Paralegals, or legal assistants, are professionals formally trained to assist lawyers in various tasks, such as preparing legal briefs, organizing files and researching cases. They assist lawyers in drafting legal correspondence, affidavits, contracts, wills and other important documents. They may also correspond with witnesses and deliver subpoenas. Additionally, they might research, organize and locate data, including old laws, legal opinions, regulations, codes and other information pertinent to cases.
Since some of their duties are administrative, paralegals may be required to master the use of office equipment, such as photocopiers, fax machines, scanners and desktop computers. In addition to this hardware, paralegals may need to be familiar with word-processing and data-management software.
Numerous paths can lead individuals into the paralegal profession. Some law firms provide on-the-job training for paralegals; however, many workers in this field hold 2-year paralegal associate’s degrees. Individuals who already have bachelor’s degrees in unrelated majors may complete certificate programs in paralegal studies to qualify for employment. These certificate programs tend to last only a few months. Select colleges offer paralegal studies as a concentration within bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.
Students in paralegal programs typically take courses in civil litigation, legal research and writing, property law and legal ethics. They may also gain training in legal-office software and technology. Many programs require students to complete internships, from which they acquire hands-on experience in law firms, legal departments and other law settings.
As stated, there are bachelors and masters degree programs in this field, though a 2 year associate’s degree is sufficient to perform all the duties of a paralegal. The bachelor’s degree allows the student to earn a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Paralegal Studies. This program provides a broader study of law while developing the student’s skills in legal writing, legal research, and using legal technology. The B.S. also explores these areas of law: civil litigation, real estate law, contracts, and torts.
Prior to enrolling in any paralegal program, it’s best to refer to the directory of approved paralegal programs by the American Bar Association (ABA). There are over a hundred schools listed alphabetically and by state on the ABA website.
Established in 1976, the Certified Paralegal (then known as the CLA – Certified Legal Assistant) program has enabled the profession to develop a strong and responsive self-regulatory program offering a nationwide credential for legal assistants. As of July 2014, there are 17,986 Certified Paralegals (CP) and over 3000 Advanced Certified Paralegals in the United States. Over 26,000 paralegals have participated in this program. Use of the CP credential signifies that a paralegal is capable of providing superior services to firms and corporations.
National surveys consistently show Certified Paralegals are better utilized in a field where attorneys are looking for a credible, dependable way to measure ability. The credential has been recognized by the American Bar Association as a designation which marks a high level of professional achievement. The CLA or CP credential has also been recognized by over 47 legal assistant organizations and numerous bar associations.
Those who are admitted to the Certified Paralegal program today and successfully complete the examination are awarded a “Certified Paralegal” certificate and may use the credential “CP.” Those who renew their certification are also awarded the “Certified Paralegal” certificate and encouraged to use the credential “CP.” However, some paralegals with this certification continue to use the credential, “CLA”.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job growth to be 17% through 2022. This is higher than the average for all occupations. This growth computes to an additional 46,200 paralegals according to the BLS. The median annual salary as of 2012 was $46,990 with an Associate’s degree.
This can be a highly demanding profession depending on the branch of law the paralegal is employed. For a paralegal working for a trial lawyer, the time demands will be increased during trial preparation and the trial itself.
The position requires one who is highly organized, has excellent communication skills, functions well with time demands and has the ability to multi-task.