The American Bar Association in 1997 amended its earlier definition of “legal assistant”, stating “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
What do Paralegals do?
As the abovementioned shows, legal assistants and paralegals are identical terms. Paralegals, simply put, assist lawyers in carrying out their daily professional tasks.
A paralegal’s duties will be determined by the size of the law firm he/she works for and the specialty of his/her employer. However, some of the more typical duties of a paralegal are:
- Schedule depositions, interviews and meetings
- File legal documents with the court
- Review trial transcripts, take notes and handle exhibits
- Take down witness statements and get affidavits
- Draft mortgages and contracts
- Write reports
- Gather and arrange all legal documents
- Maintain and organize legal documents on computer systems
- Conduct legal research
- Investigate the facts of a case
Just like lawyers, paralegals, too, can specialize in certain areas. These include:
- Real estate
- Family law
- Intellectual property
- Labor laws
- Criminal law
- Corporate law
- Personal injury
Types of Paralegals
Broadly speaking, there are two types of paralegals:
How to Become a Paralegal
Becoming a paralegal takes a lot less time and effort than becoming a lawyer, but the profession still demands the same level of commitment and dedication to upholding the professional standards of the legal field.
Typically, there are two ways to become a paralegal:
- Completing an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or
- Bachelor’s degree (non-paralegal studies) and a certificate in paralegal studies
Paralegals, unlike lawyers, do not need to be licensed, in order to practice.
Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
This is a 2-year undergraduate degree, which is widely offered in a traditional mode at various community colleges and online. The learning objectives are:
- Paralegal ethics and professional responsibility
- Legal writing and research
- How to conduct interviews and legal investigations
- Legal terminology and the U.S. court system
The main admission requirement is a high school diploma or its equivalent. Once accepted into the program, students will be expected to maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher to graduate, along with clearing all courses.
Divided into 4-semesters, the associate’s degree in paralegal studies offers courses in:
- Introduction to Paralegal Studies
- Legal Terminology and Critical Thinking
- English Composition
- Real Estate Law
- Business and Technical Writing
- Civil Litigation
- Economics 1
- Business Law 1&2
- Computer Applications
Certificate in Paralegal Studies
As mentioned earlier, those individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a non-legal field looking to switch career and become a paralegal, may find this a suitable option. The certificate can be earned with 1-year of part-time enrollment or by completing a summer intensive program. While its curriculum will vary between institutes, students can typically earn this certificate after successful completion of 13-14 courses. In addition, students may also be required to successfully complete an unpaid 4-5 weeks internship.
The courses offered are similar to the courses offered in the associate’s degree in paralegal studies. Both the degree and the certificate program are designed to produce qualified paralegals, ready to take on the challenging responsibilities of assisting lawyers.
How long does it take to Become a Paralegal?
As mentioned earlier, the time period will vary. In essence, those who have made up their mind to become a paralegal right out of high school will become paralegals in the shortest possible time.
Salary and Career Prospects
A pertinent question to ask here would be: why become a paralegal and not a lawyer, when they ALMOST do the same thing? The answer is rather simple – it is quicker, easier and cheaper to become a paralegal than lawyer.
According to O*NET OnLine, the job growth in the field is expected to take place at the rate of 15-21%, which is faster than the average job growth for all other fields from 2012-22. The same source further quotes paralegals earning a median annual income of $47,570 in 2013.
There are some states where paralegals earn a lot more than the national median income. For example, in California, paralegals in 2013 earned $56,400. Paralegals in New York, in 2013, earned $51,200. (This information is taken from O*NET OnLine).