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Your Essential Guide to Becoming a Criminal Law Paralegal

Published on: Jun 21, 2024

Criminal law paralegals can work in state and federal agencies or private defense firms, supporting criminal law cases. These legal professionals prepare and file documents such as misdemeanor and felony court pleadings, interview clients and witnesses, and manage attorney calendars, among other activities. If you enjoy working in a fast-paced environment and helping others, the job of a criminal law paralegal may be the position for you.

Our article reviews a criminal law paralegal's job responsibilities in more detail, discusses their work environment and educational path, and provides additional resources to help you better understand what this position and the criminal justice system entails.

Typical Responsibilities

A criminal law paralegal assists criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors. The responsibilities of a criminal law paralegal may include:

  • Reviewing legal cases for Fourth Amendment search and seizure problems, electronic communication privacy act violations, statute of limitations, and due process violations

  • Drafting documents such as complaints, indictments, post-trial motions, appellate motions, briefs, pleadings, and plea deals

  • Reviewing other legal documents (income disclosure statements, police reports, the complaint)

  • Helping lawyers research jurors

  • Collecting evidence such as police reports, witness statements, and photographs from the scene

  • Assisting in court preparation by preparing exhibits and helping with legal arguments

  • Scheduling court hearings and court appearances for the attorney

  • Coordinating case intake, such as obtaining client’s personal information and then onboarding them

  • Managing and organizing papers, case files, and records

  • Helping arrange bail

An Introduction to the Employment Landscape

A criminal law paralegal is a legal professional who assists lawyers with criminal cases. The job may be called a “criminal litigation paralegal” or a “criminal defense paralegal,” but it’s the same position. 

These paralegals usually work for public defenders, private criminal defense law firms, or special interest groups to aid in criminal defense. They may also work for state or federal prosecutors. Paralegals cannot practice law, so they work under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

A Day in the Life of a Criminal Law Paralegal

 A typical criminal case involves several stages. A case moves from: 

  • Arrest

  • Arraignment

  • Plea negotiations

  • Jury selection, if the defendant rejects a plea deal

  • Trial

  • Sentencing

Therefore, the daily duties of a criminal law paralegal will change depending on the case stage. 

Criminal law paralegals are usually responsible for daily tasks such as drafting legal documents, performing legal research, fact-checking, managing multiple cases, and filing documents promptly. Depending on the size of the office, the paralegal may perform clerical tasks like drafting correspondence, communicating with clients, and scheduling hearings and depositions. These tasks will depend on whether a criminal law paralegal is a prosecution or a defense paralegal.

Prosecution Paralegal

As a criminal law paralegal for the prosecution, the paralegal may:

  • Prepare exhibits, witnesses, and other critical information for the case.

  • Gather and organize appropriate documents, including police reports, photographs, cell phone information, and information from alcohol and drug testing experts.

  • Get information from investigators and gather the appropriate documents for the public defender. 

  • Redact private information from documents and send the paperwork to the defense counsel.

Defense Paralegal

In comparison, a criminal law paralegal for the defense will usually be responsible for the following tasks:

  • Review disclosure statements and break down documents coming in, such as police reports

  • Assist attorneys through trial by helping to plan trial strategy and consult with parties, witnesses, and experts

  • Investigate and analyze facts

  • Handling legal research and preparing legal documents, including petitions, opinions, motions, and disclosures

  • Handle a large volume of cases, depending on the firm the paralegal is working for 

  • Prepare initial documents, such as a Notice of Appeal and post-conviction relief proceedings

Essential Knowledge and Skills

If you are considering a career as a criminal law paralegal, you must have a solid understanding of the classification of crimes and the legal procedures associated with criminal cases. You should know laws related to search and seizure, bail, probation, personal injury, and arrests. Familiarity with constitutional law and specific statutes related to criminal charges is essential.

You must have strong analytical abilities, proficiency in legal research tools like Westlaw and Lexis, and effective communication skills.

Common Educational Pathways

Most criminal law paralegals enter the legal field by earning an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, criminal justice, or criminal justice administration, such as through Purdue Global or Oakland Community College. These programs typically take 18 months to two years to complete, including introductory courses such as English and math. These courses build on the essential competencies of a paralegal, including critical thinking and communication skills. The programs also offer specialized legal classes to establish a strong foundation of legal knowledge.

Bachelor’s Degree

Another path to becoming a criminal law paralegal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s programs usually span four years, and students can earn a degree in legal studies or criminal justice, which helps them better understand the legal system. Those interested in specializing in criminal law can also take specific courses to prepare for this field. Several examples of bachelor programs that offer specialization in criminal law include American Military University, Liberty University, and Arizona State University.

Post-Degree Certificate

Those with a bachelor’s degree can obtain a post-degree certificate in paralegal studies. These programs provide more intensive paralegal training and offer a pathway to a paralegal career. To learn more about becoming certified, check out nationally recognized organizations that provide certification programs, such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc.(NFPA) and NALA, The Paralegal Association

Before enrolling in one of these programs or pursuing a certification, research and choose a paralegal program that fits your interests. Look for a program with a curriculum relevant to criminal law and accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Challenges and Opportunities in the Role

Criminal law paralegals often have a varied and interesting workload, dealing with a wide range of legal issues in criminal law, which makes for exciting days. However, you need to understand the other side of working as a criminal law paralegal to determine if this career path is right for you.

Criminal law paralegals work long hours, especially when preparing for trial. They may also experience high-stress levels when approaching deadlines, dealing with complex legal issues, and challenging clients. Your ability to work late and remain calm in high-stress environments, such as during a criminal trial, can be tested as a criminal law paralegal.

However, those who thrive under pressure and enjoy a fast-paced environment can continue to experience diverse work and opportunities for career advancement as criminal law paralegals. This may include progressing to a senior paralegal role, specializing in juvenile justice or capital cases, or pursuing further education in law to become a criminal defense attorney.

Market Insights and Salary Expectations

The demand for paralegals is high, and their job outlook remains excellent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow by four percent from 2022 to 2032, resulting in about 38,000 job openings for paralegals yearly over the decade. 

Criminal paralegals can earn a competitive salary and comprehensive benefits. On average, criminal defense paralegals earn around $59,731 annually, with top earners making over $80,000. Legal professionals may receive retirement plans, health insurance, and paid time off. Salary can vary significantly based on a paralegal's years of experience, employer, and location. Some of the top cities for criminal defense paralegals offering salaries above the national average include:

  • Berkeley, California ($73,122)

  • New York City, NY ($70,744)

  • Renton, Washington ($70,355) 

  • Santa Monica, CA ($69,864)

  • Daly City, CA ($69,200)

Determining if This is the Right Career Path

If you have a passion for working in the legal field and making an impact in the lives of others, then a career as a criminal law paralegal may be for you. Paralegals help attorneys prepare for trials and add value to the legal practice and clients. Before pursuing this profession, decide if a career as a criminal law paralegal is the right fit for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you handle emotionally charged cases?

  • Do you have an interest in upholding justice?

  • Can you work long hours and weekends?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  • Do you have solid communication skills and the ability to multi-task?

  • What are your personal and professional goals?

Additional Resources to Explore

If you are an aspiring criminal law paralegal and want further resources regarding networking opportunities, continuing education, and professional development, consider the following sites, books, and websites:

The Takeaways

As a criminal law paralegal, whether you decide to work for a defense law firm or the prosecutor’s office, you will have the opportunity to help individuals in trouble or assist victims of crimes in getting the justice they deserve. Either way, a career as a criminal law paralegal can be rewarding.

If you are considering pursuing a position as a criminal law paralegal, start your journey today by reviewing potential paralegal programs to enroll in, networking with other legal professionals, and gaining practical experience that can help you get started in this fulfilling position.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kasia Nelson, Esq.

Kasia Nelson is a licensed attorney and skilled legal content writer with years of experience. With a background in corporate immigration law, she is well-versed in the intricacies of producing legally accurate and well-researched work. 


  • Michigan State University, B.S.

  • Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Law Licensures

  • Michigan

Kasia Nelson

Kasia Nelson, Esq.


Education: Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Knowledge: Corporate Immigration Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning