Becoming a paralegal is a rewarding career path that is both a fulfilling job on its own and a great entry point into the law profession. In fact, many paralegals go on to become lawyers themselves. For those interested in the field of law or anyone looking to become an attorney in the future, becoming a paralegal is the best way to gain crucial experience.
What does the career path for a paralegal look like? What exactly do paralegals do, and where do they work? And what can you do to advance your career as a paralegal? Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating profession.
What Is a Paralegal?
Paralegals are highly trained assistants who support lawyers. Their job is to support lawyers or teams of lawyers throughout the legal process, from initial research all the way through to trial. It’s important to note that paralegals do not provide legal advice to clients; that’s the job of the lawyer themselves. But aside from providing legal advice and representing clients in court, paralegals often perform many of the same tasks that lawyers do.
Note that paralegals are not legal assistants—legal assistants deal with the administrative side of the legal process, and while paralegals may perform various administrative duties, they are more focused on the legal side of the profession versus the administrative side.
What Do Paralegals Do?
We’ve learned what a paralegal is, and how their job differs from that of a lawyer or other types of support roles, like a legal assistant. So, what exactly is it that a paralegal does?
While the job duties of a paralegal can vary widely depending on where they work, what area of the law they work in, and the client and case, general duties include things like investigating, interviewing witnesses, performing research, and preparing for trial.
Paralegals are often responsible for the investigation that happens during the initial phase of legal proceedings. From investigating crime scenes and gathering vital evidence to locating and interviewing witnesses and interviewing the clients themselves, paralegals perform much of the on-the-ground work to inform the legal strategy moving forward.
Along with the investigative work comes research. This may include conducting interviews as well as conducting legal research into past cases that may inform strategy on the paralegal’s current case. Paralegals also research public records, medical and scientific information, government regulations, and more.
Another important part of the paralegal’s job is to prepare documentation for lawyers or for trial. From drafting up transcripts of interviews and conversations, compiling notes, and creating exhibits to be used in court to summarizing testimonies and depositions, paralegals are largely responsible for preparing documentation that will be critical throughout the legal process. They may also be responsible for filing paperwork for appeals and billing clients for work hours, among other tasks.
Paralegals help lawyers prepare their statements for trial, create exhibits used in the courtroom, and help craft legal arguments used to defend the client. Docket control is another big part of this phase, which includes preparing discovery requests and responses, filing motions and pleadings, and informing clients, witnesses, and other attorneys of trial dates. Paralegals are an indispensable part of the legal team as the process moves from the investigative phase into the trial phase.
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Where Do Paralegals Work?
There are a variety of settings in which a paralegal can work. Law firms are the obvious place of employment, and most paralegals do work for firms—about 67 percent of paralegals work in law firms, according to the National Association of Legal Assistants. But a paralegal’s options aren’t limited to law firms alone. Here are some of the main places in which paralegals work:
Large law firms
While the term “large” is somewhat subjective—a large firm in a small city would not be considered “large” in a city like New York or Chicago—many paralegals work in large firms as a part of paralegal teams. Some large firms even have entire paralegal departments overseen by paralegal managers or supervisors. Paralegals working for large firms will usually enjoy perks like state-of-the-art equipment, research technology, and extensive law libraries.
Small law firms
Many paralegals work in smaller or mid-size firms as well. In this setting, a paralegal may work for only one lawyer rather than a team of lawyers, and they may have one or two paralegal coworkers instead of a team of paralegals. In the smallest of firms, a paralegal may work alone with just one lawyer. It all depends on the firm itself and the lawyer’s needs.
Corporate legal departments
Many large corporations have their own in-house legal departments, and those departments include paralegals as well as lawyers. Paralegals working in corporate settings may deal with compliance issues, government regulations, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cases, and much more. Usually, paralegals working for corporations enjoy set hours, just like other types of office jobs—there is no billing a client for hours like there would be in a private firm.
Government agencies – local, state, federal
Most government agencies, especially at the federal and state level, have their own legal departments. On the federal side, paralegals can work for agencies like the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many others. You could also work in the federal court system as a part of the District Attorney’s office or for a public defender. At the state level, you might work for state governmental agencies or the state’s District Attorney’s office.
Another area in which paralegals can find rewarding work is in the non-profit sector. Whether it’s an environmental advocacy group or an organization fighting for social justice, paralegals can gain critical experience while helping advance a cause they’re passionate about. Major advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) employ paralegals, but there are plenty of smaller non-profit organizations that need legal help as well.
How Can You Advance Your Career As a Paralegal?
We’ve seen that paralegals can work in a wide variety of settings and will typically enjoy a wide range of duties as a part of their job. If you’re already a paralegal or you’re considering entering this exciting field of law soon, you might be considering paralegal career advancement options. There are two main paths to advancing your career as a paralegal: specializing in a particular area of the law or advancing into a managerial role.
Become a Specialist in a Particular Field of Law
There are many specializations within the law field in general. Paralegals can focus on one area in order to become an expert. Examples of specializations include:
- Criminal Law: This covers violations of the law as well as protection of individuals’ constitutional rights and civil liberties. Cases could involve everything from petty theft and misdemeanors all the way to homicide or malpractice.
- Civil Litigation: This area of the law covers disputes that aren’t criminal in nature. Examples of civil litigation include things like antitrust disputes and personal injury cases.
- Real Estate Law: This area of the law involves the buying and selling of commercial or residential property. You could work for lawyers representing landlords, buyers or sellers, or tenants.
- Family Law: Family law covers a wide range of topics, including divorce, child custody, adoption, child support cases, and much more.
- Bankruptcy: A paralegal working on a bankruptcy case may gather financial information, draft bankruptcy petitions, and research assets and liabilities of an entity or person. You could work for lawyers representing debtors, creditors, or trustees.
Advance Into Management
Another option for paralegals looking to advance their career is to advance into management. This might involve becoming a paralegal supervisor of a team of paralegals—more likely at a large firm—or becoming the senior paralegal on a smaller team.
What is the Job Outlook for Paralegals?
The job outlook for paralegals is very good. As long as there are lawyers and people in need of representation, paralegals will have plenty of job options. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for paralegals is faster than average. It’s projected to grow at a rate of 12% between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than average for all other professions. The BLS projects about 43,000 openings for paralegals each year over the decade, with many of those openings resulting from workers transferring to different occupations (becoming lawyers, for example) or retiring from the labor force altogether.
Find Paralegals Jobs Today
Paralegals enjoy exciting, rewarding careers with plenty of growth potential and a solid job outlook throughout the next decade. If you’re interested in becoming a paralegal or you would like help finding a paralegal job, partnering with a legal staffing agency like BOS Staffing can help you in your journey.
Our recruiters for paralegals can match you with an organization—large, mid-size, or small law firms, as well as corporations, businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and more—that lets you thrive in the profession. Contact us online to get in touch with a member of our legal recruitment team to learn more about our legal staffing and recruiting services.