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by Kaitlin Louie

Paralegals and legal assistants are an essential part of the personnel at law firms and the legal departments of companies. Paralegals support lawyers by performing a wide variety of tasks, including organizing and maintaining files, drafting legal documents, and conducting research for cases. Working as a paralegal or legal assistant can provide individuals with the opportunity to engage in a wide variety of challenging legal assignments, and thus this profession can be rewarding for those interested in law and its application.

Paralegal Legal Assistant

Paralegal jobs are available at, not only law firms, but also multiple organizations within the public and private sectors. Examples of some private organizations that require and employ paralegals include insurance companies, health care organizations and hospitals, real estate companies, and corporate legal departments. In the public sector, paralegal positions are often available at consumer organizations, city attorneys’ offices, community legal services organizations, and federal and state government agencies.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), the employment of paralegals and legal assistants is expected to grow by 18 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is about as fast as the average for all occupations. As this profession appeals to many individuals, competition for paralegal positions should be strong. As a result, important that people who aspire to be paralegals receive adequate training and relevant education.

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If interested in a career as a paralegal or legal assistant, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:

Read CareerColleges.com's interview with paralegal instructors, Sheri Valentine and Marisol Abuin, to discover tips and advice on how to succeed in a paralegal training program. Our interview with professional paralegal, Linda McGrath-Cruz, offers insights into the day-to-day responsibilities of the job.

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How does one become a paralegal or legal assistant?

While the career path of the paralegal varies from individual to individual, the general steps towards becoming a paralegal/legal assistant can be summarized as follows:

  1. Complete one of the following educational pathways:
  2. Enroll in an associate degree program in paralegal studies or a related field.
  3. Complete an associate or bachelor’s degree in one’s field of choice, and complete coursework to earn a certificate in paralegal studies.
  4. Take a test to receive certification (optional) to increase one’s competitiveness in the job market.
  5. Apply for paralegal positions at law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.
  6. Look into potential career advancement opportunities such as gaining specialized work experience or receiving more advanced certifications.

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What is the difference between paralegals, legal assistants, law clerks, court clerks, and legal secretaries?

Paralegals and legal assistants are effectively the same. Paralegals and legal assistants are different from law clerks and court clerks. Legal secretaries share some of the office duties of a paralegal, but are not as involved in the legal research for and discussion of court cases.

  • Paralegals/Legal Assistants are individuals who are trained specifically to assist lawyers in certain research, writing, and clerical tasks. They also participate in trial preparations and case discussions with lawyers and other legal professionals.
  • Law Clerks are law school students or graduates who assist lawyers or judges in order to get on-the-job experience prior to becoming lawyers themselves. Contrary to their title, law clerks do not generally perform clerical or administrative work; their role is that of an apprentice to a lawyer or judge.
  • Court Clerks are officials of judicial courts who receive, organize, file, and maintain court pleadings, motions, judgments, and other court documents and declarations.
  • Legal Secretaries are administrative assistants in law offices. They are generally familiar with legal procedures, but handle more of the office duties in a law firm, and are not involved in case research, discussion, and development.

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What kinds of paralegal and legal assistant training programs are available?

The American Bar Association (ABA), one of the largest organizations in the world that supports lawyers and other legal professionals, estimates that over 1,000 paralegal education programs exist in the U.S. These programs range from certification programs to bachelor’s degree programs, and are available at both public and private institutions, such as community colleges, four-year institutions, and for-profit and business schools. Due to the competitiveness of paralegal positions, candidates with higher levels of education in paralegal studies or a related field may have more job opportunities. A summary of the general degree offerings available to prospective paralegals is provided below.

Associate Degree Programs

Most paralegals have at least an associate degree in paralegal studies or a related field. Associate degrees in a legal field generally take 2 years to complete, and typically include coursework on the fundamentals of America’s legal system and the essential practices of a paralegal (for more information on course content for these programs, please see the next question). Associate degree programs are geared towards preparing candidates for general, full time paralegal work; such programs therefore do not commonly have tracks for specialization in a certain type of law.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Some four-year institutions offer students the option of majoring or minoring in paralegal studies for their bachelor’s degree. Such bachelor’s degree programs incorporate coursework in other fields such as the humanities, social sciences, communications, mathematics, etc. in addition to courses on the fundamentals of American law and paralegal practice. In addition, bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies often allow students to take more advanced legal coursework and to specialize in a certain field of law. Therefore, students who earn a bachelor’s degree can increase their competitiveness in the job market.

Certificate Programs

In general, certificate programs are for people who have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree in another field and who would like to pursue a paralegal career. In the competitive job market for paralegals, a certificate in paralegal studies without an accompanying degree may not suffice for employment. Many educational institutions that provide these certificates only accept candidates who are pursuing or have already received their college or university degree. Despite these restrictions, a certificate program could serve as an efficient and cost-effective way of changing career paths for individuals who have an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in a subject unrelated to paralegal studies.

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What topics do paralegal training programs cover?

In general, paralegal training programs include coursework on the following topics:

  • Fundamentals of the Legal System—coursework on the American legal system and established litigation practices. Classes in this subject cover the American justice system, essential litigation practices, and the role that paralegals play in this larger system.
  • Important Areas of Law—the essential aspects of common fields of law, including family law, criminal law, business law, real estate law, contract law, etc.
  • Legal Research and Writing—how to navigate law libraries and databases for research purposes; using government documents, legal periodicals, encyclopedias, statutes, codes, digests, citations, etc. to find evidence for a case; synthesizing the various research sources to yield a well- supported argument or case.
  • Trial Preparations and Procedures—preparing trial presentations, organizing trial binders and other materials, and handling trial logistics.
  • Legal Software—managing case data, presentations, and scheduling using legal software.
  • Paralegal and Lawyer Ethics—ethical codes of conduct for the paralegal and lawyer; specific situations and settings in which ethics are particularly important.
  • Internship/Externship—hands-on experience working in a legal department.

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Are online programs in paralegal studies available? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such programs?

Online paralegal training and degree programs are available at many educational institutions, from 4-year universities to community colleges and vocational schools. These programs typically feature online course modules (including web-based lectures and textbooks), assignments and exams that can be completed online, and web-based forums in which students are often required to discuss class concepts and principles with their peers. Student to teacher interactions are also generally conducted via email and web chats.

Online programs offer a number of advantages, particularly for students who have limited access to transportation or who have very busy schedules. These advantages include saving on transportation time and costs, as well as flexibility in terms of when and where they can listen to course lectures and complete class assignments. As a result, online paralegal programs may be an efficient and cost-effective option for individuals who work full-time or who have family obligations preventing them from enrolling at a brick-and-mortar institution.

However, despite these advantages, online programs do not fit all circumstances, learning styles, and professional goals. The lack of face-to- face interaction with program instructors can prove difficult for some students. In addition, some individuals prefer the structure of an on- campus course, with set class times and in-person discussions. Furthermore, some employers might prefer their paralegals to have received in- person training and education. Paralegal candidates should thoroughly research what programs best fit their schedule, budget, and desired employers’ expectations.

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What is the difference between a paralegal certificate and paralegal certification?

The terms certificate and certification are often confused with one another. It is important to remember that certificates are confirmations that an individual has successfully completed a paralegal education and/or training program, while certifications are formal recognitions that a paralegal has met certain standards or requirements held by an independent certifying organization. While educational institutions grant certificates, certifying associations provide certifications.

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Are professional paralegal certifications beneficial to my career?

In addition to one’s educational program in legal studies or a related field, paralegal candidates may want to consider earning a certification to increase their qualifications and competitiveness in the job market. Certification is defined as the formal recognition that a non-governmental organization grants to an individual for meeting certain professional and educational qualifications. Certification is not mandatory for paralegals in the United States, but it could provide a competitive edge for candidates as it is an official indication that they have met a certain standard for their profession.

To become certified, candidates typically must take and pass an exam administered by the sponsoring organization, and meet specific educational or professional requirements. Some of the organizations that provide certifications are listed below with their requirements:

  • National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)—has sponsored certification examinations since 1976, and offers advanced specialty exams in addition to their general Certified Paralegal (CP) exam. The CP exam includes questions on the following topics: Communications, Ethics, Legal Research, Judgment and Analytical Ability, and Substantive Law.
  • National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)—provides the Paralegal Core Competency Examination (PCCE) and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE), both of which qualify individuals for paralegal certification with the organization. PCCE contains less rigorous questions, and is geared towards entry-level and early-career paralegals. PACE is mainly intended for individuals who have completed a paralegal education program and obtained several years of professional experience.
  • National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)—offers the Accredited Legal Secretary (ALS), Professional Legal Secretary (PLS), and Professional Paralegal (PP) examinations for paralegals to enhance their qualifications. The ALS provides a basic certification for all legal professionals, while the PLS grants candidates an advanced certification. While the ALS and PLS certifications are available to all legal professionals, the PP certification was developed specifically for paralegals.
  • The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI)—offers the American Alliance of Paralegals Certification, or AAPC. In lieu of an exam, this certification requires that applicants complete a paralegal education program from an accredited or ABA-approved institution, send in an official transcript from their educational program, and submit an affidavit from their attorney employer that verifies their work experience. Other state-sponsored certification organizations also exist, a list of which is available at the American Bar Association’s website. Paralegal associations can also be helpful sources of information regarding available jobs in one’s area.

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What are the key responsibilities of the paralegal or legal assistant?

As law firms and legal departments differ in their daily tasks and work objectives, the job responsibilities of the paralegal/legal assistant can vary considerably. However, in general the responsibilities of the paralegal may include:

  • Write, edit, organize, or otherwise prepare legal documents such as affidavits, legal correspondence, pleadings, briefs, appeals, contracts, wills, mortgages, etc.
  • Conduct research on laws, regulations, legal articles, and public records that are relevant to a case
  • Organize, synthesize, and present research findings to lawyers in preparation for a case
  • Discuss case details with clients and colleagues
  • Assist in preparation of trial materials and presentations
  • File pleadings with the court
  • Write legal reports and maintain records of cases

Supplemental responsibilities of the paralegal/legal assistant may include:

  • Maintain and organize legal volumes in law library or databases
  • Contact witnesses to request testimony
  • Coordinate law office activity, including subpoena delivery

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What tools and technology do paralegals and legal assistants use?

Paralegals frequently use tools and technology that enable them to conduct research, write and organize documents, and keep track of case and client information.

  • Desktop and laptop computers
  • Office organization supplies
  • Scanners
  • Software for the following functions: research and scientific analysis, customer relationship management, desktop publishing, word processing, and spreadsheet development

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What skills are required for the paralegal profession?

Paralegals are called upon to conduct a wide variety of research and writing-related tasks, as well as to discuss case details with clients and other legal professionals. As a result, they should possess the following skills:

  • Reading and Writing—paralegals must have a strong mastery of the English language in order to read and comprehend complex legal and research documents. Furthermore, paralegals must be able to translate legal edicts, research findings, etc. into comprehensible prose for legal documents and correspondence, affidavits, contracts, etc.
  • Research—researching and finding data to support a case is another fundamental task that paralegals undertake. Thus, paralegals should be able to navigate law libraries, databases, and other legal resources.
  • Organizational Skills—another key task for the paralegal is maintaining organization of legal files, case documents, and other law office materials.
  • Oral Communication—after conducting research on a case topic, paralegals may be required to present their findings to lawyers, other case professionals, and clients
  • Interpersonal¬—when not researching, writing, or organizing legal documents and case materials, paralegals may spend much of their day interacting directly with legal professionals and case clients. As a result, making clients feel at ease and working efficiently and productively with lawyers and fellow paralegals can be very important.
  • Time management—paralegals typically work in a fast-paced and goal-oriented environment, and may be called upon to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. Good time management skills and an ability to handle multiple responsibilities at once are considered important abilities in this field.

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What is the typical job environment for the paralegal or legal assistant?

While job environments differ according to place of employment (a law firm, for example, will have a different job setting than the legal department of a health care organization), paralegals generally work in a focused and work-intensive environment with pressing deadlines. Paralegals interact on a daily basis with lawyers, fellow paralegals, court clerks and other officials, and case clients. When they are not organizing files in lawyers’ offices, paralegals often work in cubicles or share offices with other legal assistants.

While the responsibilities of a paralegal can be stressful, the intellectual and monetary benefits of this position are worth considering. Paralegals usually face constant intellectual challenges, from synthesizing important research data into an argument for a case, to discussing important legal concepts with fellow professionals. In addition, the general case-by-case nature of the work in a law office can help paralegals gain exposure to multiple types of projects.

Paralegals at law firms can often work more than 40 hours per week. Overtime is often paid at a higher rate than normal hours, however. Paralegals who work at legal departments of corporations or government agencies are more likely to work a standard 40-hour workweek.

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How can I advance my career in the paralegal/legal assistant field?

Paralegals can advance their career by gaining work experience. As paralegals work and both develop and demonstrate their relevant skills set, they may progress to higher-paying management positions in which they train and supervise other paralegals and secretarial staff. Further experience or education in the legal field can also enable paralegals to specialize in a particular field of law, which can lead to a higher salary.

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What is the employment outlook for paralegals and legal assistants in the United States?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), the employment of paralegals and legal assistants is expected to grow by 18 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is about as fast as the national average for all occupations. This projected increase in the employment of paralegals can be attributed to the fact that many law firms and legal departments are looking to reduce company costs and increase efficiency, and are thus more likely to hire paralegals as a less expensive and more versatile alternative to lawyers.

States with the highest employment level for paralegals as of May 2011:

State

Employment

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

California

26,030

$28.38

$59,030

New York

22,340

$26.36

$54,840

Florida

21,330

$22.50

$46,810

Texas

16,730

$23.88

$49,670

North Carolina

9,970

$19.93

$41,450

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

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What is the typical range for paralegal salaries in the United States?

According to bls.gov, the mean average compensation for paralegals and legal assistants in 2011 was $49,960 per year, or $24.02 per hour. Most paralegals work full time (plus overtime in some cases). Paralegal salaries can vary depending on the number of hours a paralegal works per week, the tasks that he/she undertakes, and his/her qualifications or level of expertise in a particular field of law. Similarly, working hours for paralegals vary according to the kind of organization for which they work.

Percentile wage estimates for paralegals as of May 2011:

Percentile

10%

25%

50%
(Median)

75%

90%

Hourly Wage

$14.13

$17.42

$22.47

$28.83

$36.25

Annual Wage

$29,390

$36,230

$46,730

$59,970

$75,400

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

Top paying states for paralegals as of May 2011:

State

Employment

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

District of Columbia

6,950

$32.75

$68,120

California

26,030

$28.38

$59,030

New Jersey

6,790

$27.10

$56,370

New York

22,340

$26.36

$54,840

Illinois

9,820

$25.79

$53,640

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

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Related Careers:

  • Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners, and Investigators evaluate insurance claims to determine if and how much an insurance company must pay for a claim.
  • Secretaries and Administrative Assistants write messages, draft correspondence, organize files and offices, schedule appointments, and help support and direct other staff members in a company.
  • Court Reporters electronically record court proceedings, legislative assemblies, and other legal meetings and transcribe these electronic records into written documents. Court reporters are also responsible for organizing and providing these records and documents to legal professionals upon request.
  • Court Clerks perform administrative tasks for a judicial court, including preparing schedules for current and upcoming court cases, recording and organizing court orders, case dispositions, and court fee payments, explaining court procedures to involved parties and the public, and writing and issuing orders of the court.
  • Legal Secretaries perform administrative duties for a law office, including writing legal correspondence, maintaining files of legal documents, handling calls to the office, scheduling appointments, assisting lawyers in collecting information relevant to a case, and billing clients for legal services.

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Resources and Additional Information:

"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Legal/Paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Paralegals and Legal Assistants
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-2011.00" | O*Net Online: Paralegals and Legal Assistants
"http://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals.html" | American Bar Association: Standing Committee on Paralegals
"http://www.nala.org/" | National Association of Legal Assistants
"http://www.paralegals.org/" | National Federation of Paralegal Associations
"http://www.nals.org/" | National Association for Legal Professionals
"http://www.aapipara.org/" | The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.


Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.