Paralegals play an important role in the legal field. They are responsible for preparing much of the legal documentation used by attorneys at hearings, closing, meetings, and the like. Paralegals are most commonly employed by law firms, but they are also hired by corporate legal department and government agencies.
One of the most attractive aspects of working as a paralegal is the compensation. Like attorneys, paralegals work in a specialized field and therefore have the potential to charge a premium amount for their services. Unlike attorneys, paralegals need not complete a 3-year stint in law school in order to become qualified. Paralegals should complete a certain amount of education as well as seek voluntary certification to remain competitive in the job market.
Paralegals are expected to enjoy an increased demand for their skills over the next 8 years, especially in specialized fields such as real estate and bankruptcy.
There are many factors to consider when calculating the average salary of a paralegal. These include the amount of education and formal training, the place of employment, and any professional credentials held by the paralegal. A paralegal with a high level of formal training, such as an associates degree in paralegal studies from an American Bar Association approved program, and a credential from a professional organization has the potential to earn more than one who does not.
However, there are other determining factors as well, such as the size of their employer and geographic location. Generally, paralegals who work for large firms in urban areas will earn more than those who work in more rural areas
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top 10% of paralegals earned over $70,000 in 2008. The bottom 10% earned less than $30,000, while the median salary is between $36, 080 and $ 59,310 per year. Those who are employed by the government earn an average of $58,540 per year, while those who work in community based legal services earn a median of $44,480 per year. Paralegals employed by insurance agencies, private law firms, estate planners, and other such entities can expect to earn between $32,000 and $50,000 per year depending on their experience.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
In addition to their salary, paralegals are often given bonuses due to the long hours they tend to work. They also receive health benefits, paid sick leave, vacation time, dental insurance, and reimbursement for continuing education programs.
Training and Education Requirements
There is no specific level of education required to work as a paralegal, however most employers prefer to hire candidates that either have an associates degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree in a related field with a certificate or diploma in paralegal studies.
The typical curriculum for a paralegal studies program includes classes in legal research and writing. The program may also offer courses in specialized areas of the law, such as real estate or litigation. An associates degree course will require students to complete general education courses alongside subjects geared specifically towards future paralegals. Many programs require that students complete an internship, which provides invaluable on-the-job training and is attractive to potential employers.
Most professional paralegals enroll in continuing education programs over the course of their career in order to stay informed about the latest changes in the law, as well as fulfill any requirements for certification.
Job Descriptions and Outlook
Paralegals are responsible for assisting lawyers in preparations for hearings, trials, meeting, and other legal acts. Legal documents and reports organized by paralegals help attorneys in deciding what course of action to take.
The main duty of a paralegal is to research and identify information that is relevant for any case being handled by the law firm or agency. Much of this research is done either in the office or in a law library. Paralegals might also draft legal documents such as motions and pleadings, if necessary. In addition, paralegals are responsible for organizing and storing legal information in order to make documents easily accessible.
The job outlook for paralegals is generally quite positive. Employment is expected to grow 28% over the next 8 years. In some ways, the demand for paralegals is linked to the business cycle. During a downturn in the economy, many individuals may require help with bankruptcy, real estate, divorces, and other such legal matters that require the use of a paralegal. Due to the fact that paralegals do not charge as much as lawyers while offering the same services, they often do better during recessions.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Paralegals are not required to become certified in order to work, however those that do seek voluntary certification are often rewarded with higher salaries and more lucrative positions. There are several different professional associations that offer certification to paralegals. Requirements for certification vary from organization to organization. Some require a combination of work experience and education, while others ask for a specific number of years in the workplace.
There are several professional associations that offer certification to paralegals.
- The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers a Certified Paralegal credential that is good for 5 years.
- The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. offers a 2-year AACP (American Alliance Certified Paralegal) credential.
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPS) offers a Registered Paralegal (RP) credential, but requires that the paralegal has a bachelor’s degree in order to seek certification.
- The National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS) offers a Professional Paralegal (PP) certification.