WHAT IS A PARALEGAL?
Often-Asked Questions About the Paralegal Profession


Who is a Paralegal?

As defined by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, paralegal is a person qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work.

NFPA's preferred term is "Paralegal." Many NFPA members, however, use the term "Legal Assistant."

The formal establishment of the paralegal profession can be traced to the 1960s when individuals were trained to assist attorneys in making legal services available to the poor during the "War on Poverty." Shortly after public agencies began hiring paralegals, private law firms and corporations recognized the benefits of employing paralegals to supply efficient support, reduce the expense of legal services, and increase the availability of services to the public.

How to Become a Paralegal?

Individuals with diverse backgrounds are employed as paralegals. Education and training requirements differ widely but are generally related to the responsibilities of the position. Specialized training in other fields sometimes determines the paralegal's area of practice. For example, paralegals with medical training often work in personal injury or medical malpractice, while a paralegal in environmental law may have had experience as a naturalist.

The NFPA's 2001 Paralegal Compensation and Benefits Report indicates that nationwide 25% of all paralegals have an associates degree, 49% have a bachelors degree, and 8% have a masters or J.D. degree. Eighty-three percent received paralegal training as a part of or in addition to college education.

Paralegals can receive education from paralegal programs offered at two-year and four-year colleges or universities. Proprietary schools generally award post-baccalaureate certificates. NFPA's findings indicate 84% of all paralegals receive some formal paralegal education. Paralegal education programs offer degrees and/or certificates.

NFPA believes that education is paramount to the development of the paralegal profession. While NFPA has not formally taken a position regarding correspondence programs, it strongly encourages interested students to evaluate carefully the number and content of courses provided by a correspondence program to ensure the courses will adequately prepare the student for a paralegal position.

NFPA recommends that future practitioners should have a four-year degree to enter the profession. Individuals receiving a formal paralegal education should have 24 semester hours or the equivalent of legal specialty courses to enhance their ability to practice as paralegals.

NFPA recognizes that a two-year degree with an emphasis in paralegal studies is acceptable to employers in some markets as a minimum criterion for individuals to enter the paralegal profession. However, current trends across the country, as illustrated through various surveys, indicate that formal paralegal education has become a requirement to secure paralegal employment; a four-year degree is the hiring standard in many markets. Consequently, NFPA recommends that future practitioners should have a four-year degree to enter the profession, and individuals receiving a formal paralegal education should have 24 semester hours or the equivalent of legal specialty courses to enhance their ability to practice as paralegals. It is NFPA's intent to provide the necessary foundation from which paralegals may expand their roles in the future. In recognizing a two-year degree and recommending a four-year degree, NFPA has taken the lead in providing the profession with the necessary tools to prepare for its future role in the delivery of legal services.

NFPA recognizes the need to establish standards for the paralegal profession. Therefore, in the fall of 1994, the membership voted to develop an exam to measure the proficiency level of practicing paralegals. The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) was developed by Professional Examination Service, an independent company with test development expertise. To take the exam, paralegals must have a minimum of two years' paralegal experience, hold a bachelors degree, have completed a paralegal program at an accredited school, and must not have been convicted of a felony or had a licence, registration, or certification revoked. The paralegal education can be included in the bachelors degree. Paralegals with less education but with four years of paralegal experience will qualify under the grandparenting provision if they had four years' paralegal experience as of December 31, 2000. The test will be administered by Prometric/Sylvan Technologies, which has more than 200 testing sites throughout the country. Those who successfully pass the exam are authorized to use the credential "PACE Registered Paralegal" or "RP."

Where do Paralegals Work?

Paralegals are employed in private law firms, banks, corporations, insurance agencies, legal clinics, courts, government agencies, accounting and engineering firms, title companies, construction companies, and legal aid offices—in fact, almost everywhere law-related work is performed. Paralegals either work with attorneys who assume professional responsibility for the final work product, or work in areas where "lay" individuals are explicitly authorized by statute court authority, or regulation to assume certain law-related responsibilities.

Paralegals who work in the private sector are usually employed by law firms and corporations and often specialize in areas of law such as litigation, probate, real estate, corporate, taxation, domestic relations, or employee benefits. Paralegals who work in the public sector are often employed by non-profit public law firms, state or local governmental agencies in areas such as welfare, family law, health care, landlord/tenant, disability benefits, unemployment compensation, or social security.

One of the best ways to find a paralegal job is through networking and paralegal association job banks. This information was reported by findings of the NFPA's 2001 Compensation and Benefits Report. Also see www.paralegals.org, and click on Career Center.

What do Paralegals Do?

The specific tasks assigned to paralegals vary according to the area of practice and level of experience and education.

Litigation paralegals interview witnesses, analyze and digest legal documents, investigate facts, perform legal and factual research, draft pleadings, legal memoranda and briefs, obtain and manage information to assist in trial preparation, assist at trial, and aid in preparing appeals.

A probate paralegal's responsibilities could include interviewing clients, arranging for collection, valuing and transferring assets, administering estate accounts, analyzing the best treatment of assets and distribution to obtain the greatest tax benefit, and preparing tax returns.

A corporate paralegal is likely to be involved in drafting agreements and employee benefits plans, fulfilling securities reporting requirements, and conducting patent and trademark searches.

A real estate paralegal drafts transaction documents, prepare for closings, and researches title and administrative processes involved in land and environmental use. A government paralegal work for the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department, or even the White House. Depending upon the agency or area of practice, government paralegals perform a wide range of duties, including collecting and evaluating evidence, conducting hearings, drafting proposed legislation, and answering inquires about federal laws and regulations.

An employment law paralegal can draft employee policy and procedures manuals, help facilitate positions in organized labor campaigns, prepare position papers, complaints and affidavits in discrimination cases, and perform work similar to litigation paralegals.

Paralegals in legal services programs work as counselors or advocates and may obtain government benefits for clients. They often maintain their own caseloads and have total responsibility from the initial client interview through client representation at various administrative agency proceedings.

What are Paralegals' Salaries?

Paralegal salaries vary. Salaries depend on the education and experience the paralegal brings to the job, the type of employer, and the geographic location of the job. Generally, paralegals working for large law firms in metropolitan areas earn more than paralegals working for smaller firms or in less populated areas.

The NFPA's 2001 Paralegal Compensation and Benefits Report reveals a high salary of $114,000. The average salary nationwide is $41,742. Of those paralegals just starting their paralegal career, 28% begin with a salary greater than $32,000. In addition to a salary, 65% of paralegals receive an annual bonus, which averages $2,468. Employers of the majority of paralegals provide life and health insurance benefits and pay the paralegal's professional dues.

As the quality of paralegal education programs continues to improve and employers continue to require formal training, the salaries of paralegals should continue to increase.

NFPA Publication Information

For more information about the paralegal profession check out the following publications

NFPA Mission Statement

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. ("NFPA") is a non-profit, professional organization comprising state and local paralegal associations throughout the United States and Canada. NFPA affirms the paralegal profession as an independent, self-directed profession which supports increased quality, efficiency and accessibility in the delivery of legal services. NFPA promotes the growth, development and recognition of the profession as an integral partner in the delivery of legal services.

As adopted March 1987

© July 2002 National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. All rights reserved

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