Caseloads & convictions: What to expect from a paralegal career path

According to countless TV shows and movies, the life of an attorney is both glamorous and attractive. The star attorney usually strolls into the courtroom and swiftly takes advantage of their expert-level legal knowledge, wowing judge and jury alike in pursuit of an inevitably favorable ruling. Alternatively, perhaps the lawyer reveals a shocking piece of new evidence or a star witness at the 11th hour, setting the stage for a dramatic final verdict.

Such legal tropes in popular media certainly make for engrossing stories and captivating conclusions, but the reality of life in the courtroom isn’t quite as sensational. Sure, the occasional legal bombshell or revelation does drop, but what viewers don’t get to see is the hours and hours of prep work that goes into each and every case an attorney argues. 

That’s where the paralegal comes in. Behind every successful attorney winning major cases for their clients is a dedicated paralegal making sure every document is filed in a timely fashion, each fact has been double-checked, and no legal or regulatory stone has been left unturned. 

In the courtroom, pieces of information that may appear inconsequential at first glance often lead to the largest of revelations. The paralegal is responsible for compiling all of the facts, documents, and evidence relevant to a given case to form a narrative the attorney can then confidently argue in front of the court.

What is a paralegal?

The main role of a paralegal position is to support attorneys and help them get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, regarding each and every legal case that lands on their desk. A paralegal may work for a private law firm, or find themselves employed within the public sector.

While many tasks associated with paralegal work are clerical in nature, don’t assume paralegals spend all day behind a desk. A day in the life of a paralegal may also include conducting interviews with witnesses, communicating with clients, and attending court hearings to assist attorneys during trials.

That being said, a large portion of a paralegal’s responsibilities include the collection and compilation of documents, the drafting of reports, fact checking, and researching legal precedents set by prior court decisions. On a larger scale, paralegals coordinate entire case loads for attorneys, which means keeping track of deadlines, important dates, and estimated timelines so as to ensure the entire legal process goes smoothly.

To be clear, while paralegals are not attorneys (or lawyers) and do not have to pass the bar or attend law school, this career path absolutely requires an intimate understanding of the law and relevant legal doctrines. While individual paralegals typically specialize in one particular legal area (family law, criminal defense, estate planning, etc), all paralegals should have strong organizational and communication skills, as well as stellar time management acumen and a meticulous attention to detail.

Is a paralegal the same as a legal assistant?

Many people make the mistake of assuming the terms paralegal and legal assistant are interchangeable and refer to the same gig. While the two positions are similar, and some duties overlap, paralegals generally carry more responsibility upon their shoulders and perform a larger spectrum of tasks.

While legal assistants can perform clerical and administrative duties such as filing documents, scheduling court dates, and answering phone calls, they usually do not draft legal documents, perform legal research, or answer client questions. Importantly, neither a paralegal nor a legal assistant can represent a client in a court of law, or provide legal advice of any kind for that matter. A lawyer must pass the bar exam and become an attorney before taking on clients. 

How to become a paralegal

While a college degree isn’t absolutely essential to being a paralegal, the vast majority of paralegals have at least a two-year associate degree if not a four year bachelor’s degree. While many universities offer the opportunity to major in paralegal studies as a bachelor’s program, other options include majoring in jurisprudence or legal studies. Crucially, students looking to prepare for a career as a paralegal should make sure their school is a part of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), as membership indicates their paralegal programs have been approved by the American Bar Association. 

After graduation, earning a paralegal certification is a great way of making sure you stand out among other candidates. While technically voluntary, many law firms prefer paralegals that have earned certification through either the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, or the American Alliance of Paralegals.