Paralegal Q&A: Answers to All the Questions You Ever Wanted to Ask About the Paralegal Profession

Q: What is a paralegal?

A:We asked some paralegals to answer this question themselves, and we got responses like: “The unsung hero of the law firm.” … “The lawyer’s third arm.” … “Fixer of all emergencies.” … “The attorney’s right hand.”

But if you’re looking for something more formal, you might want to turn to the American Bar Association (ABA), which defines a paralegal as an individual who “performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

Or you may want to take note of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) definition, which identifies a paralegal as a person who “perform(s) substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.”

You will also find that state bar associations also have their own definition of paralegals. For example, the State Bar of California defines a paralegal as an individual who “assists with case planning, development, and management, legal research, interviews clients, gathers facts and retrieves information, drafts and analyzes legal documents and collects, complies and utilizes technical information, to make recommendations to an attorney.”

While the definition of a paralegal varies slightly depending on who you ask, it is universally agreed that these legal professionals perform substantive, often complex, legal services, and most often do so under the supervision and guidance of an attorney.

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Q: What does a paralegal do?

A: Again, ask any paralegal what they do and they are likely to reply with something along the lines of “What don’t I do?” This is because their job duties and responsibilities are wide-reaching and complex.

As a paralegal, your days may be spent completing tasks like scheduling meetings and organizing files, which on their face may seem simple, as well as highly complex tasks like researching case law for an upcoming case or preparing for trial by organizing exhibits and interviewing witnesses.

Paralegals perform “substantive” legal services. Although their job duties vary according to the industry they work in (as part of corporate legal teams) or the type of law the firm they work for practices (personal injury, family, real estate, etc), the scope of their job virtually includes interacting with clients, drafting and analyzing legal documents, performing legal research, and making recommendations to attorneys— and anything else related to the practice of law, provided it is under the supervision of a lawyer and does not constitute providing legal advice or practicing law.

Some of the generic duties paralegals perform include:

  • Drafting legal notices, including discovery requests, notices, motions, and summaries of depositions
  • Locating, contacting, and interviewing witnesses and assisting in the preparation of witness testimony
  • Organizing trial exhibits and files
  • Performing clerical duties, including talking to clients, filing documents, drafting letters and other documents, and organizing client files

Q: What can a paralegal not do?

A: A paralegal is not allowed to practice law, under any circumstances. This means that they cannot represent clients in court or offer legal services or provide legal advice to the public.

As a paralegal, you must adhere to the legal statutes of your state with regard to how the role of a paralegal is defined, but ultimately, that definition varies only slightly from one state to the next. All states agree that paralegals are restricted from providing legal guidance or advice (that’s the attorney’s job!) and almost always perform all work under the direct supervision of an attorney, with few exceptions.

Q: Where do paralegals work?

A: Paralegals can work for small, one-person law firms and small partnerships to large multinational firms with thousands of attorneys and operations in several countries.

And while most paralegals still work for law firms, they are also found in the legal departments of corporations, insurance companies, banks, hospitals, and research firms, just to name a few.

They even work in local, state, and federal government agencies, such as the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, CIA, Federal Trade Commission, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, just to name a few… any state or federal agency that has a legal department, either as part of its core function or to deal with internal issues, will have paralegals on the payroll.

There is also a growing number of paralegals who work as freelancers/independent contractors. These self-employed paralegals are retained by attorneys on an as-needed on a case-by-case basis.

Q: Can paralegals provide services on their own without a supervising attorney?

A: Traditionally, paralegals work to provide legal support services for lawyers, whether in a law firm, a corporate legal office or for a government agency, but there are a few unique exceptions to the rule…

Independent paralegals provide direct assistance to the public, offering services like document preparation and even court representation in select circumstances and where permitted by statutory authority or court rule. This means they are able to perform certain limited legal services without attorney supervision.

In Arizona and California, paralegals can gain recognition as document preparers and offer these services as independent business owners. Washington state allows qualified paralegals to earn a Limited License Legal Technician license and perform limited services and representation related to family law for people who can’t afford an attorney. But that’s it. No other states have provisions that allow paralegals to work without answering up to – if only indirectly – an attorney licensed through the state bar.

Q: How do I become a paralegal?

A: The short answer is, enroll in a certificate or associate’s degree program online or through your local community college, then go on to take an exam to earn nationally recognized professional certification.

The long answer is, there are no clear-cut answers for how to become a paralegal, and here’s why: The paralegal profession is not regulated, and no legal standards exist for paralegal education and training requirements. To date, no mandatory licensure, certification, or other forms of regulation exist in the paralegal profession; so no specific education or training is required to begin practicing. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t certain widely accepted standards you’ll need to meet to land a job… and to be able to perform the job, for that matter.

The vast majority of paralegals have entered the field after completing at least an undergraduate certificate program in paralegal studies. Associate’s degrees in paralegal studies are also very common and bachelor’s degrees are now widely available and becoming a more popular choice.

Post-degree certificate programs (post-associate and post-bachelor’s) are a popular choice for anybody that already holds a degree in another field and is looking to make a career change.

After earning a qualifying degree or certificate, many paralegals choose to go on to take an exam and earn a nationally recognized credential they can add at the end of their name on business cards and e-mail signatures. This exam-based credential is called “certification” and should not to be confused with a “certificate” that you earn through a college program. Early and mid career certifications include the CRP (CORE Registered Paralegal), CP (Certified Paralegal), and PP (Professional Paralegal).

Q: What education should I complete to become a paralegal?

A: Paralegal education programs range from undergraduate paralegal certificate programs to master’s degrees in paralegal studies.

Although it’s not common, some paralegals have no post-secondary education at all; instead, they are trained on the job.

In short, the educational path you choose will depend on your individual circumstances, your personal and/or professional goals, and the general requirements where you live or the legal specialty or setting in which you want to work.

Paralegal educational programs include:

  • Undergraduate certificate program in paralegal studies
  • Associate’s degree in paralegal studies
  • Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
  • Post-degree certificates in paralegal studies (post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s for career changers with a degree in another area)
  • Graduate certificate in paralegal studies
  • Master’s degree in paralegal studies (Master of Legal Studies (MLS) also available)

However, it is important to point out that it may take more than a paralegal certificate program to get your foot in the door. Many larger law firms now require paralegal candidates to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. The American Bar Association (ABA), along with several other paralegal organizations, also recommend paralegals pursue a bachelor’s degree or above.

And, according to recent statistics, this trend toward the four-year degree is catching on. The 2016 NALA National Compensation and Utilization Survey Report revealed that 46 percent of all practicing paralegals held a bachelor’s degree, followed by an associate’s degree, at 31 percent.

Q: I have a high school diploma/GED, so what is the best educational path for me?

A: As a high school graduate, you can choose to pursue anything from a paralegal certificate program to an associate’s degree in paralegal studies to a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.

A certificate program usually requires just a few months of study, so if you’re looking for the quickest path to a paralegal job, this is likely the best choice for you. However, if you want to pursue additional educational in the future, a certificate program may not be the best choice because many institutions do not accept the transfer of these courses to a degree program.

If you want a well-rounded education with a focus on paralegal studies, an associate’s degree is a good decision. These programs take about two years of full-time study to complete and include a core in the humanities, the social sciences, the general sciences, math, and English, along with a group of courses in the study of law and the paralegal profession. If you choose to continue your education down the road, your core coursework will likely transfer to a bachelor’s degree in legal studies.

You can also choose to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program in paralegal studies. These programs provide the same general education as an associate’s degree, as well as a group of courses that cover the legal field and the paralegal profession, but they also often allow students to choose a specialty area of focus in a specific area of law. For example, you can choose to focus your bachelor’s degree on criminal law, environmental law, intellectual property law, or alternate dispute resolution, just to name a few.

Q: I already hold a degree in another field and want to change careers to become a paralegal, so what is the best educational path for me?

A: Career changers have a number of options to become a paralegal. If you already hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in another field, you may qualify for admission into a post-associate’s or post-bachelor’s certificate program in paralegal studies specifically designed for the career changer in mind.

If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you may also qualify for a graduate certificate in paralegal studies. You may even choose to pursue a master’s degree in legal studies, where you will have the opportunity to choose a legal area of focus.

Master’s degrees are also an option for bachelor’s degree holders, either a master’s in paralegal studies, or the broader Master of Legal Studies (MLS), which is designed specifically for the mid-career professional who wants a graduate degree in law but has no plans to practice law. Though the MLS is commonly for professional advancement in careers that frequently involve some degree of legal work, like business, HR or health administration, for example, it is also a strong choice for someone interested in a graduate degree en route to changing careers and becoming a paralegal.

Q: I already work in the legal field as a support professional, so what is the best educational path for me?

A: If you work in a legal support role, such as a file clerk or legal secretary, and you want to make the switch to become a paralegal and haven’t already earned a degree of any kind, you can choose a paralegal certificate program to gain the foundation of knowledge needed to make the change.

Beyond that, your options would be determined by any degree you might already hold. While entry-level certificate programs only require a high school diploma, post-degree certificate programs are also available to anybody that holds an associate or bachelor’s degree in any major.

Depending on your educational background, you may also choose to pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Q: I have a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and I want to earn a degree in a specific area of law, so what is the best educational path for me?

A: If you have a bachelor’s degree in legal studies or a similar field and want to concentrate your career on a specific area of law, you may do so by completing either a graduate certificate in legal studies or a master’s degree in legal studies—most notably the Master of Legal Studies (MLS). Most institutions offering these programs allow students to concentrate their course of study on a specific area of law.

Many institutions, recognizing that working professionals often pursue these degrees, offer flexible formats and online study.

Q: I have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and I want to become a paralegal supervisor/manager, so what is the best educational path for me?

A: Advancing your paralegal career to a supervisory position is often best accomplished by completing an advanced degree. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in legal studies allow practicing paralegals to focus their course of study on a specific area of law and gain the insight and knowledge necessary to take on supervisory roles in larger firms and corporations.

Q: Does a paralegal educational program offer a general education in paralegal studies, or can I choose to specialize my degree?

A: Undergraduate certificate programs and associate degree programs prepare you to become a paralegal generalist. As most paralegals will attest, your specialization occurs once you begin working in the field. In an associate’s degree program, you would have a few electives that you could use to tailor your education somewhat and focus on an area of law that interests you.

However, bachelor’s degrees and higher afford students the opportunity to not only get a general foundation of knowledge in the law and in the paralegal profession but to also focus their course of study on a specific area of law, if desired.

Q: Is professional certification a valuable addition to my paralegal education?

A: In an unregulated profession, professional certification may be the ideal way to display your competence to employers and clients and set yourself apart from your competition.

Professional certification in the paralegal profession remains a voluntary endeavor and is only something you go for after completing your education, and usually after gaining a few years of experience too. Certification could help you land a better job, advance in your current job, or qualify for a pay increase—and the initials you can put after your name after becoming certified are a nice touch too.

The three national paralegal organizations that offer professional certification include:

A number of state bar associations/paralegal associations have also followed suit, offering voluntary state certification for paralegals. Other states have developed certification opportunities for paralegals who can perform specific duties.

Q: What do paralegals in bankruptcy law do?

A: There are many law firms that focus solely on providing legal support to businesses, corporations, and other entities. However, corporate paralegals don’t always work in the law firm environment. Often times, they are part of an in-house corporate legal team who is responsible for handling the legal issues of the corporation.

Depending on the unique situation of the corporation at any time, paralegals working as part of a corporate legal team may be involved in the legalities surrounding the formation or maintenance of a corporate entity, franchising and business opportunities, and business transactions such as mergers, acquisitions, and contract negotiation.

Q: What do paralegals in criminal law do?

A: Criminal litigation is a fast-paced and exciting area of law that deals with trying individuals in the criminal court system. Paralegals in criminal law may be required to do everything from preparing for pre-trial hearings to participating in jury selection to drafting post-trial motions to identifying accomplices, witnesses, and accessories to a crime.

They also work alongside attorneys when preparing for preliminary hearings or grand jury presentations, drafting trial memoranda, and drafting motions that deal with everything from requests for a new trial or appeals.

Q: What do paralegals in intellectual property law do?

A: Intellectual property can include everything from inventions to musical works to phrases to designs, all of which are protected through intellectual property law via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Paralegals in intellectual property work for corporations, law offices, educational institutions, and government agencies. Their work involves preparing applications for trademarks, patents and copyrights, conducting intellectual property research, and assisting attorneys involved in intellectual property licensing and litigation.

Paralegals assist attorneys who use the courts to stop infringement of intellectual property and recover damages caused by the infringement. Throughout the court process, paralegals assist attorneys in drafting pleadings, performing research to locate case law, conducting discovery, and preparing exhibits.

Q: What do paralegals in probate and estate planning do?

A: Probate and estate planning has become a swiftly growing area of law, thanks to an aging Baby Boomer population. And there is no shortage of probate and estate planning attorneys who need paralegals to assist in the preparation of estate planning documents like powers of attorneys, wills, and trusts.

Paralegals also assist lawyers when opening probate proceedings and distributing the estate, which includes valuating estate assets, drafting court forms, orders, petitions, and court filings.

Q: What do paralegals in property law do?

A: Property law covers a wide breadth of topics such as landlord-tenant relationships, mortgages, easements, eminent domain, and real estate transactions. Paralegals working alongside attorneys in real property law are involved in the drafting and preparation of mortgage notes, HUD forms, transfers of title, title insurance, title examinations, property lease agreements, and deeds, among others.

Q: What do paralegals in family law do?

A: Family law paralegals work alongside attorneys involved in any number of family law matters, including divorce, alimony, child custody, child abuse/neglect, guardianship, paternity, domestic violence, and property division due to divorce.

Q: Where can I learn more about the paralegal profession?

A: The paralegal profession is backed by a number of professional organizations that work to ensure high professional standards. These include: