The work of a paralegal has become more and more closely matched to that of a lawyer. Essentially, a lawyer delegates certain tasks to a professionally trained paralegal or legal assistant. These tasks can include the preparation of opening and closing statements and reading through contracts and other legal cases. Studying previous cases and looking for appropriate legal articles, governing laws and other relevant details is a painstaking task. In many cases it can quickly become tedious but the rewards are very good.
Where paralegals differ from lawyers is that they cannot legally partake in any practices of law. This means they are unable to set legal fees, appear in court, or give legal advice. Despite this the role of the paralegal is of paramount importance to any case. Much of the work is desk-based, and with the advance of computer technology, this generally means a lot of work on computers and the Internet.
Many paralegals choose to focus on specific areas of law, much as lawyers do. An example of this would be employment law; a paralegal in this field would focus on employee benefits, employee law, and other aspects of employment.
Duties of a Paralegal
Case planning. This is geared towards paralegals that work within a law firm. Case planning is the preparation, research, and management of cases that reach trial. A paralegal is not allowed to present the case but will often prepare the case on behalf of the lawyer they work for.
Research. Research is a large part of any legal job. Finding relevant information and facts pertaining to a particular case as well as to legislation and laws that govern a particular area is important to organizations and lawyers alike. This can be a painstakingly slow and methodical part of the job, although the Internet has sped it up considerably.
Preparation of legal documents. The preparation of legal documents was once carried out solely by solicitors and lawyers. However, this is one role that lawyers now generally delegate to their paralegals instead. This incorporates the drafting, checking, and analysis of often long and complex documents.
Administrative duties. The maintenance and management of the legal office often lies firmly in the hands of the paralegal. Filing, maintaining records, corresponding with clients and other colleagues and maintaining a diary for all lawyers within the practice will generally fall to the legal assistant to complete.
Employment and Earnings Statistics
The good news for potential paralegals is that there are currently around 250,000 such jobs available. Private law firms employ nearly three quarters of these professionals with the remainder generally employed by governmental and state bodies as well as large organizations. A small number will successfully run their own business and subcontract their services to lawyers or businesses.
The median salary for a paralegal is $46,680 with the lowest percentile earning $29,460 and the top percentile earning more than $74,870 (May 2010, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor).
Employment and Earning Future Outlook
Paralegals are being called upon to carry out many tasks that were previously reserved for the lawyer alone. Obviously, because paralegals cost less money than hiring a lawyer, this means that more and more opportunities are opening up for the legal assistant. Trained paralegals will be the pick of the crop as far as organizations are concerned. These organizations may consider looking for a paralegal that specializes in a particular area, especially employment law.
Private law firms will continue to be the most popular method for a paralegal to ply their trade but because of the increased dependence that organizations are placing on legal assistants other industries and companies will begin to employ more and more paralegals. This means that banks, lenders, large organizations, and other major businesses will soon be on the look out for a well-trained and knowledgeable paralegal.
Paralegal Program Details
There are several ways to become a paralegal; the most desirable option will depend on your current level of expertise and number of years of experience in the paralegal field. Most paralegals and legal assistants have an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor’s degree in another field and a certificate in paralegal studies.
On-site training is sometimes offered by employers. In these cases the role is still generally offered to a person with a diploma or degree, although not necessarily in paralegal studies. This training can take a long period of time but will give you the hands-on experience that only on-the-job training can offer.
A diploma or Associate’s Degree program, offered by many paralegal schools in California, will be a vital step in your progression to the status of paralegal. As a graduate you will have gained all of the relevant experience and, in many cases, will have taken part in an internship that will also give you hands-on experience. Curriculum will often include legal terminology, contracts, trusts and estates, criminal law, family law, legal research and writing and property law among other topics.
All paralegals are required to take a four-hour course every three years that studies the ethics of paralegal practice. (Learn more about these paralegal requirements).