Paralegal Job Description: What You'll Do

Here's What You'll Do in a Career in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

Criminal justice degrees generally encompass three areas: criminology and forensics, law enforcement, and law and paralegal studies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of paralegals to grow 15% through 2026, more than twice the average growth rate. As they can perform the duties of entry-level attorneys, but at lower billing rates, paralegals are in high demand. This page outlines different educational and career options for prospective students in paralegal studies.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities
of a Paralegal?

Paralegals typically work at law firms and corporate, in-house legal departments. They sometimes function as hybrid paralegals and legal assistants in smaller offices, and perform a variety of tasks.

Paralegals keep files maintained and organized, conduct research, and draft documents. In the corporate world they investigate case facts, prepare agreements and contracts, produce meeting materials, and communicate with clients. They may also monitor for important changes in laws and regulations.

Paralegals keep files maintained and organized, conduct research, and draft documents.

Those assisting litigators gather and catalog evidence, prepare and file documents for trial, collect affidavits and witness statements, organize trial exhibits, review courtroom transcripts, and arrange interviews and depositions.

As more law offices transition to paperless operations and courts implement electronic filing and discovery, paralegals use increasing use technology in their jobs. They routinely use such online databases as Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis for case law and code research.

Paralegal Education Requirements

Employers traditionally have hired paralegals with associate degrees, but a bachelor's degree is becoming the new industry standard for minimum education. While it is still possible to find entry-level jobs with an associate degree, a bachelor's degree opens more doors. Below are descriptions of the two degree programs and links to more detailed information.

Associate Degrees

An associate degree in paralegal studies prepares students for paralegal careers in just two years. Students take classes in legal research and writing, computer applications and databases, and study specific areas of law, such as corporate, criminal, and immigration. An associate degree typically leads to positions as entry-level paralegals and legal assistants. Other job possibilities include court reporter, law clerk, legal secretary, or transcriptionist.

Students often study online and/or take classes in the evenings, so they can work during the day or intern at a law office. Students should note the American Bar Association does not approve fully online programs, but approves individual classes. In-state tuition costs are typically cost $2,000-$3,000 per year. Out-of-state programs often cost $4,000-$5,000 per year, but can exceed $12,000.

Bachelor's Degrees

Employers are increasingly requiring bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies. Bachelor's programs typically take four years, and include online and evening study options. Courses cover constitutional law, criminal justice, and political science. Concentrations may be offered in corporate law, estate planning, family law, immigration, and intellectual property.

The longer program time comes with higher tuition costs -- averaging nearly $10,000 per year at public schools and exceeding $30,000 at private institutions. As with associate degrees, in-state programs are typically less expensive than out-of-state.

Other Requirements for Paralegals

Professional paralegal certification is voluntary and involves taking an exam. While not required for employment, certification can enhance an employment application. The credential must be maintained through ongoing continuing legal education classes.

Common certifying organizations include:

  • American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI) provides paralegals with at least five years of experience with an American Alliance certified paralegal (AACP) credential showing advanced knowledge and skills.
  • The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers a certified paralegal/certified legal assistant (CP/CLA) exam, and an advanced paralegal (AP) credential.
  • The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers a Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE), and a Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE), indicating advanced skills acquired through education and work experience.
  • The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)' professional paralegal (PP) credential tests advanced communications, procedures, accounting, technology, ethics, and substantive law.

Qualities That Make a Great Paralegal

Successful paralegals excel at tracking multiple deadlines and details, seamlessly shifting gears, and writing and research. They are proficient in a variety of computer applications, and possess the ability to effectively interact with clients.

The top 10 qualities for successful paralegals are:

  • Organization
  • Attention to detail
  • Adaptability
  • Communication
  • Prioritization
  • Technological savvy
  • Personability
  • Unflappability
  • Tenacity
  • Teamwork

Salary and Employment Opportunities for Paralegals

Highest-Paying States for Paralegals
State Mean Annual Salary Employment
District of Columbia $80,470 5,330
Connecticut $62,760 4,780
California $61,240 33,390
Washington $60,940 6,220
Massachusetts $60,320 7,330
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018
Highest-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Paralegals
Metropolitan Area Mean Annual Salary Employment
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA $125,990 26,250
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA $114,650 15,960
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL $110,560 13,100
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI $107,850 11,680
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV $107,420 11,540
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018

Want to Learn More?

Paralegal Salary Information Careers in Criminal Justice Online Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement