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What does it take to become a paralegal?

Young woman studying in a law library.

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What does it take to become a paralegal?

October 31, 2012

Q: I am thinking about going back to school to pursue a new career as a paralegal. Can you please tell me what a paralegal typically does, and, if possible, the average salary a paralegal might make per year?

A: I have been an attorney for nearly three decades, and have used paralegals for much of that time.

A paralegal is the right arm of a litigation attorney. They maintain contact with clients, perform concentrated legal research seeking legal case law precedent to support the client's cause. They participate in the development of discovery in litigation, assist the client in responding to discovery and assist the attorney in the preparation for trials, mediations and arbitrations.

A Paralegal Certificate will be a great way to break into a law firm. You are not stuck in litigation as a paralegal, though. You may find yourself acting as a legal secretary as part of your job, and even an office manager or a team leader for a group of litigation secretaries.

The salary of paralegals varies greatly depending on whether you work in a major city in a large form or a small rural law office with only one attorney. The larger firms will typically pay the most, and a six-figure salary is not unusual for a paralegal with a few years of experience. In small firms, you may find that the starting salary is just $30,000, give or take. For more, see this paralegal summary page.

Paralegals work long hours right alongside their attorneys, and when preparing for a trial, you may find yourself working many 50-60-hour weeks, nights and weekends.

To succeed as a paralegal, you need to have an analytical mind, have a firm grasp of language. You will often be the first contact for existing clients who need a status update on their cases, and you must be both personable and tolerant of stressed-out clients.

Take a few paralegal courses and get an idea if the world of law is something that you can excel in and be happy with the hours you are working -- this is not your typical 9-to-5 job. It is a profession that demands dedication, confidentiality, and hard work every day.

-- Answer from Doug K., an attorney on JustAnswer.

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