Paralegals and Legal Assistants
- About 7 out of 10 work for law firms; others work for corporate
legal departments and government agencies.
- Most entrants have an associateís degree in paralegal studies,
or a bachelorís degree coupled with a certificate in paralegal
- Employment is projected to grow much faster than average,
as employers try to reduce costs by hiring paralegals to perform
tasks formerly carried out by lawyers.
- Competition for jobs should continue; experienced, formally
trained paralegals should have the best employment opportunities.
While lawyers assume ultimate responsibility for legal work,
they often delegate many of their tasks to paralegals. In fact,
paralegalsóalso called legal assistantsóare continuing to assume
a growing range of tasks in the Nationís legal offices and perform
many of the same tasks as lawyers. Nevertheless, they are still explicitly
prohibited from carrying out duties that are considered to be
the practice of law, such as setting legal fees, giving legal
advice, and presenting cases in court.
One of a paralegalís most important tasks is helping lawyers
prepare for closings, hearings, trials, and corporate meetings.
Paralegals investigate the facts of cases and ensure that all
relevant information is considered. They also identify appropriate
laws, judicial decisions, legal articles, and other materials
that are relevant to assigned cases. After they analyze and organize
the information, paralegals may prepare written reports that attorneys
use in determining how cases should be handled. Should attorneys
decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help
prepare the legal arguments, draft pleadings and motions to be
filed with the court, obtain affidavits, and assist attorneys
during trials. Paralegals also organize and track files of all
important case documents and make them available and easily accessible
In addition to this preparatory work, paralegals perform a number
of other vital functions. For example, they help draft contracts,
mortgages, separation agreements, and instruments of trust. They
also may assist in preparing tax returns and planning estates.
Some paralegals coordinate the activities of other law office
employees and maintain financial office records. Various additional
tasks may differ, depending on the employer.
Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most
are employed by law firms, corporate legal departments, and various
government offices. In these organizations, they can work in many
different areas of the law, including litigation, personal injury,
corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property,
labor law, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate.
As the law has become more complex, paralegals have responded
by becoming more specialized. Within specialties, functions often
are broken down further so that paralegals may deal with a specific
area. For example, paralegals specializing in labor law may concentrate
exclusively on employee benefits.
The duties of paralegals also differ widely with the type of
organization in which they are employed. Paralegals who work for
corporations often assist attorneys with employee contracts, shareholder
agreements, stock-option plans, and employee benefit plans. They
also may help prepare and file annual financial reports, maintain
corporate minutesí record resolutions, and prepare forms to secure
loans for the corporation. Paralegals often monitor and review
government regulations to ensure that the corporation is aware
of new requirements and is operating within the law. Increasingly,
experienced paralegals are assuming additional supervisory responsibilities
such as overseeing team projects and serving as a communications
link between the team and the corporation.
The duties of paralegals who work in the public sector usually
vary within each agency. In general, paralegals analyze legal
material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research
for attorneys, and collect and analyze evidence for agency hearings.
They may prepare informative or explanatory material on laws,
agency regulations, and agency policy for general use by the agency
and the public. Paralegals employed in community legal-service
projects help the poor, the aged, and others who are in need of
legal assistance. They file forms, conduct research, prepare documents,
and, when authorized by law, may represent clients at administrative
Paralegals in small and medium-size law firms usually perform
a variety of duties that require a general knowledge of the law.
For example, they may research judicial decisions on improper
police arrests or help prepare a mortgage contract. Paralegals
employed by large law firms, government agencies, and corporations,
however, are more likely to specialize in one aspect of the law.
Familiarity with computers use and technical knowledge have become
essential to paralegal work. Computer software packages and the
Internet are used to search legal literature stored in computer
databases and on CD-ROM. In litigation involving many supporting
documents, paralegals usually use computer databases to retrieve,
organize, and index various materials. Imaging software allows
paralegals to scan documents directly into a database, while billing
programs help them to track hours billed to clients. Computer
software packages also are used to perform tax computations and
explore the consequences of various tax strategies for clients.
Paralegals employed by corporations and government usually work
a standard 40-hour week. Although most paralegals work year round,
some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year and
then are released when the workload diminishes. Paralegals who
work for law firms sometimes work very long hours when they are
under pressure to meet deadlines. Some law firms reward such loyalty
with bonuses and additional time off.
These workers handle many routine assignments, particularly when
they are inexperienced. As they gain experience, paralegals usually
assume more varied tasks with additional responsibility. Paralegals
do most of their work at desks in offices and law libraries. Occasionally,
they travel to gather information and perform other duties.
|Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
There are several ways to become a paralegal. The most common
is through a community college paralegal program that leads to
an associateís degree. The other common method of entry, mainly
for those who already have a college degree, is through a program
that leads to a certification in paralegal studies. A small number
of schools also offer bachelorís and masterís degrees in paralegal
studies. Some employers train paralegals on the job, hiring college
graduates with no legal experience or promoting experienced legal
secretaries. Other entrants have experience in a technical field
that is useful to law firms, such as a background in tax preparation
for tax and estate practice or in criminal justice, nursing, or
health administration for personal injury practice.
An estimated 1,000 colleges and universities, law schools, and
proprietary schools offer formal paralegal training programs.
Approximately 260 paralegal programs are approved by the American
Bar Association (ABA). Although many programs do not require such
approval, graduation from an ABA-approved program can enhance
oneís employment opportunities. The requirements for admission
to these programs vary. Some require certain college courses or
a bachelorís degree, others accept high school graduates or those
with legal experience, and a few schools require standardized
tests and personal interviews.
Paralegal programs include 2-year associate degreeís programs,
4-year bachelorís degree programs, and certificate programs that
can take only a few months to complete. Most certificate programs
provide intensive and, in some cases, specialized paralegal training
for individuals who already hold college degrees, while associateís
and bachelorís degree programs usually combine paralegal training
with courses in other academic subjects. The quality of paralegal
training programs varies; the better programs usually include
job placement services. Programs generally offer courses introducing
students to the legal applications of computers, including how
to perform legal research on the Internet. Many paralegal training
programs also 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 bank, a
corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, or a government
agency. Experience gained in internships is an asset when one
is seeking a job after graduation. Prospective students should
examine the experiences of recent graduates before enrolling in
a paralegal program.
Although most employers do not require certification, earning
a voluntary certificate from a professional society may offer
advantages in the labor market. The National Association of Legal
Assistants (NALA), for example, has established standards for
certification requiring various combinations of education and
experience. Paralegals who meet these standards are eligible to
take a 2-day examination, given three times each year at several
regional testing centers. Those who pass this examination may
use the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation. The NALA
also offers an advanced paralegal certification for those who
want to specialize in other areas of the law. In addition, the
Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam, administered through the National
Federation of Paralegal Associations, offers professional recognition
to paralegals with a bachelorís degree and at least 2 years of
experience. Those who pass this examination may use the Registered
Paralegal (RP) designation.
Paralegals must be able to document and present their findings
and opinions to their supervising attorney. They need to understand
legal terminology and have good research and investigative skills.
Familiarity with the operation and applications of computers in
legal research and litigation support also is important. Paralegals
should stay informed of new developments in the laws that affect
their area of practice. Participation in continuing legal education
seminars allows paralegals to maintain and expand their knowledge
of the law.
Because paralegals frequently deal with the public, they should
be courteous and uphold the ethical standards of the legal profession.
The National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation
of Paralegal Associations, and a few States have established ethical
guidelines for paralegals to follow.
Paralegals usually are given more responsibilities and require
less supervision as they gain work experience. Experienced paralegals
who work in large law firms, corporate legal departments, or government
agencies may supervise and delegate assignments to other paralegals
and clerical staff. Advancement opportunities also include promotion
to managerial and other law-related positions within the firm
or corporate legal department. However, some paralegals find it
easier to move to another law firm when seeking increased responsibility
Paralegals and legal assistants held about 224,000 jobs in 2004.
Private law firms employed 7 out of 10 paralegals and legal assistants;
most of the remainder worked for corporate legal departments and
various levels of government. Within the Federal Government, the
U.S. Department of Justice is the largest employer, followed by
the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of
the Treasury. A small number of paralegals own their own businesses
and work as freelance legal assistants, contracting their services
to attorneys or corporate legal departments.
Employment for paralegals and legal assistants is projected to
grow much faster than average for all occupations through 2014.
Employers are trying to reduce costs and increase the availability
and efficiency of legal services by hiring paralegals to perform
tasks formerly carried out by lawyers. Besides new jobs created
by employment growth, additional job openings will arise as people
leave the occupation. Despite projections of rapid employment
growth, competition for jobs should continue as many people seek
to go into this profession; however, experienced, formally trained
paralegals should have the best employment opportunities.
Private law firms will continue to be the largest employers of
paralegals, but a growing array of other organizations, such as
corporate legal departments, insurance companies, real estate
and title insurance firms, and banks hire paralegals. Corporations
in particular are boosting their in-house legal departments to
cut costs. Demand for paralegals also is expected to grow as an
expanding population increasingly requires legal services, especially
in areas such as intellectual property, health care, international
law, elder issues, criminal law, and environmental law. Paralegals
who specialize in areas such as real estate, bankruptcy, medical
malpractice, and product liability should have ample employment
opportunities. The growth of prepaid legal plans also should contribute
to the demand for legal services. Paralegal employment is expected
to increase as organizations presently employing paralegals assign
them a growing range of tasks and as paralegals are increasingly
employed in small and medium-size establishments. A growing number
of experienced paralegals are expected to establish their own
Job opportunities for paralegals will expand in the public sector
as well. Community legal-service programs, which provide assistance
to the poor, elderly, minorities, and middle-income families,
will employ additional paralegals to minimize expenses and serve
the most people. Federal, State, and local government agencies,
consumer organizations, and the courts also should continue to
hire paralegals in increasing numbers.
To a limited extent, paralegal jobs are affected by the business
cycle. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary
legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and
handling real estate transactions. Corporations are less inclined
to initiate certain types of litigation when falling sales and
profits lead to fiscal belt tightening. As a result, full-time
paralegals employed in offices adversely affected by a recession
may be laid off or have their work hours reduced. However, during
recessions, corporations and individuals are more likely to face
other problems that require legal assistance, such as bankruptcies,
foreclosures, and divorces. Paralegals, who provide many of the
same legal services as lawyers at a lower cost, tend to fare relatively
better in difficult economic conditions.
Earnings of paralegals and legal assistants vary greatly. Salaries
depend on education, training, experience, the type and size of
employer, and the geographic location of the job. In general,
paralegals who work for large law firms or in large metropolitan
areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less
populated regions. In addition to earning a salary, many paralegals
receive bonuses. In May 2004, full-time wage and salary paralegals
and legal assistants had median annual earnings, including bonuses,
of $39,130. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,040 and $49,950.
The top 10 percent earned more than $61,390, while the bottom
10 percent earned less than $25,360. Median annual earnings in
the industries employing the largest numbers of paralegals in
May 2004 were as follows:
Among the other occupations that call for a specialized understanding
of the law and the legal system, but do not require the extensive
training of a lawyer, are law clerks; title examiners, abstractors,
and searchers; claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators;
and occupational health and safety specialists and technicians.
|Sources of Additional Information
General information on a career as a paralegal can be obtained
For information on the Certified Legal Assistant exam, schools
that offer training programs in a specific State, and standards
and guidelines for paralegals, contact:
- National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc., 1516 South
Boston St., Suite 200, Tulsa, OK 74119. Internet: http://www.nala.org/
Information on a career as a paralegal, schools that offer training
programs, job postings for paralegals, the Paralegal Advanced
Competency Exam, and local paralegal associations can be obtained
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations, 2517 Eastlake
Ave. East, Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98102. Internet: http://www.paralegals.org/
Information on paralegal training programs, including the pamphlet
How to Choose a Paralegal Education Program, may be obtained
- American Association for Paralegal Education, 19 Mantua Rd.,
Mt. Royal, NJ 08061. Internet: http://www.aafpe.org/
Information on obtaining positions as occupational health and
safety specialists and technicians with the Federal Government
is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS,
the Federal Governmentís official employment information system.
This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities
can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive
voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978)
461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
Source: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,