So you're finishing college and your life plans don't extend much beyond dinner. Join the club. If you wanna kill some time before applying to grad school or just make enough money to avoid moving in with your parents, you should consider working as a paralegal for a few years, because if you have a college degree and decent grades, you're qualified to be an entry-level paralegal.

Don't I need a paralegal certificate?

Some paralegal positions require a paralegal certificate, a diploma you get after taking an accredited course in paralegal studies. But these certificates, and the positions that require them, are mostly for people who wish to be career paralegals. So don't fear -- there are plenty of positions available for recent college grads that don't require a paralegal certificate. And we're going to tell you how to get those jobs. (If you wish to be a career paralegal, check out American Bar Association for more info.)


Legal work can be thrilling, spiced with the intrigue of courtroom drama and back-room dealing -- but not for a paralegal. Let's be serious. Paralegals exist to make lawyers look good.

So what is a paralegal?

According to the American Bar Association, a paralegal (or legal assistant) is defined as "a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."

As a paralegal, you will perform administrative tasks such as filing, retrieving and organizing documents, photocopying, and the ever-popular numbering of pages. Depending on the employer, when taking a break from hole-punching, you may get to participate in more glamorous tasks such as interviewing witnesses or drafting legal documents.

Let's be a little more specific. There are essentially two major types of law that are practiced in America: corporateand litigation. Corporate law deals primarily with the dealings of companies, which may, for example, be looking to merge or to acquire new entities, and need lawyers to prepare all the paperwork; litigation is the more typical type of law, involving one party suing another.

As a corporate paralegal, you will probably put together record sets. These are large binders filled with primary documents associated with particular business deals. Say a company buys a shopping mall -- a record set of the deal might include the contract to purchase the mall, the leases of all the current tenants in the mall, and all of the myriad tax forms associated with such a purchase. You, as paralegal, would get to photocopy the documents, make sure that they are the final versions (i.e., no rough drafts or preliminary versions), and ensure that they are all in the proper order. Yes!

As a litigation paralegal, you will handle the documents associated with trials: motions, which petition the judge for favorable rulings; briefs, which set out the arguments supporting your motions; and depositions, which are interviews of witnesses taken under oath but before the trial begins. You'll spend hours making sure that the pages of all these documents are identical in each set. You'll also do a bunch of indexing -- describing the documents in a computer database, putting papers in boxes, and labeling them, so that attorneys can find them later.

What are the benefits of being a paralegal?

First of all, the experience may help you figure out what to do with your life. For instance, it might help you decide:

  • Whether you want to be a career paralegal.
  • Whether you want to go to law school.
  • Whether you want to avoid the legal profession entirely.

Second, being a paralegal might help you get into law school. Admissions officers may think that your experience as a paralegal demonstrates that you have carefully considered your decision to enter the field. Also, if you can befriend and impress an attorney or two at your firm, their recommendations could be huge. Remember: work hard and impress.

Third, being a paralegal may help you get another job. If you work as a paralegal at an investment bank, an insurance company, or any other major business, there are opportunities to move laterally within the company. So if your stint as a paralegal teaches you nothing other than the legal profession stinks, the years you spent working in it won't have been a waste.

Paralegal salaries fluctuate from city to city and, to a lesser extent, from firm to firm. Currently, the average starting salary for a paralegal in the United States is $21,000 - $22,000. This is a base salary for working from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break, Monday through Friday. That's some of the good news.

The bad news is that many employers (particularly large law firms) won't let you escape with such normal hours. If there is work to be done on an important deal or trial, you may be expected to stay late, perhaps until 10:00 p.m. or so. You might also be expected to come in on weekends. Of course, these workloads and expectations vary. So ask before you sign up. And for a real answer, ask the paralegals who work there, not the person trying to hire you.

The rest of the good news is that you get paid extra for these hours. In major New York City and Washington, D.C. firms, paralegals are paid time-and-a-half for overtime - any hours over the basic 35 hour workweek. This amounts to $21/hour. Also, you can often make double overtime if you work really crazy hours - anything after 3:00 a.m. or on Sundays and holidays. So if you put in long hours, you're looking at a salary as high as $60,000 a year. And when you work those long nights, your firm will probably give you free food and a cab home.

All in all, being a paralegal is relatively flexible. Many non-law firm jobs do not require (or even permit) overtime. On the other hand, crazy hours are impossible to avoid at many large law firms. So you can opt for a cozy lifestyle with livable hours or make some serious cash. Your call.