Paralegal: Overview of This Law Profession

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a paralegal. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about schooling, job duties and certification to find out if this is the career for you.

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Because lawyers can be overwhelmed with various aspects of their jobs, paralegals are often needed to pick up the slack. There are undergraduate programs that can train you and national organizations that can grant you professional certification as a paralegal on your path to a career in the field of law.

Essential Information

Paralegals, or legal assistants, are professionals who are formally trained to assist lawyers in various tasks such as preparing legal briefs, organizing files and researching cases. Most paralegals acquire training either through associate's degrees or certificate programs in paralegal studies, and they often gain hands-on experience while earning their credential. However, some individuals with law office experience may be able to find employers willing to train them on-the-job. Those wanting to improve their career prospects may also opt for voluntary paralegal certification.

Required Education Certificate or associate's degree in paralegal studies
Certification Voluntary certification from local and national organizations
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 8% for paralegals and legal assistants*
Median Salary (2015) $48,810 annually for paralegals and legal assistants*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paralegal Job Description

Paralegals assist lawyers in drafting legal correspondence, affidavits, contracts, wills and other important documents. They may also correspond with witnesses and deliver subpoenas. Additionally, they might research, organize and locate data, including old laws, legal opinions, regulations, codes and other information pertinent to cases.

Since some of their duties are administrative, paralegals may be required to master the use of office equipment, such as photocopiers, fax machines, scanners and desktop computers. In addition to this hardware, paralegals may need to be familiar with word-processing and data-management software.

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Paralegal Education Requirements

Numerous paths can lead individuals into the paralegal profession. Some law firms provide on-the-job training for paralegals; however, many workers in this field hold 2-year paralegal associate's degrees. Individuals who already have bachelor's degrees in unrelated majors may complete certificate programs in paralegal studies to qualify for employment. These certificate programs tend to last only a few months. Select colleges offer paralegal studies as a concentration within bachelor's and master's degree programs.

Students in paralegal programs typically take courses in civil litigation, legal research and writing, property law and legal ethics. They may also gain training in legal-office software and technology. Many programs require students to complete internships, from which they acquire hands-on experience in law firms, legal departments and other law settings.

Paralegal Salary and Employment Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the paralegal profession will experience about average growth, with employment expected to increase 8% from 2014-2024. Paralegals work mostly in private law firms, though other businesses such as insurance companies, real estate firms and banks, may also recruit paralegals. The BLS reports that the median salary for paralegals was $48,810 in May, 2015.

You can become a paralegal with an associate's or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies or, if you have a bachelor's degree in another field, a certificate. While not required, many employers prefer to hire paralegals who have professional certification.

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