The Big Question: What is a Paralegal?
Find out what a paralegal really is.
What is a paralegal?
What's a paralegal?
What to expect
What’s the meaning of life? Pretty tricky to answer, right? Well, it’s not as mind-bogglingly difficult as getting a straight answer to the questions: “what’s a paralegal?” and “what do they do?”
Lucky for you, I’m going to give you the honest, straightforward definition: a paralegal is a person trained in subsidiary legal matters, but who is not fully qualified as a lawyer. There, that wasn’t so hard!
But before you say it, yes, that answer is pretty vague. You want to know what a paralegal does, how they’re different to lawyers, the top tips for becoming a paralegal and probably (scratch that, definitely) how much they get paid.
So, before you decide to start pondering the meaning of life, why don’t you check out the sections below which will answer all of your questions. And by the time you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll be an expert on all things paralegal.
But what are they really?
Okay, so you’ve already got a basic definition of a paralegal, but let’s get right into the nitty-gritty stuff …
A paralegal is not a qualified solicitor, but they do carry out a lot of the same tasks and are able to offer legal assistance. You can find a paralegal working in a law firm (obviously), but did you know they’re just as likely to work as freelancers, in barristers’ chambers or even in corporate environments.
The day-to-day work of a paralegal really depends on how senior they are and what type of organisation they’re working in (we’ll discuss this in a little more detail later). But basically, paralegals are often tasked with maintaining and organising files, researching cases, drafting documents and generally supporting solicitors.
What does a paralegal do?
So, building on from our understanding of what paralegals are, let’s get to know the job. We know that their usual tasks include:
- Drafting documents
- Carrying out legal research
- Writing up reports, bills and letters
- Organising diaries, meetings and responding to enquiries
- Maintaining and organising files
- Assisting with trial preparation
- Interviewing witnesses
But hang on a minute! The way your day will shape up really does depend on a few factors:
- Which practice area you’re working in—the law is a big ol’ beast; there’s a seemingly infinite number of areas you can specialise in and they’re all pretty unique. From corporate to criminal, employment to environment, your day-to-day role will likely depend on the practice area.
- How senior you are— This is probably the deciding factor in how independently you get to work. More senior paralegals tend to work more independently than their junior colleagues, especially when it comes to trial preparation and client-facing tasks.
- Where you’re working— Your paralegal responsibilities can change depending on the size of the firm. For example, larger firms tend to have a higher volume of ‘big cases’, which means that their paralegals usually work on a particular phase of the case. Small firms typically handle smaller cases, so if you’d prefer to be involved from start to finish, a smaller firm might suit you better.
What’s the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer?
Being a paralegal can mean quite a few different things. But the long and short of it is that lawyers are tasked with deciding the strategy (the knowledge, liability, problems, consequences), whereas paralegals carry out the strategy; they research the case, they interview that witness, they file those documents.
That’s not to say that lawyers and paralegals are worlds apart. In fact, in recent times it’s becoming a common sight to see paralegals working on complex cases that you might expect to have been reserved for lawyers.
While you won’t find your average paralegal taking charge of a grisly murder case or the next scandalous celebrity break up, you can often spot them taking the lead on some matters to do with conveyancing or even small claims cases.
What to expect
You guessed it! It depends … But broadly speaking:
- You’ll mostly be working in an office, but you might get out and about if you’re assisting with the preparations for court cases or if you’re meeting with clients.
- Most paralegals will have completed their LLB (undergraduate law degree) or GDL (conversion course), but many students secure part-time paralegal roles; vacation schemes are a great way to get some legal experience!
- The competition for paralegal roles is tough! The honest truth is that these jobs are highly sought after and you will likely have to take a few rejections on the chin. But as the old saying goes, ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’.
- It’s not all doom and gloom though! You can maximise the chances of bagging yourself a paralegal job by applying to quite a few positions. But most importantly, a bit of research on each firm and a targeted application goes a (really) long way.
Paralegals work hard and they play hard!
Ever heard of the phrase ‘work hard play hard’? Well, it rings pretty true when it comes to paralegals.
Your official working hours will probably be 9 am – 6 pm, but chances are you’ll be expected to work a little longer during the busiest periods. Law firms are often dynamic, exhilarating, hectic work environments, which means you’ve always got to be on your toes.
If you’re looking for more stable working hours, you might prefer to work at an in-house legal team.
Is the paralegal world right for you?
If you’ve read this far you probably fancy yourself as a paralegal, or maybe you’re already one (or maybe you’ve just finished watching Suits). Either way, there’s some definite skills that employers are looking for their paralegals to have:
- Good communication skills – Paralegals work all sorts of people, such as clients, lawyers and judges, so it’s essential that you are able to communicate well.
- Excellent written English – A big chunk of the role includes filling out legal forms, writing letters and emails.
- Knowledge of the law – You need to have at least a bit of legal knowledge. Most paralegals will have an LLB, but vacation schemes are also a great way to improve your legal know-how.
- Organisational skills – Paralegals have to be on top of their deadlines. When you’re working on court hearings you can’t drop the ball.
- Punctuality – The law doesn’t wait for anyone, especially not for the paralegal who’s missed her bus.
- Adaptability – There’s a lot to learn!
- Teamwork – Paralegals have to coordinate with others. Employers are looking for teamwork to be second nature for you.
- Research – Knowing how to gather information makes life as a paralegal manageable.
- Tech – You need to be tech-savvy in this day and age. If you can’t figure out email, maybe a paralegal career isn’t right for you (sorry Gran).
- Professionalism – This is a big one! Employers demand a standard of professionalism from their paralegals, which basically means the capacity to work ethically and in a business-like manner.
How to become a paralegal
All roads lead to law …
There are many ways to become a paralegal in the UK, here are some of the common pathways:
- You have a law degree – This is probably the most obvious route. If you’ve got an LLB you’re good to go!
- You have a non-law degree – That’s absolutely fine too. You’ll probably need to complete a GDL course (law conversion).
- You don’t have a degree – You don’t necessarily need a formal qualification to work in the legal field. Junior roles such as legal internships, entry-level legal assistants or legal administrators offer a great chance to build up your knowledge of law and your own CV.
What’s the career trajectory of a paralegal?
If you’re set on becoming a paralegal, or if you’re already pacing the carpet of a law firm and want to see what’s next, make sure to take notes here.
There’s no two ways about it, most paralegals have their hearts set on one-day qualifying as a Solicitor. And there’s no better way to do it then by learning to ply your trade as a paralegal!
But that’s not it: the world really is your oyster!
Being a paralegal doesn’t have to be a stepping stone to something else. Many choose to develop their knowledge in specific practice areas, becoming Career Paralegals and experts in particular fields. These paralegals are pretty popular with prestigious law firms FYI.
Or you can decide to pursue a career as a Legal Executive. This costs a heck of a lot less than it does to become a solicitor, while still allowing you to practice law. Legal executives tend to specialise in one practice area, so if you like getting specific, this one could be for you.
How much do paralegals get paid?
The moment we’ve all been waiting for. I’ve taken these figures from The Institute of Paralegals to help give you an idea of how your bank balance might be looking depending on your experience.
- If you’re a junior paralegal at non-graduate entry-level – You can expect between £14,000 to £22,000.
- If you’re a junior paralegal at graduate entry level – You can expect between £18,000 to £25,000.
- If you’re a paralegal with three to five years of experience – You can expect between £30,000 to £40,000 (law firms in the big cities are more likely to pay the big bucks here).
- If you’re a seasoned paralegal (you have decades of experience) – It is possible to earn up to £55,000, while legend has it that some salaries have reached as high as £70,000.
Wait a second though! Before you start budgeting, remember that a paralegal’s salary depends on a few factors, namely:
- Your experience
- The size of the firm
- The practice are you choose
- Your geographic location
You may not know the meaning of life, but you sure do know what a paralegal is.
Maybe you’ve come to the decision that the world of paralegals is for you, or possibly you’re already a paralegal and simply want to see what other roles are out there? If so, Jump may be able to help!
Being a paralegal can mean a multitude of different things; it all depends on the firm, the practice area and your own preferences. You’d be forgiven for not quite knowing where to start – finding the right paralegal role that truly plays to your strengths can feel a little like finding a needle in a haystack.
And that’s precisely where Jump comes in, a virtual career advisor that gives you tailored recommendations based on the skills and interests that make you unique.
Simply sign up to kickstart your perfect legal career.
Stay Up to Date With The Latest News & Updates
Find a job today with Jump
Kickstart your perfect career today with personalised job recommendations.
Stay in the loop!
Sign up for honest, useful and insightful resources.
The best things in life are meant to be shared.