Paralegals are sometimes confused with lawyers because of their job title.
Paralegals assist lawyers, but the two jobs are entirely different. Becoming a paralegal is much easier than becoming a lawyer, although most paralegals use their careers as a stepping stone into starting a degree as a lawyer. Working as a paralegal is an excellent way to develop court experience, but paralegals themselves never represent a client in court.
Paralegals must meet specific education and work requirements to work with a law firm. Once they are hired, paralegals work alongside lawyers and perform many administrative tasks. Paralegals speak with clients and arrange meetings between the client and legal team. They request documents on behalf of the lawyer and arrange meetings between the lawyer and special witnesses.
Paralegals primarily work out of an office, but there may be times where they must go to a courthouse or state building to formally request documentation. Career growth is promising for paralegals. Many law offices exist already, and as more students graduate and become lawyers, the need for paralegals increases. More information about starting a paralegal career is detailed below.
The requirements to become a paralegal largely depend on where the applicant is applying. It is an important position with different responsibilities, so most law firms have strict requirements for who can apply a paralegal. In some cases, paralegals waive the educational requirements if they have relevant work experience, but it is challenging to find initial work without having a relevant degree.
At minimum, paralegals are encouraged to get a two-year degree before applying for a job. Students can obtain a specific degree in paralegal studies, but this is not the only acceptable degree for a paralegal. Law students commonly work as paralegals while attending college to become a lawyer. If you have a two or four-year degree in any sort of criminal justice field, you are just as likely to get a paralegal job as an applicant with a degree specifically for paralegal studies.
Certain states have paralegal certification programs available. This is not considered as strong as having a degree, but it is enough for some firms. If you are certified and attending school for a law degree, you have a better chance of being accepted by a law firm.
Some law firms prefer applicants to pass a test if they do not have the necessary degrees. Depending on the law firm, these tests are waived for applicants who have at least a year of experience. Even if you have a degree, you may be asked to take a test if you do not have any practical experience.
Law firms specifically accept entry-level paralegals to help them gain practical experience. These positions often have limited responsibilities compared to a traditional paralegal job. As a result, these positions do not pay as much as a normal paralegal job and are more akin to an apprenticeship.
In addition to meeting educational requirements, paralegals must possess certain skills to find work. Conveying written information is a critical part of being a paralegal. Paralegals spend hours each week writing documents, such as drafts, pleas and memorandums. These documents must be written in a precise way to correctly convey the necessary information. The documents frequently contain complex legal phrases as well.
Making even a small mistake can completely invalidate the document.
Research is another important skill for paralegals. Paralegals handle the bulk of research for a lawyer. This is one of the reasons having a legal background is often a requirement for a paralegal. Without legal context, many law documents are impossible to decipher. The more interested you are in legal subjects, the greater the chance for succeeding as a paralegal.
Because paralegals handle so much information, organization is another important skill. Relating to organization, paralegals must be able to adapt. Paralegals are not only organizing information for themselves, but for the law firm as well. Your personal organization system may not work with what the firm expects, so you must be willing to come up with new systems that allow everyone to easily find relevant case information.
Paralegals spend most of their time in an office setting working alongside attorneys and other legal professionals. Paralegals must attend court proceedings as well. It is common for paralegals to go to state buildings to collect legal documents relating to a case.
While paralegals work alongside lawyers, they have completely different tasks. Lawyers instruct the paralegal what to do, so the responsibility of actually getting the work done falls on the paralegal. Most paralegals do the bulk of their work alone in a quiet setting. Paralegals commonly interact with clients sporadically throughout the day, so customer service skills are necessary.
Paralegals typically work a traditional business schedule, five days a week with weekends and evenings off. If there is a busy case, paralegals are asked to work overtime.
Paralegals are often viewed as lawyer assistants. Paralegals have minimal interaction with clients outside of setting up meetings. Instead of representing clients in court, paralegals perform the bulk of the research for lawyers. Paralegals are responsible for filing and retrieving case documents and setting up meetings with witnesses. Another responsibility is attending certain hearings or mediation. During these meetings, paralegals take notes and may be asked to reference previously researched documents.
As an entry level position, paralegal careers pay well. Previous studies shown paralegals have an average income of $50,000. The exact amount you get paid largely depends on experience and the law firm you are employed by, as each firm varies. Paralegals typically receive higher wages in urban areas, since these law firms have more cases than rural law firms.
Paralegal careers are expected to increase. As of writing, there is already a strong surge in the number of paralegal careers. In the past, paralegals were treated as a luxury. More clients prefer law firms with paralegals. Lawyers used to charge much higher fees without a paralegal present, since it greatly increased their workload. Firms with a strong paralegal team charge less, since lawyers do not have to work as many long hours performing tasks now handled by a paralegal.