Paralegals and legal assistants do a variety of tasks to support lawyers, including maintaining and organizing files, conducting legal research, and drafting documents.
Paralegals and legal assistants typically do the following:
- Investigate the facts of a case
- Conduct research on relevant laws, regulations, and legal articles
- Organize and maintain documents in a paper or electronic filing systems
- Gather and arrange evidence and other legal documents for attorney review and case preparation
- Write reports to help lawyers prepare for trials
- Draft correspondence and legal documents, such as contracts and mortgages
- Get affidavits and other formal statements that may be used as evidence in court
- Help lawyers during trials by handling exhibits, taking notes, or reviewing trial transcripts
- File exhibits, briefs, appeals and other legal documents with the court or opposing counsel
- Call clients, witnesses, lawyers, and outside vendors to schedule interviews, meetings, and depositions
Paralegals and legal assistants help lawyers prepare for hearings, trials, and corporate meetings. However, their specific duties may vary depending on the size of the firm and the area of law in which the paralegal works.
In small firms, paralegals duties tend to vary more. In addition to reviewing and organizing documents, paralegals may prepare written reports that help lawyers determine how to handle their cases. If lawyers decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help prepare the legal arguments and draft documents to be filed with the court.
In large organizations, paralegals may work on a particular phase of a case, rather than handling a case from beginning to end. For example, a litigation paralegal may only review legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for lawyers, or collect and organize evidence for hearings.
Litigation paralegals may assist attorneys in preparing for trial by organizing document binders, creating exhibit lists, or drafting settlement agreements. Some litigation paralegals may also help coordinate the logistics of attending the trial, including reserving office space, transporting exhibits and documents to the courtroom, and setting up computers and other equipment.
Paralegals use technology and computer software for managing and organizing the increasing amount of documents and data collected during a case. Many paralegals use computer software to catalog documents, and to review documents for specific keywords or subjects. Because of these responsibilities, paralegals must be familiar with electronic database management and be up to date on the latest software used for electronic discovery. Electronic discovery refers to all electronic materials that are related to a trial, such as emails, data, documents, accounting databases, and websites.
Paralegals may specialize in areas such as litigation, personal injury, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate. In addition, experienced paralegals may assume supervisory responsibilities, such as overseeing team projects or delegating work to other paralegals.
Paralegals and legal assistants often work in teams with attorneys, fellow paralegals, and other legal support staff. They may also have frequent interactions with clients and third-party vendors.
The following are examples of types of paralegals:
Corporate paralegals often help lawyers prepare employee contracts, shareholder agreements, stock-option plans, and companies’ annual financial reports. Corporate paralegals may monitor and review government regulations, to ensure that the corporation is aware of new legal requirements.
Litigation paralegals maintain documents received from clients, conduct research for lawyers, and retrieve and organize evidence for use at depositions and trials.
Paralegals and legal assistants held about 277,000 jobs in 2012. Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for law firms, corporations, and government agencies.
The industries that employed the most paralegals and legal assistants in 2012 were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||5|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||5|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||4|
|Finance and insurance||3|
Paralegals do most of their work in offices and law libraries. Occasionally, they travel to gather information and do other tasks.
Most paralegals and legal assistants work full time.
Most paralegals and legal assistants have an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another field and a certificate in paralegal studies. In some cases, employers hire college graduates with a bachelor’s degree with no legal experience or education and train them on the job.
There are several paths to become a paralegal. Candidates can enroll in a community college paralegal program to earn an associate’s degree. A small number of schools also offer bachelor’s and master's degrees in paralegal studies. Those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject can earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Finally, some employers hire entry-level paralegals without any experience or education in paralegal studies and train them on the job, though these jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree.
Associate’s and bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies usually combine paralegal training, such as courses in legal research and the legal applications of computers, with other academic subjects. Most certificate programs provide intensive paralegal training for people who already hold college degrees. Some certificate programs only take a few months to complete.
Many paralegal training programs offer an internship, in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a private law firm, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, or a government agency. Internship experience helps students improve their technical skills and can enhance their employment prospects.
Employers sometimes hire college graduates with no legal experience or education and train them on the job. In these cases, the new employee may have experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such tax preparation, nursing, or criminal justice.
In many cases, employers prefer candidates who have at least one year of experience in a law firm or other office setting. In addition, a technical understanding of a specific legal specialty can be helpful. For example, a personal-injury law firm may desire a paralegal with a background in nursing or health administration.
Work experience in a law firm or other office setting is particularly important for people who do not have formal paralegal training.
Although not required by most employers, earning voluntary certification may help applicants get a paralegal job. Many national and local paralegal organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications to students able to pass an exam. Other organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications for paralegals who meet certain experience and education criteria. For more information about paralegal certifications, see the Contacts for More Info section.
Paralegals usually are given more responsibilities and require less supervision as they gain work experience. Experienced paralegals may supervise and delegate assignments to other paralegals and clerical staff.
Communication skills. Paralegals must be able to document and present their research and related information to their supervising attorney.
Computer skills. Paralegals need to be familiar with using computers for legal research and litigation support. They also use computer programs for organizing and maintaining important documents.
Interpersonal skills. Paralegals spend most of their time working with clients and other professionals and must be able to develop good relationships. They must make clients feel comfortable sharing personal information related to their cases.
Organizational skills. Paralegals may be responsible for many cases at one time. They must adapt quickly to changing deadlines.
Research skills. Paralegals need good research and investigative skills to conduct legal research.
The median annual wage for paralegals and legal assistants was $46,990 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,420, and the top 10 percent earned more than $75,410.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for paralegals and legal assistants in the top five industries in which these paralegals worked were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$62,400|
|Finance and insurance||54,670|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||47,000|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||42,050|
In general, paralegals that work for large law firms or in large cities earn more than those who work for small firms or in smaller cities.
Most paralegals and legal assistants work full time.
Employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 17 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.
As law firms try to increase the efficiency of legal services and lower their expenses, they are expected to hire more paralegals and legal assistants. Some law firms are rethinking their project staffing and rebuilding their support staff by hiring paralegals, who may be given some of the administrative tasks previously assigned to legal secretaries.
Law firms also are attempting to reduce billing costs due to pressure from clients. Paralegals can be a less costly alternative to lawyers and can perform a wide variety of duties, including tasks once done by lawyers. This will cause an increase in demand for paralegals and legal assistants.
While law firms will continue to be the largest employers of paralegals, many large corporations are increasing their in-house legal departments to cut costs. For many companies, the high cost of lawyers and their support staff makes it more economical to have an in-house legal department, rather than to retain outside counsel. This will lead to an increase in the demand of legal workers in a variety of settings, such as finance and insurance firms, consulting firms, and healthcare providers.
However, demand for paralegals could be limited by law firms’ workloads. When work is slow, lawyers may keep billable assignments for themselves and delegate less work to paralegals. This may make a firm less likely to keep some paralegals on staff or to hire new ones until the workload increases.
This occupation attracts many applicants, and competition for jobs will be strong. Experienced, formally trained paralegals with strong computer and database management skills should have the best job prospects. In addition, many firms will prefer paralegals with experience and specialization in high-demand practice areas.
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