Paralegals and Legal Assistants Overview
The best employment opportunities should be expected by formally trained, experienced paralegals. It is common for employers to hire applicants with an associates degree in paralegal studies, as well as a bachelors degree in another profession and a certificate in paralegal studies. Although employment growth is expected to be much faster-than-average, candidates should expect competition. Law firms employ 71 percent of paralegals and legal assistants.
Nature of the Work for Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Paralegals and legal assistants work under the direction of lawyers and take on a variety of responsibilities in legal offices. They primarily complete tasks similar to those of lawyers. Despite this, they are forbidden to take on duties considered to be within the scope of practice of law, such as giving legal advice, presenting cases in court and setting legal fees.
Paralegals and legal assistants have a wide variety of tasks they must fulfill in order to help lawyers prepare for hearings, closings, corporate meetings and trials. In some cases, they investigate the facts and make sure that all pertinent information is considered. They will also research relevant judicial decisions, legal articles, laws and other materials for assigned cases. Next, paralegals and legal assistants evaluate and arrange the information so that they may create written reports that lawyers use to figure out how cases should be handled. Keeping the case documents organized and filed is also an important task, as documents must be easily accessible.
Beyond the preparatory work, paralegals and legal assistants also perform a variety of other functions such as mortgages, separation agreements, draft contracts, establishing trust funds and tax returns. It is not uncommon for them to have supervisory positions, coordinating other law office employees and maintaining financial office records.
Paralegals and legal assistants search legal literature available in computer databases and on CD-ROM. They also use computer database software to find, arrange and index files in litigation cases with a lot of supporting documents. Paralegals scan documents into a database with imaging software and track hours billed to clients with billing programs.
Although many paralegals and legal assistants are employed in law firms, corporate legal departments and other government offices, they may be found in all types of organizations. In the other organizations, they work in various areas of the law such as personal injury, criminal law, corporate law, intellectual property, employee benefits, bankruptcy, family law and real estate. Paralegals become more specialized as the law becomes more complex, although in small to medium sized firms, the specializations are broader.
Those who assist lawyers with employee contracts, stock-option plans, shareholder agreements and employee benefit plans are known as corporate paralegals. These paralegals also ensure that the corporation is operating within the current laws and regulations. More often, experienced corporate paralegals take on management positions.
Paralegals or legal assistants who work in the public sector have different duties depending on the organization. Litigation paralegals carry out research for attorneys, evaluate legal documents for internal use, sustain reference files and gather and analyze evidence for agency hearings. For the general public, litigation paralegals prepare documents explaining agency regulations, laws and agency policy. When the aged, the poor and others need legal assistance, they use a paralegal or legal assistant that is employed in the community for legal-service projects. In addition to filing forms, performing research and preparing legal materials, when authorized by the law, they may also represent clients at administrative hearings.
Beginning paralegals and legal assistants mostly take on routine assignments, but as they gain experience they typically are provided more varied tasks with greater responsibility. Most of their work is performed in law libraries and offices, though travel is sometimes required to collect information and conduct other tasks.
Typically, paralegals and legal assistants who are employed by the government and corporations work a 40-hour workweek. Paralegals and legal assistants employed in law firms generally work very long hours when they are under duress to meet deadlines. Some may be temporarily employed during certain busy periods of the year.
Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Paralegals and Legal Assistants
There are four different educational paths leading to becoming a paralegal or legal assistant. Most people pursue an associates degree from a community college. Another popular choice is to earn a certificate in paralegal studies, though this is usually reserved for those who already have a college degree. A few schools provide bachelors and masters degrees in paralegal studies, while others undergo on-the-job training.
Those paralegals and legal assistants who seek an associates and bachelors degree receive a more broad education, with a combination of paralegal training and classes in other academic subjects. Some certificate programs take only a few months to complete and are mostly for those who already hold college degrees.
Formal paralegal training programs can be found at more than 1,000 colleges, universities, law schools and trade schools. The American Bar Association (ABA) approved close to 260 paralegal and legal assistant programs. Many employers do not require applicants to have graduated from an ABA-approved program, however it can increase chances of employment. There are varying admissions requirements. Some accept those with a high school diploma or legal experience, while others mandate specific college courses or a bachelors degree. A small number of schools require standardized tests and personal interviews.
The quality of paralegal and legal assistant training programs varies, so prospective students should research the experiences of recent graduates prior to enrolling in a paralegal program. Those programs that include internships or job placement services are most desirable.
Certification is not typically required by employers, but some paralegals and legal assistants choose to earn their voluntary certification from a professional local or national paralegal organization, based on the results of a written examination. Others may require certain education and experience. For example, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) grants paralegals who meet their criteria eligibility to take a 2-day examination. After they pass the exam, they may use the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) designation.
Paralegals share their opinions and findings to their supervising attorney. For this reason, they must have good research and investigative skills and knowledge of legal terminology. It is also important for paralegals and legal assistants to have an understanding of how computers are used in legal research and litigation support. They are required to stay informed on new developments in the law, and participate in continuing legal education seminars. For example, in California, paralegals and legal assistants are required to complete 4 hours of continuing education in general or specialized law.
Paralegals frequently work with the public, and so they should be courteous and maintain the ethical principles of the legal profession. The NALA and a few States have set ethical guidelines for paralegals to follow.
As paralegals and legal assistants gain work experience, they are usually given greater responsibilities and demand less supervision. Those who work in corporate legal departments, large law firms, and government agencies may manage and assign tasks to clerical staff and other paralegals. They may also advance supervisory or other law related positions within the organization. Some paralegals apply to another law firm when seeking advancement or greater responsibility.
Top 10 Most Popular Legal Assistant/Paralegal Schools
1. Kaplan University - Online School (Multiple Campus Locations)
2. Keiser University, Fort Lauderdale (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
3. University of Central Florida (Orlando, Florida)
4. MTI College, Sacramento (Sacramento, California)
5. New York Paralegal School (New York, New York)
6. Robert Morris University Illinois (Chicago, Illinois)
7. ICDC College, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, California)
8. Edmonds Community College, Lynnwood (Lynnwood, Washington)
9. Peirce College (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
10. Arlington Career Institute (Grand Prairie, Texas)
Top 10 Most Popular Online Legal Assistant/Paralegal Schools Schools
1. Kaplan University - Online School
2. Ashworth College - Online School
3. South University - Online Programs
4. Saint Leo University Online
5. Centura College - Online School
6. Colorado Technical University - Online School
7. Everest University Online
8. Bryant and Stratton College - Online School
9. American Institute for Paralegal Studies - Online School
10. Keiser University - Online School
Employment and Job Outlook for Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Number of People in Profession
Changing Employment (2008-2018)
Employment is projected to grow much faster than average (increase 20% or more).
About 246,810 jobs are held by paralegals and legal assistants and 71 percent are employed in private law firms. The rest of the paralegals and legal assistants work for a corporate legal department or the government. A few paralegals and legal assistants are self-employed or work freelance.
Paralegals and legal assistants are expected to have a 28 percent employment growth in the next decade, which is much faster than average for all occupations. Demand for paralegals is projected to increase as an expanding population requires legal services, particularly in areas such as healthcare, intellectual property, elder issues, environmental law and international law. As prepaid legal plans become increasingly popular, paralegals and legal assistants should add to the demand for legal services.
The largest employers of paralegals and legal assistants will continue to be private law firms. However, there are other organization that require the use of paralegals including insurance companies, corporate legal departments, title insurance firms, real estate and banks. Particularly, corporations are projects to expand their in-house legal departments to cut costs. Paralegals perform a variety of tasks, which has aided in expanding their employment in small and medium sized establishments.
More job openings will be created as former paralegals and legal assistants leave the occupation. A demand for paralegals who specialize in bankruptcy, real estate and medical malpractice will also arise. Additional paralegals and legal assistants will be employed by community legal service programs, which offer services to elderly, poor, middle-income families and minorities. Employment opportunities will also arise in consumer organizations, local government agencies and the courts. Those with a formal paralegal or legal assistant training combined with experience should enjoy the best prospects.
In some instances, the business cycle affects paralegal jobs. Demand for paralegals in drafting wills, planning legal estates and handling real estate transactions declines during a recession. Full-time paralegals who are employed in offices are negatively affected by a recession and may have their work hours reduced or be laid off. On the other hand, individuals and corporations are more likely to face problems that require legal assistance during times of recession.
Earnings and Salary for Paralegals and Legal Assistants
The salaries of paralegals and legal assistants vary immensely, depending on training, education, experience, size and type of employer and the geographic location of the job. Typically, paralegals and legal assistants working in large metropolitan areas or for large law firms earn more than those who work in less populated areas or smaller firms.
Full-time wage-and-salary paralegals and legal assistants earn $46,120 and the middle 50 percent earn between $36,080 and $59,310. The bottom 10 percent earn less than $29,260, while the top 10 percent earn more than $73,450. The median annual wages for the top employing industries for paralegals and legal assistants are:
Federal executive branch: $58,540
Management companies and enterprises: $55,910
Insurance carriers: $52,220
Employment services: $50,050
Legal services: $44,480
Many paralegals receive bonuses in addition to earning a salary. They also receive benefits such as paid sick leave, a savings plan, vacation, personal paid time off, dental insurance, life insurance and reimbursement for continuing legal education.
Annual Salary for Paralegals and Legal Assistants
On average, Paralegals and Legal Assistants earn $46,980 per year.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook