Paralegal 101: What Is a Paralegal and How Can I Become One Online?

What is a Paralegal and How do I become one online?

If you’ve dreamed about working in the fast-paced legal field but cannot spare the time or money for law school, an excellent alternative exists: become a paralegal.

The paralegal field is growing quickly and surprisingly lucrative, especially given the minimal credentials and experience needed to gain an entry-level position. A certificate could be all it takes to gain stable full-time work, a good salary, and the job satisfaction you’ve always desired. Read on to learn more about this exciting profession and what it takes to land a job as a paralegal:

What Is a Paralegal?

Paralegals provide supportive services for attorneys and corporate or government legal teams. The American Bar Association refers to paralegals as performing “specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

Paralegals are not authorized to perform the full scope of duties conducted by a qualified attorney. However, they can complete extensive legal research and draft a variety of important documents under proper attorney supervision.

Paralegal Responsibilities

Responsibilities vary significantly from one paralegal job to the next. While this position once primarily involved filing paperwork, a combination of economic necessity and increasing demand has resulted in far greater responsibility placed on the shoulders of the average paralegal. Today, paralegals can expect to take on a variety of tasks once reserved for attorneys, including the following:

  • Observe and take notes during preliminary client interviews.
  • Prepare summaries of witness testimonies.
  • Draft legal correspondence, such as interrogatories, subpoenas, legal briefs, and notices of appeal.
  • Arrange for the use of visual aids during courtroom proceedings.

Different practice areas prompt different responsibilities. For example, a paralegal working for a corporate law firm may spend the majority of their time drafting bylaws or articles of incorporation. Criminal law paralegals interact extensively with probation officers or arrange for bail. Family law paralegals calculate child support and sometimes draft protective orders. No two paralegal jobs are exactly alike.

Traits of Successful Paralegals

Not everybody has what it takes to achieve success as a paralegal. The field demands attention to detail; a single mistake can sink an entire case and damage an attorney’s reputation. Organization is also essential. Paralegals must keep track of a variety of documents, and often, maintain the law firm’s itinerary. Successful paralegals manage their time carefully to ensure exceptional productivity, no matter their caseload.

An ideal paralegal is deeply analytical. Every day, paralegals must gather extensive information and analyze it carefully. They then use this data to make rational decisions. Skilled analytical thinkers can break down complex issues into manageable components. Without this skill, paralegals may feel overburdened by the scope of legal projects and tight deadlines.

Paralegals must also possess strong verbal and written communication skills. While they are barred from advising clients, they may interact in an administrative capacity. Many paralegals converse with both prospective and current clients on a daily basis. Initial contact with clients can pave the path to a successful attorney-client relationship, or drive prospective clients away.

Excellent communication skills can also prove valuable when interacting with attorneys. Some paralegals work for several lawyers at once. They must understand each attorney’s idiosyncrasies and be able to anticipate seemingly random requests. Paralegals often interact with distressed individuals, including both attorneys and clients. They must keep their cool in emotionally charged situations.

Although some of the skills required for success as a paralegal seem innate, most can be developed through quality training and on-the-job practice. An inner drive and determination to succeed count for more. Strong motivation can fuel professionals as they face challenges from difficult clients, tight deadlines, and overbearing attorneys. Ultimately, the best paralegals relish these challenges and rise to the occasion. Their ensuing professional accomplishments grant them a deep feeling of satisfaction.

Paralegal Versus Law Assistant

Many people use the terms ‘paralegal’ and ‘legal assistant’ interchangeably. Even the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics groups these positions together. However, while a few job responsibilities may overlap, these positions often hold little in common.

Legal assistants largely perform in an administrative capacity. Although they may be called upon to conduct light research, their duties are largely confined to scheduling consultations or meetings, collecting information from prospective clients, and taking messages from current clients. These tasks are critical to the law firm’s success, but they do not require the same extent of legal knowledge or experience. Thus, law firms may hire employees trained in office administration or, in some cases, with minimal training. Paralegals, however, can rarely find work without at least possessing a certificate.

Although not allowed to offer clients legal counsel, paralegals conduct extensive research and draft important documents. Their work frees up attorneys to focus on courtroom appearances and client consultations. Success in these responsibilities demands a thorough understanding of local law, plus the ability to conduct in-depth legal research. While legal assistants must possess strong in-person communication skills, paralegals must communicate successfully in the written word, often drafting documents that include extensive legal jargon.

Confusion surrounding paralegals and law assistants may arise due to positions that encompass both roles. This is common at small law firms, which cannot afford to hire both a paralegal and a law assistant. In such circumstances, the paralegal must act as both office administrator and research assistant. It can be frustrating to take on such a wide variety of roles, but some paralegals thrive as jacks-of-all-trades.

Paralegal Work Environment

Many paralegals work alongside attorneys at law firms. The size and scope of the firm can vary considerably. Some paralegals work for solo practitioners or for boutique firms featuring just two or three attorneys. Others are employed by vast firms with offices in multiple cities.

Not all paralegals are employed directly by solo lawyers or larger law firms. Many work in a corporate capacity, often for the legal departments at large company headquarters. Corporate paralegals often earn more than their counterparts at small law firms and enjoy opportunities for extensive bonuses. Paralegal positions may also be available through federal, state, and local government entities.

The majority of paralegals work full-time. Many can expect to spend over 40 hours per week on the job. This is particularly common at smaller law firms with few employees and large caseloads. Paralegals may be rewarded with extensive overtime pay or bonuses, but tight deadlines can prompt a stressful work environment.

Although paralegals employed by small firms are often asked to fulfill extensive responsibilities on their own, many work for large legal teams. They may work alongside fellow paralegals or with multiple attorneys. Team-oriented positions often involve greater specialization.

With experience and proven results, paralegals may eventually be promoted to senior or team lead positions. These leadership roles involve overseeing fellow paralegals or law assistants — while still taking direction from a presiding attorney.

Typical Salary for a Paralegal

Paralegal salaries can range extensively depending on geography, experience, and hours worked. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual salary of $49,500 for paralegals and legal assistants. This figure may not be representative of a typical paralegal’s salary, as paralegals typically earn more than legal assistants. Salary.com reports that the average paralegal earns an annual income of $53,549, with the majority earning somewhere between $47,351 and $60,462.

Experts predict continued increases in annual salary as lawyers offload research-intensive tasks onto paralegals and create new professional distinctions such as team lead or senior paralegal.

In addition to a base salary, many paralegals earn extensive bonuses. Overtime is common, and while this can prove problematic for those with demanding schedules, it provides an excellent opportunity for salaried employees hoping to earn additional income.

Employment Outlook

Job outlook is promising for paralegals, with tens of thousands of new positions expected to open up in the next several years. The BLS highlights a job outlook expecting a 15 percent increase for paralegals and legal assistants between 2016 and 2026. In comparison, the ten-year job outlook is just 9 percent for lawyers and 7 percent across all industries.

A variety of factors drive the ongoing demand for skilled paralegals. Chief among these is the need for cost-cutting, especially among smaller firms. Paralegals can perform much of the work of junior attorneys at a lower pay rate. The benefit for the paralegal? Less time spent in school, better work-life balance, and the opportunity to gain experience while making progress towards a four-year or graduate degree.

Experts anticipate that the demand for paralegals will continue or further increase as lawyers strive for new cost-cutting measures. Paralegals also benefit from a relative lack of outsourcing, as the job often demands physical presence for depositions or hearings.

Opportunities for Advancement

Paralegal jobs are sometimes classified as junior or senior. With extensive experience, paralegals can move into senior positions, featuring in-depth legal research. Some senior paralegals oversee law assistants or junior paralegals. Senior paralegals and team leads are compensated accordingly, sometimes earning double their junior counterparts.

To gain an edge, aspiring senior paralegals often continue on with their education, pursuing degrees in Legal Studies or related fields. Upon graduating, their combined academic credentials and paralegal experience can lead to lucrative positions.

Many aspiring lawyers view paralegal positions as a strong stepping stone on the path to their ultimate career goal. Many law firms encourage paralegals to further their education, and are happy to hire former paralegals as junior or associate attorneys once they pass the bar.

How to Become a Paralegal Online

If you’re anything like the typical aspiring paralegal, you have little time to spare for extensive coursework and internships. Many beginning paralegals enter the field after already holding considerable work experience in other industries. Holding down a full-time job and attending day-time classes may not be an option. Thankfully, online degree and certificate programs make it possible to gain valuable credentials without sacrificing full-time work. Earning a certificate may take only 30-33 course credit hours to complete.

Most paralegal programs feature a mix of introductory courses that delve into general legal and administrative concepts, and targeted courses focusing on specific practice areas.

Common courses include:

  • Elements of Organizations
  • Civil Litigation
  • Business Law
  • Estate Administration and Probate Practice

Upon completing required courses, paralegal students should emerge with basic computing skills, a thorough understanding of legal research, and the ability to draft legal documents. Additionally, paralegal graduates should understand basic ethical principles of law, and how to demonstrate integrity in all professional pursuits.

Although some skills are best gained on the job, an online education can provide the foundation aspiring paralegals need to succeed upon entering the workforce. Online programs also expose future paralegals to important networking contacts, which they can draw upon when searching for work.

Traditional classroom-based paralegal programs typically end with an internship completed at a local law firm or in the legal department for a nearby business. With online programs, however, it’s possible to substitute internships with upper-level courses such as Legal Ethics. This is a nice option for those who lack the time or resources for internships.

Why Pursue a Paralegal Certificate Online?

If you desire a stable income and a rewarding career with clear room for advancement, you may be the ideal candidate for a paralegal certificate program. First, however, you’ll need to gain a thorough understanding of the field and necessary credentials. Online certificate programs eliminate scheduling and financial barriers, getting you on the path to a successful career as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

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