Legal Assistants and Paralegals
|Recommended Degree Level||Associate|
|Number of Jobs, 2012||267,030|
|Annual Job Growth Rate||3.0%|
|Job Openings per Year (est.)||8,340|
- Most paralegals obtain associate's degrees through community colleges. Most law firms and government agencies find this type of certification to be sufficient.
- A minority of paralegals obtain bachelor's degrees through traditional four-year institutions.
- Aspiring legal assistants who already hold associate's or bachelor's degrees in related fields may choose to attend accelerated paralegal programs at community colleges or vocational schools.
- Very few law firms hire individuals who lack educational credentials or prior work experience.
What you study:
Paralegals must be well-versed in the following subjects and concepts:
- Basic jurisprudence
- English writing and grammar
- Research skills
- Legal vocabulary
Briefly summarizes the work of legal assistants and paralegals. Produced for the US Department of Labor.
A Day in the Life
After you graduated from your ABA-approved paralegal bachelor's degree program, you quickly realized that you had made the right career choice. The fact that you attended a program that had been endorsed by the American Bar Association made you very attractive to prospective employers.
Although there were paralegal jobs available at some major government agencies and larger corporations, you would have had to relocate to take one of those positions. Since virtually every law firm hires legal assistants on a regular basis, you were able to find a good job with a private law firm near your current hometown.
At your medium-sized firm, you know the partners by name and don't often labor under unreasonable deadlines. Judging by what you've heard from paralegals who work at large corporate law firms, you also handle a greater variety of work. However, you do find yourself working into the evenings and on the weekends during busy times of the year.
Your life has settled into a predictable routine. You arrive at the office at 8:30 am and sit down at your cubicle desk. Although you work in an open area with about 10 other members of your firm's support staff, you don't feel exposed or cramped.
As a paralegal, your job duties tend to revolve around the major projects on the docket at your firm. Since the firm has more lawyers than paralegals, you typically work on several cases at once. Today, your first task will be to review a large tranche of "discovered" documentation for an upcoming trial that one of the partners will be conducting.
Since you're not trained as a lawyer, you aren't cleared to evaluate this evidence. However, you are expected to examine each document and catalog it in the appropriate place. In this case, you must look over hundreds of individual financial statements from a business that your firm is suing and classify them according to their purpose. This is actually quite interesting: During the time that you've spent on the project, you feel as if you've learned a great deal about the business that your firm is investigating.
Your task is made more time-consuming by the fact that you must scan each document into your computer and file it in a secure cloud-based cache. Later, you'll back up this cache on a portable hard drive. This is a relatively new part of your job. When you first started as a paralegal, most official documents were still kept in analog form. These days, you must make digital duplicates of virtually every document that you process.
Once you finish the process of cataloging these files, you break for lunch. You appreciate the fact that you're given an hour for lunch each day. Thanks to their heavy caseloads, many of the lawyers at your firm choose to eat lunch at their desks.
In the afternoon, you tackle another case from a different lawyer at your firm. This one is a little different: It requires you to research certain property-rights statutes in your local area to determine how the case's defendant violated your client's "mineral rights" to the natural gas deposits under his property. While this sounds dry and monotonous, you've come to enjoy it. After all, the research process is highly educational. You've learned a tremendous amount about the law during your time as a paralegal.
After two hours of close study, you finally find the appropriate clause. You fire off a quick e-mail to the attorney on the case to alert her to your discovery. Next, you compose a brief report on the matter and attach it to a subsequent e-mail. You're confident that your work will strengthen your client's case. It could even make the difference between victory and defeat in court.
Since there are no pressing matters to keep you at work past 5 pm, you exit the office at that time and head home to your family. You're satisfied that today's work was instrumental in strengthening two of your firm's cases. Even more importantly, you feel as if you learned something in the process.
Certifications and Licensing
Although there are no state-mandated licenses for those who wish to become paralegals, there are several popular voluntary certification programs. Legal assistants who successfully complete these programs may be more attractive in the eyes of prospective employers and command higher starting salaries. In addition, they may be singled out for promotions and quickly rise through the non-lawyer ranks at large law firms. Finally, these certifications may make their holders look more attractive on future law-school applications. Popular legal assistant certifications include the Professional Paralegal and Certified Legal Assistant designations.
Full-time versus part-time:
The majority of paralegals work for medium-sized and large law firms on a full-time basis. Smaller law firms may hire temporary legal assistants during high-workload periods. A small minority of these individuals may work under in-house counsel teams at major corporations or for large government agencies. For the most part, paralegals who do not work for law firms are also required to work at least 40 hours per week. During busy times of the year, paralegals may be asked to work on the weekends and into the evenings.
Very few legal assistants are able to work from home. While certain specialists may be able to perform digital cataloging and research functions from home, this is not practical for long periods of time. Paralegals must handle physical evidence and communicate with their colleagues in person. As such, the vast majority work in regular office environments.
The following websites may be useful to those who wish to pursue a career as a legal assistant or paralegal:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations -- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations is an umbrella group that works to unite the activities of hundreds of local paralegal organizations across the United States. The site has a full suite of continuing-education resources, career-related information and a comprehensive job-search feature.
- National Association of Legal Assistants & Paralegals -- This organization provides aspiring paralegals with information about certification programs and exams. For trained paralegals who wish to obtain new skills or find employment, the National Association of Legal Assistants & Paralegals offers a wealth of continuing-education information as well as a jobs board.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics -- The U.S. Department of Labor maintains a comprehensive career fact sheet that outlines salary information and certification requirements for aspiring paralegals. This site also offers an analysis of the profession's growth potential over the coming decade.
- Global Legal Resources -- Global Legal Resources is a comprehensive online information database for lawyers and paralegals. Its paralegal-focused section provides detailed information about the job duties of legal assistants and provides links to educational and job-search resources.
- American Bar Association -- The American Bar Association offers a wide range of paralegal-focused services, including educational resources, certification information and a career-outlook primer. It also has a job-search function that can connect employment-seeking legal assistants with ABA lawyers who wish to hire them.