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A Day in the Life of a Paralegal: Realistic Expectations and Job Responsibilities

Published on: Sep 29, 2023
Group of paralegals and lawyers around a desk

Source: August de Richelieu

Paralegals are an important part of the legal system, performing a variety of essential tasks that help lawyers and their clients. These professionals are so critical to the legal system that October 23rd is designated as National Paralegal Day. But what does it really mean to be a paralegal? What does a day in the life of a paralegal look like?

Have you ever considered a career as a paralegal? If so, you may wonder what a typical workday looks like and what skills are essential for success in this field.

As someone who has spent years in the profession, I'm excited to provide a first-hand account of what it's really like to be a paralegal. I'll cover what a typical day looks like, the biggest challenges and rewards of the job, and the skills needed to excel in this field.

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal provides legal support services to attorneys and organizations. Paralegals do research, organize evidence, prep documents, draft correspondence, and manage files in criminal and civil litigation cases. Paralegals also assist attorneys by preparing for hearings and trials. They may also investigate facts related to a case, interview witnesses or experts, draft contracts and agreements, and keep in touch with clients.

Paralegals must know about state laws related to their area of practice as well as the rules of procedures for court filings and other tasks. They need strong organizational skills and an understanding of the legal system. A paralegal should have excellent research skills to locate relevant information quickly. Professionalism and discretion are also essential traits for this role since many cases involve sensitive issues demanding strict confidentiality.

Those who make a career out of being a paralegal might specialize in specific areas of law such as family law, criminal law, real estate law, bankruptcy law, or patent law. The job of a paralegal can expose you to areas of the law that you find interesting, but that excitement can be mitigated by having to perform repetitive tasks. As a result, paralegals report an average job satisfaction.  

All 50 states and the District of Columbia regulate paralegals in different ways. Some states, such as Colorado, allow paralegals to deliver services that might traditionally be performed by a lawyer, so long as they do so under a lawyer’s direct supervision. Other states, such as Idaho, do not have any paralegal-specific restrictions other than that they not engage in the unauthorized practice of law. This term is generally defined as performing tasks that are traditionally done by a lawyer, such as by appearing in court to represent clients or holding oneself out to the public as an attorney.

What Do Paralegals Do?

Every day as a paralegal is different, but some tasks are common no matter where you work. One moment, you might be making phone calls to maintain contact with clients and update them on the status of their cases. The next moment, you might spend several hours conducting legal research into a complicated issue of law and summarizing your findings into a legal memo. If your employer represents clients, you could be asked to draft legal pleadings and motions for an attorney’s review and file them with the court.

To complete these and other tasks, you will need to use your legal knowledge, problem-solving abilities, and other skills learned through your paralegal studies as even similar tasks, such as researching an issue, can vary depending on the assignment. For instance, you might be asked to research the statute of limitations on a personal injury case one day and then be asked the next day to look into whether a contract dispute is governed by a different statute of limitations.

Many firms use technology in their offices to help manage and complete assignments. Any paralegal will need to become familiar with whatever programs their employers use. However, the Microsoft Office suite of programs, such as Word, Excel, and Outlook are popular programs for offices that are PC-based. Offices that use Apple products might use programs like Pages, Numbers, and Parallels in addition to traditional Microsoft Office programs.

In virtually every setting where a paralegal can be found, the paralegal will be expected to collaborate with other paralegals and with attorneys as part of their daily jobs. While some paralegals may spend 50% or more of their time working independently with minimal direction, a sizable or even equal portion of their time can be spent discussing their findings and the results of their efforts with others within the organization. Superior communication skills, therefore, are a must.

Despite the challenges, being a paralegal can be tremendously rewarding. You'll know you're playing a crucial role in the legal process and helping clients. You'll have the opportunity to work on a variety of cases and projects, which can keep your work exciting and engaging.

stack of legal files on a desk

Source: Pixabay

What Does a Typical Day Look Like For an In-House Paralegal?

“In-house” paralegals are paralegals who work in a legal department that is part of a larger corporation. This could include corporate paralegals as well as those who work in the legal departments of government agencies, corporations and businesses, educational institutions, or religious organizations. This work environment might also be similar to the environment found in a large law firm. If you work for an employer such as this, most of your time will be spent in your office, with occasional trips to the courthouse or elsewhere as such needs may arise.

If you are employed in this sort of environment, a typical day will likely consist of completing your assigned tasks independently with some collaborative work mixed into your day. The bulk of your day might be spent reviewing and editing documents like legal pleadings, contracts, and letters to supervisors or clients or others. With these tasks, your employer may provide you with instruction on any office-specific procedures they wish you to follow. You would receive 

Your work would be overseen by a paralegal manager, office manager,  or supervising attorney and trained in procedures your employer wants to follow. You could be assigned to a paralegal manager or supervising attorney. However, aside from meetings with these individuals to receive and clarify your work assignments, you would be expected to complete your tasks with minimal supervision. 

Your ending work product could help influence a senior-level manager’s business decisions, cementing a business or other contractual relationship between parties, or in the case of regulatory agencies, advising affected individuals how they can bring themselves into compliance with the law.

Do Any Paralegals Get Involved in Court Cases?

Paralegals who work in law firms that focus on litigation can expect more collaborative work throughout their day. They can also expect to travel to and from court more frequently than their in-house counterparts to attend and observe court hearings and help their assigned lawyers prepare themselves and witnesses for court.

For paralegals working in a litigation firm, you may perform more traditional paralegal tasks such as conducting legal research on issues that are present in cases handled by the firm. You could be asked to summarize your findings and present them orally or in writing to a supervising attorney. You could also be asked to draft petitions and complaints, respond to discovery requests, and draft substantive legal motions.

In addition, a considerable amount of your day could be spent speaking with clients, gathering significant details from them that are pertinent to their cases. You might also interview witnesses who will be involved in the case on which you are working. You will be expected to take copious notes and share them with the assigned attorneys so they can be informed of this information and take appropriate action.

In court, a paralegal might sit at counsel’s table with their attorney or in the public gallery area. You could assist your attorney by taking notes of the hearing and drafting orders or pleadings based on what happened in court. If you are tech-savvy, your attorney may ask for your assistance in operating equipment such as a laptop computer and projection system to introduce evidence in court.

What are the Most Important Skills for a Paralegal?

To succeed as a paralegal, there are several essential skills you need. First, you must have excellent research and analytical skills to gather and synthesize information from online legal databases like Lexis and Westlaw, state statutes, and administrative agency regulations.

There are other skills which are important for a successful paralegal to possess. Attention to detail is also crucial, as even small errors in legal documents can have serious consequences. Strong communication skills are also essential, as you'll communicate daily with clients, co-workers, and other legal professionals. Finally, having a strong sense of professionalism and ethics is important, as you'll be working in a field where integrity and confidentiality are paramount.

No matter whether you work in a corporate legal department or a small litigation firm, you can expect to have a high volume of work. Paralegals must therefore have good strategies to manage the workload, including knowing how to prioritize tasks by due date and importance. Communicating your activities with your supervisors is also key to successfully managing the high workload of a paralegal.

Finally, a paralegal must respect their role and adhere to ethical rules that apply in their state. State and federal rules generally prohibit paralegals from engaging in the practice of law by representing clients in court proceedings, signing pleadings that are filed with the court, presiding at depositions of witnesses, and dispensing legal advice. Violating these rules can result in serious consequences for you and your employer.

Becoming a paralegal can be a challenging, but rewarding career choice. If you're considering entering this field, it's important to have a realistic expectation of what the job entails. If you have excellent research, analytical, and communication skills, you'll excel as a paralegal.

How Many Hours Do Paralegals Work Per Week?

The exact number of hours per week that paralegals work depends on the position and organization. Generally, paralegals can expect to work 40 hours a week or more. This may mean longer days, nights, and weekends as caseloads increase or deadlines approach. The job's flexibility allows for some scheduling leeway such as creating a part-time schedule; but, this is not typical. Paralegals need to be ready to put in extra time to ensure all cases are ready for litigation. Many paralegals are asked to be available after hours in case of an emergency or urgent issue.

How Much Do Paralegals Make?

The median annual salary for a paralegal in the United States is $53,000. Salaries can vary significantly by region and experience level. Paralegals at the lower-end of the pay range might make as little as $36,410 annually, while some of the highest-earning paralegals can make in excess of $88,000 per year. Paralegals who work for the federal government generally earn the most, while those who work for private firms and offices earn toward the bottom of the pay range.

Bonuses and extra compensation depend on the employer and the individual's performance. On top of salary, many firms offer health insurance, retirement plans and paid vacation time as part of a complete compensation package.

How to Get Started as a Paralegal

The best way to get started with your career as a paralegal is to acquire the necessary education and skillset that will make you attractive to employers. Although some firms and offices might consider paralegal applicants who have nothing more than a high school diploma, completing a paralegal certificate program can give you an advantage over competing applicants. A typical certificate program will include courses on legal research and writing as well as introductory courses on various areas of the law. Today, many online certificate programs are available from accredited colleges and feature specialized coursework.

Those who wish to take their paralegal studies further could pursue a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies offered by any number of schools. However, any bachelor’s degree program that emphasizes written and oral communication, research skills, or that introduces you to substantive areas of the law can provide you with information and skills that translate well to a paralegal career.

Taking paralegal education in specific areas of law can benefit those looking to specialize in a particular area. Paralegal certifications from national organizations like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) can also help demonstrate competence and expertise for potential employers.

Networking is another important step in the process of finding a job as a paralegal. Participating in professional paralegal associations such as NALA or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) as well as attending events are effective ways to gain contacts within the legal community. These contacts can help you build relationships that could potentially lead to employment opportunities. 

It's also wise to create an online presence with professional profiles on websites such as LinkedIn, allowing potential employers to find you easily and view your credentials. Researching different firms or companies that offer legal services is another great way to get acquainted with the different career paths available as a paralegal.

With dedication, hard work, and attention to detail, anyone can succeed as a paralegal!

About the Authors

Written by:

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

Kevin Salzman is the elected county prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas. Prior to taking office in 2017, he worked for six years as an assistant county attorney across southwest Kansas, prosecuting crimes ranging from traffic offenses to first-degree murder cases. Kevin got started in legal content writing in 2014 and enjoys the opportunities it affords to explore new and changing areas of the law. He believes solid content writing helps people understand the law and how it can help them overcome the challenges they face. He is a 2010 graduate of St. Louis University School of Law.

Kevin Salzman portrait

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

County Prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas

Education: St. Louis University School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Criminal Prosecution

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

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