Paralegal Job Description, Certification and Salary Information

Paralegals and legal assistants help lawyers with legal research, prepare and organize documents, investigate information relating to cases and assist in legal proceedings.

By U.S. News University Directory
Posted 2010

Job Description for Paralegals
Job Description for Paralegals

Paralegal job description: Paralegals, also referred to as legal assistants, assist lawyers with legal work. This includes preparing for closings, legal hearings, trials and client meetings. They identify and evaluate the facts of a legal case to verify that the information can be considered in a court of law. They also research laws, legal decisions and literature that are relevant to the case that the lawyer is assigned to. Paralegals also create written reports for lawyers, prepare legal arguments, draft motions and pleadings, secure affidavits and may provide assistance during a trial. They are responsible for organizing and tracking documents and making them accessible to lawyers.

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In addition, paralegals and legal assistants prepare agreements and contracts, keep financial records for a law office and may manage other employees. They utilize special computer software for legal documents that may be stored in a database. Paralegals work in many areas of law including criminal, immigration, family, corporate, real estate and personal injury.

Their responsibilities may vary depending on where they work. For example, corporate paralegals may help lawyers with employee benefits, stock options and shareholder agreements. They may also analyze corporate compliance issues. Paralegals working in litigation assess legal documents, conduct research and assemble evidence for legal hearings.

Paralegal Job Summary
  • To become a paralegal, individuals can obtain a degree or certificate in paralegal studies or receive on the job training through their employer.
  • Although certification as a paralegal is not mandatory, it can provide more opportunities for employment.
  • Paralegals and legal assistants work 40 hours or more per week, as they are often required by their employers to work longer hours during busy periods.
  • Depending on the setting and area of law, the duties of a paralegal may vary.
Work Environment for Paralegals and Legal Assistants

Paralegals and legal assistants work in law firms, the legal departments of corporations and government offices. Those employed in corporate settings and for the government generally work 40 hours a week, although some make only do temporary work during busy periods. Those working in law firms typically put in longer hours and may often have to meet tight deadlines and deal with pressure.

Paralegal Degree and Certification  Requirements

Individuals can become paralegals by obtaining a degree or certificate in paralegal studies. Paralegal associate’s degree programs are the most common route for most paralegals and legal assistants. Individuals who already have a bachelor’s degree in another area can obtain a certificate in paralegal studies. Some colleges and universities offer paralegal bachelor's or master’s programs in paralegal studies. Some employers may provide on-the-job training to those without a formal education in paralegal studies.

The American Bar Association (ABA) approves a number of training programs for paralegals through colleges, universities and law schools. Requirements for admission into these programs may differ. Many programs include internships, allowing students to gain real-world experience in law firms, corporate legal departments or legal aid organizations. Some law firms and employers hire individuals with just a high school diploma and train them.

Certification is not required for paralegals and legal assistants; however, it can open the door to more opportunities for employment. There are a number of national and regional organizations that offer certification; some require individuals to pass an examination, while some others may require both education and experience. The National Association of Legal Assistants offers the Certified Paralegal (CP) and Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designations, as well as an advanced certification credential. The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. allows experienced paralegals to earn the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) distinction. Individuals can earn the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, or the Professional Paralegal (PP) certification from the National Association of Legal Secretaries. Most programs require continuing education credits to maintain certification.

The skills that a paralegal must possess include understanding legal terms as well as the ability to conduct research, utilize software applications for litigation support and present legal findings to the lawyer they are working under. They also need to stay current on new laws that are passed, and may need to take continuing education courses to expand their legal knowledge. Paralegals and legal assistants must also have excellent written communication abilities and good interpersonal skills, and be self-motivated and able to meet deadlines.

Paralegal Salary Outlook and Job Projections 

Paralegals and legal assistants held approximately 272,580 jobs in May 2014, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most of these positions were in legal services and in federal, state and local government. Corporations also employed many paralegals within their legal departments.

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Employment in this field is forecasted by the BLS to grow much faster than average compared to other occupations, due to an increasing demand for legal services.

BLS records for May 2014 indicate that the average annual salary for paralegals and legal assistants was $51,840. The middle 50% earned between $37,550 and $62,000, while the lowest 10% had an income of about $30,280. The highest 10% earned approximately $77,830 annually.

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