Working in Law without a JD: The Paralegal Option
Does the law excite you, but law school is not an option right now? Paralegal is a popular choice for undergrads from all academic backgrounds looking to enter the legal arena after obtaining their BA.
Employers are trying to reduce costs and increase the availability and efficiency of legal services by hiring paralegals to perform tasks formerly carried out by lawyers. Besides new jobs created by employment growth, additional job openings will arise as people leave the occupation.
Paralegals are employed in private law firms, public interest and legal aid organizations, corporations, banks, and government agencies. Some paralegals work as independent contractors providing their services to lawyers on a contract basis. In large law firms, career paths from document and case clerks to senior paralegals have been developed and continue to grow.
What is a paralegal? What is a legal assistant?
Paralegals are often called legal assistants and the job title is interchangeable.
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a legal assistant or paralegal as 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. While lawyers assume ultimate responsibility for legal work, they often delegate many tasks to paralegals. In fact, paralegals continue to assume a growing range of tasks in the nation's legal offices and perform many of the same tasks as lawyers. But they are still explicitly prohibited from carrying out duties which are considered to be the practice of law, such as setting legal fees, giving legal advice, and presenting cases in court.
Minimum standards for paralegals set by California legislation
In 2000, the State of California adopted legislation that defines the titles "paralegal" and "legal assistant" and sets educational criteria and continuing education requirements for paralegals.
The legislation was initiated to stop the unauthorized practice of law, especially because a lot of immigrants in California were defrauded by people misrepresenting themselves.
The law states that a paralegal needs to either have a BA degree with one year of law-related work experience verified by a practicing attorney or hold a paralegal certification from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved program. They are also required to take a continuing education course in ethics every 3 years.
However, many law firms and government agencies recruit paralegals with just a BA degree from UC Berkeley because they understand the level of analytical and research skills that Cal grads possess.
"We have a range of paralegals from entry-level to senior," says Hilary O'Brien, Morrison and Foerster's Director of Administration. "We're able to support new paralegals and we do a lot of on-the-job training. Some of our new hires have gone through paralegal training already, but many just have a four-year degree."
What are the responsibilities of a paralegal?
Paralegals perform a wide variety of tasks, depending on the size and practice area of the law firm or legal department. Among these are:
- Case planning, development and management; preparing cases for trial
- Legal research: fact gathering and retrieving information
- Interviewing clients; maintaining and updating client files
- Drafting and analyzing legal documents
- Collecting, compiling, and utilizing technical information for the supervising attorney
- General administrative support: filing systems, calendaring, handling correspondence
Earnings of paralegals and legal assistants vary greatly. Salaries depend on education, training, experience, type and size of employer, and geographic location of the job. In general, paralegals who work for large law firms or in large metropolitan areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less populated regions. In addition to a salary, many paralegals receive bonuses. Use online salary survey resources for more information.
Advice for interested students
- Network with paralegals to gather information. Do research on the different fields of the law, not just law firms but also corporations, and public and nonprofit organizations.
- Show evidence of the basic social science skills of research and writing. It's important to become a good and accurate writer. Gain undergraduate research experience with faculty.
- Take rhetoric classes or other classes on legal writing. The Legal Studies Department has a list of law-related undergraduate courses that it maintains for each semester.
- Invest in a law-related or public interest internship.
- Consider temping. Many law firms use staffing service agencies to find paralegals.
- American Association for Paralegal Education
- Internship Opportunities in Law & Public Policy
- Nonprofit, Government and Public Policy CareerMail
- Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Department of Labor
- "So You Wanna Be a Paralegal?"