There are a lot of important factors to consider when building a successful law practice. In order to make sure a law firm’s operations run smoothly, partners have to develop a business plan that ensures all critical tasks are completed efficiently without overextending the firm’s budget. This is no small task, and there are many important decisions that need to be made as the firm grows.
One of the decisions firms must make is to choose how to best allocate important administrative, research, and support tasks. In recent years, that work has become increasingly divvied into two distinct jobs – that of a paralegal and that of a research assistant. Here, we will take an in-depth look at the role of a paralegal, notably what sorts of training and education are associated with the role, its anticipated salary, and what types of skills are necessary to succeed in that role.
While there can be some overlap between a paralegal and a legal assistant, paralegals handle, generally, more substantive work and are compensated at a slightly higher rate. Those are a few of the major differences between the roles, but there are plenty more. Let’s begin by defining the role and delving into the particulars of what a paralegal does on a day-to-day basis.
What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is a legal professional who works under the supervision of a lawyer and performs tasks such as legal research, drafting legal documents, and assisting with client communication. Paralegals typically have a certificate or degree in paralegal studies and may specialize in a particular area of law, such as corporate law, intellectual property law, or family law. While paralegals cannot provide legal advice or represent clients in court, they play an important role in the legal profession by providing support to lawyers and helping to ensure that legal matters are handled efficiently and effectively.
According to information from the American Bar Association (ABA), the presently accepted definition of a paralegal refers to an individual “qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
An earlier version of this definition was first adopted by the ABA’s House of Delegates in 1997, but it has since been updated, notes the association. That was done at the ABA Midyear meeting in February of 2020, again by the House of Delegates with the guidance of the Standing Committee on Paralegals, and was done so specifically to help differentiate the role from that of a legal assistant.
What does a paralegal do?
Paralegal work often involves a fair amount of research and litigation-specific paperwork. Individuals with strong research and organizational skills, attention to detail, and a basic understanding of legal work procedures tend to thrive in these roles. Often, paralegals will also be asked to compile evidence and assist with the filing of appeals. As this work is directly related to actual litigation, ParalegalEDU.org notes individuals in these positions can usually bill for their time.
While paralegals do tend to take on more substantive work than other support positions, there are, naturally, some limitations to what they are expected, and allowed, to do. Since paralegals are not licensed to practice law, they are not permitted to give legal advice, nor are they allowed to sign pleadings, take depositions, or, naturally, represent clients in a courtroom. They can, however, draft discovery notices, interview clients, and prepare certain legal documents pertaining to legal matters and transactions, it adds.
Having someone on hand to handle these responsibilities is extremely helpful to law firms with associates and partners whose time is already stretched thin. For this reason, hiring a paralegal to handle these substantive tasks is extremely helpful, and firms looking for someone to help lighten their attorneys’ workload may want to consider a paralegal over, for example, a legal assistant.
How to become a paralegal?
Paralegals, unlike attorneys governed by respective state supreme courts, are not regulated in the U.S. They do not have a strict, required set of specific educational requirements for their paralegal career. There are, however, lots of avenues prospective paralegals might take in order to prepare for the responsibilities of the role. For example, the ABA does approve several paralegal-specific programs, and there are a number of post-degree certifications available to those with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, notes ParalegalEDU.
“Many paralegals seek additional education at the bachelor’s level to specialize in a specific area of law (criminal law, real estate law, immigration law, family law, etc.) and elevate their credentials for better professional opportunities and increased pay,” adds the informational resource.
Better educated and more specialized paralegals, in turn, provide an even greater value to the law firms that take them on. This provides more flexibility for law firms with respect to training paralegals for more advanced work and also puts those paralegals in a better position to advance to higher positions later – a true win-win.
Additionally, Thomson Reuters Westlaw offers a Paralegal Certification course as well. Prospective applicants can register at any time for the continuously available course.
How much do paralegals make?
Job hunters looking to find work as a paralegal can expect, at present, an average annual salary of $57,000, per Indeed. As an hourly wage, paralegals can expect roughly $31.59, with the cities of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. offering the highest average wages for paralegals.
According to information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the combined paralegal and legal assistant professions are expected to grow much faster than average in the ten-year period ending in 2031. In that time period, notes BLS, the space is expected to expand to the tune of 14% — this is good news for individuals hoping to find work in this area. Additionally, data indicated there are approximately 45,800 openings each year in these areas.
“Law firms also are attempting to reduce billing costs as clients push for less expensive legal services. Due to their lower billing rates to clients, paralegals are less costly than lawyers in performing a variety of tasks previously assigned to entry-level lawyers. This should increase demand for paralegals and legal assistants,” reads information from BLS.
What to consider when hiring a paralegal?
As mentioned above, paralegals must possess strong legal research and organizational skills and keen attention to detail. Law firms and legal departments seeking to hire one should put a strong emphasis on identifying candidates with these skills and focus on them during the interview process.
Another important trait that a burgeoning paralegal needs is a willingness to continually learn the demands of the job and evolve as those demands change. Further, just as important as it is for job candidates to have the inherent drive to continue learning, it is also beneficial for law firms to help facilitate that growth once they have found a strong candidate.
Reads the ABA: “Most state bars require continuing legal education for attorneys as the legal world is always evolving. A paralegal’s willingness to continue their education and the attorney’s acceptance of providing the time and means for their paralegal to continue their education is imperative. Local and statewide paralegal associations are great ways for paralegals to get the education and support they need to continue growing in the legal field.”
Additionally, quips the ABA, law firms looking to hire a paralegal should keep their eye out for any available “psychics.” While the trade group makes the suggestion tongue-in-cheek, it does point out that having someone with the ability to anticipate wants, needs, and problems associated with legal work, and put contingencies in place to mitigate those problems ahead of time, can make a huge difference.
“A paralegal that knows a mediation statement needs to be done and gets a draft of the statement to the attorney before the attorney has to ask for it is indispensable to that attorney,” adds the trade association.
Finding candidates with a solid understanding of these legal procedures, especially as they pertain to the types of law practiced at a given firm, will go a long way in building a mutually successful employer-employee relationship.
Resume tips for candidates
As is the case with most any specialized job, prospective candidates would do well to tailor their resumes with content and language appealing to law professionals looking to add a paralegal to their ranks. And of course, as with any resume, it is especially important it be clean, well-edited, and professional-looking; this will show associates and partners that the candidate values attention to detail for a paralegal job.
Fremont University, a Cerritos, California institution that offers a number of professional degrees including one for aspiring paralegals, suggests emphasizing internships, previous work experience, and even specific courses relevant to the legal profession on prospective paralegal’s resume. They must showcase that they have the paralegal education needed for the job. Further still, adds the school, candidates should also be sure to note academic organizations they might have been a part of or related activities that showcase team-oriented skills and leadership ability.
For those who may have worked or volunteered at a law firm or other legal entity, it is advisable to include a description of those experiences as well, notes Fremont’s paralegal resumes guide. It is always beneficial to highlight any previous exposure to the types of work environments paralegals will be facing should they be hired. The more time a candidate can show they spent grappling with the complexities of a law office, the more attractive that candidate comes to law firms looking for individuals expected to hit the ground running.
Legal assistant vs. paralegal
The main difference between paralegals and legal assistants is in the scope of their responsibilities. Paralegals typically have more extensive legal education and training, and may perform tasks such as legal research, drafting legal documents, and assisting with client communication. Legal assistants, on the other hand, typically focus on administrative and clerical tasks such as managing documents and files, scheduling appointments and court dates, and communicating with clients and other parties involved in legal matters.
Additionally, the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” may be used interchangeably depending on the jurisdiction and the specific employer.
Legal assistants, also sometimes referred to as litigation assistants (or legal secretaries), do sometimes share some overlap in responsibilities. This is often the case in smaller law firms with less support staff available. However, legal assistants, are tasked with organizational and administrative tasks like answering phone calls, setting up appointments, and keeping track of other day-to-day considerations.
As such, these responsibilities can often be rather broad and are suited to employees with a well-rounded skill set. Individuals with strong communication skills and strong organizational skills tend to do well in this role. And while legal assistants do not necessarily have the same degree of public interaction, it is still important they be able to effectively dialogue with attorneys, litigants, and other legal professionals.
Paralegals are expected to have a basic understanding of the law, an aptitude for research, strong organizational abilities, and a sharp eye. There are no government-sanctioned educational requirements to be a paralegal, however, a number of bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs are available to prospective employees to complete their paralegal studies.
In a fast-growing field, they can expect more than $31 an hour, and the best wages tend to come out of urban areas like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Paralegals sometimes share some responsibility overlap with legal assistants, however, legal assistants generally do more administrative work compared to more substantive tasks like compiling evidence and interviewing clients.