Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, assist in trial preparations, investigate facts, prepare documents such as affidavits and pleadings, and, in general, do work customarily performed by lawyers. Approximately 224,000 paralegals and legal assistants work in law firms, businesses, and government agencies all over the United States; the majority work with lawyers and legislators.
Paralegal Career History
The U.S. legal system has undergone many changes over the past few decades as more people turn to lawyers for help in settling disputes. This increase in litigation has placed greater demands on lawyers and other legal professionals. To help meet these demands, lawyers have hired legal assistants to help provide legal services to more people at a lower cost.
The first paralegals were given a limited number of routine duties. Many started as legal secretaries who were gradually given more responsibilities. Today, however, the work of the paralegal has expanded and formal training programs have been established.
Since this occupation developed in the late 1960s, paralegals have taken on much of the routine work that lawyers once did themselves, such as researching, investigating, and preparing legal briefs. Their work allows lawyers to concentrate on the more technical aspects of providing legal services. The paralegal profession continues to grow as they gain wider acceptance as legal professionals.
Computers play an important role in the research conducted by paralegals today. A paralegal must be proficient at using the computer to find information and to create reports.
Paralegal Job Description
A paralegal’s main duty is to do everything a lawyer needs to do but does not have time to do. Although the lawyer assumes responsibility for the paralegal’s work, the paralegal may take on all the duties of the lawyer except for setting fees, appearing in court, accepting cases, and giving legal advice.
Paralegals spend much of their time in law libraries, researching laws and previous cases and compiling facts to help lawyers prepare for trial. Paralegals often interview witnesses as part of their research as well. After analyzing the laws and facts that have been compiled for a particular client, the paralegal often writes a report that the lawyer may use to determine how to proceed with the case. If a case is brought to trial, the paralegal helps prepare legal arguments and draft pleadings to be filed in court. They also organize and store files and correspondence related to cases.
Not all paralegal work centers on trials. Many paralegals work for corporations, agencies, schools, and financial institutions. Corporate paralegals create and maintain contracts, mortgages, affidavits, and other documents. They assist with corporate matters, such as shareholder agreements, contracts, and employee benefit plans. Another important part of a corporate paralegal’s job is to stay on top of new laws and regulations to make sure the company is operating within those parameters.
Some paralegals work for the government. They may prepare complaints or talk to employers to find out why health or safety standards are not being met. They often analyze legal documents, collect evidence for hearings, and prepare explanatory material on various laws for use by the public. For example, a court administrator paralegal is in charge of keeping the courthouse functioning; tasks include monitoring personnel, handling the case load for the court, and general administration.
Other paralegals are involved in community or public-service work. They may help specific groups, such as poor or elderly members of the community. They may file forms, research laws, and prepare documents. They may represent clients at hearings, although they may not appear in court on behalf of a client.
Many paralegals work for large law firms, agencies, and corporations and specialize in a particular area of law. Some work for smaller firms and have a general knowledge of many areas of law. Paralegals have varied duties, and an increasing number use computers in their work.
Paralegal Career Requirements
While in high school, take a broad range of subjects, including English, social studies or government, computer science, and languages, especially Spanish and Latin. Because legal terminology is used constantly, word origins and vocabulary should be a focus.
Requirements for paralegals vary by employer. Some paralegals start out as legal secretaries or clerical workers and gradually are given more training and responsibility. The majority, however, choose formal training and education programs.
Formal training programs usually range from one to three years and are offered in a variety of educational settings: four-year colleges and universities, law schools, community and junior colleges, business schools, proprietary schools, and paralegal associations. Admission requirements vary, but good grades in high school and college are always an asset. There are approximately 600 paralegal programs, about 250 of which have been approved by the American Bar Association. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations reports that 84 percent of all paralegals receive formal paralegal education.
Some paralegal programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission; others do not require any college education. In either case, those who have a college degree usually have an edge over those who do not.
Certification or Licensing
Paralegals are not required to be licensed or certified. Instead, when lawyers employ paralegals, they often follow guidelines designed to protect the public from the practice of law by unqualified persons.
Paralegals may, however, opt to be certified. To do so, they may take and pass an extensive two-day test conducted by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) Certifying Board. Paralegals who pass the test may use the title certified legal assistant (CLA) after their names. According to the NALA, there are more than 12,000 CLAs in the United States.
In 1994, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations established the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE), as a means for paralegals who fill education and experience requirements to acquire professional recognition. Paralegals who pass this exam and maintain the continuing education requirement may use the designation registered paralegal (RP).
Communication skills, both verbal and written, are vital to working as a paralegal. You must be able to turn research into reports that a lawyer or corporate executive can use. You must also be able to think logically and learn new laws and regulations quickly. Research skills, computer skills, and people skills are other necessities.
Exploring Paralegal Career
If you are interested in a career as a paralegal, but you are not positive yet, do not worry. There are several ways you can explore the career of a paralegal. Colleges, universities, and technical schools have a wealth of information available for the asking. Elizabeth Houser, a practicing paralegal, recommends contacting schools that have paralegal programs directly. “Ask questions. They are helpful and will give you a lot of information about being a paralegal,” she says.
Look for summer or part-time employment as a secretary or in the mailroom of a law firm to get an idea of the nature of the work. If paid positions are not available, offer yourself as a volunteer to the law offices in town. Ask your guidance counselor to help you set up a volunteer/internship agreement with a lawyer.
Talk to your history or government teacher about organizing a trip to a lawyer’s office and a courthouse. Ask your teacher to set aside time for you to talk to paralegals working there and to their supervising attorneys.
If you have access to a computer, search the World Wide Web for information on student organizations that are affiliated with the legal profession. You can also contact the organizations listed at the end of this article for general information.
Paralegals and legal assistants hold approximately 224,000 jobs. The majority works for lawyers in law offices or in law firms. Other paralegals work for the government, namely for the Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department, Treasury Department, Internal
Revenue Service, Department of the Interior, and many other agencies and offices. Paralegals also work in the business community. Anywhere legal matters are part of the day-to-day work, paralegals are usually handling them. Paralegals fit in well in business because many smaller corporations must deal with legal regulations but don’t necessarily need an attorney or a team of lawyers.
Paralegals in business can be found all over the country. Larger cities employ more paralegals who focus on the legal side of the profession, and government paralegals will find the most opportunities in state capitals and Washington, D.C.
Although some law firms promote legal secretaries to paralegal status, most employers prefer to hire individuals who have completed paralegal programs. To have the best opportunity at getting a quality job in the paralegal field, you should attend a paralegal school. In addition to providing a solid background in paralegal studies, most schools help graduates find jobs. Even though the job market for paralegals is expected to grow rapidly over the next 10 years, those with the best credentials will get the best jobs.
For Elizabeth Houser, the internship program was the springboard to her first paralegal position. “The paralegal program of study I took required an internship. I was hired directly from that internship experience.”
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations recommends using job banks that are sponsored by paralegal associations across the country. For paralegal associations that may be able to help, see the addresses listed at the end of this article. Many jobs for paralegals are posted on the Internet as well.
There are no formal advancement paths for paralegals. There are, however, some possibilities for advancement, as large firms are beginning to establish career programs for paralegals.
For example, a person may be promoted from a paralegal to a head legal assistant who supervises others. In addition, a paralegal may specialize in one area of law, such as environmental, real estate, or medical malpractice. Many paralegals also advance by moving from small to large firms.
Expert paralegals who specialize in one area of law may go into business for themselves. Rather than work for one firm, these freelance paralegals often contract their services to many lawyers. Some paralegals with bachelor’s degrees enroll in law school to train to become lawyers.
Paralegals can also move horizontally by taking their specialized knowledge of the law into another field, such as insurance, occupational health, or law enforcement.
Salaries vary greatly for paralegals. The size and location of the firm and the education and experience of the employee are some factors that determine the annual earnings of paralegals.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that paralegals and legal assistants had median annual earnings of $41,170 in 2005. The highest 10 percent earned more than $65,330, while the lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,270. According to the 2004 National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report conducted by the National Association of Legal Assistants, the average total compensation earned by legal assistants was $46,862.
Paralegals often work in pleasant and comfortable offices. Much of their work is performed in a law library. Some paralegals work out of their homes in special employment situations. When investigation is called for, paralegals may travel to gather information. Most paralegals work a 40-hour week, although long hours are sometimes required to meet court-imposed deadlines. Longer hours—sometimes as much as 90 hours per week—are usually the normal routine for paralegals starting out in law offices and firms.
Many of the paralegal’s duties involve routine tasks, so they must have a great deal of patience. However, paralegals may be given increasingly difficult assignments over time. Paralegals are often unsupervised, especially as they gain experience and a reputation for quality work. Elizabeth Houser does much of her work unsupervised. “You get to put a lot of yourself into what you do and that provides a high level of job satisfaction,” she says.
Paralegal Career Outlook
Employment for paralegals is expected to grow much faster than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. One reason for the expected rapid growth in the profession is the financial benefits of employing paralegals. The paralegal, whose duties fall between those of the legal secretary and those of the attorney, helps make the delivery of legal services more cost effective to clients. The growing need for legal services among the general population and the increasing popularity of prepaid legal plans is creating a tremendous demand for paralegals in private law firms. In the private sector, paralegals can work in banks, insurance companies, real estate and title insurance firms, and corporate legal departments. In the public sector, there is a growing need for paralegals in the courts and community legal service programs, government agencies, and consumer organizations.
The growth of this occupation, to some extent, is dependent on the economy. Businesses are less likely to pursue litigation cases when profit margins are down, thus curbing the need for new hires.