Become a Legal Research Assistant in 5 Steps
Explore the career requirements for legal research assistants. Learn about education requirements, job duties, salary, and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you.
What Do Legal Research Assistants Do?
As a legal research assistant, you're a specialist who helps legal executives make informed decisions and supports the pre-trial preparation of lawsuits by researching case law and precedents that are relevant to the issues in dispute. You also compose letters and other correspondence as well as draft briefs, arguments, and opinions. In some cases, you might be tasked with interviewing witnesses and clients, conferring with attorneys, and maintaining research records.
The table below outlines the general requirements for becoming a legal assistant.
|Degree Required||Associate's degree; bachelor's degree preferred|
|Educational Field of Study||Legal research, paralegal studies|
|Key Responsibilities||Conducts research, writes reports, writes correspondence and legal documents, calls clients, witnesses, and lawyers|
|Job Growth (2018-2028)||12% for paralegals and legal assistants*|
|Average Salary (2018)||$54,500 for paralegals and legal assistants*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
What Is a Legal Research Assistant?
Legal research assistants help lawyers and legal professionals prepare for trials, finding details for the case and researching laws and other regulations that may be relevant at the time. While lawyers work primarily inside the courtroom, legal research assistants do the behind the scenes tasks that make their jobs possible. The exact nature of what they must do varies, though it typically involves corresponding with witnesses, clients, and legal and law enforcement personnel to gather evidence and background knowledge in a case. At times, they may have to represent on behalf of a client in court.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
Employers may hire you as a legal researcher if you have a bachelor's degree in legal studies. Bachelor's degree programs are designed to provide enough familiarity with the law for you to recognize the proper legal and ethical principles that apply in a given situation, use technology to access legal information, evaluate data's applicability and gain perspective. Course topics may cover history of American law, constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal writing, ethics, and research methods.
Step 2: Enroll in a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) Program
Some employers, especially state and federal courts, may require that you either have earned a J.D. (which takes 3-4 years) or completed 2-3 years of the program. J.D. programs acquaint you with legal reasoning, the concepts and principles underlying American legal institutions, analysis of case studies and specific areas of law, such as real estate, antitrust, banking, intellectual property, and commercial law. In the second year of most programs, you choose a specialization and customize your course selections around that choice.
Step 3: Find a Job
Law firms, legal department of large companies, and local, state, and federal agencies are your prospective employers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that approximately 309,940 paralegals and legal assistants were employed in May 2018 (www.bls.gov). From 2018-2028, employment is projected to increase by 8%. The average annual salary of paralegals and legal assistants was $54,500 as of May 2018.
Step 4: Obtain Certification
With a bachelor's degree, you can opt to obtain certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAP). NALA offers the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA), Certified Paralegal (CP), and Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designations. According to NALA, the CLA and CP designations are equivalent. The CLA and CP exams consist of multiple-choice, matching, true-false, and essay questions that test your knowledge in five areas: communications, judgment and analytical ability, ethics, legal research, and substantive law. You need to score at least 70% on each section to pass.
AAP offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) designation. To be eligible you need to have completed a certificate program for paralegals approved by the American Bar Association or the AAP. There is no AACP exam. The designation is effective for three years, after which you need to complete 18 hours of continuing-education credits if you wish to renew.
Step 5: Advance Your Career
Your career advancement options depend on whether you've earned a bachelor's degree or a J.D. If the former, you could follow the same advancement path as paralegals - gain experience and seniority until you're promoted to a supervisory or managerial position. If you earned a J.D. and have passed your state's bar exam, you could become a practicing attorney. Your path would then be to work as a clerk for a judge or as an associate in a law firm or corporate legal department. Your firm could make you a partner if you demonstrate talent as a litigator, or you could also open your own practice. With enough experience, you could seek election as a judge or join the faculty at a law school.
What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?
Executive secretary is a related career with education requirements similar to those of legal research assistants. These professionals often need a bachelor's degree and support top-level managers by performing clerical duties around the office, similar to how legal assistants prepare case materials for lawyers.
Bachelor's degree holders who want to put their research and investigative skills to use for government agencies or the manufacturing industry might consider becoming occupational health and safety specialists. These individuals inspect work spaces to ensure they're free of hazards and meet all safety regulations.