It used to be that a paralegal was simply a lawyer’s assistant or secretary, with no schooling in law or responsibilities. The paralegal profession has evolved over time, and the perception that they were merely a lawyer’s assistant finally prompted the ABA (the American Bar Association, an organization in which all lawyers have to be certified from to practice law in the United States) to change their definition of “paralegal” to illuminate the reality of the growing career (in terms of popularity and power).
Because the law field is so dominated by terms, definitions and procedures, it’s good to know what the ABA has to say on the matter. Their official word on what, exactly, a paralegal is and does follows:
“A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” — ABA
- Job Outlook
- Paralegal or Lawyer: Law School or Paralegal School?
- What a Paralegal Degree Leads To
- What School Do I Enroll In?
As mentioned, the paralegal field is growing, and the demand for them is high in the industry. Also, the pay is rising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for a paralegal is just over $50,000 or an hourly wage above $24 (BoLS). These wages differ among the industry, depending upon whether working for the government, a law firm, or a corporation.
As can be expected, corporate paralegals average around 60K a year, the highest among employers (Paralegal Today). Also, the specialty of a paralegal goes a long way in determining one’s salary. International law paralegals balloon up to 77K, and those involved in mergers/acquisitions average $70,000/year (Paralegal Today). For more detailed statistics please refer to the Bureau of Labor Statisticswebsite (last updated May 14th, 2010), and Paralegal Today.
CNNMoney.com ranked paralegals 14th in their top 20 jobs (CNNMoney.com). Careercast.com has also placed the legal assistant career in its top 20 for three consecutive years, including 2011, ranking 12th among the 200 best jobs in the country (CareerCast). These rankings are determined based on a job’s environment, income and growth potential, outlook, stress and physical demands (CareerCast methodology). To put this in perspective, lawyering, while it is a higher paying career, isn’t even listed in the top 200 due to its exorbitant stress levels (About.com).
Perhaps best of all, despite intense competition, the paralegal profession is experiencing better than average growth in employment (BoL). It doesn’t matter how much you’re paid or how great the job is if you can’t find one, after all. According to EmploymentCrossing, there are over 125,000 legal jobs and 13,698 new jobs over the past week (LawCrossing).
For complete information on the future of the career, refer to paralegal’s entry in the 2010-11 Occupation Outlook Handbook formulated by the Bureau of Labor.
Like any career, being a paralegal can mean many different things. There are a few key areas in the field, and deciding which one you want to be on the outset will only help your search for colleges and decide what academic programs you’ll need to concentrate once enrolled. CollegeBoard outlines a degree in paralegal studies here.
Areas of Paralegal Career
A paralegal degree usually funnels a graduate into the following positions: legal assistant or paralegal, court reporting and legal support services. These usually perform mostly the same functions in the workplace. What follows is an in depth description on what said functions entail.
Duties of Legal Assistant
Paralegals do many of the same things a lawyer can do, as long as it isn’t involved in the actual practice of law. For example, they cannot give advice, present cases or set fees (BoL).
Legal assistants jobs and duties vary greatly depending on what kind of firm or company they work for, but generally, they perform the following, according to the Bureau of Labor:
- Research the facts of the case, accumulating all relevant data for the lawyer (it’s not just bone dry research, this includes interviewing witnesses or persons if interest, obtaining affidavits, etc. according to LawCrossing)
- Identifying similar cases and laws that apply to the case and offer legal precedence (the absolute key to most successful trials)
- Assist lawyer prepare for all hearings, appeals, trials, closings and meetings
- Lots of writing, including even drafting reports that their lawyer will use to argue the case
- Compile all related documents to case and keep it organized and at hand
They must perform all these duties in a tense, breakneck environment, where deadlines are of utmost importance (LawCrossing). For more specifics on what corporate or litigation paralegals do, refer to theOccupation Outlook Handbook.
Areas of Expertise
Just like lawyers, paralegals vary greatly on their specialty within law. Unlike a lawyer, where it pays to know more about a single topic, a paralegal may be rewarded for its wide breadth of knowledge in law (see: Paralegal vs. Lawyer). It’s impossible to come up with a complete list, but the common areas follow:
- Corporate law
- Criminal law
- Employee benefits
- Personal injury
- Labor law
- Family law
- Real Estate
- Copyright and patent law
Where Do They Work?
Paralegals are mostly found in law firms, corporations with legal departments and government offices (BoL).
Just like any other field, it’s all about experience. As you work more and more for a particular organization, you will gain responsibility and more important tasks within the firm or company, and your duties will grow beyond simple and menial tasks (BoL). Prove yourself, and be rewarded.
There are many paths to becoming a paralegal.
- Complete a community college or online Associates degree in a paralegal program.
- If already possessing a college degree, obtain a paralegal studies certification.
- Find work in a firm and train on the job, and get your certification while doing so.
- Enroll in a four year institution as a paralegal major (Princeton Review).
For more information on getting in the paralegal career, refer to our Choosing the Right School page.