Most people enrolling in or considering a degree in paralegal studies aspire to work in the law profession, as a paralegal. With the appropriate education and training, you can seek employment in a variety of law-related fields. There are choices in government agencies, private law firms, corporations, and non-profit organizations. Almost any place where the law is practiced, there will be a need for paralegals.
In this role, they act as assistants to legal staff. In a law firm, you may assist one or several lawyers. In larger firms, typically each attorney has his/her paralegal. This person prepares briefs, conducts research (case law-for example), analyzes documents, drafts correspondence, and sets meetings with clients. With experience, a paralegal’s responsibilities increase. For instance, he/she may attend court proceedings and sit in on depositions.
To begin a career in this profession, often an Associate’s degree is sufficient. You can take a two-year degree online, at a local community college, or college of your choosing. Generally, the curriculum at this level teaches you how to perform legal research and proper writing skills. Both are crucial to your success. The latter subject consists of instruction in grammar and writing style. You learn, through practice exercises, how to compose legal correspondence.
When looking at the different courses in an associate’s program, your selection may influence your wage potential. In addition to the above topics, you will need a condensed law program. Therefore, some of the same classes you find in law school should comprise your two-year degree — courses such as torts, contracts, litigation procedures, and wills and estates. The more you can learn about the law and related subjects, the more marketable you may be.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median wage for Paralegals and Legal Assistants is $50,410 per year or $24.24 per hour with an Associate’s degree. The most recent jobs’ data (2016) show 285,600 work in this occupation. The job growth is well above average at 15% over ten-years through 2026. This percentage translates to an additional 41,800 paralegals during the same period.
Keep in mind that the BLS salary is the national average with an entry-level degree. The majority of professions have varying salaries depending on the place of work and geographical location. The most significant number of paralegals work in legal services-meaning law firms. Accordingly, the category of legal services captures 221,310 employees. A distant second is the industry of Federal Executive Branch that has a meager 13,110. However, the salary potential is better with a federal position. Their median pay is $69,090 nationally.
Your state of employment affects income. The District of Columbia, Alaska, New Jersey, Washington state, and Connecticut all have salaries exceeding $60k. DC is at the top with a median pay of $80,470.
A higher income may not be beneficial if there are fewer job opportunities. DC and Alaska employ 5,260 and 550, respectively. In comparison, California and Florida report 30,790 and 27,460 paralegals, respectively. The annual mean wage in California is $61,240, which is above the national figure. US News reports that these California cities have the highest salary for paralegals: Oxnard ($74,860), San Francisco ($68,730), and San Jose ($86,630).
Fortune 500 companies with substantial legal departments require legal assistants. Examples are Google, Microsoft, Allianz Global Investors, and Altria (owns Phillip Morris). These coveted jobs will require a bachelor’s or master’s degree in legal studies. However, the upper echelon of salaries can approach six figures!
Experience is paramount to your wage potential. To earn higher salaries, you may have to start with a smaller company or law firm. It is imperative that you consider a Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies. There are online programs that will fit your personal and work life. A distance-learning format allows the convenience of gaining experience while advancing your education. Ultimately, this can lead to better pay and increased responsibilities as a paralegal.
A bachelor’s or graduate degree will allow you to specialize in a particular area of law. Examples are criminal law, immigration, estate law, personal injury law, or corporate law. Some of these have more significant wage potential. Personal injury law can reap millions in lucrative settlements in severe injury cases.
Professional certifications are another way to boost your salary potential. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALS) has three primary certifications:
- Accredited Legal Professional requires completion of NALS courses or twelve months of work experience.
- Professional Legal Secretary mandates at least three years of experience or two years with an undergraduate degree.
- Professional Paralegal candidates need a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from an American Bar Association-approved program and at least five years of work in the profession.
All of these certifications have an examination.
The NALS also has an annual student and individual membership for $39 and $130 respectively. Your membership provides access to their network of professionals, career opportunities, legal training, conference information, and numerous discounts.