The field of law is a robust and diverse place to make a career. There is always a demand for trained legal professionals to assist clients in everything from personal injury claims to bankruptcy proceedings. Yet behind every successful lawyer is a team of legal professionals helping them do their jobs. One such professional is a paralegal.
What is a paralegal? A paralegal is an assistant to a lawyer. This guide takes a closer look at common paralegal requirements and duties, so you can decide if this is the right job for you.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals work as assistants to attorneys. They are trained in many aspects of law but do not possess a law degree. Thus, they can handle much of the behind-the-scenes work that takes place in a law firm, while the lawyer makes final decisions, prosecutes or defends clients in court, and provides other legal services directly to clients.
Duties of a Paralegal
A paralegal is an important part of any legal team. They can conduct legal research and draft documents in accordance with local laws to support the work of their attorney teams. In many states, they can manage cases and work directly with clients in a limited capacity. Some of the day-to-day paralegal duties and activities they may be involved in include:
- Searching for evidence in public records
- Interviewing witnesses and clients
- Collecting and analyzing information relating to a case
- Handling estate planning and legal concerns
- Organizing and managing cases
- Summarizing documents, like depositions
- Preparing pleadings and briefs
- Drafting legal documents for attorney review
Each of these duties requires legal understanding and knowledge, and these professionals provide invaluable support to busy attorneys.
Skills Needed to Be a Paralegal
If you think working as a paralegal is a career you’d like to pursue, there are some specific skills you will want to develop. These include:
- Writing Skills. One of the primary tasks of a paralegal is drafting documents on behalf of the lawyer(s) they support. As such, they will need to be able to write in a clear manner. They also need to be able to utilize complex legal terminology with ease.
- Organization. Paralegals will have many tasks they are working on, often at the same time. As such, they need to be highly organized individuals. Keeping track of various projects, without getting them confused, is vital.
- Attention to Detail. Legal work involves many tiny details that can make a huge difference in the outcome of a case. A paralegal must be able to spot these small details in order to avoid mistakes that could majorly cost clients.
- Flexibility. The work of a paralegal is constantly changing. You may show up to work one morning to work on one project, only to have something urgent come in that needs your immediate attention. Flexibility is an important part of the work.
- Research and Analytics. Quality attorneys rarely have the time to do research on their own. Part of your work as a paralegal will be doing the research and analyzing what is and is not important. Developing your research and analytical skills is paramount.
- Computer Skills. Paralegals need to be adept at using a computer and analyzing computer-based research. They need to be skilled at building spreadsheets and word-processing documents, as well as using any in-house software utilized by the legal team.
- Teamwork. Paralegals do not work alone. They always work under a lawyer, and they often work as part of a larger team. Thus, they will need to be able to work well with others. Developing good teamwork skills is essential to being a successful paralegal.
- Verbal Communication. Paralegals need to be able to communicate well with others. They may be asked to write statements for witnesses, and that requires interviewing witnesses. Paralegals may be the ones who take statements, answer the phone, and work as a liaison between the lawyer and the client, so verbal communication is essential.
Difference Between a Paralegal and a Licensed Attorney
Paralegals have less training than licensed attorneys. They also do not sit for the bar exam. A paralegal can begin work with an associate's or bachelor’s degree, but an attorney must earn a professional-level education.
That said, some people will work as a paralegal with full legal training. These professionals simply chose not to sit for the bar exam. Either way, getting a graduate degree in law can take you far within the field.
Texas A&M Law does not offer paralegal certification or training. However, our Master of Legal Studies (MLS) and Master of Law (LLM) degrees are excellent choices for anyone considering working in the legal industry. Whether you have a desire to work as an attorney or want adequate training to be a skilled paralegal, you can use one of these degrees to get you there.
How to Become a Paralegal?
To become a paralegal, you will need some basic training and certification. Here is a breakdown of the minimum requirements to work as a paralegal.
Requirements to Become a Paralegal
The first step in becoming a paralegal is earning a paralegal certification. This can be done through a two-year paralegal program at a community college or a four-year degree at a college or university. According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, the four-year degree is the preferred degree for most employers seeking to hire paralegals. After completing a degree, most paralegals will get certified through the National Association of Legal Assistance, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, or the Association for Legal Professionals.
Because there are so many areas of law, many paralegals will choose a specialty, such as personal injury law or estate planning. They can take electives in that field to help grow their knowledge of it. They will then look for internships or entry-level work in that field to grow their experience even more.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?
It can take two to six years to become a paralegal, depending on the degree program you choose. Sometimes it takes a little while after graduation to get certified and complete any internship requirements.
The definition of a paralegal is quite broad, and these professionals can find many different types of work. Some common job titles that refer to paralegals include:
- Legal Assistant. A legal assistant is a paralegal. This is just another term for the same position. However, to work as a legal assistant, you must get certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants as a Certified Legal Assistant.
- Legal Secretary. Legal secretaries provide administrative support to attorneys. They may be the ones scheduling meetings and appointments, answering the phone, and helping attorneys maintain their schedules. Legal secretaries rarely put together legal documents or perform legal research, but they still need to understand the legal world in order to do their jobs well.
- Corporate Paralegal. Corporate paralegals provide assistants to corporations instead of working directly for a law firm. These paralegals will work in mergers and acquisitions, investments, and employment law. They will also need to understand corporate finance and contract law to properly support the organizations they work for.
- Criminal Law Paralegal. A criminal law paralegal works for criminal defense attorneys or prosecutors as they work within the criminal law field. They will need to be able to dig into evidence to help their attorneys build cases either defending clients or proving the guilt of a defendant.
- Litigation Paralegal. Litigation paralegals work on the discovery and investigation process. These professionals will depose witnesses and collect facts for case files. They may also be responsible for writing and filing pleadings. They may be the ones who evaluate and approve or deny jurors during a trial, and they will prepare witnesses for the trial process. These paralegals work closely with the overall court process.
- Compliance Specialist. A compliance specialist works with a company to ensure it is following the rules set forth by the government. For example, if a compliance specialist is working with an agricultural company, they will need to ensure the farming operation complies with OSHA, FDA, and USDA regulations.
- Law Clerk. Law clerks manage the documents and activities of a law office. Training as a paralegal can be a good foundation for this career. These professionals may also assist with document creation and research.
Start Your Legal Training at Texas A&M University School of Law
Whether you have a goal of becoming a paralegal or want to use paralegal training to open the door to additional work as an attorney in the future, Texas A&M University School of Law can help you get started. Reach out to our admissions team to learn more about our programs and let us show you how to launch a successful law career with the right training.