Sometimes also called legal assistants, paralegals handle legal duties but are not licensed attorneys/lawyers. Paralegals can’t legally advise clients, but they do perform substantive legal work under the supervision of an attorney. Without them, attorneys and law firms may not be able to cope with a wide and growing range of tasks that includes case planning, conducting legal research and drafting legal documents.
Knowing that you can provide that type of support to some of the nation’s biggest legal offices may excite you. The role of a paralegal is just as much challenging as it is intellectually rewarding. So, if you are interested in becoming a paralegal, read on to learn more about the pros and cons of being a paralegal, and what to do to benefit from a paralegal career.
Life as a Paralegal
What is it like to be a paralegal? If you crave routine and predictability in your job, you may not find them as a paralegal. While your tasks may vary from day to day, much of what you are required to do may call for critical thinking, an eye for detail, the ability to multitask, some degree of patience, and good communication skills.
The Paralegal Association (NALA), a national membership organization for paralegal professionals, explains a paralegal’s role into eight essential functions:
- Draft and prepare legal documents. These include case files, pleadings, and other documents. Clear and precise writing is a core demand of the job.
- Organize and maintain paperwork. Attorneys rely on paralegals to keep their cases on track using an effective document management system.
- Interview clients and witnesses. Tact, diplomacy, and professionalism are critical when it comes to communicating with clients, witnesses and professionals. These traits can also help you represent your employer or organization well.
- Manage calendars and court schedules. Missed deadlines can be costly to law firm
- Confirm facts. To do this, you’ll need to conduct research, interviews, and employ other methods.
- Research legal issues. This may include finding applicable case laws and precedents.
- Analyze facts and legal issues. Breaking down your findings and figuring out how they are connected, can help your team make the strongest case for a client.
- Collaborate with and accompany attorneys to legal proceedings. You may find yourself at a trial or court hearing.
Pros of Being a Paralegal
If you decide to become a legal assistant or a paralegal, you’ll be signing up for a career in a fast-evolving field where your talents and worth ethic—not necessarily your degree or academic credentials—could be the key determinants of your success.
The benefits of being a paralegal may depend in part on your personal goals and values. But the advantages it offers include:
Various Places to Work
Paralegals handle work delegated by lawyers in a variety of industries and work settings. “Para” means alongside. So, while you may not be able to perform all the same legal duties as licensed lawyers, you are still a key member of the legal ecosystem.
Whether you’re employed by a private law firm or corporate legal department, you work closely with those who supervise you to ensure the satisfaction of clients. Private law firms and legal corporations are two common places where paralegals work, but you can also find positions with nonprofits or advocacy groups, real estate companies, banks, federal and local government agencies, or courts.
Potential Compensation Increase/Rising Pay
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of jobs for paralegals and legal assistants is expected to rise by 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, twice as fast as jobs for lawyers. Simply put, legal labor is cheaper when it’s done by paralegals. That’s something that both clients and employers are aware of. Still, paralegals earn above-average salaries.
In 2019, the BLS reported that half of all paralegals had annual incomes of more than $51,740, compared to a median income of $39,810 for all U.S. workers. To learn more about earning potential by industry and location, check out our paralegal salary guide.
Lifelong Career with Advancement Opportunities
As is the case with lawyers, paralegals’ salary may grow with tenure. The highest 10 percent of paralegals earned an annual salary of $82,500 or more in 2019, according to the BLS. Apart from being financially rewarded for your performance and experience, as a paralegal, you may gain value by focusing your expertise in specific niches, such as patent law or tax codes. This may be accomplished by earning your Master of Legal Studies degree, or a few years into your career. Either way, that expertise may help to boost your marketability within your existing company or another one.
Be sure to research job outlook for specific specialties as you embark on your paralegal career, carefully considering those that will provide you with advancement opportunities, those that fare well in the midst of economic turmoil or major global events, and those that will equip you with new skills that can be used across different industries.
If you’re fortunate enough as a paralegal to interact with clients from lots of different industries, the connections you forge will likely be invaluable and may lead you to an alternative career. Your post-paralegal or non-lawyer job options may include a mediator, administrator, publicist, development director, corporate recruiter, and project manager.
You may be able to get hired as a paralegal with a two-year associate degree in a related discipline or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, although the latter option is limited in terms of offerings. Generally, you don’t need to earn certification either. But remember, qualifications for any paralegal role depends on the employer. Some might only want to hire applicants who have completed a paralegal certification program approved by the American Bar Association, while others might accept candidates without it.
In its Utilization and Compensation Survey for 2018 [PDF,78 KB], NALA reported that more than 50 percent of respondents held a bachelor’s degree. And precisely 50 percent of the 1,112 paralegals who participated in the survey had completed a paralegal certificate program. While NALA projects that the number of paralegals with bachelor’s degrees will grow in the next couple of years, it is important to consider your career goals and financial budget and choose a program accordingly.
Cons of Being a Paralegal
Law can be an intense and competitive field, and paralegals are not exempt from that. It helps to have a realistic vision of some of the challenges you might face as a paralegal. Below, we list just a few:
Some law firms may expect you to produce a certain number of billable hours. That can regularly mean long days and weeks, which will sometimes be noted in your offer letter. An unpredictable schedule is often dictated by court filings and other deadlines. If possible, set boundaries and maximize your personal time–decompress during your commute home with some music or a podcast, or schedule a standing date with friends and family.
Stressful and Challenging Work Environment
You may answer to several attorneys at once, each with different needs. Clients, too, can be demanding and difficult. The ability to switch gears quickly and to multitask under pressure is critical to your success as a paralegal. Even the smallest errors can cost cases or money, so you’ll have to strive to deliver work of the highest caliber at all times.
Some employers may ask paralegals to handle administrative tasks that can be handled by legal secretaries, like making copies. Read any job postings closely to understand the diversity and scope of your responsibilities and in any job interview, ask about room for growth.
Competitive Law School Admissions
Getting into law school can be very competitive. Usually, you’ll need to submit a personal essay, letters of recommendation and official transcripts of undergraduate coursework to be considered for a Master of Legal Studies program.
If you’re a paralegal (with an undergraduate degree in paralegal studies) and you want to go back to school to advance in your legal career, think carefully about how your experience aligns with both your career goals and your desired program. And if you’re pursuing a Master of Legal Studies to prepare you to work as a paralegal in an area that interests you, you’ll also want to consider what makes you a strong candidate. Sometimes, a resume is not enough. Your experience could be relevant but how do your strengths within the workplace translate to the classroom? Think about what a program admissions staffer might be looking for or thinking when they pull up your application.
The price of your Master of Legal Studies or other related degree will depend on the school and location. But be mindful that pursuing a legal degree can be a significant financial investment. Search for financial aid resources provided by your school or federal agencies.
How to Make the Most of Your Paralegal Career
So, is a career as a paralegal worth pursuing? As with any job, it’s helpful to take an honest stock of your strengths and weaknesses. If you dislike constant deadlines, exacting and ever-changing work requirements, being a paralegal may not be a good fit for you.
Are you detail-oriented, computer savvy, an ace researcher, a skilled writer, and have an enviable knack for remaining professional under pressure? If so, you may enjoy life as a paralegal. You also may be drawn to the paralegal profession because it offers the chance to work on cases that may change people’s lives or have a big impact on businesses or government.
Whatever drives you, there are multiple opportunities to excel in your role as a paralegal and advance in your career, from earning advanced degrees such as an online Master of Legal Studies, continuing legal education, or learning more on paralegal certification.
Apart from educational qualifications, you can engage in deep and broad reading of the news, case studies, and nonfiction to gain new insights and perspectives that may help to enhance your work. You can also tap into your professional network to learn about emerging legal industry trends. You can take your career as high as your aim. Explore our collection of online resources for paralegals to learn more about what you can do to optimize career-related opportunities.
Information on this page was last retrieved in May 2020.