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Paralegals assist attorneys in completing many types of tasks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that most paralegals work in law firms, corporations, or government agencies, though they find employment in many different settings.
A paralegal is not an administrative assistant. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), a paralegal “performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
In 2020, the ABA removed the term “legal assistant” from its definition of paralegal. This deletion indicates that these professionals perform specialized legal work, not general administrative tasks.
To gain this legal expertise, paralegals generally complete an associate degree or a certificate in paralegal studies before beginning in this role.
What Are the Duties of a Paralegal?
Paralegals can have many specializations, including criminal law, intellectual property, real estate law, immigration law, and many others.
Paralegals’ responsibilities typically vary based on the size of the company or law firm where they work. For instance, a paralegal at a small law firm may perform several tasks on a case, while a paralegal at a large firm may be responsible for only one task.
Two Major Types of Paralegals
Corporate paralegals work with lawyers in business or nonprofit settings. They help their supervising attorneys review government regulations and laws, write contracts, and create financial reports.
Litigation paralegals help attorneys prepare for and litigate courtroom trials. Before trials, they may research cases, organize evidence, and compose reports, as well as secure affidavits and filing materials. During these trials, they also may help lawyers by taking notes and organizing evidence.
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The Timeline to Becoming a Paralegal
Paralegals need to acquire research, organizational, communication, computer, and interpersonal skills to be successful in this role. To gain these skills, aspiring professionals may pursue several pathways.
Most often, paralegals hold associate degrees in paralegal studies. If pursued full time, these programs typically take two years to complete.
However, some employers prefer (or require) paralegals to hold bachelor’s degrees. Very few postsecondary institutions offer bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies.
Instead, aspiring paralegals pursue four-year programs in other areas, like business or social sciences, then earn a post-baccalaureate certificate in paralegal studies. The ABA approves certain paralegal studies certificate programs.
Other employers may hire paralegals who hold bachelor’s degrees but do not have legal experience. These organizations instead provide on-the-job training.
Some paralegals also pursue certifications, distinct from certificate programs, to demonstrate their expertise. These certifications are designed for paralegals who meet education and experience requirements and/or complete exams.
For instance, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers its Certified Paralegal Program, which requires paralegals to complete several steps, including an exam and a regular re-certification.
Frequently Asked Questions About Being a Paralegal
What Do You Need to Become a Paralegal?
Paralegals typically need an associate degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree in any field with a post-baccalaureate certificate in paralegal studies. Though some employers may hire paralegals with only bachelor’s degrees and no additional training, paralegal-specific education is helpful in preparing for this field.
Is Being a Paralegal Difficult?
Paralegals help attorneys perform many different types of tasks. Depending on where you’re employed, you may be asked to research cases, file briefs, and coordinate trials. Certain law firms and companies may be less stressful or face-paced than others.
Paralegals can also specialize in different types of law that may be more or less demanding.
What Types of Paralegals Make the Most Money?
Paralegals in Scientific research and development services earned the highest mean wage in 2022, $108,350 (BLS, May 2022). Other high-earning sectors for paralegals include petroleum and coal products manufacturing ($106,780); web search portals, libraries, archives, and other information services ($104,840); and computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing ($102,810).
How Much Does It Cost to Become a Paralegal?
There are several educational pathways to becoming a paralegal. Associate degree programs in paralegal studies take around two years of full-time study to complete, though part-time programs may take longer.
After completing an associate degree program, professionals may also pursue certification, which is unique from a certificate. Certification may require you to complete an exam and/or meet requirements to become a “certified paralegal.”
Bachelor’s degree programs typically require a four-year commitment, followed by a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate. Certificated paralegals are able to work in the field.