What is a paralegal? Do their jobs matter? Can they make a difference?
If you’re considering a job as a legal paraprofessional, you should know right off the bat that the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” Not only is a paralegal’s job an essential cog in the legal machine, but their meticulous work can make all the difference in everything from small courtroom battles to multimillion-dollar settlements.
Before you send off your resume, however, there are a few things you should know about the life and influence of your future career.
To understand the duties of paraprofessionals, you’ll first need to understand who they are and what they do.
According to the American Bar Association, a paralegal is defined as someone educated, trained or experienced in matters of the law who works directly under a licensed law professional or entity. In layman’s terms, this means someone who works for a lawyer, or group of lawyers, and is directly beholden to them. They may or may be licensed themselves, but their employer must be.
In practice, paraprofessionals are everything from assistants to fully-trained legal representatives who simply haven’t passed the bar. They might be file clerks or legal writers; they might draft documents, secure affidavits or interview clients. Their exact responsibilities will vary depending on their employer.
Erin Brockovich is perhaps the most famous paraprofessional in modern times. A legal clerk with no formal education in law, she was instrumental in winning a $333 million settlement against a California gas company who leaked dangerous chemicals into the local drinking water. Her story was later made into an award-winning movie starring Julia Roberts.
Another famous example is someone who may surprise you: Abraham Lincoln. According to authors Ira and Linda Distenfield, President Lincoln fits all the criteria that we currently use for legal paraprofessionals. He never went to law school, didn’t take the bar exam and eschewed joining any bar associations. Despite the advances he made for the U.S. government, his only “real” legal experience was apprenticing for a local lawyer and preparing his documents.
Stats and Figures
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a paralegal’s job will soon be in great demand. They’re expected to increase 28 percent by 2018, so that’s plenty of work for anyone eying a career in the industry.
You don’t technically need any law experience to work under a qualified lawyer, but with the economy being what it is, many firms are asking for at least an Associate’s Degree and/or legal training program on your resume. A survey by the National Federation of Paralegall Associations (NFPA) found that 85 percent of paralegals have some kind of certification.
In terms of salary, you can expect to make anywhere from $45,00 to $60,000 a year. Averages will vary depending on your location, specialty, previous years of experience, et cetera. Those who work in intellectual property law enjoy the biggest paychecks.
70 percent of legal paraprofessionals are employed by law firms. The rest work for corporations, private offices and insurance companies.
Impact and Legacy
Can paralegals change the world? The answer seems clear. Despite no formal training, despite the fact that many begin their careers at the bottom of the legal totem pole, they’re still the ones cleaning contaminated waters and signing world-famous emancipation documents.
What is a paralegal? Someone who works behind the scenes to get the job done. Like the assistant who decides the CEO’s schedule, they’re the true powerhouse behind legal firms and formally-educated lawyers.
If you’re interested in becoming a paraprofessional, remember that you’re in good company with Abe and Erin. Remember that your future career is going to grow substantially in the coming decade, your salary rising along with it, your work making a real difference.
Becoming a paralegal is a great way to do some good in the world before leaving it.