About 7 out of 10 work for law firms; others work
for corporate legal departments and government agencies.
Most entrants have an associates degree in
paralegal studies, or a bachelors degree coupled with a certificate in
Employment is projected to grow much faster than
average, as employers try to reduce costs by hiring paralegals to perform
tasks formerly carried out by lawyers.
Competition for jobs should continue; experienced,
formally trained paralegals should have the best employment opportunities.
Nature of the Work
While lawyers assume ultimate responsibility for legal
work, they often delegate many of their tasks to paralegals. In fact,
paralegals also called legal assistant are continuing to assume a growing range
of tasks in the Nations legal offices and perform many of the same tasks as
lawyers. Nevertheless, they are still explicitly prohibited from carrying out
duties that are considered to be the practice of law, such as setting legal
fees, giving legal advice, and presenting cases in court.
One of a paralegals most important tasks is helping
lawyers prepare for closings, hearings, trials, and corporate meetings.
Paralegals investigate the facts of cases and ensure that all relevant
information is considered. They also identify appropriate laws, judicial
decisions, legal articles, and other materials that are relevant to assigned
cases. After they analyze and organize the information, paralegals may prepare
written reports that attorneys use in determining how cases should be handled.
Should attorneys decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may
help prepare the legal arguments, draft pleadings and motions to be filed with
the court, obtain affidavits, and assist attorneys during trials. Paralegals
also organize and track files of all important case documents and make them
available and easily accessible to attorneys.
In addition to this preparatory work, paralegals
perform a number of other vital functions. For example, they help draft
contracts, mortgages, separation agreements, and instruments of trust. They also
may assist in preparing tax returns and planning estates. Some paralegals
coordinate the activities of other law office employees and maintain financial
office records. Various additional tasks may differ, depending on the employer.
Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but
most are employed by law firms, corporate legal departments, and various
government offices. In these organizations, they can work in many different
areas of the law, including litigation, personal injury, corporate law, criminal
law, employee benefits, intellectual property, labor law, bankruptcy,
immigration, family law, and real estate. As the law has become more complex,
paralegals have responded by becoming more specialized. Within specialties,
functions often are broken down further so that paralegals may deal with a
specific area. For example, paralegals specializing in labor law may concentrate
exclusively on employee benefits.
The duties of paralegals also differ widely with the
type of organization in which they are employed. Paralegals who work for
corporations often assist attorneys with employee contracts, shareholder
agreements, stock-option plans, and employee benefit plans. They also may help
prepare and file annual financial reports, maintain corporate minutes record
resolutions, and prepare forms to secure loans for the corporation. Paralegals
often monitor and review government regulations to ensure that the corporation
is aware of new requirements and is operating within the law. Increasingly,
experienced paralegals are assuming additional supervisory responsibilities such
as overseeing team projects and serving as a communications link between the
team and the corporation.
The duties of paralegals who work in the public sector
usually vary within each agency. In general, paralegals analyze legal material
for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for attorneys, and
collect and analyze evidence for agency hearings. They may prepare informative
or explanatory material on laws, agency regulations, and agency policy for
general use by the agency and the public. Paralegals employed in community
legal-service projects help the poor, the aged, and others who are in need of
legal assistance. They file forms, conduct research, prepare documents, and,
when authorized by law, may represent clients at administrative hearings.
Paralegals in small and medium-size law firms usually
perform a variety of duties that require a general knowledge of the law. For
example, they may research judicial decisions on improper police arrests or help
prepare a mortgage contract. Paralegals employed by large law firms, government
agencies, and corporations, however, are more likely to specialize in one aspect
of the law.
Familiarity with computers use and technical knowledge
have become essential to paralegal work. Computer software packages and the
Internet are used to search legal literature stored in computer databases and on
CD-ROM. In litigation involving many supporting documents, paralegals usually
use computer databases to retrieve, organize, and index various materials.
Imaging software allows paralegals to scan documents directly into a database,
while billing programs help them to track hours billed to clients. Computer
software packages also are used to perform tax computations and explore the
consequences of various tax strategies for clients.
Paralegals employed by corporations and government
usually work a standard 40-hour week. Although most paralegals work year round,
some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year and then are
released when the workload diminishes. Paralegals who work for law firms
sometimes work very long hours when they are under pressure to meet deadlines.
Some law firms reward such loyalty with bonuses and additional time off.
These workers handle many routine assignments,
particularly when they are inexperienced. As they gain experience, paralegals
usually assume more varied tasks with additional responsibility. Paralegals do
most of their work at desks in offices and law libraries. Occasionally, they
travel to gather information and perform other duties.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
There are several ways to become a paralegal. The most
common is through a community college paralegal program that leads to an
associates degree. The other common method of entry, mainly for those who
already have a college degree, is through a program that leads to a
certification in paralegal studies. A small number of schools also offer
bachelors and masters degrees in paralegal studies. Some employers train
paralegals on the job, hiring college graduates with no legal experience or
promoting experienced legal secretaries. Other entrants have experience in a
technical field that is useful to law firms, such as a background in tax
preparation for tax and estate practice or in criminal justice, nursing, or
health administration for personal injury practice.
An estimated 1,000 colleges and universities, law
schools, and proprietary schools offer formal paralegal training programs.
Approximately 260 paralegal programs are approved by the American Bar
Association (ABA). Although many programs do not require such approval,
graduation from an ABA-approved program can enhance ones employment
opportunities. The requirements for admission to these programs vary. Some
require certain college courses or a bachelors degree, others accept high
school graduates or those with legal experience, and a few schools require
standardized tests and personal interviews.
Paralegal programs include 2-year associate degrees
programs, 4-year bachelors degree programs, and certificate programs that can
take only a few months to complete. Most certificate programs provide intensive
and, in some cases, specialized paralegal training for individuals who already
hold college degrees, while associates and bachelors degree programs usually
combine paralegal training with courses in other academic subjects. The quality
of paralegal training programs varies; the better programs usually include job
placement services. Programs generally offer courses introducing students to the
legal applications of computers, including how to perform legal research on the
Internet. Many paralegal training programs also offer an internship in which
students gain practical experience by working for several months in a private
law firm, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a bank, a
corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, or a government agency.
Experience gained in internships is an asset when one is seeking a job after
graduation. Prospective students should examine the experiences of recent
graduates before enrolling in a paralegal program.
Although most employers do not require certification,
earning a voluntary certificate from a professional society may offer advantages
in the labor market. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), for
example, has established standards for certification requiring various
combinations of education and experience. Paralegals who meet these standards
are eligible to take a 2-day examination, given three times each year at several
regional testing centers. Those who pass this examination may use the Certified
Legal Assistant (CLA) designation. The NALA also offers an advanced paralegal
certification for those who want to specialize in other areas of the law. In
addition, the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam, administered through the
National Federation of Paralegal Associations, offers professional recognition
to paralegals with a bachelors degree and at least 2 years of experience. Those
who pass this examination may use the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation.
Paralegals must be able to document and present their
findings and opinions to their supervising attorney. They need to understand
legal terminology and have good research and investigative skills. Familiarity
with the operation and applications of computers in legal research and
litigation support also is important. Paralegals should stay informed of new
developments in the laws that affect their area of practice. Participation in
continuing legal education seminars allows paralegals to maintain and expand
their knowledge of the law.
Because paralegals frequently deal with the public,
they should be courteous and uphold the ethical standards of the legal
profession. The National Association of Legal Assistants, the National
Federation of Paralegal Associations, and a few States have established ethical
guidelines for paralegals to follow.
Paralegals usually are given more responsibilities and
require less supervision as they gain work experience. Experienced paralegals
who work in large law firms, corporate legal departments, or government agencies
may supervise and delegate assignments to other paralegals and clerical staff.
Advancement opportunities also include promotion to managerial and other
law-related positions within the firm or corporate legal department. However,
some paralegals find it easier to move to another law firm when seeking
increased responsibility or advancement.
Paralegals and legal assistants held about 224,000 jobs
in 2004. Private law firms employed 7 out of 10 paralegals and legal assistants;
most of the remainder worked for corporate legal departments and various levels
of government. Within the Federal Government, the U.S. Department of Justice is
the largest employer, followed by the Social Security Administration and the
U.S. Department of the Treasury. A small number of paralegals own their own
businesses and work as freelance legal assistants, contracting their services to
attorneys or corporate legal departments.
Employment for paralegals and legal assistants is
projected to grow much faster than average for all occupations through 2014.
Employers are trying to reduce costs and increase the availability and
efficiency of legal services by hiring paralegals to perform tasks formerly
carried out by lawyers. Besides new jobs created by employment growth,
additional job openings will arise as people leave the occupation. Despite
projections of rapid employment growth, competition for jobs should continue as
many people seek to go into this profession; however, experienced, formally
trained paralegals should have the best employment opportunities.
Private law firms will continue to be the largest
employers of paralegals, but a growing array of other organizations, such as
corporate legal departments, insurance companies, real estate and title
insurance firms, and banks hire paralegals. Corporations in particular are
boosting their in-house legal departments to cut costs. Demand for paralegals
also is expected to grow as an expanding population increasingly requires legal
services, especially in areas such as intellectual property, health care,
international law, elder issues, criminal law, and environmental law. Paralegals
who specialize in areas such as real estate, bankruptcy, medical malpractice,
and product liability should have ample employment opportunities. The growth of
prepaid legal plans also should contribute to the demand for legal services.
Paralegal employment is expected to increase as organizations presently
employing paralegals assign them a growing range of tasks and as paralegals are
increasingly employed in small and medium-size establishments. A growing number
of experienced paralegals are expected to establish their own businesses.
Job opportunities for paralegals will expand in the
public sector as well. Community legal-service programs, which provide
assistance to the poor, elderly, minorities, and middle-income families, will
employ additional paralegals to minimize expenses and serve the most people.
Federal, State, and local government agencies, consumer organizations, and the
courts also should continue to hire paralegals in increasing numbers.
To a limited extent, paralegal jobs are affected by the
business cycle. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary legal
services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate
transactions. Corporations are less inclined to initiate certain types of
litigation when falling sales and profits lead to fiscal belt tightening. As a
result, full-time paralegals employed in offices adversely affected by a
recession may be laid off or have their work hours reduced. However, during
recessions, corporations and individuals are more likely to face other problems
that require legal assistance, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces.
Paralegals, who provide many of the same legal services as lawyers at a lower
cost, tend to fare relatively better in difficult economic conditions.
Earnings of paralegals and legal assistants vary
greatly. Salaries depend on education, training, experience, the type and size
of employer, and the geographic location of the job. In general, paralegals who
work for large law firms or in large metropolitan areas earn more than those who
work for smaller firms or in less populated regions. In addition to earning a
salary, many paralegals receive bonuses. In May 2004, full-time wage and salary
paralegals and legal assistants had median annual earnings, including bonuses,
of $39,130. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,040 and $49,950. The top 10
percent earned more than $61,390, while the bottom 10 percent earned less than
$25,360. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers
of paralegals in May 2004 were as follows:
Among the other occupations that call for a specialized
understanding of the law and the legal system, but do not require the extensive
training of a lawyer, are law clerks; title examiners, abstractors, and
searchers; claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators; and
occupational health and safety specialists and technicians.
Sources of Additional Information
General information on a career as a paralegal can be
For information on the Certified Legal Assistant exam,
schools that offer training programs in a specific State, and standards and
guidelines for paralegals, contact:
National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc., 1516
South Boston St., Suite 200, Tulsa, OK 74119. Internet:
Information on a career as a paralegal, schools that
offer training programs, job postings for paralegals, the Paralegal Advanced
Competency Exam, and local paralegal associations can be obtained from:
National Federation of Paralegal Associations, 2517
Eastlake Ave. East, Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98102. Internet:
Information on paralegal training programs, including
the pamphlet How to Choose a Paralegal Education Program, may be obtained
American Association for Paralegal Education, 19
Mantua Rd., Mt. Royal, NJ 08061. Internet:
Information on obtaining positions as occupational
health and safety specialists and technicians with the Federal Government is
available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal
Governments official employment information system. This resource for locating
and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at
or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or
TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook,
Paralegals and Legal Assistants, on the
Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos114.htm
(visited May 12, 2006).