Paralegal Career Guide

In a nutshell, an organized person with a skill for logical thinking can:

  • become a paralegal in a relatively short period of time – as little as 3 months – compared to other interesting and high-paying professions;
  • spend much less in educational costs than many other interesting and high-paying professions;
  • benefit from one of the most secure and growing job markets with one of the lowest unemployment rates.

The paralegal profession is an excellent way for those with an interest in or talent for legal and/or detail-oriented organizational work to enter the legal profession with much less investment of time and money than that required for becoming attorney. The salaries of paralegals are generally not as high as those of attorneys, but paralegals are nonetheless well-compensated — and compared to the other legal professions, paralegals enjoy excellent and less stressful work conditions, and stable, secure employment conditions.

Excellent job-market, salary and job satisfaction

U.S. News and World Report lists the paralegal profession among the best 100 of all jobs and the best 20 social service jobs, and a recent Forbes magazine calls paralegal work one of the most underrated professions.

Part of a paralegal’s duties may include handling some clerical and administrative tasks similar to some of a legal secretary’s duties, such as maintaining files, organizing data and preparing PowerPoint or Excel presentations, making travel arrangements, etc.

A crucial difference between a paralegal and clerical employers, however, is that paralegals often do the same work that lawyers do, with the exception of representing clients in court or giving legal advice. Paralegals work under the direct supervision of at least one licensed attorney.

In general, compared to administrative support personnel, a paralegal’s work more closely approaches and overlaps with that of a licensed attorney. Paralegals work closely with attorneys, and have more advanced research skills and more expertise — in both legal theory and legal practice and procedure.

What exactly is a paralegal?

For the most part, a paralegal handles or assists in functions that would otherwise have to be done by an attorney. In this way, paralegals considerably lighten the attorney’s load and improve the speed, and productivity of the legal work at hand.

Most paralegal positions will include some or all of the following duties:

  • Legal research, usually followed by organization, analysis and presentation of the significant implications of the information found by the paralegal
  • Assist preparations for real estate closings, trials and hearings and meetings of all kinds
  • Draft legal documents and correspondence
  • Investigate the facts of a case
  • Maintain files and dockets
  • Attend client meetings, real estate closings, and/or court or hearings and trials

What is the day-to-day work life of a paralegal like?

Just like attorneys and doctors, the potential lives and careers of a paralegal are as varied as are their passions and interests. A family law paralegal may be intimately involved with child welfare issues and with interacting directly with family members during emotional times of challenge and stress; bankruptcy and real-estate paralegals, on the other hand spend most their workday doing accounting and financial analysis, title searches, and exacting paperwork, nurse paralegals evaluate medical care cases and criminal defense paralegals may spend much of their workdays in jails and courtrooms. Immigration paralegals may need multiple language skills and may be challenged with obtaining documents from foreign governments.

Among the many other varieties of paralegal work, a corporate paralegal may focus on the legal issues for the latest emerging software or technology — whereas the life of a paralegal who chooses to work for a non-profit or NGO will center around the specific mission of that organization, whether it be serving the health and education needs of children, protecting the environment or any other mission.

Research is an archetypal paralegal activity. This includes book research, online research, using Westlaw and related tools, and doing client and witness interviews. Writing is another key paralegal skill – paralegals often write the first draft of documents that will eventually be submitted under their attorney’s name, and prepare exhibits and other presentations under their own name.

Becoming a Paralegal

Paralegal credentials are unregulated by the government, except in the state of California. As such, there are no specific license, education or experience requirements for paralegals. In practice, however, knowledge and practical job skills make all the difference for the prospects of an aspiring paralegal.

Related job experience, self-education, and formal training are all viable ways for an aspiring paralegal to bolster his or her real-world credentials.

Formal paralegal training programs take anywhere from 3 months up to 6 years or more. Informal on-the-job training may take from a few weeks up to a year or more, depending on the specific paralegal skills needed for the job, one’s prior related experience and knowledge (as a legal secretary, for example), and the time and effort one puts into learning new areas of expertise.

Even if one’s current employer does not offer an opportunity for on-the-job training and promotion to paralegal, one can pursue such advancement on one’s own by applying their related experience and self-education towards obtaining certification through one of the organizations that offer paralegal certification exams.

Job Market

The paralegal job market is one of the healthiest in today’s economy. Unemployment among paralegals is among the lowest of all professions, and the demand for paralegals continues to grow faster than most other job sectors.

Paralegal work is a competitive profession. Paralegals are in high demand, however, and an aspiring paralegal who prepares well to meet his or her chosen areas of industry and specialty — and who researches the best locations to focus their job-hunting and the most promising employers to whom to offer their services to – has an excellent chance of finding good paralegal work within a relatively short search.

How much do paralegals usually earn? Salaries.

Paralegals earn anywhere from about $25,000 to $100,000 and more per year, but the national average salary is about $51,000, and 80% of paralegals earn somewhere between $29,000 and $77,000.

How much a paralegal earns depends mainly on four factors: credentials and experience, the area law or industry that one focuses on, geographical location, and type of employer. The highest paid paralegals work for the largest law firms, especially in specialties like intellectual property or real estate — or they work for corporate legal departments in certain industries such as software, international law and mergers and acquisitions. Municipal governments and the federal executive branch are some of the higher paying government entities.

What about benefits?

Most paralegals do not have pension plans, but medical benefits, vacation time and sick leave are routine benefits for paralegals. Bonuses are also common.

Career Development

With experience and growing expertise, career advancement is an open door for many paralegals. Supervisory and management positions are often trusted to paralegals, as are responsibilities of increasing levels of expertise – and increasing compensation.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations conducted a survey of paralegals and found high job satisfaction in the profession. Paralegals also reported that they enjoyed their level of responsibility, their interactions with other legal professionals, and the recognition and opportunities for advancement that come with their ongoing experience and learning on the job.