Reading Between the Lines: What a Paralegal Job Description Really Says

A paralegal reads her job description

You're ready to start a job search for your ideal position as a legal assistant. But as you start scanning the job boards, you find yourself a bit perplexed. Each paralegal job description seems short and cryptic, and it's hard to know what kind of candidates law firms and corporate legal departments are really looking for.

Never fear: Although every firm is different, there is a common set of terms used in many legal assistant job listings, and they often mean the same thing. Here's a glossary of phrases you might see in a paralegal job description:

  • Litigation paralegal – Legal assistants in this position focus on the litigation process: conducting research and document review, preparing for and assisting with depositions, organizing and filing all court documents, and assisting attorneys in the courtroom.
  • Corporate paralegal – These legal professionals work for lawyers in the corporate law department of a business. They help prepare contracts and other legal documents, assist with transactions like mergers and acquisitions, prepare SEC filings, and help with stock certificate completion.
  • Bachelor's or associate degree – You'll see this phrase under educational requirements, but it doesn't mean the firm is looking for just any two- or four-year degree. Most law firms and corporate law departments usually seek candidates with a degree from an American Bar Association-approved paralegal studies program.
  • Paralegal certification – Some firms also prefer candidates who've earned a Certified Paralegal designation, which often includes participating in a short, intensive training program, passing an exam, and completing ongoing education requirements.
  • Technical skills – You'll see these words on most paralegal job descriptions. Paralegals must be up-to-date on the latest electronic database management tools and eDiscovery software, as they often use software programs to organize and review legal documents.
  • Research and organizational skills – This is another common requirement for paralegals, who spend much of their time researching laws and regulations and cataloging documents, exhibits, briefs and evidence.
  • Experience in a legal environment – In general, law firms and corporate legal departments tend to prefer paralegals with five years of relevant work history. Read the paralegal job description carefully to find out if experience in a particular field, such as healthcare, litigation or real estate, is required.
  • Strong oral and written communication – When you see this in a paralegal job description, it means the firm is looking for someone who can present research to lawyers in a clear, focused way and can communicate well with clients and third-party vendors.
  • Competitive salary – Legal assistant compensation depends on your years of experience, the size of the law firm or department you're working for and the region you're working in. For a better sense of the type of salary a paralegal in your position might command, use the Robert Half Legal Salary Calculator.

Once you know what the responsibilities and qualifications in a paralegal job description mean, you'll be in a much better position to write a winning cover letter and resume. Highlight the experience, certifications and skills you have that line up with the wording in the job opening so the hiring manager can see that you have what it takes to be the firm or department's next star legal assistant.