Paralegals work as legal assistants for private firms, government agencies, and corporations. The terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are used interchangeably. Paralegals perform such tasks as drafting legal documents, doing legal research, interviewing clients and maintaining files and client databases. The career got its start in the middle of the 20th century as a way to lower the costs and heighten the efficiency of legal services. As with any career, it is a good idea to talk to career counselors, guidance counselors, lawyers and individuals currently working as paralegals to ensure this is the right career path for you before you commit to a schooling program.
Job Outlook and Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals and legal assistants earn $48,810 a year on average. The profession is growing nationally at about 8%, as fast as the average rate for all occupations. In New Hampshire, there are an estimated 1,160 paralegals working as of May 2012 and the projected job growth in New Hampshire is around 11.1%. Paralegals typically have a higher median average pay in cities, such as Portsmouth and the area around Boston. Many paralegals go on to law school and become attorneys themselves. According to Payscale, experienced paralegals can make up to $80,000 or more nationally.
Job Duties and Necessary Skills
Paralegals need strong critical thinking, writing and observational skills, as well as knowledge of computers, database management skills, how to perform legal research and interviewing skills. Paralegals work under the guidance of attorneys, who “sign off” on the paralegal’s work. Paralegals are trusted members of a legal team and attorneys trust their skills and legal knowledge to work closely with them.
While they often have a wide breadth of legal knowledge, paralegals are not permitted to practice law or give legal advice. This is known as unauthorized practice of law and doing so may result in legal action and expulsion from the profession. Paralegals also cannot set legal fees, accept or reject clients, or represent clients in court. As with attorneys and other members of a legal staff, paralegals are expected to adhere strictly to client confidentiality and have a strong understanding of legal ethics.
Paralegal Certification and Requirements
People hoping to enter this career field generally obtain a two-year associates degree or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Many institutions also offer paralegal certificate courses. Do research and be sure the school or program at which you are looking is accredited. Another option for becoming a paralegal is to get a different job in a law office, such as a file clerk or an administrative assistant, gain experience and work your way up. Many paralegal certification programs offer or require students to do an internship. Participating in an internship may lead to better employment opportunities and will afford students extra experience.
Most states, including New Hampshire, do not have any regulation on paralegals or paralegal training. Paralegals are also not regulated by the Bar Association, though the Bar Association does give formal approval to paralegal programs, of which the only one in New Hampshire is offered by New Hampshire Technical Institute. There are a number of professional local and national paralegal organizations, the most well-known of which are the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), but membership is optional. Passage of their examinations, however, will greatly boost a paralegal’s standing and make him or her much more marketable as an employee. Membership in these organizations can be extremely beneficial in order to participate in continuing paralegal education, which all paralegals should strive to do throughout their careers. Different groups have different requirements for membership, but most require that members are individuals currently working as paralegals or have obtained a paralegal education from an accredited university.