If you are interested in a career as a paralegal, you have come to the right place. Before you pursue the first steps in your new paralegal career, you should understand what the job entails. This page will discuss what paralegals typically do and what they don’t do at a law office, focusing specifically on the differences between the responsibilities of a paralegal and those of a lawyer. This page also discusses common paralegal requirements and resources by state, paralegal job descriptions, different types of paralegal careers, and salary and job outlook information for paralegals.
What Do Paralegals Do?
A paralegal is trained in legal matters and assists lawyers with researching facts for cases, preparing documents, maintaining files, and preparing for trial. Paralegals must work under the supervision of an attorney and are commonly employed by law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies, though opportunities for paralegals exist in other industries. Paralegals’ tasks may vary from being more specialized (in larger firms) to more generalized (in smaller firms). Specific tasks may include:
- Researching and investigating facts or laws related to a case
- Maintaining files and documents for various cases
- Interviewing witnesses to gather and investigate evidence
- Writing reports and compiling legal documents such as memos, briefs, depositions, or procedural motions
- Taking notes for attorneys
- Working with teams of other paralegals, attorneys, and staff on cases
What DON’T Paralegals Do?
Just as important as what they DO, understanding what paralegals can’t do will tell you more about the profession and how it differs from the career and responsibilities of a lawyer. Paralegals cannot provide legal services or advice directly to the public. Instead, they must work under the supervision of an attorney, who is ultimately liable for their work. Paralegals cannot be called “officers of the court,” cannot be “counsel of record” in court proceedings, and cannot sign court documents (except in limited circumstances, such as functioning as a notary). Paralegals can voluntarily become certified by organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), but in the US there is no status of “licensed paralegal” in the sense that an attorney can be a “licensed attorney.” However, in addition to voluntary certification, in some states paralegals are required to meet certain standards and become “certified” or “registered” at the state level.
Paralegal Career Information by State
To find out more specific information about the employment outlook, pay, requirements, and career opportunities, as well as a wealth of helpful resources for paralegals in your state, click on your state below.
- Select One
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington DC
- West Virginia
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.
Types of Paralegal Careers
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 mean 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.
Corporate Paralegal Career Interviews and Advice
- President of the Fort Worth Paralegal Association Katrina Lea
- President of the Orange County Paralegal Association Vicky La Celle
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, like 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 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.
Litigation Paralegal Career Interviews and Advice
- Litigation Support Guru and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University Amy L. Bowser-Rollins
- President of the Western New York Paralegal Association Laura Kryta
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.
Additional Paralegal Career Interviews and Advice
- Chicago Labor and Employment Lawyer Charles Krugel
- South Carolina Labor and Employment Lawyer Kristin Gray
- Even more career interviews and advice
Paralegal Salary and 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.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2015, the median annual pay for paralegals is $48,810.7 Aspiring paralegals should note that salaries can vary depending upon location, education, and experience. The highest-earning 10% of paralegals earn an average of $79,010 while the lowest-earning 10% earn less than $30,670.7 Entry-level paralegals can expect to earn lower than the median in most instances.
The paralegal profession is expected to grow by 8% through 2024.7 This rate of growth is slightly faster than the average rate of growth for all occupations in the US. As of 2015, there were approximately 271,930 paralegals employed across the United States.8 With an occupational growth rate of 8%, this number is expected to reach 293,684 by 2024.8
Paralegal job applicants with a solid foundation in legal coursework as well as an area of expertise should fare competitively. There are several channels you can use to look for paralegal jobs, including our national jobs board, state and local job boards, LinkedIn, and your local paralegal association. Students can find support and tips concerning paralegal education and the profession through professional organizations such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the National Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegals (NALA).
- State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates – Bureau of Labor Statistics
- The Everything Guide to Being a Paralegal – A 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: https://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.: https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=1i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=1
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages May 2015, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm