Paralegals in the United States are non-lawyers who assist lawyers in the delivery of legal services. Paralegals may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity, or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform paralegal work. Through formal education in legal studies, training and experience, paralegals gain valuable knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law. This qualifies paralegals to perform work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney.
Work of Attorneys and Paralegals
The biggest differences between attorneys and paralegals are that attorneys can set fees, give legal advice, appear as counsel of record in court, and sign pleadings (and other court documents) in a representative capacity. If a paralegal attempts to do any of these acts, they will be in violation of the unauthorized practice of law statutes that exist in most U.S. states, as well as some other countries (though not the UK).
Working as a paralegal could be the first step to a career as an attorney.
Paralegals are the bridge between the law office and the courtroom. They perform a great deal of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing and presenting cases, including research, fact-checking, preparing arguments, interviewing witnesses, and helping to manage the office.
Paralegal studies graduates have a lot of the same knowledge and skills as law school graduates, but they can't sit for the bar exam. They are not lawyers, and as such cannot give legal advice or defend cases in the courtroom. However, they are in all other ways equal to lawyers, and lawyers depend a great deal on their paralegal and legal secretary teams.
Salary & Outlook
The outlook for paralegal jobs and legal jobs is very strong. Employment of paralegals is forecast to grow 28% through 2018.
According to Paralegal Today, Paralegals working for the U.S. federal government average over $73,000 per year while state and local government paralegals earn around $54,000. Larger law firms may pay over $100,000 annually with benefits depending on experience with starting salaries over $50,000.
In addition to earning a salary, many paralegals receive bonuses, in part to compensate them for sometimes having to work long hours. Paralegals also receive vacation, paid sick leave, a savings plan, life insurance, personal paid time off, dental insurance, and reimbursement for continuing legal education.
Education & Training
In the United States, paralegals have taken many different paths to their careers. These paths comprise an array of varying levels of education, different certifications, and on-the-job-training.
Most paralegals have an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another field and a certificate in paralegal studies. Associate’s and bachelor's degree programs usually combine paralegal training with courses in other academic subjects. Others have completed a bachelor's or even a master's degree in another field, and quite a few of these people have also completed a regular or post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, or have completed some semesters of law school but have not been admitted to the bar.
Many paralegals have completed all of their training before entering the profession, while others have completed their education while working their way up from the mailroom in a law firm. Many paralegals take Continuing Legal Education credits to fulfill the requirements of their firm, state, or association.
Certificate programs vary significantly, with some taking only a few months to complete. Most certificate programs provide intensive paralegal training for those who already hold college degrees.
In the United States, paralegals can be "registered," "certificated," or certified. While certification or registration is voluntary in most states, it prepares a paralegal to enter the profession; in many places it may increase the likelihood of a paralegal's hire or promotion, and serves to identify a person as capable of work that is on par with certain standards.
There are two major national organizations that offer designations to paralegals who meet voluntary regulation standards: the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).