What is a Paralegal
Growth Trends for Related Jobs
The Eyes, Ears and Research Arms of the Legal Profession
You’re the one who always has the facts on every issue. And if you don’t, you know just where to find them. You’re organized, can handle pressure, and when someone confides in you, you won’t divulge their secrets. You’d make an excellent lawyer, but the thought of all those years of school are a turnoff. You may want to look into a career as a paralegal. In this role, you’ll become an indispensable part of the legal team. Think Julia Roberts as paralegal to Albert Finney in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” A Hollywood interpretation of a true case, Erin’s persistent research was instrumental in not only winning the suit but in saving lives.
As a paralegal, you’ll research all aspects of a case, from the specifics of the case at hand to legal precedents from similar court actions. You’ll conduct interviews and correspond regularly with the lawyer’s clients, often becoming the liaison between client and lawyer. Naturally, you’ll know and understand most aspects of the case. You’ll write reports, file motions, and prepare research findings, documents and legal briefs before trials.
Are you known for your attention to detail? Good, because it’ll be up to you to ensure that all the necessary pieces are included in reports and briefs and can be accessed quickly when needed. Paralegals work in a wide range of environments, and their responsibilities vary accordingly. In a large company, you may specialize in one distinct area of law and only work on those types of cases. In smaller companies, you might have a greater variety of duties. After gaining work experience, you may be promoted to supervise other paralegals, legal secretaries and new law clerks.
To work as a paralegal, you have the option of either a two- or four-year educational program. Acquiring a two-year certificate with an emphasis in paralegal studies is the minimum requirement. Employers in some markets are leaning toward preferring paralegals with four-year, college degrees, however. Distance learning or online coursework is also acceptable for most classes, according to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Of course, internships are in person. No federal certification requirements exist, but joining local and national paralegal associations help you keep up with trends in the field.
The median paralegal salary, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2020, was $52,920. “Median” means the midpoint, with half earning more and half earning less. Those at the 90th percentile―presumably in larger markets and/or having more experience―reported salaries of $85,160.
Paralegals and Legal Assistants salary
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $85,160 ($40.94/hour)
- Median Annual Salary: $52,920 ($25.44/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $32,900 ($15.82/hour)
Most paralegals work at small, one-attorney law firms or large, “four-names-on-the-door” partnerships. The mean, or average, salary was $51,140 for this type of work. Many others work for federal, state and local governments. Paralegals at the federal level earned a mean salary of $67,530 in 2016. Large companies often have their own legal department that employs lawyers and paralegals to work in a variety of environments, including technical, manufacturing, toys and online gaming. They earn a mean salary of $66,350. More technical industries offer even higher paralegal salaries: $84,240 in electronic component manufacturing; $81,450 in software publishing (remember all the “legalese” in the small type of every piece of software you install?); $76,120 in pharmaceuticals; $75,940 in computer and peripheral manufacturing; and $74,590 in aerospace manufacturing.
Years of Experience
The more experience you have, the more valuable you’ll become, and you can expect to reap a higher salary for your expertise. Since you won’t have experience starting out, look for internships while you’re in school, preferably in the field you’d like to enter. If you aren’t sure what field you’d like to get into, take internships in well-known companies, where you’ll gain the most hands-on experience. Having impressive internships on your resume can help you get your foot in the door for interviews and greater consideration for the job.
Job Growth Trend
The need for paralegals is expected to grow by 15 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is more than twice the national average for all jobs overall. That equates to 41,800 new jobs. Brush up on your computer skills, because paralegals with a high degree of proficiency in computers and database management are expected to be in highest demand. This is partly because the legal profession is increasingly challenged to reduce their fees. Better efficiency streamlines the time spent on work, and firms can bill for paralegal work at a lower rate than hours spent by a lawyer. As a paralegal, you’ll be doing more and more work that was formerly done by entry-level lawyers, making the job more interesting and even more valuable.
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations: Paralegal Education - Entering the Paralegal Profession
- Lawyeredu.org: Paralegal Career
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016: Paralegals and Legal Assisants
- Paralegal411: Paralegal Careers
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.