To paraphrase the American Association for Paralegal Education, paralegals are professionals who do legal work, including research, that would otherwise be completed by attorneys. In other words, paralegals do many things that normal lawyers do. The difference is that paralegals don’t need a law degree. Since the training requirements for paralegals aren’t as rigorous, they aren’t paid as well. But they still make a good living for themselves and are in constant demand. The median salary for paralegals in The United States is around $45,000 per year.

Why Become a Paralegal?

One of the biggest upsides of paralegal work is job security. As long as law firms exists (even small law firms) good paralegals will be in demand because they provide lawyers with support at a fraction of the price of associate lawyers. Also, working at a law firm has its benefits—health and dental insurance for example. All that and more should be covered because successful law firms are making a lot of money every year.

A paralegal job could also be interesting for somebody who’s thinking about applying to law school. Paralegals see firsthand the day-to-day workings of the legal world. A paralegal job on your resume would also prove to a law school that you have genuine interest in law.

And if you like the notion of working in the corporate world but you don’t want to attend graduate school or take on the same amount of stress as most lawyers, a paralegal job could be a good option for you.

What Exactly Does a Paralegal Do?

At the beginning of the article, we went over a very basic description of what a paralegal does, but let’s delve into some more detail. This question is hard to answer because paralegals can do a lot of things. One central task performed by paralegals, however, is research. Paralegals research all types of things since law proceedings can be so multifaceted, but a lot of the research revolves around fact checking and finding relevant legal articles. A large aspect of law is understanding present conditions through some past precedent. For example, if I’m an injury lawyer representing the victim of a hit and run, I’ll brief a paralegal on the parameters of the case and then ask the paralegal to research past cases and legal precedents that could help me structure my case. In this situation, the paralegal would likely do research and then write up a short report. 

Another common duty for paralegals is client interviews. Paralegals are often present and take notes when a lawyer conducts an initial client interview. The purpose of this interview is for the lawyer to understand the broad spectrum of a case and why the client is seeking legal representation. After this initial interview, the paralegal sometimes conducts subsequent interviews or interviews secondary witnesses, then writes up a transcript or memo of each of these interviews.

A very large part of paralegal work is drafting documents such as subpoenas, complaints and deposition notices. Often these documents are form documents which means that they have a set template. All you need to do is insert snippets of info into a set template. On a subpoena, for example, you may just have to insert names and dates into blank spaces.

Paralegals also proofread many documents and contracts. It’s very important that when lawyers draw up a contract, the language is correct and there are no errors. A tiny error could prove to be a huge screw up that has legal ramifications and tarnishes a lawyer’s reputation. Paralegals have to be very good at proofreading and have sharp attention to detail.

The final and most menial duty of paralegals is general administrative tasks such as making copies, filing papers, answering phone calls, making travel plans for a lawyer, etc. These tasks are very simple as long as you’re organized. 

How To Become a Paralegal

To get a good paralegal job, you’ll need to have a college degree. But it doesn’t matter what you studied in college or even where your degree is from. Having a college degree from an accredited, four-year program proves that you have a certain aptitude for reading and writing and shows that you have a base level of discipline. The best paralegals demonstrate self-discipline and self-reliance in their professional endeavors so that a lawyer doesn’t need to constantly remind them about a particular task—they just get it done.  

Many paralegals are hired straight out of a college. Again, there’s a large demand for paralegals since every law firm needs them. If you don’t have a college degree or you don’t feel as though you’re college degree holds enough weight, you can pursue a Paralegal Certificate or an Associates Degree in Paralegal Studies. Many colleges and community college offer paralegal certificate programs. These certificate programs will likely take you one year of full time study to complete and cost around $5,000. An Associates Degree in Paralegal Studies will take you at least two years to complete and cost in the neighborhood of $20,000.  

Honestly, you should only pursue an Associates Degree in Paralegal Studies if you’re one hundred percent sure that being a paralegal is your life’s calling. This Associates Degree paired with an undergraduate will give you many job options, but at the end of the day, in order to be one of highest paid paralegals in the industry, you need to work your way up the ladder through years of consistently excellent performance. Your degrees are secondary with respect to how much you’ll get paid. A Paralegal Certificate paired with an undergraduate degree should be enough to impress perspective employers and prove to them that you’re sincerely interested in the paralegal profession.

Here's a video created by Emory's Continuing Education Paralegal Certificate Program that describes what they're looking for in an applicant.

Bottom Line

A paralegal position is a very stable job that will supply you with a steady income.  The real drawback to this profession, however, is that there’s little room for upward mobility. The top ten percent of paralegals earn around $80,000 per year, which is a lot of money, but you’re working hard for that money. A paralegal job is normally nine to five, but the work can be tedious—lots of proofreading and research. And once a paralegal, always a paralegal. You can’t be promoted. You can be a given a raise in terms of salary, but you’ll have the same job title, or a very similar job title, to kids right out of college. This lack of upward mobility is something to be aware of. 

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