Everything you need to know about a paralegal career

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Law firms, government agencies and organizations with active legal departments have a need for support personnel, known as paralegals or legal assistants. The number of openings for these positions is on the rise, and people considering a career in law should familiarize themselves with the associated duties and requirements.

The American Bar Association defines a paralegal as someone who performs substantive legal work on behalf of a lawyer. Paralegals are qualified for these roles by their education, training or experience on the job. The ABA adds that legal assistant and paralegal aren’t just similar terms, they are interchangeable and describe the same types of positions.

One of the first questions a prospective paralegal should ask is how to become a candidate for such a job, because the path is different than the standardized law school route taken by those seeking to become attorneys.

How do professionals become paralegals?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics specifies that there are several ways to enter the professional paralegal ranks. Employers typically take on entry-level paralegals who have at least a bachelor’s degree-level education. Since programs issuing bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies are rare and specialized, these applicants often combine bachelor’s degrees in other compatible subjects with certificates in paralegal studies from ABA-accredited programs.

Individuals applying to become paralegals should have knowledge of the most common duties they’ll be tasked with, including performing research, writing documents and using technology in a legal context. The systems and norms associated with the profession of law are distinct and regulated, requiring this specific education. Furthermore, paralegals should be well versed in the area of law they aspire to work in, such as corporate, international or health care law.

Joining a law firm isn’t the only possible career path for a new paralegal, as the ABA explains. Organizations such as corporations, insurers and banks will often have paralegals on staff, as will hospitals and other health care providers. There are also public-sector roles available, including in the offices of public defenders, prosecutors and attorneys.

There are certification programs available for paralegals, some at local levels and others national in scope. Though the BLS notes that such approval is not required to begin a legal assistant career, there are companies that prefer to hire paralegals who do have such a certification.

The BLS indicated in some rare cases, organizations will hire candidates from college who have not yet studied law and provide the legal training they need on the job.

What are the day-to-day duties of a paralegal?

The paralegal profession is made up of versatile individuals, and the tasks legal assistants are called on to perform cover a range of duties. When lawyers are preparing for a hearing, trial or major corporate meeting, for example, it will be paralegals who take on much of the research and document-gathering. The BLS notes that the most common tasks for paralegals include:

Gathering evidence for a court case, including collecting affidavits and other formal statements
Conducting legal research, determining how specific laws, regulations and legal opinions impact an active case
Working with documents ― this includes writing or summarizing reports, organizing relevant files and drafting contracts or mortgages
Scheduling meetings, interviews or depositions with parties involved in an ongoing legal case, such as clients, witnesses and lawyers
Providing assistance during a trial by taking notes, reviewing transcripts and handling exhibits in court

According to the BLS, paralegals should be technologically savvy to accomplish these and other support tasks. The legal profession, as with business in general, has become increasingly digitized over the past few years. Legal assistants must know how to operate electronic filing systems and databases. This requirement applies to both the systems that law offices and legal departments use internally and electronic discovery methods used to find relevant facts within digital materials.

Not every paralegal will have a strong focus on matters relating to trials. For instance, corporate legal assistants may be more concerned with drawing up contracts and agreements for their organizations. These individuals are often tasked with reviewing changing laws and regulations to ensure their companies remain in compliance, as well as creating documents that must meet various specific requirements, such as financial reports.

Legal assistants may also encounter different day-to-day agendas at large and small companies. The BLS explains smaller organizations tend to expect more flexibility from their paralegals, while larger firms specialize their team members. This means at a big law firm or a legal department, a specific paralegal may only work on isolated phases of cases, while at small companies, one individual may contribute to multiple parts of ongoing matters.

What is the hiring and salary outlook for paralegals?

Due to the many responsibilities paralegals can tackle for companies and the increasing trend of corporations possessing well-staffed legal departments, it’s unsurprising that there is large and increasing demand for individuals to fill these roles. The ABA attributes the upward trend in hiring to the better efficiency and availability of legal services when companies employ teams of paralegals.

The companies hiring new paralegal professionals are a diverse group, considering that these individuals can help any business facing a legal case or dealing with legally binding documents such as contracts and nondisclosure agreements. The ABA does note, however, that by volume, private law firms are the largest employers of paralegals.

Over the 10-year span from 2018 to 2028, paralegal employment is expected to increase by 12%, according to the BLS. That is significantly higher than the 5% rise in roles for all professions predicted over the same period. Furthermore, the 12% rise is greater than the still-high 9% increase projected for legal support workers such as legal secretaries.

The BLS attributed some of the elevated demand for paralegals to a new way to use these workers’ services. Serving in so-called hybrid positions, these individuals perform legal support work as well as traditional paralegal duties. Furthermore, paralegals may now be tasked with jobs that beginning lawyers once performed. This is an option for law firms that want to keep their internal costs ― and their fees for clients ― lower than they would be if they had more lawyers on staff.

According to BLS data, companies paid their paralegals a median of $50,940 as of 2018. The top 10% of workers in these roles earned over $82,050 annually. The median is roughly on par with legal secretaries, who made a median of $51,410 in 2018.

When breaking down the salary data by industry and sector, federal government paralegals make the highest median wage, at over $67,000. The next-best paying industry is finance and insurance, followed by local government agencies, legal services and state government. None of these sectors had a median pay lower than $46,970, demonstrating that the value of paralegal services is roughly equal across categories.

How do paralegals fit into health care?

One of the most potentially intriguing matches for professionals seeking paralegal employment is the health care field. From care provider organizations such as hospitals and doctor’s offices to research organizations, pharmaceutical manufacturers and regulatory agencies, every professional body in the medical industry interacts with relevant laws on a daily basis. This means that between specialized law firms and internal legal departments there are many potential roles for legal assistants to serve in.

Both the ABA and the BLS point to health care as a potential field for paralegals to work in. The BLS indicated that health care providers are among the large corporations increasing the scale of their in-house legal departments ― or establishing them for the first time ― because they find this option more economical than hiring law firms whenever they need legal services.

Legal services in health care are highly relevant because the laws and regulations around the medical industry aren’t just important, they are also changing. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as just one example, affected numerous aspects of the way health services are billed and administered, with more changes following as the law has been interpreted and amended. Having legal teams who are deeply familiar with such regulations can benefit companies in all corners of the health care field.

Due to the specialized nature of health care law, as well as the ever-evolving nature of the relevant rules, professionals seeking paralegal work in or around the health care sector may want to seek out education and experience related directly to the field. Fortunately, there are advanced degree programs specifically dealing with matters of health law and policy.

Why should current or prospective paralegals study Health Law and Policy?

A master’s degree such as Online Master of Arts in Health Law in Policy from Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law can provide the background in health law that can help a paralegal thrive in today’s health care organizations. Whether a professional’s preferred path is to work at a law firm that primarily caters to health care organizations or to take on a legal department staff role at a hospital or other care provider, the insights, skill-building and networking inherent to the program may prove highly relevant.

This could mean consulting with a health care firm that is complying with a new or revised law, or overseeing litigation regarding health care products such as pharmaceuticals. From biotechnological ethics to the standards regarding patient privacy and information security and beyond, law firms and legal departments are constantly dealing with complex matters regarding health care.

One interesting potential path for paralegals in today’s health care field is providing legal assistance and advice regarding matters such as corporate taxation and employment liability, in addition to more direct issues of patient care. Furthermore, insurance and its connection to medicine is an ever-evolving issue that will require attention from well-educated and properly trained teams of professionals with legal studies backgrounds.

By earning an MA in Health Law and Policy from Hofstra Law, students build knowledge and experience that can help them thrive in all types of roles where the legal and health care fields meet. Online programs are designed to allow professionals to study while serving in full-time jobs, using flexible course scheduling. Completing the 30 credit hours happens on participants’ own time, whether they are already working as paralegals and seeking to deepen their knowledge or hope to move into the legal assistant field soon. Depending on how many courses they take each semester, students may earn a Hofstra Law Online MA in Health Law and Policy in as few as two years.

A legal professional who has an advanced degree in Health Law and Policy may find it easier to apply for roles that deal directly with health care matters, or to prove they belong on legal teams at care providers or other organizations. Getting started on this new path can be a simple process, as students don’t have to present the results of the LSAT, GMAT, GRE or other standardized tests. Applicants are instead asked to provide professional letters of recommendation displaying their commitment to their duties and work experience.

The increasing need for personnel to handle complex legal matters is suited to the many evolving regulations governing health care laws and policies. Considering the growing role of technology in both law and health care, the need for up-to-date specialist knowledge is especially clear. By studying this intersection of concepts, professionals may immerse themselves more deeply in an in-demand segment of two fields.

Visit the Online Master of Arts in Health Law and Policy program page to learn more about whether this is the right degree for you.

RECOMMENDED READINGS:

What Is a Compliance Officer and How Do You Become One?
6 careers that can benefit from a health law and policy degree

SOURCES:

American Bar Association – Career Information
American Bar Association – Current ABA Definition of Legal Assistant/Paralegal
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Paralegals and Legal Assistants