Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, are professionals trained to assist attorneys in providing legal services. They typically operate under a lawyer’s supervision and work in law firms, corporate legal departments, governmental organizations and other practice environments.
Paralegal Job Duties
The primary function of a paralegal is to help an attorney resolve lawsuits. Common duties include investigating the facts of a case, performing legal research, and interviewing clients and witnesses, and drafting deposition notices, pleadings, motions, subpoenas, discovery, briefs and a variety of other legal documents. Paralegals also manage and organize files, documents and exhibits, and are often called upon to help at hearings, administrative proceedings, arbitrations, mediations, trials and closings. Outside of their work with court cases, they may also be required to prepare documents such as wills, mortgages, contracts and separation agreements.
Despite their assistance inside and outside the courtroom, paralegals are forbidden from tasks that are considered “practicing law.” This means that they cannot provide clients with legal advice, establish legal fees, represent clients in the courtroom or sign court documents.
Paralegal earnings fluctuate according to many factors including education, level of experience, work environment and geographic location. The median pay for paralegals was $48,810 per year in 2015, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. Experienced paralegals with special skills or management responsibilities may have the potential to earn six-figure salaries.
A 2015 salary survey conducted by the National Association of Legal Assistants estimates that the average paralegal salary based on years of legal experience ranges from $39,653 (1-5 years) to $60,875 (more than 25 years).
Paralegal Job Outlook
There are plenty of opportunities in the paralegal field, which is growing due to job attrition and a strong demand for legal professionals. As legal fees increase, more clients are opting to use paralegals over expensive attorneys if the option is available to them. In addition, a growing number of legal cases is encouraging lawyers to trust paralegals with greater responsibilities that would typically be given to attorneys and other professional staff.
Employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 8% by 2024, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.
The opportunities available to paralegals vary according to education level. While some paralegals have no professional training, most have a 2-year associate’s degree, 4-year bachelor’s degree, and/or a paralegal certificate. Those with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, or receive a paralegal certificate in addition to a college degree in any field, generally have the greatest job prospects.
Paralegal Required Skills
It is necessary for paralegals to possess extensive knowledge of legal terminology, as well as federal and state rules of legal procedure and substantive law. Organizational skills are also highly recommended, as this role involves managing large case files and exhibits, of which there could be hundreds for an individual case.
Paralegal work entails top-notch communication skills, as these professionals frequently interact with clients, court personnel, vendors, experts and attorneys. Strong writing skills are also required for drafting documents such as research memorandums, pleadings and correspondence.