What a Paralegal Does and How to Become One

What a Paralegal Does and How to Become One

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A job as a paralegal might be ideal for those who appreciate the intricacy of the U.S. legal system and are eager to provide assistance to lawyers. Experts on this profession say it can be a fulfilling occupation for individuals who are detail-oriented and enjoy writing.

Reading comprehension and written communication are critical skills to cultivate for success as a paralegal, says Margaret Phillips, an attorney who is director and associate professor of paralegal studies at Daemen College in New York.

“The very best thing to do is to read and write as much as you can,” Phillips wrote in an email. “Of course, it is helpful to know legal vocabulary and how the legal system works, but that type of knowledge can be acquired in a paralegal studies program. It is much harder to make up for shortcomings in reading and writing abilities, and those abilities form the foundation for learning and performing legal work.”

Thomas E. McClure, director of legal studies and associate professor at Illinois State University, notes that precision is important in the paralegal field, since the occupation is highly technical.

“So, if you’re a broad brush type person, it’s probably not the profession for you, because it’s a lot of detail work, and attention to detail is extremely important,” he says.

Paralegals do a significant amount of writing, so someone who is more confident in their public speaking abilities than their writing skills might prefer a different occupation, says McClure, who also chairs the American Bar Association’s commission that approves paralegal programs.

Paralegal Salaries and Employment Rates

How to Become a Paralegal in California and Excel at Your Career

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for paralegals and legal assistants in the U.S. was $50,940 in May 2018. The bureau predicts that employment in these types of jobs will increase by 12% between 2018 and 2028, which is significantly higher than the average projected job growth rate of 5% for all U.S. occupations.

Rising demand for paralegals is a longstanding trend since law firms are now asking paralegals to do work that previously would have been assigned to lawyers, Phillips says.

“Since the recession, law offices have looked to become more competitive and efficient, which has sometimes meant shifting who does what on the legal team,” she says. “The forecast for paralegals has been pretty strong since that time.”

The number of requests Phillips gets from employers who want to hire paralegals eclipses the number of job-seeking students and graduates of her paralegal program, she says.

Plus, nonlegal employers such as banks and insurance companies are often interested in hiring individuals with paralegal degrees “because they understand the value of legal training,” she says.

Phillips suggests that as the number of paralegal programs has increased, employers have grown more appreciative of the ways that a paralegal can contribute to a workplace.

Debra R. Geiger, president of the American Association for Paralegal Education and head of the paralegal studies department at Savannah Technical College in Georgia, notes increasing demand for paralegals with legally pertinent tech skills.

“This includes client file security, electronic filing in cases, digital forensics, and electronic evidence discovery and preservation,” Geiger, who is an attorney, wrote in an email. “Some of the most lucrative jobs are in this field.”

Gaye Weintraub, a Texas-based former paralegal who currently works as a college and career coach, says she loved her work as a paralegal.

“I knew a paralegal profession would be perfect for me because I enjoy everything having to do with the law,” she wrote in an email. “I would say someone who wants to become a paralegal should love the law a great deal.”

How to Become a Paralegal

What Does a Paralegal Do?

According to McClure, there are three types of academic credentials that someone can use to enter the paralegal profession: associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, or post-baccalaureate certificates. It typically takes two years to get an associate degree in paralegal studies and about twice as long to earn a bachelor’s degree in the discipline, McClure says.

Postbaccalaureate certificates are an option only for college graduates and can be earned within one year, he adds.

Future paralegals have the flexibility to choose what type of credential is most suitable, Geiger notes.

“One advantage of the paralegal profession is that a lot of jobs are available for those who only choose to pursue a two-year degree, quite often at a community college, where the cost of an education is relatively inexpensive,” she says. “While some of the top-paying positions require a four-year degree, one can make a good living as a paralegal with a two-year degree.”

How a Paralegal’s Job Differs From a Lawyer’s

A paralegal’s responsibilities vary depending on how much work is delegated to him or her by the attorney for whom he or she works. However, in general, a paralegal will write correspondence and documents that a supervising attorney can look over, modify if necessary and sign off on.

Paralegals are often responsible for organizing and updating files on various legal clients and may work to obtain affidavits and other formal statements that can be submitted as evidence in court cases. They may also handle scheduling for a legal office and act as a liaison between lawyers and their clients, as well as track deadlines and ensure that they are met.

Bita Goldman, the global general counsel for Unidays Inc. – a mobile application that allows students to discover and reap savings from various brands – has hired and worked with paralegals throughout her career and wrote in an email that paralegals “are the operational brain unit of the legal department. They support attorneys by doing legal research, preparing briefs, and organizing everything needed for trials.”

Nevertheless, there are limitations on what a paralegal can do within the legal profession since paralegals are not lawyers and are not licensed to practice law.

“There are a few things that paralegals can’t do that only lawyers can do … Paralegals cannot represent clients in court or in depositions,” McClure says. “Only a lawyer can be the advocate in that setting. Paralegals cannot enter into representation agreements or set fees with clients. Only lawyers can do that. And most importantly, a paralegal cannot give legal advice. Only lawyers can. Now what paralegals do is they can have contact with the clients and they can gather information, but they can’t give opinions.”

Another key distinction between paralegals and lawyers is that lawyers have more decision-making authority and more leeway to use their individual discretion, McClure says.

How a Paralegal Program Differs From Law School

Paralegal education is not ordinarily as academically demanding as law school since, unlike most J.D. programs, paralegal programs don’t typically feature make-or-break final exams, McClure notes.

Another important distinction, he explains, is that law school courses are often taught using the Socratic Method. That style of teaching involves asking a series of rhetorical questions and requiring students to figure out the answers, a method of training them on how to identify a solution to a legal problem.

Unlike Socratic law classes, McClure explains, paralegal courses are taught using a conventional lecture style.

“There’s a big difference and even if instructors are particularly difficult in paralegal education, they usually are not nearly as stringent as law school professors are,” McClure says. “When I teach a (paralegal) course that’s a tough course, I always say that it’s law school lite, because it’s nowhere close to what law school is.”

McClure says paralegal programs typically include the following four required core classes: an overview of the law, legal research, legal writing and litigation.

Paralegal students often have the opportunity to take elective classes that focus on specific areas of the law, he adds, such as family law, criminal law, intellectual property law, real estate law and contracts law.

Paralegal programs also typically offer classes on torts law, business law, property law, bankruptcy law and the law of wills, trusts and probates, Geiger explains. Paralegal students also learn about civil litigation rules and procedures and electronic legal research, she says.

“Most programs have a course on law office technology, so students are ready for work upon graduation,” Geiger adds.

Phillips notes that paralegal programs typically teach “the nitty-gritty of how the legal system works” in civil and criminal cases at the state and federal levels. The programs also provide lessons on “how to find applicable law to solve a problem” and “how to apply the law to a problem,” she says.

Paralegal students learn how to craft legal documents like complaints, motions and memos, Phillips notes, as well as “the skills necessary to work on a legal team, which include writing skills, investigation and interviewing skills, professionalism or ‘soft’ skills, and technology skills.”

Phillips emphasizes that paralegal education is less focused than law school on legal theory.

“As opposed to the general academic approach of law school, paralegal education is specifically aimed at developing practical, substantive skills, such as applying the law to produce legal documents like pleadings, memos, legal correspondence, and legal memos,” she says.

“Paralegal students are typically well-versed in the practical application of the law, legal vocabulary, how the legal system works, and the written products produced by different types of law offices. Any type of paralegal degree can lead to a student being extremely well-prepared for law school.”

Paralegal education is designed to ensure that every student is prepared to excel in a paralegal position once they graduate, experts say.

“Students study a broad-based curriculum with a primary focus on developing practical skills, as well as learning core legal concepts,” Geiger says. “For example, in Family Law they learn the basic legal concepts but also learn how to do every aspect of a divorce case including client interviews, drafting documents, including pleadings, discovery, separation agreements, and divorce decrees. They also assist clients with preparing financial declarations and running preliminary child support calculations.”

How to Choose a Paralegal Program

One key sign of a quality paralegal program is if it is approved by the American Bar Association. Another important factor to consider is a program’s job placement rate.

“If most of the program’s graduates are obtaining legal jobs, then it is a good sign that the program has appropriately tailored its curriculum to the local legal needs,” Phillips says. “Although nationally employers may place a high value on four-year degrees, depending on the needs in your geographic area you may find there are high-quality and effective associate degree programs with high placement rates.”

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