Not everyone who works in the legal profession is a lawyer. In fact, there are many individuals with rewarding careers in the legal field who never sat for the bar exam. The paralegal profession is just one example.
Paralegals work directly with lawyers, but they’re not lawyers themselves. Their job is to support attorneys in various areas throughout the legal process, including during trials. This is a rewarding career field on its own, and it’s also a great stepping stone for legal professionals who want to advance their legal career in the future, even possibly becoming lawyers themselves.
As part of a competitive field, the paralegal profession has a positive outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects paralegal employment to grow by 10% between 2019 and 2029. That’s good news for people interested in the paralegal profession or the legal support field in general.
What does a paralegal do, exactly? Where do they work, and what kind of education is required to become a paralegal? Let’s examine this fascinating and rewarding profession in more detail.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
A paralegal offers support to lawyers and helps with various client-related tasks, from communication and research to trial preparation and certain administrative duties. To put it simply, paralegals are a lawyer’s primary right-hand man or woman.
What paralegals don’t do is offer legal advice to clients—that’s the job of an attorney. So, what does a typical day look like for a paralegal?
The job responsibilities of a paralegal include things like:
- Performing legal research
- Locating and interviewing witnesses
- Conducting interviews with clients
- Drafting documentation
- Creating exhibits used in court
- Summarizing depositions and testimonies
- Filing appeals
- Billing clients for work hours
Paralegals always work with a lawyer or a team of lawyers, but they also work alongside other paralegals, legal assistants, and other kinds of legal professionals.
Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant
It’s important to understand that a paralegal is not the same thing as a legal assistant. A legal assistant is there to deal with more of the administrative side of things, while a paralegal focuses on the legal side. While duties may overlap between these two roles, they are distinct from each other. Additionally, a paralegal is trained in the law to some degree, whereas a legal assistant doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Where Can Paralegals Work?
Paralegals can work in a variety of organizations, including law firms, insurance companies, real estate firms, banks, trade organizations, and corporations, just to name a few. Wherever a lawyer is needed, a paralegal isn’t far behind.
Note that paralegals can also work in the public sector. There are all kinds of federal and state government agencies, as well as community organizations, public defenders’ offices, and prosecutors’ offices, that employ lawyers and therefore paralegals as well.
Some paralegals are employed full-time by the organizations that hire them, and some work as independent contractors. Sometimes, a law firm might hire a paralegal on a contract basis to perform paralegal work for a particular case. This can be a good way for paralegals to gain experience with a wide variety of firms, cases, and trial situations before signing on permanently with a law firm or other organization.
Specialties for Paralegals
Paralegals often specialize in a particular area of the law, just like attorneys do. Examples of paralegal specializations to choose from include:
- Real estate: Paralegals assist attorneys with the sale or transfer of properties, as well as property disputes or rental disputes.
- Healthcare: Paralegals can specialize in healthcare law, working for both private medical providers and government agencies.
- Litigation: Paralegals specializing in litigation might work on malpractice, personal injury, insurance, employment law, or commercial cases.
- Corporate law: Corporations and businesses use lawyers and paralegals to deal with partner contracts, securities, mergers, acquisitions, and more.
- Compliance: Paralegals help to ensure corporations and other entities remain compliant with regulations and settle disputes related to compliance.
- Intellectual property: Paralegals in the intellectual property area help secure and defend patents and trademarks.
What Education Does a Paralegal Need?
We’ve learned about what a paralegal does, where they work, and what they can specialize in. But how does someone become a paralegal? What steps will you need to take to start your paralegal career?
Here’s the good news: Unlike attorneys, you don’t have to go to law school and pass the bar exam in your state to become a paralegal. In many ways, the path to becoming a paralegal is far less grueling, time-consuming, and expensive than the path to becoming a lawyer. But paralegals do need specialized education in order to get started in their field.
Paralegal studies include a curriculum covering topics like the legal and judicial system, legal ethics, and investigation, among many others. There are several options when it comes to schooling for someone who wants to become a paralegal. They include:
- A paralegal certification program, which usually lasts a few months or one semester
- An Associate’s degree in paralegal studies, which usually takes two years to complete
- A Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, which takes four years to complete
- A Master’s degree in paralegal studies, which consists of two years of graduate studies after completing a Bachelor’s degree
Any paralegal program, whether it’s a semester-long certification course or a Master’s program, must be approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Otherwise, you won’t be able to receive your certification as a paralegal and you’ll be unlikely to find employment. It’s also worth noting that most employers, law firms or otherwise, require paralegals to have a four-year Bachelor’s degree education. Paralegals will sometimes use certification programs or Associate’s programs as a precursor to a four-year Bachelor’s program or Master’s studies.
Internships and Apprenticeships
Many paralegals take on internships or apprenticeships while they’re in school, or even after they’ve completed their schooling. These kinds of arrangements provide new paralegals with invaluable experience in the field, and it looks good on resumes as well. Many employers, including law firms, government agencies, and private corporations, will look favorably upon paralegal candidates who have gained experience through internships, mentorships, or apprenticeship arrangements.
Paralegal certification is technically voluntary for paralegals, but it’s a good idea to obtain it. The certification enhances your chances of employment drastically and increases your earning potential as well. It proves to employers that you’re knowledgeable in the law or within your area of specialization, as well as legal procedure, research, ethics, and communication and writing skills.
The American Bar Association’s website lists four types of paralegal certification options:
- The Certified Paralegal (CP) certification – offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- The Registered Paralegal (RP) certification – offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- The Professional Paralegal (PP) certification – offered by the National Association for Legal Support Professionals (NALS)
- The American Alliance Certified Paralegal (ACCP) certification – offered by the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.
You’ll want to do your research and find out what kinds of certifications might be best for your career path as a paralegal. Again, certification isn’t required by law in any state at the current time, but it is highly recommended and may be expected by certain employers. At the very least, it serves as a way to prove your knowledge and competency as a paralegal while ensuring you don’t block your own chances of securing employment in the future.
Finding a Job as a Paralegal
Once you’ve completed your paralegal schooling and obtained certification, the next step is up to you. Whether you’d like to obtain employment in a law firm or at a private business, venture into the public sector at a government agency or undertake an internship to gain even more experience, you have various options available to you. And because the median salary for paralegals in 2020, according to the BLS, was almost $53,000 a year, you have a good chance of securing a well-paying job shortly after completing your educational requirements.
The paralegal profession is often used as a stepping stone into other advanced areas of the law field, including becoming a lawyer. Many successful lawyers were first paralegals. If you’re interested in becoming a lawyer, you’ll need to return to law school and eventually pass the state’s ABA exam to become a licensed attorney in your state. Some paralegal school credits even transfer to law school, giving you a leg up. And of course, you’ll have the experience of working in the legal field under lawyers to give you an advantage if you do decide to attend law school.
Partner With BOS Staffing for Your Paralegal Job Search
Interested in advancing your career in the legal field as a paralegal? When you’re job-hunting in a competitive field, partnering with a proven staffing and recruiting firm like BOS Staffing can give you an edge over your competition. Our legal recruiters leverage their years of experience in the legal support world, as well as a large employer network, to help match you with an organization that lets you put your skillset to work for good.
When you’re ready to find a great job in the Atlanta, GA area, give our recruitment team a call or contact us online. We look forward to assisting you in the next stage of your legal support career.