Paralegals and the Paralegal Profession

Paralegals have been in business since the 1960s. Over the years, several things have changed for these law professionals, in terms of the industries they serve, salaries and benefits, scope of work, etc. Unlike how things were during the initial stages, paralegals are no longer mere assistants; they have evolved to become critical components of a legal unit. They now take care of varied responsibilities – including handling clients and managing their cases.

To learn more, checkout the infographic below created by George Washington University’s Online Masters in Paralegal Studies.

paralegal profession

h2>Intro to Paralegals

Also called legal assistants, paralegals possess legal expertise and knowledge acquired courtesy years of formal training, education and experience. They help lawyers perform a range of legal activities such as preparing hearings, closings, trials, and also corporate meetings.

Industries Employing Paralegals

The majority of paralegals are employed at law agencies, government firms, or legal departments of corporates. Though most paralegals have a certificate or degree in paralegal studies, many employers are usually not too particular about the certification. Paralegals predominantly work for legal services firms. In fact, 72 percent of employed paralegals are in private legal firms. 15 percent of them work for the government (federal: 5 percent, state: 4 percent and local: 6 percent). The remaining 3 percent are in the insurance and finance industry.

Different industries or work environments mean varying job requirements. For instance, in a corporate setup, a paralegal could work on employee contracts or benefits; make annual reports; review government regulations; etc. Within a government firm, the work may entail researching laws, regulations, or agency policies.

Responsibilities

As aforementioned, a paralegal carries out a range of ancillary tasks for senior lawyers. Those comprise doing legal research, preparing legal documents such as contracts, offering assistance to attorneys during trial, accumulating and collating evidence for case preparation purposes, maintaining and sorting legal files, and conducting preliminary interviews of witnesses and/or clients.

There are things a paralegal cannot do. A paralegal cannot offer legal advice to clients, act as a legal representative in court, or authorize legal documents. However, there is a provision as per which paralegals can function as full-fledged lawyers if they are bestowed the authority to do so by their supervisors or senior lawyers in their absence.

Important Qualities

To succeed as a paralegal, you should possess a range of technical and non-technical traits. Being able to communicate effectively is vital to succeed as a law practitioner. Communication skills come into play when interviewing clients, touching base with an expert, recording witness statements, etc. Good communication skills are not just oral communication, but also writing skills. Quality writing is vital to draft correspondence, motions, pleadings, briefs, resolutions, contracts, etc.

The modern-day legal market has made it almost mandatory for paralegals to be well versed with the latest technology. Technology has been infiltrating multiples aspects of the legal profession. This means paralegals are not just supposed to learn but are also expected to master word processing, telecommunications, spreadsheet, presentation, legal research, and database software. And thanks to technology, new paralegal niches have cropped up such as e-discovery and litigation support.

A lawyer usually relies on a paralegal to get his files relating to criminal, civil, and transactional matters organized. Corporate transactions and document-intensive litigation generate huge volumes of data and documents. Therefore, being able to sort, categorize, index, manipulate, order, and organize all the data is a basic aspect of the paralegal profession.

Besides good communication skills, paralegals must also be affable and make witnesses/clients feel comfortable. In other words, it’s important to create a good rapport with clients and legal professionals. As aforementioned, being adept at using technology is important because it helps unearth legal information. Relevant materials for a legal case are now available both in print and electronic forms. Without good research, it’s almost impossible to draft accurate and professional legal documents, regardless of how top-notch the writing is.

Education

In most states, formal education or certification is not mandatory to become a paralegal. However, the chances of getting employed are smaller if you don’t have relevant degree or experience backing your skills, especially as the paralegal profession continues to grow in popularity. To improve chances of getting a job and to stand out from the competition, most paralegal aspirants are equipping themselves with advanced degrees. Associate and bachelor’s degrees are usually the norm. Completing internship also improves your chances of getting hired as a full-time paralegal.

The degree program could be a four-year or two-year course. Most certificate programs, on the other hand, can usually be wrapped up in a few months. Though people with the most training and education are more likely to be hired quickly, some job listings may not require extremely qualified and experienced candidates.

If you are serious about launching your paralegal career, a regular degree program in paralegal studies would be the right way forward. Besides offering the much important theoretical knowledge, these degree programs also comprise extensive training. In fact, some of the institutions offering the courses also provide job opportunities, which significantly improves your chances of getting a job right after graduation.

Job Outlook (2014)

In 2014, 279,500 jobs were held by legal assistants and paralegals. And it’s estimated this number would go up by 8 percent in the next 10 years. Generally, firms hire paralegals with excellent oral and written communication skills.

The yearly salaries of paralegals have also gone up over the years. In 2015, paralegals took home $48,810 on an average annually. The average annual salary of the highest earning 10 percent was $79,010. Cities that paid paralegals the highest salaries were metropolitan areas of Columbia, San Jose (California), and Anchorage (Alaska).

The average salary of paralegals in Alaska is reportedly $64,920. Not only is the paralegal profession increasingly lucrative in Alaska compared to most other states, but the higher average salary is also due to the state’s higher cost of living. Anchorage has the most number of paralegal jobs offered by Alaska, with the average legal assistant salary being $67,150. The paralegal profession has an established presence in California as well. Much of this can be attributed to the state’s several law firms and also the robust corporate presence in its major cities.

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