What is a Paralegal and What Do They Do?

Paralegals assist lawyers with legal work and are an integral part of any law office. While differentiated from lawyers, the paralegal has had advanced training in substantive and procedural law.

This article looks at the things a paralegal does in their day-to-day work, differences between paralegals and law clerks, what paralegal lawfully can and cannot do, and the job outlook for paralegals.

If you are interested in a career helping people through the legal system, studying to become a paralegal is the first step.

What is a paralegal?

According to the American Bar Association,

“A paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

What duties does a paralegal have?

The main role of a paralegal is providing support for lawyers.

Paralegals usually work for law firms, government agencies, corporate legal departments, insurance firms, or in-house legal at financial institutions.

Some of the duties a paralegal may have include:

  • Researching case law
  • Working on legal contracts
  • Preparing documents for court filing
  • Organizing case files
  • Preparing trial notes

In many law offices, paralegals may have an expanded role and do some of the tasks that in the past, may have been assigned to entry-level lawyers.

Differences between a paralegal, law clerk, and a lawyer

Paralegals usually work for a law firm or legal department. Law clerks can work for law firms but are usually third- or fourth-year law school students.

In a law firm, paralegals assist attorneys in preparing cases, participating in Discovery, and assisting with trials. A law clerk in a firm will help the supervising attorney with more complex and legal matters for a case.

The difference between a paralegal and a lawyer is a paralegal is trained to practice in the legal profession, and a lawyer is licensed to practice law.

Lawyers have passed the bar exam; paralegals can do legal work assigned to them by a lawyer, once they have completed California’s legal requirements to practice as a paralegal. When a lawyer assigns work to a paralegal, the lawyer is still responsible for the work done by the paralegal.

What Can and Cannot a Paralegal Do?

A paralegal can prepare legal writing under supervision of an attorney, and conduct research for a case. Paralegals cannot give legal advice – lawyers can give legal advice since they are licensed by the bar.

Paralegals also cannot represent clients in court, this must be done by lawyers.

Some tasks that paralegals can do under the supervision of their lawyer:

  • Prepare documents for filing with the court,
  • Setting up wills or partnerships
  • Researching law case and making recommendations to lawyers
  • Preparing petitions or appeals for family court

Careers as a Paralegal

There are several career paths you can pursue as a paralegal. Every branch of legal practice relies on paralegals to make the law office or legal department function efficiently.

  • Family Law Paralegal. You may help clients fill out petitions and responses for uncontested divorce or custody proceedings.
  • Bankruptcy Paralegal. Helping individuals or corporations with bankruptcy by researching, gathering documents, organizing files, possibly even some forensic accounting research.
  • Criminal Defense Paralegal. Assists lawyers in DUI, assault, fraud, theft, or other felony cases.
  • Immigration Paralegal. Working directly with immigration lawyers to help applicants navigate the immigration and naturalization process.
  • Personal Injury Paralegal. Often includes working with tort law, injunctions, settlements, and monetary damages.
  • Corporate Law Paralegal. May include working with patents, corporate taxes, mergers and acquisitions, employment law.

Average salary / Pay

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for paralegals in 2019 was $51,740 per year.

Here are the percentile wage estimates for paralegals:

Percentile 10% 25% 50% (Median) 75% 90%
Hourly Wage $15.46 $18.99 $24.87 $31.54 $39.66
Annual Wage $32,160 $39,500 $51,740 $65,610 $82,500

Job Outlook and Growth

Projected job growth for paralegals is outstanding. There is projected to be a 12% increase in paralegal jobs between 2018 and 2028. This is much faster than average job growth.

Traits a Paralegal Should Have

Paralegals must be able to handle multiple client cases efficiently; so organization and efficiency are two traits they should possess.

It is also helpful to be adaptable, as different tasks may need to be done throughout the day.

How to Become a Paralegal

For those seeking a career as a paralegal, you must satisfy California law, Business and Professions Code section 6450, et seq., with a paralegal education and earn a paralegal certificate or a paralegal Associate’s degree.

MTI College offers an A.A. in Paralegal Studies, an ABA-Approved paralegal program, at our Sacramento campus.

MTI is a member of the Sacramento Valley Paralegal Association (SVPA), the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), a national organization comprising of paralegal educators and institutions offering paralegal and legal assistant education programs.

Next Steps to Begin Your Paralegal Career

If you’re ready to start your career as a paralegal, take the first step by requesting more information or contacting an admissions representative.

Want to learn more about MTI’s programs?

Our admissions team will help you find the perfect program to meet your goals. Financial aid is available to those who qualify.

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