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.
An indispensable paralegal has an ability to multitask, a strong attention to detail, a willingness to learn, an expertise in organization, and psychic abilities.Is paralegal training hard? ›
While the work can be intensive, getting a paralegal certificate altogether is not difficult. Becoming a paralegal can happen in several ways. Each state has its own requirements for becoming a paralegal.Where do paralegals make the most money? ›
Geographic area can also have a major impact on salary. According to the BLS, the states with the highest average annual salaries for paralegals in 2020 were Washington DC at $83,330, California at $66,250, Washington at $63,050, Colorado at $62,950, and New York at $62,530.What computer skills does a paralegal need? ›
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) ...
- Timekeeping Software.
- Basic Computer.
- Document Management. ...
- Scheduling. ...
- e-Filing. ...
- Electronically Stored Information (ESI) ...
- Trial Presentation Software.
Consider a classic suit or staple work-appropriate outfit, especially if you're not sure about the firm's dress code. While you may want to show off your personality, most law firms take professional appearance very seriously. If you wear the wrong outfit, you can seriously hurt your hiring chances.Can paralegals make six figures? ›
With an average salary of $53,910, it usually takes 20 years in the field for paralegals to earn a six-figure salary.What is the beginning salary for most paralegals? ›
Paralegals made a median salary of $52,920 in 2020. The best-paid 25 percent made $67,080 that year, while the lowest-paid 25 percent made $40,640.What are the pros and cons of being a paralegal? ›
- Pro: Training. If the legal business calls to you, but years of law school and the bar exam don't, then being a paralegal may be a great alternative. ...
- Con: Salary. ...
- Pro: Less Debt. ...
- Con: Job Stability. ...
- Pro: More Job Opportunities. ...
- Pro: Freedom. ...
- Con: Juggling. ...
- Con: Time.
Benefits for Paralegals usually include vacation, holiday, sick leave, medical, dental, life insurance and retirement plans. Many law firms pay bonuses based on seniority or merit, or a combination of both.Why would 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.
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 percent of paralegals are female? ›
There are over 294,138 paralegals currently employed in the United States. 77.6% of all paralegals are women, while 22.4% are men.What is the best state to be a paralegal? ›
1. District of Columbia.
|Total Paralegal Jobs:||162|
|Average Annual Salary:||$64,103|
|Lowest 10 Percent Earn:||$42,000|
|Highest 10 Percent Earn:||$95,000|
- Connecticut. Connecticut is a promising state to work as a paralegal, as attorneys hold them in high demand at numerous top-name law firms throughout the state. ...
- 2. California. ...
- Washington. ...
- Massachusetts. ...
- Alaska. ...
- New York. ...
- Colorado. ...
- New Jersey.
Generally speaking, paralegals use a file management system (for example, to conduct conflict checks), document management system, and billing/accounting system, alongside typical communication tools such as email, phone, and Slack.What type of software do paralegals use? ›
Microsoft Office, Open Office, and Google Docs are common software suites that are used in many law firms. Knowledge of one of these programs is a must for legal assistants and paralegals. As a legal professional, you will be communicating and exchanging documents with other parties.Do paralegals need to know Excel? ›
Microsoft Office, especially Excel and Word, continue to be ubiquitous in most law firms. Many courts require filings to be made in Word format. Lawyers, and especially paralegals, use Excel for a range of operational and project specific processes.Can paralegals have tattoos? ›
Most law firms ask employees to cover their tattoos. Therefore, it's helpful to choose clothing that covers your tattoos as best as possible. For example, if you have a tattoo on your wrist, you may wish to wear long-sleeved blouses or keep your button-up's sleeves rolled down while at work.Do Paralegals wear heels? ›
Paralegals should find a pair of heels that are both fashionable and soothing to the feet. After all, these are the shoes you will be spending most of your work life wearing.What qualities do you feel are most important for a successful legal assistant? ›
- Organizational Skills.
- Writing Skills.
- Technical Skills.
- Detail Oriented.
- Interpersonal Skills.
- Understanding Legal Terminology and Documentation.
As is the case with lawyers, paralegals' salary may grow with tenure. The highest 10 percent of paralegals earned an annual salary of $82,500 or more in 2019, according to the BLS.What does a corporate paralegal do? ›
A corporate paralegal works with documents like limited liability companies and partnerships, meeting notices, license applications, stock certificates, merger and dissolution agreements, and amendments. Corporate paralegals frequently work with the legal aspects of corporate transactions.What's the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer? ›
A lawyer is someone who has studied law and has the authority and qualification to practice it whereas a paralegal can work for an attorney but cannot practice law. Paralegals can research cases, file documents and help prepare legal reports for the lawyer they work for.What is the highest paying occupation? ›
The highest-paying job in the world, in a traditional sense, holds the number one spot in this article: anesthesiologist. They are also the only job listed above $300,000 a year.What do paralegals earn in the USA? ›
According to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), legal assistants/paralegals earn an average salary of $56,610 per year ($27.22 per hour). Average pay will vary based on the state in which you are employed, the education you've earned and level of experience in the field.How much does a paralegal make us? ›
The national average salary for a Paralegal is $54,024 in United States. Filter by location to see Paralegal salaries in your area. Salary estimates are based on 18,605 salaries submitted anonymously to Glassdoor by Paralegal employees. How accurate does US$54,024 look to you?What are the limitations of a paralegal? ›
Paralegals are also not allowed to set the amount of a fee to be charged for legal services; represent clients in court; provide legal advice and opinions (although they can relay information given to them by their supervising attorneys); hold themselves out as attorneys; or make unsupervised legal judgments.Do paralegals get health benefits? ›
Paralegals typically receive all the basic benefits and perks offered at most jobs, such as paid time off, health care, sick days, pension, bonuses, and insurance. Many firms also offer education reimbursement to their paralegals.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.Is being a 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.
Paralegals are in high demand!
The types of law and legal specialty areas are diverse, and employment opportunities for paralegals are projected to grow 15% from 2016 to 2026. This is a much faster rate than the average for all other occupations.
Keep a list of your monthly, weekly, and daily tasks and responsibilities. Prioritize the tasks on your list by assigning numbers or placing them in order of importance. This will enable you to focus your attention on important tasks first and help you stay motivated to complete everything that needs to be done.How do you answer a Tell me about yourself paralegal? ›
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.Do paralegals get training contracts? ›
Many more paralegals apply for training contracts at different firms to the one at which they are currently working. Again, legal work experience is usually crucial for securing a training contract, so these paralegals' experiences should stand them in good stead.Do paralegals travel for work? ›
Most Paralegals work 40 hours per week occupying desks in law offices and law libraries. They may travel to other business locations to perform their duties.What do you call a paralegal? ›
The two terms—“paralegal” and “legal assistant”—are still used interchangeably in the legal industry, but the growing trend is to use the title of “paralegal” for certified employees.Is a legal analyst the same as a paralegal? ›
A legal analyst provides support to attorneys for legal proceedings including preparing documents and inspecting evidence for trial, while a paralegal conducts factual and legal research and manages cases.What is the most common job for a woman? ›
|Occupation||Number of women|
|Elementary and middle school teachers||1,657,028|
|Secretaries and administrative assistants, except legal, medical, and executive||1,577,156|
|Managers, all other||1,341,712|
Since that time, men have become paralegals in increasing numbers – and more and more women have become attorneys – but perhaps because of its origins, the ranks of paralegals are primarily women.Can men be legal assistants? ›
Being a paralegal in the pandemic era has made us all adapt on a day to day basis, yet one thing remains very consistent. I came across a recent article which stated that just under 23% of the paralegal profession are male.
- Bankruptcy Paralegal. ...
- Family Law Paralegal. ...
- Intellectual Property Paralegal. ...
- Litigation Paralegal. ...
- Real Estate Paralegal. ...
- Immigration Paralegal. ...
- Personal Injury Paralegal. ...
- Take the First Step to Becoming a Paralegal in California.
Geographic area can also have a major impact on salary. According to the BLS, the states with the highest average annual salaries for paralegals in 2020 were Washington DC at $83,330, California at $66,250, Washington at $63,050, Colorado at $62,950, and New York at $62,530.Do paralegals have to take the LSAT? ›
Paralegals often need an Associate's degree. After earning their undergraduate degree, would-be law students are required to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) as part of the application process to law school. There's no guarantee they'll be admitted, either—top law schools are very selective.What is the hourly rate for a paralegal in California? ›
|State||Employment (1)||Hourly mean wage|
|New York||30,400||$ 30.42|
Paralegal Job Market Trends in Texas
As of May 2020, the average paralegal salary in Texas was $57,020, or $27.41 per hour, which is slightly higher than the national average of $56,610 for the profession.
A good paralegal must be able to follow through, overcome any obstacles, find solutions, solve problems, regularly increase their knowledge and skills, and be prepared to exceed expectations at all times. Able to work under pressure: court cases and legal work in general is very stressful.What qualities do you feel are most important for a successful legal assistant? ›
- Organizational Skills.
- Writing Skills.
- Technical Skills.
- Detail Oriented.
- Interpersonal Skills.
- Understanding Legal Terminology and Documentation.
For example, paralegals can review and organize client files, conduct factual and legal research, prepare documents for legal transactions, draft pleadings and discovery notices, interview clients and witnesses, and assist at closings and trials. Paralegals must avoid the unauthorized practice of law.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.
Include Your Certifications
If you have a certificate, you should not only include it in your resume's education and certifications section, but you should also mention in your objective statement that you're a certified paralegal.
The most successful secretaries possess drive and initiative. They don't sit waiting for an attorney's instructions or assignments; they stay on top of what needs to be accomplished in any given time period. They anticipate their employer's and clients' needs.What's the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer? ›
A lawyer is someone who has studied law and has the authority and qualification to practice it whereas a paralegal can work for an attorney but cannot practice law. Paralegals can research cases, file documents and help prepare legal reports for the lawyer they work for.What are the differences between a paralegal and a legal office assistant? ›
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.Is being a legal assistant stressful? ›
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.Why do you want to be a legal secretary? ›
There are lots of different reasons to become a Legal Secretary, including the varied working life, the opportunities to advance your career and increase your earning potential, and the chance to learn about our legal system in depth so that you gain a better understanding of how it governs our society.What are the 5 typical duties of a paralegals? ›
- Research. ...
- Case Preparation. ...
- Document Management. ...
- Courtroom and Legal Proceedings Assistance. ...
- Communication and Coordination.
If the paralegal does pass, they can use the letters CLA (Certified Legal Assistant) or CP (Certified Paralegal) after their name. The ABA does not issue any designation or letters that you can use after your name.Why do law firms need paralegals? ›
A paralegal can handle all of the basic office and administrative tasks required to keep a law firm running smoothly. This may include reviewing and organizing client files, drafting legal documents or conducting interviews with clients and witnesses.How do paralegals prepare for the first day? ›
- Explore the computer and network. Familiarize yourself with the structure of the office files. ...
- Start familiarizing yourself with your clients. A large part of your first day as a paralegal, will almost certainly be spent answering the phone. ...
- Shadow a colleague.
Paralegals who are employed in law firm environments frequently work more than 40 hours a week, although those who are employed in corporate and government arenas might enjoy more relaxed schedules. And you can probably forget about being paid time and a half for your hours over 40.
- Online Networking. ...
- Join local and national paralegal organizations. ...
- Volunteer. ...
- Read blogs, articles, and case summaries. ...
- CLE materials. ...
- Move to another city. ...
- Change industries.