What is a Paralegal?

Paralegals do a variety of tasks to support lawyers, including maintaining and organizing files, conducting legal research, and drafting documents. Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for law firms, corporate legal departments, or government agencies. They usually work full time, and overtime is sometimes needed to meet important deadlines.

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What does a Paralegal do?

Paralegals typically do the following:

  • Investigate the facts of a case
  • Conduct research on relevant laws, regulations, and legal articles
  • Organize and present the information
  • Keep information related to cases or transactions in computer databases
  • Write reports to help lawyers prepare for trials
  • Draft correspondence and other documents, such as contracts and mortgages
  • Get affidavits and other formal statements that may be used as evidence in court
  • Help lawyers during trials.

Paralegals help lawyers prepare for hearings, trials, and corporate meetings. However, their specific duties may vary depending on the size of the firm or organization. In smaller firms, paralegals duties tend to vary more. In addition to reviewing and organizing information, paralegals may prepare written reports that help lawyers determine how to handle their cases. If lawyers decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help prepare the legal arguments and draft documents to be filed with the court.

In larger organizations, paralegals work mostly on a particular phase of a case, rather than handling a case from beginning to end. For example, a litigation paralegal might only review legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for lawyers, and collect and organize evidence for hearings. Litigation paralegals often do not attend trials, but might prepare trial documents or draft settlement agreements.

Law firms increasingly use technology and computer software for managing documents and preparing for trials. Paralegals use computer software to draft and index documents and prepare presentations. In addition, paralegals must be familiar with electronic database management and be up to date on the latest software used for electronic discovery. Electronic discovery refers to all electronic materials that are related to a trial, such as emails, data, documents, accounting databases, and websites.

Paralegals can assume more responsibilities by specializing in areas such as litigation, personal injury, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate. In addition, experienced paralegals may assume supervisory responsibilities, such as overseeing team projects or delegating work to other paralegals.

What does it take to be a Paralegal?

There are several paths to become a paralegal. Candidates can enroll in a community college paralegal program to earn an associate’s degree. A small number of schools also offer bachelor’s and master's degrees in paralegal studies. Those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject can earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Finally, some employers hire entry-level paralegals without any experience or education in paralegal studies and train them on the job, though these jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree.

Associate’s and bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies usually combine paralegal training, such as courses in legal research and the legal applications of computers, with other academic subjects. Most certificate programs provide this intensive paralegal training for people who already hold college degrees. Some certificate programs only take a few months to complete. Many paralegal training programs also offer an internship, in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a private law firm, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, or a government agency. Internship experience helps students improve their technical skills and can enhance their employment prospects.

Employers sometimes hire college graduates with no legal experience or education and train them on the job. In these cases, the new employee often has experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such tax preparation or criminal justice. In many cases, employers prefer candidates who have at least one year of experience in a law firm or other office setting. In addition, a technical understanding of a specific legal specialty can be helpful. For example, a personal-injury law firm may desire a paralegal with a background in nursing or health administration. Work experience in a law firm or other office setting is particularly important for people who do not have formal paralegal training.

Although not required by most employers, earning voluntary certification may help applicants get a paralegal job. Many national and local paralegal organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications to students able to pass an exam. Other organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications for paralegals who meet certain experience and education criteria.

Paralegals usually are given more responsibilities and require less supervision as they gain work experience. Experienced paralegals may supervise and delegate assignments to other paralegals and clerical staff.

What is the workplace of a Paralegal like?

Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies. Those who work for law firms, corporations, and government agencies usually work full time. Although most paralegals work year round, some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year. Paralegals who work for law firms may work very long hours and overtime to meet deadlines.

Paralegals do most of their work in offices and law libraries. Occasionally, they travel to gather information and do other tasks.

How much does a Paralegal earn?

The median annual wage of paralegals was $46,680 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $29,460, and the top 10% earned more than $74,870.

In general, paralegals who work for large law firms or in large cities earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in smaller cities.

Learn more about being a Paralegal