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What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal works as an assistant to practitioners of law. A paralegal degree assists individuals by educating them in the various functions of a paralegal, as well as the law itself. Paralegals are tasked with researching cases, filing information, summarizing studies, and constructing notes. A paralegal cannot perform certain functions, such as set rates or consult clients, sign forms or appear in court, but they are necessary for the analyses and review of material. Many paralegals will specialize in a particular area of expertise, further differentiating them from lawyers who are required to have a much broader understanding of the law and its various components.
Degrees for paralegal studies begin at the associate level, with bachelors and masters degree programs available to interested students. Individuals wishing to pursue an education as a paralegal may do so through their local community college, taking on a two year curriculum that provides the basic skills necessary for employment in a law firm and the ability to perform one's duties without issue. Higher levels of education are primarily for specialization or in depth legal expertise.
A curriculum in paralegal studies may include:
- Legal Research and Writing
- Introduction to Law
- Contract Law
- Ethics and Professional Responsibility
Though it is not required to obtain a certificate or degree in paralegal studies in order to obtain work as a paralegal, there are some distinct advantages. As with most jobs, an educated individual tends to edge out otherwise equally qualified applicants; additionally some employers may require a degree, widening the opportunities for individuals who have taken the time to study. Individuals with degrees tend to have higher annual salaries and are more likely to find opportunities for promotion. An individual with a paralegal studies degree may return to school and pursue a law degree.
Paralegals are essential to the operation of a law office. A lawyer's time is precious and must be utilized efficiently. A lawyer bogged down by research, or attempting to locate pertinent files or writing summaries will be unable to best serve his or her clients interests due to the lack of attention given to the overall case. A paralegal fulfills that role by sifting through mountains of information and noting any relevant sections, going through case histories to locate related rulings, searching records for files and materials needed, and more. By conducting these tasks the paralegal frees the attorney or attorneys he or she works for to focus their attentions on the client and the case as a whole.
Paralegals may specialize in a particular area of law, providing knowledge, information, and services related to that field. By choosing a specialty a paralegal may increase his or her effectiveness by accumulating knowledge and experience operating with a particular area of the law, and conducting tasks with greater efficiency due to the more narrowed focus. Paralegals must take the time to research and study their specialization, often taking courses specific to the specialization in order to familiarize themselves with their new area of focus.
Here are some paralegal specializations:
- Criminal Justice
- Family Law
- Labor Law
- Real Estate
- Personal Injury
Salary, Job Growth and Related Fields
The average salary for a paralegal is about $47,000 per year. Job growth for paralegals is expected to remain steady for the foreseeable future due to the increasing demand for lawyers as new technologies and ideas will demand the attention, interpretation and implementation of laws in order to govern them. This is in addition to the usual turnover already associated with the occupation.
Those interested in a paralegal degree may also be interested in court reporting, legal administrative assistance, or pre-law.