialty in either individual or corporate bankruptcy law. Bankruptcy paralegals spend a great deal of time working on various paperwork requirements and gathering documents, which might even involve forensic research or accounting. The large amounts of paperwork and filings that accompany bankruptcy proceedings means that bankruptcy paralegals are almost always kept busy.
Corporate paralegals specialize in all aspects of corporate law, from monitoring for compliance with state and federal statutes to aiding corporations filing or defending against suits in court. There are many areas of corporate law where a corporate paralegal might prefer to work, including patent law, tax law, employment law, and mergers and acquisitions. With local, state, federal, and even regulatory statutes to contend with, corporations are constantly in need of knowledgeable lawyers and paralegals employed by the corporation and on retainer from outside of the corporation. In fact, in some instances the law requires that corporations obtain advice or counsel from lawyers acting as third parties. Corporate paralegals have job security due to these structures.
Criminal Law Paralegal
As the name of this specialty might suggest, criminal law paralegals focus on the laws and processes that apply to criminal proceedings. A criminal law paralegal might work on either side of the bench; working for a court, such a paralegal might assist the judge or justice or be assigned to work for the prosecuting attorneys. Criminal law paralegals also work for lawyers defending clients against criminal charges. In either case, criminal law paralegals frequently choose to focus in one area of law, for example violent crimes, financial crimes, or drug crimes. This helps experienced paralegals excel at helping their employers prosecute or defend cases, since many criminal lawyers also focus on one area of the law.
US immigration law is inherently complex, with many different routes to legal immigration, visas, and citizenship. It takes a dedicated staff with thorough knowledge of immigration law to help individuals immigrate to the US, and staffs like these are also needed to work on behalf of the US government to enforce the law. Especially since fast paced changes to immigration law are happening rapidly at the state level in many areas, immigration paralegals are needed now more than ever for their expertise on immigration issues. Unlike in some other paralegal practice areas, immigration paralegals are permitted to participate directly in strategy sessions with supervising attorneys, which adds another dimension of learning to this specialty.
Litigation paralegal may sound redundant, but in practice litigation paralegals perform an important function in legal services. In many specialties, paralegals may or may not assist with taking a case to court. In bankruptcies, for example, a bankruptcy proceeding can be completed with no more than a token appearance in the courtroom in some areas. Litigation paralegals are specialists in the rules, procedures, forms, and minutiae of local, state, and/or federal courts. These paralegals help supervising attorneys stay abreast of and interpret the laws and requirements of filings and other motions for these courts. This allows attorneys to focus on the case at hand rather than becoming aware of a filing deadline or even paper size requirement at the last minute – or worse, after the deadline has passed, which could derail an attorney’s case.
Personal Injury Paralegal
Personal injury paralegals focus on an area of the law known as tort: an area of the law that deals with wrongs done by one person (or corporation) against another person or his or her property. By definition tort does not encompass crimes that are normally prosecuted by government entities, such as assault, but could encompass such crimes if the victim brings a civil case against the assaulter. For example, if the assaulter is found guilty in criminal court, the victim could bring a personal injury claim against the assaulter for medical bills and other damages. Tort cases may seek monetary damages or what are called injunctions, court orders that require someone to stop a certain action. Since many areas of personal injury litigation fall outside of the jurisdiction of criminal courts, these cases tend to become tort claims, providing a stream of work for energetic personal injury paralegals.
Paralegal Career Scholarship
For students seeking paralegal scholarships, the Legal Leaders of Tomorrow Scholarship is an annual $500 scholarship awarded to a student pursuing a paralegal career who submits the best 200-300 word essay about why they want to become a paralegal. Applicants must be college students pursuing a legal-related undergraduate degree or certificate such as pre-law, paralegal, or criminal justice. High school students are also eligible if they have been accepted to a college and plan to study a legal related major.
The annual application deadline is October 1st.
To be eligible for the scholarship, applicants must be:
- At least 18 years of age.
- A current college student enrolled at an accredited college or university in the United States who is pursuing a paralegal related undergraduate degree or certificate program or a high school student who has been accepted to a paralegal-related program.
If you have any questions about your eligibility, you may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Scholarship:
The Legal Leaders of Tomorrow Scholarship is sponsored by Paralegal411.org, a leading paralegal career information website and directory of paralegal schools in the United States. Paralegal411.org provides a comprehensive resource of useful information for aspiring paralegals including career advice from more than 40 leaders in the paralegal field, interviews with current legal professionals and authors, student reviews of paralegal programs, salary data, and school information. Dozens of colleges recommend Paralegal411.org to their students as a career resource.
We are proud to support students who are working toward their goal of becoming a paralegal.
Scholarship Selection Process:
Our scholarship committee will select the winning applicant by November 1st. The scholarship will be awarded to the applicant with the best essay submission based on the quality of ideas, thoughtfulness, and creativity as judged by the scholarship committee.
The winning applicant and the school’s financial aid office will be notified by email or phone. A check for $500 will be mailed directly to the winning applicant once enrollment has been verified and a profile photo and brief bio has been provided. The winner will be responsible for following IRS rules regarding scholarships which are available at the IRS website. The winning applicant will be recognized on this page.
We congratulate the 2015 Paralegal Career Scholarship recipient, Angelita Pope. Angelita is pursuing an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, VA. She has spent significant time volunteering in the domestic violence field, driven by her own recovery and passion for working with like-minded professionals who want to address violence in homes, workplaces, and communities. Angelita is a member of the Alpha Lambda Psi Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the Fredericksburg Paralegal Association, and the Richmond Paralegal Association, and is a participant in the 2015 J. Sargeant Reynolds LEAD Program (student leadership development program). After graduation, Angelita’s goal is to become a paralegal in a litigation firm or the federal government.
We are pleased to announce the 2014 Paralegal Career Scholarship recipient, Lindsay Wagaman. Lindsay completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. While attending college she volunteered with preteen girls to discuss issues such as family life and self-esteem. She discovered that she really wanted to help make a difference with families around her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin and decided to enroll in the post-baccalaureate paralegal program at Madison Area Technical College. Once she graduates from this program her goal is to start a career in a family law firm or a non-profit organization so she can achieve her aspiration of helping families in need.
Useful Resources for Paralegal Careers
State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates Bureau of Labor Statistics
The Everything Guide to Being a Paralegal – book by Steven Schneider
Legal Chic – a service provided by experienced attorneys and law professors who assist individuals with getting hired in the legal field including resume writing and interview preparation.
Summary Report for Paralegals and Legal Assistants O*Net Online
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm#tab-2.
2. Estrin, Chere B. and Stacey Hunt. The Successful Paralegal Job Search Guide. New York: West Legal Studies, 2001. Print.
3. Hughes, Richard L. Surviving and Thriving in the Law Office: What Every Paralegal Should Know. New York: West Legal Studies, 2005. Print.
4. Brittain, Vicki and Terry Hull. Paralegal Handbook. New York: West Legal Studies, 2003. Print.
5. Statsky, William. Introduction to Paralegalism: Perspectives, Problems, and Skills. 7th ed. Clifton Park: Delmar Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
6. National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc.: http://www.paralegals.org/default.asp?page=62.