Choosing your profession can feel like one of the most crucial decisions you will make. It’s understandable to second-guess yourself. Shows like Law and Order, How to Get Away with Murder or Better Call Saul may have piqued your interest in the legal realm, but is that interest enough to fuel a career?
Of all the potential courtroom jobs out there, a paralegal career is one of the fastest tracks you can take to your first day on the job. But the time it takes to gain the proper knowledge and training is still an investment. You want to be sure that it’s worth your time.
Take a moment to learn some of the gritty details of working as a paralegal—from the mouths of paralegals and the lawyers who hire them. Use this expert insight to help you make an informed decision.
But first, let’s cover the basics…
What does a paralegal do?
You’ve likely done some research on your own, but it’s always beneficial to have all of your information in one place. What does a paralegal do? Basically, they help their attorneys keep things organized and running smoothly by doing important legal legwork.
Those duties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), can include assisting attorneys during trials, organizing case files, preparing trial notes, performing legal research, preparing legal briefs and sometimes conducting client and witness interviews.1
“Most paralegal jobs require paralegals to work on contracts, real estate, civil lawsuits and other legal needs,” says Kirk Olson, a lawyer and instructor at Rasmussen University. “One case may require multiple areas of law. For instance, a divorce often requires a paralegal to obtain and review real estate, pension, insurance, business and estate planning documents, not just child custody studies.”
Paralegals are generally detail oriented, organized and efficient. Because duties can vary greatly based on the size of the firm or the supervising attorneys, they must also be adaptable.
How to become a paralegal
One of the most common concerns for anyone looking into starting in this field is the amount of education needed—as well as how long it takes to become a paralegal. The path to becoming a paralegal can look very different from one person to the next.
But the BLS states that the most common educational path that leads to work as a paralegal is an Associate’s degree, which can be completed in as a few as 18 months.1,2 That said, if you’ve already earned a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree in a different field, a Paralegal Certificate program can provide you with the specialized knowledge base you’ll need on the job without requiring more years of schooling—in fact, this Certificate program can be completed in as few as 8 months.2
What to expect from the Paralegal Certificate program
This program is designed to supplement education from a different field. If you already have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in any area, a Paralegal Certificate program can give you the legal basics a paralegal needs to know while building upon the foundation of general education courses you’ve already completed.
In this kind of paralegal program, you’ll take courses like Introduction to Legal Research, Legal Writing and Law Office Management. Ethical communication, interdisciplinary awareness and emerging technology are important objectives of this program.
What to expect from a Paralegal Associate’s degree program
A Paralegal Associate’s degree program will give you an essential basis for work as a paralegal (as well as other careers) with foundational classes in English composition, math and the humanities. But the bulk of your studies will focus on skill and knowledge areas specific to the legal world and the paralegal duties within it.
Courses like Torts, Contracts and Family Law zoom in on complex subjects in the legal realm, while other courses such as Computer Applications and Business Systems Concepts, Legal Writing and Legal Research help you build the critical skill sets paralegals need.
A Paralegal degree will provide you with the skills needed to succeed in the field, but there will be a host of things you won’t learn until you’re on the job. For some additional insights, we asked paralegal professionals to share the things they wish they’d known before starting their careers.
What is a paralegal career like?
“You will work hard and long hours, but it's worth it,” says paralegal and Rasmussen University Justice Studies instructor Julia Gordon. Gordon explains that paralegals carry a lot of weight on their shoulders and every detail matters.
“There is no room for error in tracking deadlines and working with court scheduling,” says Kevin Queenan of The Queenan Law Firm, P.C. “Mentoring legal assistants, I hear the same issue every time: I did not know you meant that detail oriented!” Queenan emphasizes that miniscule mistakes can have big consequences in the legal world. Having a bad day won’t cut it as an excuse if your mistake costs the firm a case, or worse, accusations of malpractice.
Yet, Queenan points out, people with the right personality can flourish in this position. Paralegals can take jobs with varied daily tasks and experiences if that is what they are looking for. “In a general civil practice ... the legal assistant may be answering discovery [requests] one day and driving out to meet a new client the next day.”
“For those who like more structure or repetition, there are law practices involving cookie-cutter lawsuits and issues. I talked to a legal assistant yesterday, and her last position involved filing 1,000 credit card lawsuits per month,” Queenan explains.
“Don't go into the job with rose-colored glasses,” Gordon says. You might picture working in an office full of driven individuals who want to help their clients fix injustices. But unfortunately, it isn’t always like that.
“Not all attorneys are nice, and not all attorneys are ethical,” Gordon says. “Be aware of your ethical rules and guidelines and never compromise your integrity. Nothing is worth losing your self-respect over. You have your clients’ lives in your hands. Treat the position with the highest reverence.”
What is the average paralegal salary?
While not every aspect of a paralegal’s work is considered glamorous, that’s really no different from most jobs. After all, there’s a reason you get paid to work. But is that pay enough to support you and your responsibilities? That’s up to you to decide.
The median annual paralegal salary in 2021 was $56,230, according to the BLS.2 That’s $10,470 more than the national average of $45,760 for all occupations.2 This is pretty encouraging for a job that doesn’t require a Bachelor’s degree or hazardous working conditions.
Which paralegal skills matter most?
In this legal career, certain personalities and particular skill sets are better poised for success than others. If you are considering work as a paralegal, make sure you fit the bill by the time you apply.
“An effective [paralegal] must be computer savvy,” Queenan says. She adds that good legal assistants don’t overreact under pressure, are highly organized and care about the small details.
“Being kind and helpful is a good start,” Olson says. But Olson emphasizes that helpfulness won’t land you the job. “Lawyers hire paralegals because a good paralegal will find flaws in documents and assist with billing and other detailed functions that keep a law office working. A good paralegal is a ‘deadline cop’ who keeps the law firm on track.”
Olson says paralegals are expected to catch errors made by others and remind everyone of important dates. “Finding and warning of a deadline that others missed may prevent a loss of a client’s case and may save a $10,000 deductible in a lawyer’s malpractice claim,” Olson adds.
All that detail checking includes spelling and grammar. Olson says paralegals correct citation mistakes, grammar errors and other inaccuracies. Fine-tuning your writing and editing abilities is vital for success as a paralegal—that, as well as technical proficiency.
“A person considering becoming a legal assistant should take the highest level of available training on Word, WordPerfect and Westlaw,” Queenan says. “A technologically proficient [paralegal] will wow their lawyers more often and command a higher salary and raises.”
How to stand out as a paralegal
If you are mentally checking off some of those skill boxes—that’s a great sign. While detail-oriented professionals with strong writing and computer skills are important in this profession, there are ways to stand out even more.
Queenan recommends seeking training in client interactions, etiquette and communication skills since presenting a professional image to clients is incredibly important. Pay close attention to verbal slip-ups—no one wants to hear their legal help sounding careless. You want to make sure you are representing yourself, your clients and, ultimately, your practice as best as you can. This includes being able to communicate in a professional manner.
Additionally, Queenan suggests learning more about research materials on the internet. “We are suing a major manufacturer, and my legal assistant found several articles that were helpful to our lack of warning claims. The information was free!”
Olson suggests asking for examples of finished case files when you take work as a paralegal to see samples of what completed and professional work looks like for that firm. “And be assertive. If something does not look right, insist that it be explained or fixed.”
Are you cut out to become a paralegal?
Paralegals play an integral role in a firm’s success. Every document filed, every interview conducted and every ounce of collected research matters.
If you’re looking for an opportunity to work in the exciting legal world you’re used to seeing on TV, the paralegal profession may be the perfect career choice for you. Not only can it help you pay the bills, but it will challenge you intellectually and provide you with valuable professional experience to reach your long-term career goals.
These expert insights should answer many of your lingering questions about becoming a paralegal. If you're thinking this is the career for you, take a closer look at the paralegal programs that can help you get there. The Rasmussen UniversityParalegal Certificate and Associate’s Degree page can explain more of how to get your legal career underway!
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed June, 2022] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Time to completion is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each quarter.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2022. Expert insight remains from original version.
I want to be a paralegal because this profession allows you to make a difference in the lives of others while impacting the world in a meaningful way. A paralegal will often interact with people, businesses, organizations and the community and can shape how others view and are affected by the law.What do I need to know before starting as a paralegal? ›
Paralegals should be proficient in legal research databases such as Nexis/Lexis and Westlaw and know how to perform in-depth Internet searches. They should also know how to use investigative skills in various contexts to uncover documents, evidence, witnesses and other relevant information related to a case.What steps a person who wishes to become a paralegal should take? ›
- Enroll in an ABA-approved online or on-campus academic program where you can earn a relevant degree.
- Choose the area of law you'll specialize in.
- Consider earning an optional professional certificate.
- Acquire job experience by working full- or part-time.
- Ability to multitask. ...
- Strong attention to detail. ...
- Willingness to learn. ...
- Expertise in organization. ...
- Psychic abilities.
Some of the most common “traits or characteristics” listed in articles related to this topic include:
- Works well independently.
- Works well under pressure.
- Maintains a professional attitude.
“I see this opportunity as a way to contribute to an exciting/forward-thinking/fast-moving company/industry, and I feel I can do so by/with my …” “I feel my skills are particularly well-suited to this position because …” “I believe I have the type of knowledge to succeed in this role and at the company because …”What is interesting about being a paralegal? ›
Paralegals often conduct the bulk of the technical research in a case as well as work closely with witnesses and experts. Before a case is completed, the paralegal often knows more about a subject than they ever thought they would – there is always more to learn!How stressful is being a paralegal? ›
Being a paralegal is stressful, and paralegal burnout is real. Paralegals work notoriously long hours, and their tasks include everything from office management to doing case research and preparing and editing legal contracts and documents. Paralegal's tasks have a direct impact on the outcomes of matters and cases.How can I improve my paralegal skills? ›
- Work as a legal secretary. Many professionals enter the field by working as a legal secretary or legal assistant then work their way up to being a paralegal. ...
- Research legal topics. ...
- Attend a paralegal training program. ...
- Learn how to use popular software programs.
- Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client.
- Locate and interview witnesses.
- Conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research.
- Conduct legal research.
Another of the highest-paid paralegal positions is a corporate paralegal. Corporate paralegals usually work in the legal departments of large companies. They help attorneys make sure the organization's business and hiring practices all adhere to the law.
It may be difficult to get a paralegal job at a city firm straight out of uni or without the LPC as many law firms require applicants to have completed the LPC or have previous experience.What are 3 duties of a paralegal? ›
The Paralegal (PL) assists with case planning, development, and management, legal research, interviews clients, gathers facts and retrieves information, drafts and analyzes legal documents and collects, complies and utilizes technical information, to make recommendations to an attorney. 1.Do paralegals have to type fast? ›
Additionally, they will be working with attorneys on a daily basis so they need to have excellent shorthand and typing skills.
One of the most important roles of a paralegal is to assist their attorney in preparing for trials, hearings, and closings. A large part of this consists of conducting legal research and gathering relevant information to the case.How would you describe yourself as a paralegal? ›
Q1. Tell me about yourself and why you want to be a Paralegal? SUGGESTED ANSWER: “Being naturally someone who has great attention to detail, an inquisitive mind and totally dedicated approach to my work, I believe the role of a Paralegal is one I would excel in.How do you nail a paralegal interview? ›
- Show Positivity. First and foremost, hiring managers look at who will be a good fit for their team, and positive team players are often sought after.
- Dress in a way that commands respect. ...
- Use strong body positioning. ...
- Make eye contact. ...
- Speak slowly. ...
- Turn off your cell phone.
- meeting deadlines, targets or goals.
- mentoring and coaching others.
- learning new things.
- coming up with creative ideas to improve something, or make something new.
- analysing complex data in order to draw clear and simple conclusions.
- working well as part of a team.
- Decide what you can do. Pinpoint which parts of the situation you have the power to change or influence for the better. ...
- Get support. Find someone to talk to about your situation. ...
- Care for yourself. Take especially good care of yourself when stress in your life is high.
For example, you might explain that you are particularly motivated, or that you are known for going above and beyond for your employers. A second way to answer is to emphasize your unique skills. If you have skills that make you a strong candidate (especially if not many people have those skills), mention these.
Challenging work hours: While you can expect to work typical 9 to 5 work hours sometimes, paralegals often work evening and weekend hours. As lawyers are often bound to many approaching court dates, work including filing briefings and conducting necessary research ramps up as these dates grow near.Is paralegal a good career for introverts? ›
Paralegals do much of their work independently, making this a good career option for introverts.What are the challenges of being a paralegal? ›
They help lawyers by researching case facts, gathering supporting evidence, organizing files, drafting legal documents and contacting witnesses. While their role is important, paralegals encounter obstacles, including time pressure, limited upward mobility, lack of appreciation and limited technological resources.How do you secure a paralegal with no experience? ›
Work with a paralegal recruitment agency
Entry-level paralegal roles are not always advertised. Many law firms are increasingly using recruitment agencies to find employees, so make sure you sign up with legal recruiters. To do this, typically you get in touch with a recruitment agency and send in your CV.
Typical tasks performed by paralegals include: Case management, including coordinating all aspects of a case and ensuring the appropriate steps are taken in a timely manner. Drafting correspondence. Calculating calendaring deadlines for filing documents.Which of the following are 2 important administrative tasks of a paralegal? ›
Typical job duties of a paralegal:
Manages and organize case files. Drafts legal documents.
|Rank||StateUS Average||2019 Average Paralegals and Legal Assistants Salary7$55,020|
Whether an attorney or a paralegal, working in a law firm usually involves ample writing and drafting.Do paralegals write a lot? ›
Honestly, this is a profession that relies so heavily on communication, both verbal and written, so that writing is essential; it's a basic for both lawyers as well as for paralegals and legal secretaries.Is paralegal prestigious? ›
It truly is a prestigious and significant profession. Simply put, paralegals help people. They help their employers be more efficient in their jobs, they can increase a firm's revenue and productivity, and they also help the clients.
- Fine-tune your cover letter. ...
- Perfect your elevator speech. ...
- Promote your freelance paralegal skills. ...
- Level up through education. ...
- Explore a new practice area.
You do not need a Law Degree to become a paralegal. However, many employers look for legal or paralegal training. There are specialist qualifications for paralegals, developed to give you the skills and knowledge to work effectively as a paralegal.Can you be a paralegal without the LPC? ›
For law graduates not going on to the Legal Practice Course (LPC), Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) or Bar course, a career as a professional paralegal is a real alternative. Paralegal options exist in both the regulated and unregulated sectors, in the public and private sectors and in-house legal departments.What's the difference between legal assistant and paralegal? ›
A legal assistant, or litigation assistant, may perform administrative duties as well as legal tasks. A paralegal focuses more on legal duties and research to assist lawyers. Both positions require an understanding of legal terminology and procedures.What are five common tasks for paralegals during trial? ›
They are responsible for locating and interviewing witnesses, taking statements from witnesses, gathering evidence, creating case investigation folders, and preparing a chronology of facts for the case.How many words per minute should a paralegal type? ›
Good typing speeds are relative to job descriptions. For example, data entry positions usually require 60-80 words per minute. Medical transcriptionists, paralegals and executive secretaries should be able to type 70-100 wpm.How do you know if being a paralegal is right for you? ›
- You must love research. ...
- You must be organized. ...
- You must work well with limited supervision. ...
- You must work well under pressure. ...
- You must have good people skills.
The average typing speed is around 40 words per minute (wpm). If you want to be very productive, you should aim for a typing speed of 65 to 70 words per minute. It's easy with the right technique!Why do I want to be a paralegal? ›
Paralegal work can not only help confirm that law is the right career path for you; it also gives you a chance to hone those vital, sought-after skills for a successful career in law that are difficult to practise elsewhere – commercial awareness and client-relationship skills, for instance.What is your favorite thing about being a paralegal? ›
Helping People. Paralegals often have a lot of contact with clients and witnesses, acting as a go-between for the attorney. The opportunity to support clients through tough times can be rewarding.
- Why do you want to be a paralegal? ...
- Why did you apply at this firm? ...
- What has your paralegal experience been so far? ...
- Are you planning to eventually apply for law school? ...
- What areas of law are you interested in the most? ...
- What are your legal research skills?
I chose a career in law because I wanted to join a rewarding profession where I would be able to use my skills to help others. I have always been interested in the justice system, and I want to do my part to make sure people are treated fairly under the law.
The important thing about a career in law is the ways in which it can be fulfilling and bring positive change to the world. Depending on the niche you choose, you can take on cases that have an impact on the environment, human rights, or even simply the life of your client.Why are you interested in pursuing a legal career? ›
A Law Career Provides Stability
As an in-demand job, positions are available and because most businesses, entrepreneurs, and laypeople need lawyers, there is no worry of ever being out of a job. Job reports show that there is a positive trend of a 9% increase in law positions from 2020 to 2030.
Communication and client facing skills
Employers are highly impressed by those people. They are able to demonstrate previous experience of thinking critically and communicating clearly to solve problems for clients and colleagues alike. Foreign language skills are always an added bonus.
- Organizational Skills.
- Writing Skills.
- Technical Skills.
- Detail Oriented.
- Interpersonal Skills.
- Understanding Legal Terminology and Documentation.
Legal assistants must have excellent communication skills and keen attention to detail. They should also be comfortable working independently as well as part of a team.