A paralegal works alongside a licensed lawyer to assist with their daily duties by researching legal matters and preparing court documents. Individuals who want to succeed in this profession need a great deal of specialist legal knowledge, excellent communication skills, and the ability to manage clients effectively.
Unlike lawyers, paralegals do not generally need to be licensed, so long as they are operating under the supervision of an attorney. The supervising attorney is held responsible for the paralegal’s actions. Paralegals tend to spend a large proportion of their time researching and drafting detailed reports and organizing evidence to assist lawyers with their cases. They represent the legal profession’s largest sector, and there are estimated to be two to three paralegals to every one lawyer operating in the U.S. This means employment prospects are quite good in comparison to other legal careers.
What Qualifications Are Needed?
Paralegal work is incredibly competitive, so it’s essential to have a solid resumé and to be highly motivated. It is also important to have developed accurate research skills and to enjoy the process. There are a number of different routes into the profession. Most states do not require certification, so it is possible to land a role as a paralegal with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree.
It is rare, however, for a law firm to take a chance on an individual in this position, and most will ask for either an associates degree – an associates degree paralegal qualification from either a community or private college will be accepted – or a paralegal’s study certificate. While certification is not essential, most employers look for candidates who have proven their abilities and commitment to the profession by passing one of the registered courses offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, the American Alliance of Paralegals or the National Association of Legal Assistants.
To become certified, paralegals need to pass the examinations set by one of these associations, which are designed to test everything from their knowledge of law and ethics, through to their ability to research and write accurate reports.
What to Expect
Paralegals usually work at law firms; assisting lawyers with the duties they don’t have time for, however, this is by no means the only place where paralegals can find work. Corporate roles are becoming increasingly common, as are jobs at banks, estate agents and governmental agencies – basically anywhere legal protection is needed.
The current employment prospect for paralegals is very positive, and a survey by CareerCast, ranked it as the 17th best career choice – lawyer was down the list at 82nd. In 2010, the median pay for paralegals was $46,680 per year, with the top 10% earning over $74,870, and the lowest 10% earning less than $29,460. There were 256,000 jobs available in the profession that year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 18% growth in employment opportunities between 2010 and 2020, which is slightly above the 14% average across all professions. Law firms cutting costs by hiring the comparatively cheaper services of paralegals, and corporations choosing to save money by creating in-house legal teams, were the reasons cited for the rise in job opportunities.