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What Does a Paralegal Do?

Published on: Sep 29, 2023

If you are considering a career as a paralegal, it's essential to understand what the job entails. Paralegal is one of the fastest-growing professions today, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 14% growth in the field between now and 2031. They play a vital role in the legal industry by providing crucial support to lawyers. Paralegals are involved in a wide range of tasks that go beyond administrative work. They are integral to law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.

This article will give you a comprehensive guide on what a paralegal does, the different job specializations, how they differ from other legal professionals, and why employers hire them.

Common Paralegal Job Types

Paralegals work in various industries, including law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments. Some of the more common paralegal job specializations include family law paralegals, litigation paralegals, immigration paralegals, corporate paralegals, estate planning paralegals, and intellectual property paralegals. Litigation paralegals assist lawyers in preparing for trials, drafting pleadings, and conducting legal research. Corporate paralegals work with in-house legal departments to manage corporate legal issues. Estate planning paralegals draft and prepare wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents. Intellectual property paralegals specialize in patent, trademark, and copyright law.

Some common paralegal specializations include compliance law, criminal law, family law, tax law, and immigration law. Compliance law involves monitoring and ensuring that a company abides by applicable laws and regulations. Criminal law paralegals assist lawyers in criminal defense cases by conducting legal research, preparing legal documents, and helping prepare for trial. Family law paralegals help with divorce proceedings, child support issues, spousal support issues, adoption filings, and other related matters. 

Tax paralegals work with attorneys to prepare taxes for individuals or businesses in compliance with federal and state tax regulations. Immigration paralegals specialize in helping immigrants apply for visas or green cards to gain lawful entry into the United States. Paralegals specializing in immigration also work as advocates on behalf of their clients to ensure their rights are protected under US immigration laws.

What Does A Paralegal Do: Duties And Responsibilities

A paralegal's duties and responsibilities can vary widely depending on whether the paralegal works in a corporate or university legal department, a government agency, or a law firm. Their day-to-day duties can also vary depending on whether the paralegal’s employer engages in transactional work, litigation, or some other type of legal proceedings.

Work style

Paralegals generally work a full-time, 40-hour per week schedule. Depending on the employer, some paralegals may have to work in excess of 40 hours per week. Generally speaking, paralegals engage in substantive legal work such as researching case law, preparing legal documents for signature and filing, maintaining their office’s or firm’s files in order, and facilitating communication between lawyers, clients, court personnel, and others.

Work deliverables

The bulk of the tasks a paralegal is called upon to perform are completed independently with minimal supervision. This would include tasks like legal research and maintaining and updating files. At major milestones in a case, such as filing a petition, a court hearing, or a trial or evidentiary hearing, the paralegal might collaborate with lawyers assigned to the case, the clients, witnesses, and others to accomplish their tasks. 

More specifically, paralegals often conduct legal research to locate controlling case law, statutes, or administrative regulations. They might write internal memos that summarize their findings for other paralegals, their paralegal manager, or the office’s lawyers. A paralegal can also be expected to draft pleadings and then revise them before filing those pleadings with the court.

Paralegals also help in preparing for depositions or hearings by organizing evidence, locating witnesses, obtaining statements from witnesses, and assembling exhibits. Additionally, they review contracts and other legal documents for accuracy and completeness.

In addition to these duties related to litigation or corporate legal departments, paralegals also assist in estate planning matters by drafting wills and trusts. They help prepare the necessary paperwork for the transfer of assets after death and gather documents required to establish guardianships or conservatorships when appropriate. Lastly, intellectual property paralegals work closely with attorneys specializing in patent law by conducting research related to patent applications as well as keeping track of deadlines during the patent registration process.

Despite these varied and complex tasks, paralegals do not provide legal advice to clients. A paralegal may relay messages between a client and that client’s lawyer, but ethical rules prohibit a paralegal from telling a client what they should do or how to protect their rights.

Growing role of paralegals

Paralegals are an increasingly important part of the legal industry today, with 45,800 openings for paralegals expected to open between 2021 and 2031 due to demand and retirement of older paralegals. This increase in demand is attributable to the fact that paralegals provide crucial support that allows lawyers to focus on more strategic tasks. Their many duties require both an understanding of the legal system as well as technical skills such as research abilities and strong organizational skills.

As such, employers value paralegals who have acquired education in a variety of areas including legal studies courses as well as courses in accounting or business management.

Day in the Life of a Paralegal

A typical day in the life of a paralegal can vary depending on the industry and job specialization. Their day may involve researching case law, drafting legal documents, preparing trial exhibits, and attending court hearings. They work closely with lawyers in a collaborative environment to achieve the best outcomes for their clients. Paralegals are essential in helping lawyers manage their workload, and their work contributes significantly to a legal practice's success.

While everyone’s personal experience will vary, check out a few vlogs we’ve curated detailing “the day in the life of a paralegal” posted to YouTube. 

Legal Diaries: https://www.youtube.com/@thelegaldiaries 

Eilynne Renee: https://www.youtube.com/@eilynnerenee 

Arrow Consultants & Misty Murray: https://www.youtube.com/@ArrowConsultants_MistyMurray 

Law CareersNet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZabiSEEtks

image of paper overlooking a conference room

What are Paralegals' Client Contact Expectations?

Paralegal client contact expectations are typically high, as clients may require frequent and detailed communication during the course of their case. The paralegal should be prepared to explain legal concepts in an understandable way, provide status updates, and answer any questions that the client may have. Paralegals should also respond quickly to emails from their client and return phone calls in a timely manner. Additionally, it is important for the paralegal to maintain organized records of all communications with the client so that they can easily reference them if necessary.

Another important expectation for paralegals is professionalism when interacting with clients. This includes treating clients with respect, being courteous, responding to inquiries promptly, and demonstrating empathy for the client's situation. The paralegal should also ensure that the client understands their rights and responsibilities throughout the legal process by providing clear information about relevant laws and regulations. Furthermore, paralegals must maintain confidentiality when dealing with sensitive topics or information given to them by a client.

Finally, paralegals must understand the importance of good communication skills when interacting with a client. Clearly explaining complex legal concepts in an understandable way is key to providing quality service to a client. By having good communication skills, a paralegal can build trust with their client, ultimately leading to better representation in court.

Why Do Employers Hire Paralegals?

Employers hire paralegals because they are highly trained professionals who can perform complex legal tasks. Paralegals help lawyers by conducting research, preparing legal documents, and managing cases. Paralegals provide valuable support to lawyers, allowing them to focus on more critical tasks such as trial preparation and client counseling.

They are also less expensive than lawyers, making them an affordable option for firms looking to reduce costs. While the median salary for lawyers in the United States in 2021 was just under $128,000, the median salary for paralegals was $62,890, which is about half of a lawyer’s salary. 

This stark difference in median salaries is attributable in part to the difference in cost of law school and paralegal programs. The average cost of law school is $220,335, while a paralegal certificate education program may cost as little as $1,600.

Brief History of Paralegals in the US

The paralegal profession began in the United States in the 1960s when lawyers needed support staff with legal training. The American Bar Association (ABA) recognized paralegals as legal professionals in 1967. Since then, paralegals have become an essential element in the legal industry. In 1997, the ABA adopted Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services, which provided guidelines for the appropriate utilization of paralegals.

Paralegals seeking certification and education can turn to a variety of organizations. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) is the leading professional organization for paralegals in the United States. NALA offers voluntary certification programs such as the Certified Paralegal (CP) and Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal (CLA/CP) credentials. To obtain either credential, applicants must have a minimum of three years of paralegal experience or an associate’s degree in paralegal studies or legal studies from an ABA-approved program.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), another professional organization for paralegals, also provides certification for those interested in furthering their legal education and training. NFPA's Registered Paralegal (RP) credential is open to all experienced paralegals who meet certain educational requirements, which include completing at least fifteen hours of continuing legal education credits within the past three years and passing an exam. 

Certification through either organization is a noteworthy career accomplishment and allows a person to hold themselves out to the public and prospective employers as being a certified paralegal. This communicates to employers and members of the public that the person has worked in the field for years, has demonstrated competency in paralegal tasks by passing a standardized exam, and participates annually in continuing legal education courses to stay abreast of changes in the legal field. 

In addition to these two organizations, many other certifying bodies offer credentials for paralegals, including the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAP) and the National Juris Certification. Furthermore, numerous colleges, universities, and private institutions throughout the country offer certificate, diploma, associate degree and bachelor's degree programs specifically designed to prepare aspiring paralegals for successful careers.

Paralegal vs Legal Secretary

A legal secretary performs similar administrative tasks as a paralegal, such as scheduling, drafting documents, and managing the attorney's calendar. However, legal secretaries do not have legal training and are not authorized to perform legal work that only licensed attorneys can do. Paralegals, on the other hand, have legal training and can perform legal work such as legal research and preparation of pleadings. Paralegals work closely with lawyers, but legal secretaries work more independently, assisting lawyers with their administrative tasks.

Broadly speaking, there are 5 key differences between paralegals and legal secretaries:

  1. Paralegals have legal training and can perform legal work, while legal secretaries do not.

  2. Paralegals are certified by professional organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Legal secretaries do not need certifications or educational qualifications to perform their job duties.

  3. Paralegals work closely with lawyers and provide assistance in a variety of complex tasks such as researching legal issues, preparing pleadings, reviewing documents, filing motions, interviewing witnesses, assisting during trials and more. Legal secretaries primarily provide administrative support such as scheduling appointments, answering phones and managing calendars.

  4. Paralegals must adhere to ethical guidelines established by the American Bar Association (ABA), while legal secretaries are not bound by any code of ethics or standards set forth by any professional organization.

  5. The salaries for paralegals are higher than those for legal secretaries due to their specialized knowledge in various areas of law; paralegals also typically receive bonuses when they attain certain certifications or complete specific tasks.

Paralegal vs Legal Assistant

The terms paralegal and legal assistant are often used interchangeably, but there's a difference. Paralegals have a more substantial legal education, usually with a certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Conversely, a legal assistant may have no formal education at all or any prior experience in the legal industry before joining a firm or legal department.

Paralegals also have a broader scope of practice, including legal research, drafting legal documents, and assisting in the courtroom. Legal assistants, on the other hand, perform administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments, answering phones, and managing the attorney’s calendar.

Final Thoughts

Paralegals have legal training and are certified by professional organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). They work closely with lawyers to assist in various tasks such as researching legal issues, preparing pleadings, reviewing documents, filing motions and interviewing witnesses.

Furthermore, they must adhere to ethical guidelines established by the American Bar Association (ABA), while earning higher salaries than those for legal secretaries due to their specialized knowledge in various areas of law. A typical day in the life of a paralegal can involve researching case law, drafting legal documents and attending court hearings.

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. 


  • 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