Paralegals play an important role in the business, legal and governmental institutions of this country. Ostensibly seen as clerical workers, paralegals can be more accurately described as legal assistants.
There are approximately a quarter million paralegals employed in the U.S., about 70% of whom work in the legal services sector. In 1997, the field was officially recognized as a profession by the American Bar Association, and today paralegals often undertake many of the tasks that are performed by lawyers.
The Work of the Paralegal
The daily assignments of paralegals often depend upon the size of the office in which they are employed, their educational backgrounds, and their legal experience. In smaller offices, paralegals may have more generalized duties, while in large businesses or law firms, they may focus on specific areas, such as preparing financial documents or researching judicial decisions. An entry-level paralegal may be given what are considered routine assignments, while one who has a paralegal associates degree or certificate, or has completed paralegal education training online or in a traditional campus setting, and has legal work experience, can expect greater responsibilities.
Paralegals spend most of their time in the offices in which they are employed or at law libraries. At the office, much of their time will be spent organizing documents, reviewing records that will be used in upcoming cases and writing requests for information. Paralegals often spend considerable time in front of computer screens, either researching or writing reports on behalf of lawyers. Those with specialized training may even help write contracts and mortgages. Outside the office, paralegals may carry out investigatory work to help attorneys learn as much as possible about pending cases.
Paralegals will normally put in a standard workweek, but they may have some periods of overtime. They may also be particularly busy during certain periods of the year, such as the weeks before federal taxes are due in April.
The Levels of Paralegal Training
Those interested in the field often seek specialized educational training at community colleges or career colleges, from which they can receive a paralegal associates degree or certificate. Some universities offer degrees in the field beyond the associate level. To minimize the time they have to be in the classroom, students can complete paralegal training online courses.
The classes required to obtain a paralegal associates degree will typically cover criminal and civil law procedures, business and tort law and real estate. Classes that hone writing and research skills will also be helpful to a prospective paralegal.
There is a good future for those interested in becoming paralegals. The field is expected to grow by nearly 20% over the next several years, with the paralegal work force exceeding 300,000 by 2020.