Paralegals, also called legal assistants, work at the front lines of law firms, assisting lawyers and interacting with clients. They help organize cases, complete research, compile information, and prepare for meetings, trials, closings, and hearings.
Valued in the law offices where they serve, paralegals use their specialized technical knowledge to keep proceedings running smoothly. In this guide, you can learn more about what paralegals do, how to become a paralegal, and what you need in order to excel in the field.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals are an essential part of any functioning law firm or corporate legal department. Working with paralegals gives lawyers a chance to have another trained set of eyes on important cases and documents. A day in the life of a paralegal might involve the following tasks:
- Organizing files on an ongoing case
- Completing research and identifying relevant laws and legal arguments
- Drafting contracts, mortgages, or separation agreements
- Maintaining financial office records
In general, paralegals are divided into two distinct types:
- Corporate paralegal assist attorneys with business details like employee benefit plans, compensation agreements, contracts and more.
- Litigation paralegals work with attorneys on court cases, completing research, organizing paperwork, and preparing materials for agency and public use.
Paralegals are typically found in office settings. About 71 percent of paralegals work for law firms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most others work for corporate legal departments and government organizations. Paralegals might specialize in one field of law, including:
- Personal Injury
- Corporate Law
- Criminal Law
- Employee Benefits
- Intellectual Property
- Labor Law
- Family Law
- Real Estate
In larger law firms, paralegals are more likely to specialize in one type of law, or a subset of a type. Though job opportunities for paralegals are projected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations between 2008 and 2018, the BLS notes that competition for such jobs is expected to be strong.
What Are the Steps to Become a Paralegal?
There are many different paths to becoming a paralegal or legal assistant, but some type of formal training is recommended for those who want the best job opportunities in this competitive field. Here is one path to becoming a paralegal:
- Take math and economics classes in high school. Paralegals need to know a lot about law, but they also need to have excellent math skills, organizational skills, and it wouldn't hurt to know Excel and other similar spreadsheet programs.
- Earn an associate or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies or a related field. Some paralegals have associate degrees, but employers may prefer to see a bachelor's degree, according to the BLS. Degree programs for paralegals is designed to teach you how to become a paralegal by giving you the technical skills you need to back up your interest in the legal profession. Typical coursework in a paralegal studies program includes the following topics: Law & civil procedure, pleadings and motions, investigation, discovery and trial preparation, legal research & writing, communication skills and legal ethics.
- Choose a specialization. While not required, some students wish to specialize in a certain kind of law, and may take additional elective courses such as elder law, corporations, immigration law, intellectual property, and more. Once you have graduated with a degree or certificate in paralegal studies, you should have the knowledge you need to enter the field with confidence.
- Earn a certificate in paralegal studies. This step is optional and is generally not required by employers, but it could be a helpful supplement. In some cases, certification may even be required as part of the career training.
- Get an internship at a law firm. Ideally you should try to get an internship while you're still studying in school. Some paralegals can jump right into full-time jobs as they graduate, but in many cases employers like to see you've had some experience in law, government or at least a general office setting.
How Do You Become a GREAT Paralegal or Legal Assistant?
Paralegals are organized, technically adept, and savvy with client communication. Because they use their skills to organize and assist, they're a valued addition to the legal profession. Great paralegals have the following qualities:
- Ability to understand complex legal terminology
- Familiarity with computers and legal research
- Advanced investigative and communication skills
You can learn how to become a paralegal with training, but to become a great paralegal, you need to combine your natural skills and interests with career training designed to teach you the technical aspects of the profession. Applying yourself to a career training program in paralegal studies gives you the required tools.
Great paralegals often enjoy advancement, supervising and delegating assignments to other paralegals in larger firms. While no formal education program can guarantee a particular career or salary, training is often preferred by hiring managers in the field, particularly in competitive areas. Further increase your chances of becoming a paralegal by seeking out paralegal studies programs that include internships or career placement departments.