What Is a Paralegal?

Audrey M. Jones
working as a paralegal
Job Duties of a Paralegal

If you are interested in working in the legal field you might be asking: "What Is a paralegal?" A paralegal is a professional who assists attorneys and judges with finding the laws that apply to a lawsuit or legal question. They might also investigate the facts of the case, gather documentary evidence or prepare visual aids for use during trial.

What Is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is a professional trained in legal research, writing and investigation. They work alongside attorneys and judges to identify the laws and rules important to a case. Paralegals are not licensed attorneys and are prevented from performing certain tasks. Their title derives from the Greek prefix "para," which means "alongside" or "next to."

What Does a Paralegal Do?

Paralegals provide legal and administrative support to judges and attorneys. Their main task is to find case law, statutes and other rules. To do so, they use the same electronic legal researching databases, books and other resources that attorney's use. By doing this research they save attorneys and judges the time it would normally take them to research the laws. This permits judges to make faster rulings and attorneys to make more or better arguments for their client.

Paralegals also provide administrative support. Typical paralegal administrative duties include drafting simple legal documents, creating visual aids, collecting and preparing case law or evidence to submit to the court or other party and investigating and gathering evidence about the case. Documents drafted by a paralegal must be approved and signed by a licensed attorney.

A paralegal is different than a legal assistant. A legal assistant performs administrative tasks in a law office or court, and does not research laws. An assistant might type legal documents, but does not determine the facts and law included in them.

A paralegal is also not a law clerk. A law clerk is an attorney who has usually recently graduated from law school. Most clerks work for court systems. Clerks also perform research for judges, but because they are attorneys also advise judges and write legal documents.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 paralegals earned an average salary of $50,000 per year. Demand for paralegals is expected to increase in the next decade.

Are There Different Types of Paralegals?

All paralegals are the same unless they choose to specialize in a specific field of law by working only in that field. Specialized certification is offered by The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), but is not required for a paralegal to be viewed as having specialized in a field. Generally, a paralegal specializes because they enjoy the type of law and work that is required of them. Criminal law, real estate and family law are the most frequent paralegal fields of specialization.

How are Paralegals Educated?

Historically, paralegals were trained on the job by the attorney or judge they worked under. Now, however, most paralegals have at least a certificate, and usually an associate degree, in paralegal studies. Certificate programs can require a year of study, and associate degree programs can take twice as long to complete. In either program students learn legal research, procedure and writing.

Degrees are important to employers, but experience is more relevant. A paralegal working in the field for five to ten years will be more desirable than a newly graduated paralegal with no experience. This doesn't mean that a degree is worthless, but rather that attorneys generally prefer a veteran paralegal.

Paralegal certification requirements vary by state. Some states require paralegals to have graduated from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited school and passed a certification exam. Other states do not have educational or certification requirements. In these states, a paralegal may choose to become certified by the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAP), National Association of Legal Secretaries, National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) or NALA. You must pass an exam to be certified by any of these associations.

Is the Career Right for You?

Now that you know the answer to your question "What Is a Paralegal?" you can determine if the career is right for you. Education and training requirements for the profession are simple, the income relatively high and the demand for paralegals is expected to continue to grow.

What Is a Paralegal?