Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, work under the direction and authority of attorneys, performing work of a legal nature without engaging in actions that are restricted by law solely to attorneys.
The training and knowledge necessary for a paralegal career can be obtained through education, work experience or a combination of the two. Even though there are no specific educational paralegal requirements in most states, it is becoming more common for employers to request certification. This paralegal requirement is usually based on a minimum number of necessary college credits and successfully passing an exam.
Many community colleges offer an associate degree or a certificate for paralegals. Some colleges even offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Paralegal Studies. In most cases, a training program will include an internship that offers students practical experience by working in a private law firm, corporate legal department, public defender’s office, government agency, or one of several other agencies that employ paralegals.
While employment in a paralegal position does not require a license, education clearly increases one’s opportunities for employment, advancement and increased salary.
Paralegals research, analyze and organize information in support of attorneys. They prepare written reports, draft documents and perform a variety of other duties that require a general knowledge of the law. Though they have a wide range of responsibility, paralegals are prohibited from “practicing law,” which means they are unable to offer legal advice, represent clients in court and establish charges or legal fees
Despite these restrictions, legitimate paralegal functions are constantly expanding. The trend is for lawyers to delegate an increasing number of responsibilities to paralegals, so the following skills are needed to succeed in this career field:
In 2004, about 224,000 people were employed as paralegals. About 70 percent of these positions were with private law firms, but other positions were available in corporate legal departments and all levels of government.
The salary range for paralegals can vary widely, depending on numerous factors including level of education and experience, location of the job and the size of the employing firm or company. According to a recent survey by the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average of all paralegal salaries (including bonuses) is about $39,130. State and local government paralegal salaries run between $35,000-38,000 per year on average. The federal government average wage is significantly higher, set at about $59,000 per year.
The median for paralegal salaries in the private sector in the U.S. is approximately $50,000 per year, but larger law firms may pay as much as $80,000 for experienced and degreed paralegals.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts “faster than average” growth in paralegal positions over the next few years as employers attempt to reduce costs by hiring paralegals to perform work currently carried out by lawyers.