How to Become a Paralegal: Career and Salary Information
Paralegal Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Paralegals investigate the facts of a case, collect documents from a variety of sources, research legal cases, write reports and legal documents, draft pleadings and motions to be filed with the court, and assist attorneys during trials. Outside of courtroom preparation, legal assistants may prepare civil documents such as wills, contracts, mortgages, and separation agreements; interview witnesses and clients; and maintain communication with clients. Client contact may be extensive or minimal depending on the organization for which the paralegal works. However, paralegals are prohibited from doing tasks that are considered “practicing law.” Providing legal advice, representing clients, accepting a client’s case, and determining a client’s fee are all prohibited tasks for paralegals and must be performed by a practicing attorney.
Steps for Becoming a Paralegal
So you know you want to become a paralegal. Now what? We recommend the following steps to give you the best chance of success in your chosen career path:
1. Attend a paralegal degree or certificate program.
Paralegals generally must have some formal education to find employment. Community colleges typically offer two-year paralegal programs while colleges and universities feature four-year programs. While some organizations will hire candidates with a two-year degree or certificate, the National Federation of Paralegals Association asserts that employers are increasingly requiring paralegals to possess a four-year degree and recommends that all aspiring paralegals work toward a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies and legal studies are both common. Most professional organizations, including the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegals (NFP), recommend choosing a program that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). You can find out more about available paralegal programs through our center
2. Get hired.
Paralegal programs typically require students to complete an internship in a legal setting. An internship provides hands-on experience and, in some cases, may lead to an employment offer after graduation. Paralegals may find employment at a range of organizations, including banks, insurance companies, private law firms, professional trade organizations, real estate firms, and the legal departments of corporations. Opportunities also abound in the public sector. State and federal government agencies, consumer organizations, public defenders’ or prosecutors’ offices, and community legal services programs all hire paralegals.
3. Get paralegal job training while working.
Paralegals who gain experience may find many opportunities for advancement, including being promoted to management positions. You will likely gain some experience during your internship in school, but you can also expect to learn on-the-job once you take your first position. Use this opportunity to figure out what aspects of the field you like and which aspects you don’t care for so that you can be more focused in your next job search and seek out a paralegal job that best suits you.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
While not mandatory in most states, paralegal certification may provide an edge during the employment process. Legal assistants have several options for certification. The National Federation of Paralegals, the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the American Alliance of Paralegals all offer certification programs. Prospective legal assistants should have strong analytical skills, should know the importance of attention to detail, and should be prepared to stay current with technology. Read more about certification options for paralegals on our page.
Types of Paralegal Careers
Paralegals assist lawyers with preparing for trials, hearings, and corporate meetings. In addition to working for law firms, paralegals often provide assistance to the legal and finance departments in large corporations as well as nonprofit and government organizations. Below are descriptions of possible paralegal careers.
A bankruptcy paralegal navigates a debtor (someone who owes money) through a federally approved process that allows him or her to be relieved of that debt by negotiating a deal with creditors and the court. Bankruptcy can involve many steps, including attending meetings between attorneys for both parties to take notes and to make records, drafting applications, petitions, and schedules, conducting real property searches to establish known assets, ordering appraisals, interviewing various individuals, and preparing for hearings. Some bankruptcies can be very complex and involve additional steps of varying degrees of complexity.
Corporate paralegals assist lawyers with the organization and planning of corporate transactions and business matters. Corporate paralegals ensure that companies have all the necessary paperwork (filings with the Secretary of State, for instance) completed and filed and comply with all applicable federal and state laws. A paralegal specializing in corporate law must have a thorough understanding of mergers and acquisitions, investments, employment laws, contract law, banking, finance, and securities.
Immigration paralegals work for immigration attorneys, who specialize in helping clients navigate immigration laws to obtain visas, become naturalized citizens or legal residents, and solve other immigration-related issues. They may also assist attorneys who help US citizens complete the adoption process of children from abroad. They work for law firms, corporations or government agencies. Immigration paralegals generally assist attorneys and help clients through the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, a legal resident, or to help a US citizen go through the immigration process for adopting a child from abroad. They typically assist attorneys in researching the facts of each case, writing reports and assist lawyers during trials.
A legal assistant is another general term for a paralegal. Legal assistants and paralegals both assist lawyers in trial preparation and research. However, only individuals who have earned certification as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) can use the title of “legal assistant.”
The term legal secretary was once synonymous with the term paralegal, but over time the occupations have become differentiated. While paralegals perform attorney support tasks such as legal research and drafting legal documents, legal secretaries provide administrative support to attorneys and paralegals, focusing on day-to-day tasks such as answering phones, setting appointments, scheduling meetings, and maintaining automatic reminder systems. Legal secretaries provide administrative support under the direction of the attorneys or senior paralegals with whom they work.
A litigation paralegal’s job begins with discovery and an investigation into the facts of a case. Paralegals may assist in deposing witnesses and collecting and cataloging facts in the case file. Pleadings, which the litigation paralegal may write and file, may also occur during this time as attorneys attempt to maneuver their clients into the most favorable positions. The paralegal will also be involved in pretrial and trial by organizing exhibits and evidence, conducting research, and helping the attorney establish the case for the client, which may involve preparing witnesses, evaluating jurors, and acting as a liaison between all parties to the process. The litigation paralegal often assists with the settlement of the case and an appeal, if necessary, which includes organizing and analyzing data, communicating with the necessary parties, and acting as a liaison with court officials.
Personal injury can take many forms, which makes it necessary for personal injury paralegals to possess a wide skill set. Major duties include interviewing clients, taking notes and creating detailed records, conducting legal research, acting as a liaison between interested parties, and ensuring proper documents are filed with the court in a timely manner. A personal injury paralegal may deal with medical personnel and documents, so familiarity with administrative procedures used in the medical field will prove helpful. Personal injury cases often lead to trial. Therefore, the ability to prepare documents for the court is beneficial. If the case does not go to trial, the paralegal may assist in a settlement negotiation, which also involves research and analysis.
Why Becoming a Paralegal Is a Promising Career Choice
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as follows: “a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Put in simpler terms, a paralegal is a professional staff member who performs allowable legal tasks under attorney supervision.
If you’re seeking a challenging and engaging position in a growing field, consider pursuing this career. Paralegals are a vital part of any legal team, and they take on interesting, important assignments that often vary on a daily basis. If you enjoy investigating facts, performing research, writing, and working with people in a fast-paced atmosphere, chances are you may enjoy this career path.
Interesting and Engaging Work Environment
The exact job duties of a paralegal (sometimes called a “legal assistant”) can vary depending on where they’re employed and the area of law in which they work. Paralegals perform tasks such as conducting legal and factual research, drafting court documents and correspondence, reviewing and summarizing records, filing documents with the court, maintaining files, and communicating with clients. They can do many of the same tasks that an attorney can do, with the exception of accepting cases and setting fees, giving legal advice, and representing clients in court. About 73% of paralegals work for law firms according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but governmental agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations also utilize these professionals.1
Many Options for Education
In most states, there are no specific education requirements to become a paralegal. Many community colleges, technical schools, and universities offer specific degree programs to prepare for this career, including certificates as well as associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in paralegal and legal studies. It’s also possible, but increasingly rare, to obtain a position based on other work experience and on-the-job training. When deciding on a school, consider choosing one with an ABA-accredited paralegal program. ABA-accredited curricula must meet strict criteria established by the ABA, and by choosing an ABA-approved program you can rest assured that you’re getting a quality education. For more information about paralegal degrees, read our center.
Strong Employment Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the paralegal job field is expected to grow at a rate of 15% through 2026.1 As law firms and other employers continue to cut budgets while the demand for legal services increases, employers are choosing to utilize paralegals whenever possible since paralegals can perform legal tasks at a lower cost per hour than attorneys. The BLS predicts that the industries with the strongest job growth for paralegals over the next few years will be finance firms, insurance firms, consulting firms, and healthcare providers.1
Competitive Salary & Benefits
A 2018 National Association of Legal Assistants & Paralegals (NALA) study on paralegal salaries indicated that the average annual paralegal salary was $67,578.2 This survey reported that this average compensation increased 9.6% over 2016.2 The BLS provides a significantly lower number, listing the average salary for paralegals in 2015 at $50,940, with the highest-earning 10% of paralegals making over $82,050 per year.1 The main driver for the disparity is likely the level of professional involvement of self-selected respondents to the NALA survey as well as sample sizes; the NALA survey results are based on 1,112 responses, whereas the BLS uses much larger data sets compiled from nationwide long-term population information from the US Census Bureau and other state and federal agencies.1,2
Within the salary ranges available, it’s important to understand that how much an individual paralegal makes depends on many factors including their background, job performance, type of employer, and area of law. It is possible for an experienced paralegal working in a highly specialized or technical field to make a six-figure salary. Most paralegal positions also include numerous other benefits such as medical, dental, life, and disability insurance, paid time off, and company-matched 401(k) or IRA accounts. Many employers also provide tuition reimbursement or pay for classes and seminars.
Average Annual Salary by State
A paralegal career offers the opportunity to perform engrossing, meaningful work in a professional atmosphere. The typical educational requirements can be completed in as little as two years with an associate’s degree or even less with a paralegal certificate, and the starting salary is reasonable – with plenty of room for growth. Paralegal salary can vary significantly by geographic area; those in large cities tend to make more, while those in states where paralegals are in high demand will also typically see higher salaries. In the five largest US states by population, paralegal salaries are as follows:
- New York: $58,750
- Florida: $50,120
- Texas: $56,270
- Illinois: $57,180
- California: $61,240
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2018.3
A paralegal, or legal assistant, is a person in a legal profession who performs certain tasks that would normally be performed by an attorney, should a paralegal not be present. These include investigating facts related to a case, interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting legal documents, and performing legal research. Paralegals cannot give legal advice and always work under the supervision of an attorney and are essential to the legal profession, as they assist attorneys in most aspects of case research and preparation.
The terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” used to be interchangeable, but that is slowly beginning to change within the industry. Legal assistants now refer to more secretarial roles, while paralegals perform more duties directly related to the law.
Who Should Be a Paralegal
Those interested in legal careers but who aren’t sure they want to go to law school are good candidates to become paralegals. There are also some specific skills that paralegals should possess, including communication skills, research and investigative skills, and multi-tasking skills. These are the skills that are taught in formal paralegal educational programs, but it helps if you already possess them to some degree.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the job outlook for the paralegal profession is growing by around 17% between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than the average percentage of growth. If you’re interested in a career that is growing faster than average, or if you possess the necessary skills and are interested in the American legal system, a career as a paralegal may be for you.
How To Become a Paralegal
According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, there are several ways to become a paralegal. There are certificate programs, two-year programs, and four-year programs that all have merits, and which route you choose to go depends on your current role and educational status and what your eventual goals are.
Based on the current job market, it is recommended that paralegals have a four-year degree with at least 24 credits in legal specialty courses. There are also post-baccalaureate certificates, allowing those with four-year degrees in other areas to earn the necessary credits and certification to gain employment as a paralegal. Top-tier law firms generally like their paralegals to possess a four-year degree with a certificate on top of that, if you’d like to go that route.
The NFPA has a suggested curriculum for paralegal programs, but not all programs abide by these standards. There are many online resources to help interested students find the right formal educational program for them. There is also the option of an American Bar Association approved program, which the NFPA recommends. These programs have either met or exceeded the standards for paralegals set by the ABA.
Once you have gotten some sort of formal education, there is also continuing education that leads to paralegal certification. It is different from the post-baccalaureate certification that was already mentioned. Paralegal certification requires that a paralegal has at least one year of experience and then pass a formal examination.
Being a Lawyer
The decision to become a paralegal does not mean that you can’t become a lawyer down the line. It is often recommended that people interested in the law but not decisively sure they want to go to law school work as a paralegal to gain experience in a legal field and to see if they like doing that sort of work. Law school is both very difficult and very expensive, so if you are not sure if it’s the right move for you, finding work as a paralegal is a more cost-efficient investment while you decide.
It will also allow you to see the conditions that lawyers work under, which will also likely help you make your decision.