What is a Paralegal?
Paralegals, also referred to as legal assistants, work with attorneys and other professionals to perform a range of tasks from clerical work to substantive legal work. Substantive tasks that paralegals complete include fact and citation checking, legal research, document management, billing, and drafting legal documents. Although paralegals do perform some substantive legal work, paralegals are not required to have law degrees and are not legally able to call themselves “attorneys” or practice law. Paralegals work under the supervision of licensed attorneys who are ultimately responsible for the final work product of the paralegal. The specific tasks of any particular paralegal depends largely on the type and size of practice or business and the paralegal’s degree of experience.
There are several paralegal career paths. While many paralegals have college degrees, a degree is not required. Some paralegals start off in clerical capacities in law firms, corporations, or government offices working closely with attorneys. They essentially learn on the job. Over time they eventually gain enough skill, knowledge, and experience to earn the designation of paralegal. Another way to launch a paralegal career is to complete a degree program that does include a paralegal curriculum, such as associate degree programs that are offered by many junior colleges. Paralegal studies curricula have recently become even more accessible as many online schools have started offering certificate programs in paralegal studies. Once a paralegal has some experience he or she can improve her training, skillsets and marketability by applying to become a certified paralegal through one of the sponsoring organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc.
The work life of a paralegal in many ways mirrors the work life of his or her supervising attorney. A paralegal often is tasked with completing a significant amount of substantive legal work in support of the cases on which the attorney is working. If the caseload requires long hours, then typically the paralegal will keep long hours. The good news is that there are many different types of environments and practice areas in which a paralegal can have a successful career, allowing the paralegal to find a preferred work/life balance.
A career as a paralegal is an attractive alternative to becoming an attorney. For those who have an interest in the legal profession, but are hesitant to go to law school, a career as a paralegal may be the answer. Paralegals perform some of the same activities as attorneys and work in the same environment as attorneys. Paralegal salaries range from around $40,000 to $120,000 depending on level of experience, the type of business in which the paralegal works, and the part of the country.
To learn more about paralegal careers, contact your local paralegal professional association.