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What is a Paralegal?

Published on: Sep 29, 2023

Individuals who are interested in a paralegal career may ask, “What is a paralegal and what does a paralegal do?” A paralegal is a professional who provides support to attorneys. A paralegal is sometimes confused with a legal assistant or a legal secretary, but a paralegal fulfills a role that is distinct from either of these two positions. 

Law firms, corporate legal departments, government agencies, and other legal entities rely on their expertise and experience for many tasks.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14.1% employment growth for paralegals in the coming years, with a gain of more than 49,000 job openings in that time.  Paralegals are responsible for legal research which involves gathering information about statutes, regulations, and case law. A paralegal may summarize this research for an attorney to use. Often paralegals organize and maintain case files, keep track of court dates, and schedule meetings. Paralegals are often the initial point of contact for clients and must communicate professionally to keep clients aware of their case status and answer general questions. 

Paralegals also may draft legal documents, like contracts, deposition summaries and pleadings based on lawyer guidance, as well as proofread documents for accuracy. If they work in the litigation field, they may help prepare witness testimony and organize trial documents, including exhibits. They are also responsible for ensuring that clients are billed correctly, following up on payments and may oversee general accounting. 

For one perspective on the paralegal profession, check out “How to Enter the Paralegal Field”

Becoming, Being, and Succeeding as a Paralegal Professional

Becoming a successful paralegal requires that you possess the right education and a complementary skill set. You must also be able to perform the job duties of a paralegal and work well in the environment in which you find yourself.

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What Education is Needed to Become a Successful Paralegal?

There are many paths to acquiring the education that will assist you in being successful as a paralegal. At a bare minimum, you should have a high school diploma. Attempting to become a paralegal without at least a diploma or its equivalent is a difficult endeavor. However, you may wish to pursue additional education to make yourself a more competitive candidate for jobs and a more competent paralegal.

One option is to pursue a certificate in paralegal studies. There are over 160 paralegal certificate programs recognized by the American Bar Association (ABA)  in the United States. These programs can often be completed in six months to a year and may cost as little as $1,600. A certificate can provide you with a basic orientation to the legal system and the important tasks of legal research and writing.

It’s important to note that a certificate is different from a professional paralegal certification program. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offer the Certified Paralegal designation which is a professional credential.  

Beyond a certificate, some paralegals opt to complete an associate’s degree. The ABA recognizes over 100 associate-level programs at institutions throughout the United States. An associate’s degree can take up to two years of full-time study to complete and cost about $10,000. However, you will have a greater understanding of the legal system and various areas of substantive law upon completing your degree. You will also have earned credits that can be applied to a bachelor’s degree program at a later date, if you so choose.

Beyond an associate’s degree, you may wish to complete a bachelor’s degree program in legal studies as part of your paralegal education. Usually, this degree takes about four years to complete and provides more in-depth education than the other options. There are 27 such programs approved by the ABA in the U.S. Students complete legal research and writing courses, legal concept classes, build critical thinking skills, and may take law office management courses. In general, the average cost of a bachelor's degree program is approximately $36,000 per year. 

Finally, you may opt to pursue a Master’s of Legal Studies (MLS) once you have obtained your bachelor’s degree. This degree program takes approximately one year of full-time study to complete and can cost between $15,000 and $38,000. A MLS degree is a great option for a paralegal with a strong interest in understanding the law, especially as it pertains to a specific area like cybersecurity or human resources.   

Generally speaking, the more education you obtain, the greater your understanding will be of the law and the legal system. You will also have a greater amount of time to practice the skills you will need to succeed as a paralegal, such as client interviewing, legal research, and legal writing. But all of this comes at a cost, as the more education you pursue, the more it will cost you and the longer you will need to wait before starting your career.

Also, education is not limited to the classroom. Many programs offer internships that provide students with practical experience. Paralegal students are encouraged to participate in these opportunities to build their professional network as well as to learn important job skills. Because the legal field is evolving constantly, paralegals are also expected to stay updated on changes to laws, regulations and industry changes. 

While it is possible to forego a paralegal program and learn through on-the-job training, some employers do require formal education to work with them as a paralegal. A lack of formal education or a plan to attain formal education may limit your long-term paralegal career prospects. 

Online Versus In-Person Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown caused a dramatic rise in the number of universities offering and students enrolling in online programs. This trend has not subsided or reversed even though the COVID-19 pandemic is receding. 

According to Forbes, as of 2023, almost 15% of post-secondary degree seekers in the U.S. enroll in online study programs. This is about 2.79 million students annually. About 60% of post-secondary students take at least some online courses, and 30% take online courses exclusively.

If you are seeking a paralegal certificate or degree, you can find both in-person and online programs. You can also find hybrid programs which offer you the opportunity to complete some coursework online while still requiring some in-person classes. These programs may offer you some of the flexibility of online programs while the networking opportunities of being an on-campus student.

Online Paralegal Studies

According to the ABA, there are over 200 paralegal education programs in the United States, but only 33 of these identify as online programs. This means that when it comes to selecting an online paralegal program, your options are far more limited than they are if you are looking at an in-person program.

Additionally, while online study programs give you flexibility to complete coursework on your schedule, not everyone can thrive in an online learning environment. You must be disciplined and self-motivated in order to remain current with your assignments. Not only this, but some of the practical skills learned in a paralegal program, like client interviewing and legal writing, can be more challenging to learn over the internet as opposed to in person.

In-Person Paralegal Programs

In-person learning has been the primary way new paralegals learn about the career and the develop the tools they need to succeed, and this is evidenced by the sheer number of in-person programs compared to online programs. Compared to 33 online programs, there are well over 150 in-person paralegal studies programs, according to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) listings.

Attending classes in-person offers you the opportunity to network with other students and professors and is an ideal setting to practice skills that require you to interact with others. The ABA’s directory of paralegal education programs also identifies programs in nearly every state, with some states like California and Michigan having multiple programs.  As a result, you may be able to find an in-person program that is within a reasonable distance from your home. Most every institution will enable you to access the computers, legal databases, and other tools you need to complete your program successfully.

The drawbacks to an in-person paralegal program are the things that make online learning attractive to some. There is a rigid class schedule with attendance requirements. If you are in the midst of a career change or have obligations besides attending school, it may be difficult for you to attend school while fulfilling your other obligations.

Skills Necessary for Success as a Paralegal

While there are several backgrounds that can lead to a successful paralegal career, there are some skills and qualities that will be especially useful. 

Those who have knowledge in different areas of legal work will have a head start in this field. A paralegal education that provides a solid foundation in legal procedures, research and writing, and legal terminology is very helpful. Individuals who have strong attention to detail and critical thinking skills will also do well as a paralegal. In addition, paralegals must know how to effectively communicate with attorneys, clients, court staff, and others.

It’s very important to have strong organizational and time management skills to meet deadlines and assignments and keep case files up to date. Also, many legal organizations use the latest technology to complete their work. This might include electronic document management systems, research websites, software for drafting documents and others, so it’s helpful to have strong technology skills and a willingness to learn. 

Paralegals must also have high ethical standards because they handle many sensitive and confidential documents. Individuals who work well with a team, have a positive outlook, and who are adaptable will do well in a paralegal career.

Job Duties of Paralegals

Paralegal work is interesting for many reasons and often, paralegal professionals stay in this career because of the varied opportunities to contribute significantly to the legal profession. 

Paralegal work is intellectually stimulating and it provides an opportunity to learn many different types of law through research. Paralegals may participate in challenging cases and in some situations, may contribute to the attorney’s legal strategy. 

They are also in a unique position to support clients who need help and provide them with detailed case files, which maintains the integrity of the legal proceedings and supports confidence in the legal services the client receives. Because of the constant close work with attorneys and other staff members, paralegals often have long-lasting professional relationships and collaboration with the teams they work with. Paralegals also play a key role in supporting long-term client relationships. 

It’s important for aspiring paralegals to know that there is a limit to the scope of work a paralegal can perform. Paralegals are prohibited from providing legal advice or opinions to clients. They cannot interpret the law, make recommendations to clients, or engage in any other legal work that could be considered the unauthorized practice of law. 

Only licensed attorneys can provide legal advice, sign petitions or other legal documents with the court, represent clients in court and discuss fee arrangements with clients. Paralegal work must often be completed under the supervision of an attorney. 

Challenges of Being a Paralegal

While there are many positive aspects of paralegal work, it can also present challenges. Paralegals can face a heavy workload, which is why it is so important to have strong time management skills in this role. They are often responsible for many cases simultaneously and need to prioritize their work to ensure it is all completed on time. 

In some situations, they may also have to work long hours to meet client expectations and case deadlines. Paralegal work requires patience and organizational skills to meet strict timeframes. 

Overall, paralegals are responsible for understanding complex topics, terminology, rules and procedures that can change. They must be willing to keep up with changing laws and regulations and apply those to their work. 

Depending on the field paralegals choose to work in, it can also be an emotionally draining job. This is because clients may be going through a difficult situation themselves, like divorce, custody issues or facing criminal charges. Paralegals may find it challenging to address these issues on a regular basis. 

Unfortunately, clients can sometimes cause conflict which requires the paralegal to have strong conflict resolution skills and an ability to explain processes in a way that is easily understandable to those who are unfamiliar with their work. Again, it's important to have effective communication skills to manage client expectations and resolve difficult situations that arise. 

Finally, for those who want to grow their career as a legal professional, they may feel that their advancement opportunities are limited compared to a lawyer’s career path. But paralegals who do decide to go to law school and become lawyers may find the path a little easier than others. A paralegal’s exposure to the legal system and substantive areas of the law, coupled with their legal research and writing skills, are all part of a law school’s curriculum and may be easier to master given the paralegal’s prior knowledge. And while admission to a law school program requires completion of a bachelor’s degree program, an accredited bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies can satisfy this requirement.

Despite the challenges paralegals sometimes face, many find their work to be fulfilling and they choose to stay in paralegal positions for their entire career.

Where Do Paralegals Work?

As a paralegal, your options for work environment are not limited to a large law firm. While law firms are one of the primary employers of paralegals, there are a variety of firms and industries that might employ you. Each employer comes with a unique working environment.

For example, corporations and businesses of all sizes need legal help and advice to draft contracts and settle disputes. A corporate paralegal’s workplace could be an in-house legal department located within the headquarters of the company. In this environment, you may interact freely with others in the legal department as well as HR, IT, and senior-level managers.

Federal, state, and local governments also employ paralegals to help support these organizations’ myriad of lawyers in various agencies. Working for a federal agency, such as the IRS, might mean working in an agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. Conversely, working for a state public defender’s office may mean supporting one or two attorneys located in a small rural office.

Nonprofit organizations, like legal aid, need paralegal assistance too. These entities may provide pro bono services to underserved populations or perform public interest work. 

Paralegals may also choose to work for insurance companies that need help with claims management and litigation related to insurance coverage. Banks, credit unions and other financial institutions often employ paralegals as well. This work may include contract review and dispute resolution.  

Real estate law firms and title companies also hire paralegals to help with real estate transactions, including closings and other property development projects. 

There are also opportunities for paralegal professionals to work for colleges and universities who need teaching assistants for the newest individuals entering the legal field.

If a paralegal decides that they would like to be self-employed, that is also an option. They can work on a contract basis for lawyers, legal departments and individuals who need assistance. 

Not all employment opportunities require the paralegal to be physically present in a workspace, though. There is a growing market for paralegals who are willing to work remotely from anywhere in the United States where they have a stable internet connection. Other firms and businesses might offer paralegals a hybrid work environment that requires them to come into the office one or two days per week and allows the paralegal to work the rest of the week remotely.

In short, there is no shortage of diverse workplace options for paralegals in today’s job market.

How Much Do Paralegals Get Paid?

While paralegal salaries can vary based on where the paralegal is located and their education and experience, the current median paralegal annual salary is $66,091. This can increase depending on whether the paralegal specializes in one or more areas of competency such as contract law, oil and gas law, or criminal defense. Some entities, such as the federal government and larger legal departments and firms pay higher salaries than smaller, boutique law firms.

The salary a paralegal can command will also depend on location. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals in states like California, Washington, and New York can expect an annual mean wage between $63,580 and $91,880. 

Conversely, the annual median salary for paralegals in states like New Mexico, Kentucky, and Kansas ranges from $40,810 to $53,440.

Some cities and the corresponding average salary for paralegals in those cities include:

  • Los Angeles, with an average annual salary of $70,502

  • New York City, whose paralegals have an average salary of $67,573

  • Miami, with an average annual salary for paralegals that is $63,909

  • Dodge City, Kansas, where paralegals can find an average annual salary of $49,879

  • Boise, Idaho, and its average annual salary of $59,951

While these figures may be far below the average attorney salary of $127,990, it must be remembered that the cost of obtaining a paralegal certificate, associate’s degree, or even bachelor’s degree is far less than the financial investment required to become an attorney.

Career Outlook for Paralegals

As of June 2023, the career outlook for paralegals is strong. Currently, there are more than 400,000 paralegals employed in the United States and the job market for paralegals is expected to grow through 2028. 

While their work can vary depending on their location and the needs of the organization they work for, there is a growing need for professionals who can support attorneys by assisting them with legal tasks. 

Paralegals may specialize in certain areas, like criminal law, family law, property law or corporate law. Companies and law firms often seek out paralegals with specific experience who can readily assist with a heavy workload. With work experience and additional education or certification, they also have the option to become supervisory paralegals or senior paralegals. 

Overall, paralegals are sought after in the legal market and the future of the industry is strong. They have the opportunity to learn, provide essential support to lawyers and clients, and grow professionally and personally. 

Connect with a legal education program today to get started!

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.

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Kevin Salzman, Esq.

County Prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas