While lawyers tend to be the face of the legal profession, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that makes their work possible. One of the key roles in most law firms, corporations and government agencies is the paralegal.
Sometimes called legal assistants, paralegals can do most tasks normally performed by a lawyer, as long as the lawyer supervises the work, according to the American Bar Association (ABA). Duties include reviewing and organizing client files, conducting factual and legal research, preparing documents for legal transactions, drafting pleadings and discovery notices, interviewing clients and witnesses, and assisting at closings and trials, the ABA writes.
Excellent organizational skills, attention to detail and the ability to multi-task are some of the traits that make a good paralegal, according to the ABA. Other important qualities include good oral and written communication skills, a genuine interest in law and empathy with clients’ problems.
Timothy Emery, managing partner of Emery Reddy, PLLC, agrees. “When we hire for a paralegal position, we look for people with strong backgrounds in writing, eagerness to learn, and dedication to improving their craft.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual paralegal salary was $51,740 (as of May 2019). With overall job growth of 12% in the next decade, the paralegal profession is a solid career choice. Hundreds of degree programs have popped up across the United States, according to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Prospective students can pursue degrees in-class, online or in hybrid programs from a variety of educational institutions, including community colleges, public and private four-year colleges and proprietary schools. Diplomas range from certificates to master’s degrees, and many programs offer specialization in particular areas of the law, including civil litigation, business and real estate.
Program lengths and costs will vary depending on the program’s intensity and whether the student earns a certificate or a degree. Students can often take advantage of scholarships and loans through community colleges and universities. Many law firms, like Emery Reddy PLLC, offer scholarships for students participating in local paralegal programs. “It’s a win win,” says Mr. Emery. “By supporting students in our community, we encourage an interest in law professions and create a pool of future job applicants.”
Besides educational programs as a point of entry into the profession, paralegals can learn the skills necessary to perform their responsibilities through on-the-job training, or through actual work experience, according to the ABA.
NFPA reports a trend in which graduates are finding paralegal employment outside of the traditional law office setting in financial and insurance corporations and local, state and federal governmental agencies. At the same time, freelance or contract paralegal work is on the rise, which means that prospective paralegal students have greater flexibility than ever in their chosen profession.