For paralegals and legal assistants, the future is bright. The career outlook for these paraprofessionals who assist lawyers with tasks needed to handle legal matters is positive, with tens of thousands of new jobs expected to come into existence over just 10 years. Aspiring paralegals can further improve their career prospects through simple steps like taking computer classes, choosing formal paralegal training programs and pursuing voluntary, but valuable, professional credentials.
Job Growth for Paralegals
Jobs for paralegals are growing at a rate that is much faster than the average job growth rate across all occupations and even considerably faster than other jobs in the legal occupations. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 12 percent increase in opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants over a decade. With 325,700 Americans already working in this occupation, that should translate to 39,000 new jobs. In contrast, the expected rate of job growth across all occupations is just 5 percent over that same span of time.
Paralegals are seeing double the rate of job growth that lawyers are seeing and considerably higher growth rates than the 7 percent expected for all legal occupations. They also fare somewhat better than all legal support roles, for which the BLS predicts an average growth rate of 9 percent.
Why are legal support roles, and especially paralegals, in higher demand than professions like lawyers, judges and mediators? Licensed attorneys must go to law school and earn a Juris Doctor degree. The extensive education and preparation required to become a lawyer also make it more expensive to hire one. By delegating appropriate tasks to trained paralegals, law firms can free up attorneys’ time to do the work only they are authorized to do, like representing a client in the courtroom or providing legal advice. This allows lawyers and law firms to handle legal matters more efficiently and economically, the BLS reported.
Paralegals and legal assistants make up 20 percent of the legal services industry, according to the BLS.
Maximizing Your Paralegal Career Prospects
Given the high demand for this occupation, you might not be too worried about finding a job as a paralegal. However, you will still face competition for the most sought-after paralegal jobs – the ones with reliable, established law firms that pay well and allow opportunities for advancement. There are many ways you can take charge of your job search, even while you are still in school, to improve your job prospects.
Much of the discovery and research work of a paralegal occurs in electronic formats today, so the BLS noted that paralegals with skills in computers and database management are in especially high demand. You can easily cultivate these skills by taking a couple of computer classes during your college education or through other methods, like non-credit online courses.
Another factor that increases your marketability as a paralegal is formal training. Not all paralegals pursue a program in paralegal studies. Some have only a bachelor’s degree in another subject. However, today’s employers – law firms, legal departments and government entities – often give preference to paralegals who come into the field with this valuable background knowledge. Although every law firm and legal department will handle situations in their own ways, it is much easier for an employer to train an experienced paralegal in that particular firm’s protocols than to teach someone with no legal background how to perform legal research, writing and other tasks.
Finally, seeking professional certification can strengthen your resume. Several different professional organizations award certification, including the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, the American Alliance of Paralegals and NALS (formerly known as the National Association of Legal Secretaries). Generally, you must earn a passing score on a professional examination, as well as meeting education and experience requirements, to obtain certification.
Many of the new opportunities expected to emerge for paralegals are in the in-house legal departments of large corporations, the BLS reported. You may find career success applying to roles in healthcare facilities, finance firms and consulting firms.
Advancing Beyond the Paralegal Role
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For paralegals, as opposed to other support roles like legal secretary, there are a number of different paths you can take to career advancement. The most direct path is to move up to a senior-level paralegal role that includes supervisory duties, such as paralegal case manager or supervisory paralegal specialist. In certain states, experienced paralegals who complete a special program of study can apply for a licensed paraprofessional role that expands their scope of practice and allows them to work independent of attorney supervision, the American Bar Association reported. Some paralegals ultimately decide to go to law school and become lawyers, themselves.
Opportunities for lawyers aren’t growing at rates as high as those for paralegals, but this larger profession should see a greater total gain in jobs, at 50,100, the BLS reported. Lawyers earn a median wage of $120,910, compared to $50,940 for paralegals.