Paralegals perform the support work needed to keep private law offices and public legal departments running smoothly. Paralegals, also called legal assistants, cannot practice law but work closely with attorneys. Some paralegals may be asked to focus on document review, while others may spend most of their time speaking with clients, witnesses and courts. Paralegals do not perform the sometimes glamorous work of attorneys, but the high demand for legal assistants, coupled with the lower educational cost, keeps attracting qualified people to the field.
Different Types of Paralegal Programs
Those seeking to work as paralegals can take various educational paths to reach their goal. The National Association of Legal Assistants describes the different types of degrees students can pursue in this field. Some students pursue associate’s degrees in paralegal studies, taking courses at community colleges, business schools or even four-year universities. Students in these programs may split their class work evenly between basic required courses and paralegal classes, ultimately taking between 60 and 70 credit hours in the process.
Other students may pursue four-year degrees in paralegal studies, obtaining a baccalaureate degree after completing the program. These students may have to complete between 120 and 130 credit hours to obtain their degrees. People changing careers who already possess a degree in another field may enroll in a certificate program requiring between 18 and 60 credit hours. These certificate programs may allow professionals to start paralegal careers within a year of beginning their studies.
Classes in Paralegal Programs
Although specific courses vary by institution, most students in paralegal or legal studies programs can expect to learn about their states’ specific statutes, rules and regulations governing document collection, medical privacy rights, rules of evidence and civil and criminal procedure. Students in paralegal programs may attend classes in communications skills, legal ethics, civil procedure, criminal procedure, discovery tools, trial preparation, legal research and writing, legal technology and pleadings.
Students may elect to focus on a particular area of the law to obtain more expertise in a given field such as general civil litigation, family law, criminal law, real estate, health care law or corporate law. Students focusing on criminal law may seek work in a prosecutor’s office or a private criminal defense firm. Students focusing on real estate could work for a real estate agency, bank or property management company. Those taking more coursework in health care law may seek employment with hospitals, health insurance companies or private medical offices.
ABA-Accredited Paralegal Programs
As of May 2012, the American Bar Association has accredited paralegal programs in 48 states, leaving Vermont and North Dakota as the only states without at least one accredited program. ABA accreditation assures applicants of a certain level of quality, although the ABA does not rank or rate programs in any other way.
NALA describes some of the varying tasks paralegals perform based on the amount of responsibility they are afforded by their supervisors. Some attorneys in private practice allow their paralegals a wide amount of discretion, assigning such tasks as substantive research and writing. Paralegals working in personal injury law offices may draft complaints or discovery requests for the attorney to review.
Paralegals in civil defense firms may draft answers, contact witnesses or submit written requests for medical, employment or tax records. Attorneys who bill their clients hourly may prefer to assign more substantive work to their paralegals, as such paralegal work can ethically be billed to the client at a reduced rate. Attorneys who assign their legal assistants purely administrative work, such as scheduling depositions or organizing files, typically cannot charge their clients for such tasks.
Job Outlook and Salary Ranges
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists median pay for paralegals at $46,680 per year or $22.44 per hour. Pay varies greatly by industry and geography. The lowest 10 percent of earners, typically those working in the public sector or smaller cities, make less than $29,460 per year, whereas the top 10 percent earn more than $74,870. In 2010, more than 256,000 paralegals were employed in the United States. The BLS expects the economy to create almost 47,000 new paralegal jobs between 2010 and 2020, representing 18 percent growth.