What is a Paralegal and What Do They Do?

You’ve seen the ads, I’m sure. Become a paralegal in just two years and work in the exciting legal industry. But what exactly would you be doing if you became one? What is a paralegal? What do paralegals do? What kind of education is required?

Paralegals are sometimes known as legal assistants, and while that should be a more descriptive term for what they do, it really isn’t any better than paralegal. Regardless of what you call them, paralegals or legal assistants, their place in the legal system is to undertake certain tasks and responsibilities that a lawyer would normally do. These responsibilities are wide ranging, but fall short of any duties that would be construed as actually practicing law, such as giving legal advice, acting as counsel in the courtroom, and even setting fees.

Paralegals are allowed to take part in certain investigative aspects of a case. They are often vital in tracking down all information that is pertinent to the case, such as identifying precedent, examining prior judicial decisions, and reading articles that reference the laws pertaining to a case. A paralegal is especially important in assisting lawyers as they prepare for hearings, trials, depositions, etc. Often it is the paralegal who is responsible for preparing the written reports to which an attorney will refer as he decides the proper legal strategies for handling the case. Because of this, paralegals need to be trained in how to prepare such things as court motions, draft pleadings and other paperwork that essentially prepares the legal arguments to be made. A paralegal can expect to assist the lawyer in the courtroom by organizing documents and making them easily accessible. Many of the duties assigned to the paralegal involve paperwork, often of a highly technical nature. A paralegal may be asked to help in the drafting of contracts, shareholder agreements, trademark registration applications, depositions and many other documents.

Paralegals are not limited to working in law firms, as if often thought. Paralegals can, in fact, find employment in any kind of corporation that deals with such businesses involving certain specific legalities as real estate, bankruptcy, immigration, labor relations, entertainment, banks and the government. A paralegal may specialize in a single area such as employee benefits or cover the wide range of legal matters involved in something as broad as family law.

As such, the actual duties of one paralegal can differ substantially from another. A paralegal employed by a large corporation may be required to become specialized in one aspect of his job, such as drafting contracts or monitoring government regulations. A paralegal working in a small law firm might be required to engage in a far more expansive list of duties. Paralegals with a social conscious can look for employment in legal aid programs that provide service in helping the poor, underprivileged, elderly, or disabled. Duties in the public sector often include conducting research into social complaints and even, under certain legal restrictions, representing clients during administrative hearings. Today’s paralegal needs to be both computer and internet literate. Much of the legal research that a paralegal conducts will be done via the internet, and the knowledge of how to properly access computer databases is of vital importance.

Most community colleges offer a two year program to achieve an Associate’s Degree in paralegal studies. In addition, those who already have a college degree can often take a program that will certify them in paralegal studies. Some schools even offer a four year degree. While a degree isn’t required for employment as a paralegal, it certainly helps when looking for a job. In fact, some employers will pay all or part of the cost of college while offering on the job training.

It is estimated that 1,000 colleges, universities, law schools, and proprietary schools offer some form of paralegal training. Roughly one-fourth of these training programs have been approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA approval isn’t required, but graduating from one of these programs is certainly an advantage when looking for employment. The requirements for admission into these programs vary from school to school, with some accepting students with only a high school diploma while others require either college coursework or an actual degree.

Paralegal coursework can vary, but typically the student will be required to take courses on legal research and writing, rules of evidence, and contract law. In addition, the paralegal student can expect to take courses that give overviews of specific aspects of certain types of law such a real estate law, litigation, torts, criminal law, etc. The better programs will offer some kind of internship so that the student can get practical experience working in an actual law firm, corporation, legal aid office, or even a government agency. Since an internship provides a definite advantage when looking for a job, the paralegal student should specifically inquire if this program is offered.

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.

A paralegal student should also consider certification. Certification is not required by most employers, but there are still significant advantages to earning it. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers certification that can be met by taking a 2-day examination. Upon successful completion of this examination, the paralegal can use the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation. Those who desire specialized certification can also benefit from NALA programs. The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam confers professional recognition to paralegals who have earned a Bachelor’s Degree and two or more years experience. This exam is administered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations and those who pass it are eligible to use the Registered Paralegal designation.

In addition to degree and certification programs, working paralegals are usually expected to participate in continuing education classes and seminars in order to keep abreast of changes in the law.

What kind of salary or wages can a paralegal expect to earn? The earnings potential of paralegals vary significantly, based upon a number of different factors. Typically, the pay a paralegal can expect to receive is dependent on such things as the level of education they received; the amounnt of training they have, and how many years of experience they’ve got; the type and size of the employer; and, of course, the geographical location of employment. Generally, a paralegal working in a large firm or in a large city can expect to earn more than one who works in a legal aid office or even in a mid-sized law firm in a small town.

The average salary for a paralegal in the United States is currently around $22,000 a year. That figure reflects an eight hour working day, but most paralegals can expect to work after hours and even on weekends. Fortunately, most paralegals are paid hourly wages and earn overtime so the $22,000 figure doesn’t accurately reflect the real wages. In addition to overtime, many paralegals receive employer bonuses.

Earnings potential is also dependent upon specialization. A paralegal working for a firm that deals with intellectual property rights and patents can expect to make more than a paralegal working for a law firm specializing in family law. Equally high on the pay scale are firms specializing in litigation, mergers & acquisitions, and insurance law. Further down on the pay scale are firms specializing in personal injury and wrongful death.

Certification also plays a role in paralegal salaries. According to NALA, uncertified paralegals earned roughly the same amount regardless of the education level they attained. However, those paralegals who had both a bachelor’s degree and certification earned roughly $5,000 more per year than those without certification. In addition, when it comes to salary for a paralegal, experience counts. Paralegals with senior level experience earned up to $77,000 in a 2002 survey.

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