Paralegals, also known as legal assistants (the terms are synonymous), are the backbone of a busy law firm. Just as nurses perform a number of important medical tasks for doctors, paralegals support lawyers in preparing cases by researching, filing documents with the court, analyzing statements and drafting legal arguments. Although paralegals usually work ordinary business hours, they can be called upon at times to work overtime to meet deadlines and see a case through to resolution.
The duties that can be performed by paralegals are quite broad, and include anything an attorney might ask of a particular paralegal. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), a body which certifies paralegals and helps develop paralegal training programs, they include but are not limited to the following:
- Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client, so long as the client is aware of the status and function of the legal assistant, and the legal assistant works under the supervision of the attorney.
- Locate and interview witnesses.
- Conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research.
- Conduct legal research.
- Draft legal documents, correspondence and pleadings.
- Summarize depositions, interrogatories and testimony.
- Attend executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings and trials with the attorney.
- Author and sign correspondence provided the legal assistant status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice.
- Professionally, a paralegal’s time for substantive legal work (as opposed to clerical or administrative work) is billed to clients much the same way as an attorney’s time, but at a lower hourly rate.
Employment prospects for paralegals are projected to be excellent over the next decade, and the number of positions is expected to grow nearly 30% from 2008 to 2018, so paralegals with the proper credentials can expect good job security. Most paralegals work for private law firms, but a significant number work for corporate legal departments and government agencies. Of the latter, most jobs are found with the federal government, primarily the US Justice Department, followed by the Social Security Administration and finally the US Department of the Treasury.
Years ago, paralegals were not typically formally trained for the position, as they were often secretaries who received training on the job. However, over time the position has become professionalized, so more and more employers prefer new hires to have formal education. To meet this demand, paralegal training programs, including associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, have been created to train those interested in the field.
Additionally, more skills are required of the contemporary paralegal, who is now expected to have familiarity with software commonly used by attorneys and courts, and may be called upon to specialize in an increasingly complex legal environment. For example, paralegals may specialize in corporate law, immigration law, litigation, bankruptcy, intellectual property and other niche areas.
To prepare potential paralegals for a job that has become considerably more sophisticated, more than 1,000 colleges, universities and law schools feature paralegal training programs, 260 of which are formally approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Although ABA approval is voluntary, and some good programs have declined to seek approval, ABA approval can be a useful standard for evaluating the quality of a given paralegal training program. Another organization, the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), offers guidance for those interested in studying to be a paralegal.
Paralegal students can choose to complete an associates degree in conjunction with paralegal courses, taking roughly half of their classes in general studies and the other half in paralegal studies. For a bachelor’s degree, paralegal courses comprise somewhat less than half of the required credits, and a few schools offer a master’s degree in advanced paralegal studies.
Following the completion of a degree, students are eligible for certification by the National Association of Legal Assistants. To become a certified paralegal, eligible candidates must pass a two-day examination which, if passed, entitles them to use the Certified Paralegal or Certified Legal Assistant credential. For those paralegals who want to specialize further in their field, there is also an Advanced Certified Paralegal credential that can be obtained by passing another test.
Becoming a paralegal can lead to a solid career in law, and offers the opportunity to network with and assist talented legal professionals. Highly skilled, competent paralegals are in high demand, and can go into business for themselves as freelancers after establishing a reputation. Some may prefer the stability of a full time office job, while others may relish the flexibility and opportunity of running their own business and setting their own hours. Because being a paralegal offers good job prospects, a middle-class lifestyle and a fairly comfortable work environment, it’s an attractive choice for both younger students and those looking to change careers or take a step up later in life.
If you are interested in working as a paralegal, look into degree programs that fit your needs, and consider entering a program and obtaining the credentials that will make you an attractive employee. Becoming a paralegal may be your ticket to a fulfilling career that provides you with a steady income and eventually the freedom to work when and where you choose.