Paralegals offer support to lawyers by completing many of the tasks required in a legal setting, with the explicit exception of offering legal advice to clients. If you are interested in a career as a paralegal, you should understand what paralegals do, common paralegal requirements and resources by state, different types of paralegal careers, and salary and job outlook information for paralegals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over 345,000 paralegals and legal assistants were employed as of May 2020.1 If you are interested in joining this growing profession, continue reading for more information on a career as a paralegal.
Table of Contents
- What Do Paralegals Do?
- Paralegal Career Information by State
- Types of Paralegal Careers
- Paralegal Salary and Career Outlook
- Frequently Asked Questions
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. 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 in that paralegals are not permitted to give legal advice to clients or represent clients in court. Paralegals are prepared by their training to read, interpret, and summarize case law and other legal documents and may make recommendations to the lawyers with whom they work.
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. An administrative law paralegal working for a legislative agency may analyze legislation before it is introduced and may also prepare legislative and trial calendars. 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. Criminal law paralegals frequently spend part or all of their workday in court, making filings or taking notes for the attorneys they represent during a trial.
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 work on drafting and reviewing wills, trusts, partnerships, and other legal documents that plan for the future and aim to avoid litigation.
Experienced paralegals may gain supervisory responsibilities managing other legal professionals, including law clerks and less experienced paralegals. Titles for these roles include paralegal/legal assistant manager, director of practice support, and senior paralegal. In addition to regular legal tasks, paralegal managers may be responsible for recruiting and hiring paralegals and legal assistants, providing training on the practice’s procedures, and delegating support tasks to the paralegal team. In general, the larger the practice, 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.
Paralegal Job Description
A paralegal’s primary role is to provide support to lawyers. Paralegals may work specifically with one lawyer or with a group of several lawyers. Paralegals’ tasks may vary from being more specialized (typically in larger firms) to more generalized (typically in smaller firms). 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. 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
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 a State
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington DC
- West Virginia
Types of Paralegal Careers
Paralegal careers include a range of specializations, each of which focuses on a specific area of the law. Below are some common areas of specialization within 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 laws impacting the two can be different, paralegals in this specialty 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.
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 in which 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, either employed directly by the corporation or 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 tend to 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 both cases, criminal law paralegals frequently choose to focus on one area of law, like violent crimes, financial crimes, or drug crimes. This helps experienced paralegals excel at assisting their employers in prosecuting or defending 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 staff 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 BLS projects an increase of 12% in paralegal jobs from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations.1 In the last decade, many law firms have replaced lawyers with paralegals on their staff as a way to reduce 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 BLS, the median annual pay for paralegals is $52,920.1 Aspiring paralegals should note that salaries can vary depending upon location, education, and experience. The highest-earning 10% of paralegals earn more than $85,160, while the lowest-earning 10% earn less than $32,900.1 Entry-level paralegals can typically expect to earn lower than the median. There are approximately 345,600 paralegals employed across the United States.1 Florida has the highest overall employment of paralegals and legal assistants, with 33,760 employed.2 Washington DC has the highest concentration of jobs and is the top paying state for paralegals.2
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).
Frequently Asked Quesions
What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is a professional who is trained to assist and support attorneys in private law firms or in the public sector. More than an administrative role, paralegals are responsible for performing a broad range of substantive legal duties requiring expertise in legislation and its execution.
What is the difference between paralegals and lawyers?
Unlike lawyers, 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).
Are paralegals licensed?
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. 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. You can read more about state and voluntary national certification on our how to become a paralegal page.
Do paralegals go to law school?
No. Unlike lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants do not have to go to law school. Most paralegals, however, do seek degrees in the field. You can read more about degree options for paralegals on our degrees page.
Are paralegals in high demand?
According to the BLS, the job outlook for paralegals is good.1 Compared to other occupations, employment of paralegals is projected to grow at a faster rate: 12% between the 10-year period spanning from 2020 to 2030.1
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020 Occupational Employment and Wages, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm