From Suits to Erin Brockovich, popular culture has shined the spotlight on the power of paralegals over the years. This rewarding profession handles a diverse array of tasks, ranging from researching and writing legal reports, to interviewing witnesses and liaising with clients.
Paralegals are also a rapidly growing role in the legal industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment is expected to rise 14% by 2031—much faster than the growth for other occupations. So, it’s no wonder many ask: What exactly is a paralegal (and what do they do)?
In this article, we explore the role of a paralegal, their key responsibilities, the different types of paralegals, and how to become a paralegal.
What is a paralegal?
At its simplest, paralegals perform a variety of legal tasks under the supervision of lawyers.
Diving a bit deeper, the American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as “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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
What do paralegals do?
Paralegals undertake a vast range of duties to help law firms run efficiently. Among their many responsibilities, they:
- Conduct research on laws, legal articles and regulations
- Write reports and legal documents, including motions and contracts
- Gather and verify the facts of a case
- Interview clients and witnesses
- Correspond with clients
- Keep track of case-related information
- Assist at closings and trials
No doubt, paralegals have a lot on their plate. And just like how no two days are the same, the same holds true for jobs.
The responsibilities of paralegals vary greatly based on the environment in which they work. While some may spend a great deal of their time in court with lawyers, others play an integral part in the day-to-day operations of a law firm.
How is a paralegal different from a lawyer?
While there are some similarities, there are notable differences between paralegals and lawyers.
1. There are unique education requirements
In order to be licensed to practice the law, lawyers must obtain an undergraduate degree, take the LSAT, attend an ABA-accredited law school, and finally, pass the bar admissions examination. This journey usually takes around seven years to complete.
By comparison, paralegals aren’t licensed—nor are there any specific national standards for educational requirements. Paralegals may receive certifications, or hold associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Some might even receive most of their training on the job.
2. Paralegals can’t practice law on their own
Another key difference between paralegals and lawyers is that the paralegals can’t provide legal advice, represent clients in court, or set fees. These are all responsibilities that are handled by licensed lawyers.
How is a paralegal different from a legal assistant
The overlap between the roles of paralegals and legal assistants is more notable. Both positions are responsible for supporting lawyers in delivering legal services to clients, and require a solid grasp of the ins and outs of the legal world.
But upon closer examination, nuances arise.
Generally speaking, legal assistant roles tend to be more administrative and clerical in nature. Responsibilities include scheduling meetings, managing calendars, taking minutes, completing administrative forms, client billing and accounting, and document organization and management.
Paralegals, on the other hand, perform more substantive legal work under the supervision of a lawyer, such as researching a case, organizing files, writing legal documents, and interviewing witnesses.
Types of paralegals
Like attorneys, there are a host of different types of paralegals and paths that a career can take.
While some paralegals may prefer to be generalists, others might prefer to master a specific field of law. Most paralegals are employed at law firms—however, many also work for the government, corporations, or even nonprofit organizations.
Here’s a brief snapshot of the various paralegal specializations.
- Government. Government paralegals assist government legal counsel, be it local, state, or federal government law offices. Many paralegal roles in this field analyze regulations, draft communications, and process legal documents.
- Litigation. Paralegals who are passionate about trial law are often lured to the field of litigation. Often considered a fast-paced environment, litigation paralegals support lawyers as they prepare to take a case to trial, such as by interviewing witnesses.
- Divorce. Paralegals can play an important role in assisting divorce lawyers—tackling responsibilities like sourcing vital paperwork, developing court filings and legal documents (including separation and divorce documents), and conducting interviews.
- Family practice. Paralegals working in family law assist lawyers who are representing clients in family law matters that range from custody matters to prenuptial agreements to divorce cases. In this field, paralegals will spend time developing court documents, organizing financial documents and files, and drafting correspondence.
- Criminal law. In criminal law, paralegals assist criminal defense attorneys or lawyers at prosecutors’ offices by helping to draft paperwork, conduct interviews, gather discovery information, draft motions, and conduct research to help build the legal case.
- Real estate. Dealing with the complexities of real estate law, real estate paralegals assist attorneys with matters related to property—from construction to purchasing to sales. As typical paralegal tasks are often focused on important legal paperwork and contracts (like lease agreements), this field requires a strong attention to detail and multi-tasking skills.
How do you become a paralegal?
No matter the field, paralegals play a pivotal part in a successful law firm. This brings us to our next question: how exactly do you become a paralegal?
In short: it varies.
Because there aren’t any mandatory federal requirements for the education of paralegals, there’s no single journey to becoming one. That said, certain states do require specific certifications or degrees. California, for instance, has developed guidelines on the level of education required for a paralegal.
When it comes to possible education paths, there are over 250 ABA-approved paralegal programs at colleges and universities across the US. These take a variety of formats and lengths (spanning from less than a year to a few years)—and include certificates, as well as associate’s, master’s, and bachelor’s degrees.
Beyond education, many law firms also want to see a mix of skills. These will make candidates more likely to find a rewarding position that offers competitive wages and long-term job security.
This includes good communication skills, an attention to detail, interpersonal skills, and strong research acumen. Paralegals also possess a wealth of technical knowledge, especially when it comes to using the legal practice management software to streamline routine tasks and drive greater efficiency.
If you’re interested in learning more, we cover the education requirements in more depth in our piece, How to Become a Paralegal.
Is a paralegal a stressful job?
Like many legal roles, being a paralegal can be stressful at times.
Paralegals are known to work long hours, as they work on everything from office management to case research and preparing legal contracts and documents. As such, paralegal often have a direct impact on the outcomes of matters and cases.
In addition, paralegals often work on critical documents that are presented in court, which demand a high standard. Mistakes or omissions can be costly, both for a firm’s bottom line and their reputation.
Given the high stakes nature of the work, burnout is a real challenge among those who work in this field.
How much do paralegals earn?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals earned a median salary of $56,230 per year per year and $27.03 per hour as of May 2021.
Of course, salaries ultimately depend on where you work, the type of organization, as well as one’s education and experience.
For example, states like the District of Columbia and Washington are known to pay the highest wage—with an annual mean wage of $83,420 and $71,900, respectively.
Final thoughts on paralegals
From investigating facts to undertaking vital research, paralegals are key to the success of any legal practice. This indispensable role helps law firms to reach new heights by trimming costs, boosting productivity, delivering exceptional client service, and empowering lawyers to spend more time focusing on work that matters most.
If you’re interested in learning more, we encourage you to discover our additional resources—including our guide on How to Become a Paralegal.
How to Write a Paralegal Resume and Cover Letter (With Examples!)
Legal Assistants vs. Paralegals: What’s the Difference?
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