Nearly everyone working in a law firm writes, and that writing must be done well. Particularly in the fast-paced world of legal practice, there’s a pressing need for clear, concise, and accurate communications. Paralegals are often at the forefront of this endeavor—they usually draft the initial versions of documents and refine the final ones before submission. Tools like WordRake can be instrumental in helping paralegals to excel in these important tasks, enhancing not just the writing but also their sense of empowerment.
As paralegals, your daily responsibilities range from translating complex legal ideas into understandable language to preparing memos and communicating with clients and lawyers. Your writing doesn’t just reflect your own skills; it’s often the first impression clients and lawyers have of your firm’s capabilities.
This guide is a resource for paralegals at all levels of experience. It covers the key roles that paralegals play, essential skills for success, principles of effective teamwork, and important legal technology that can make the job more efficient.
What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is a legal professional who assists barred lawyers in all aspects of practice. Paralegals have specialized knowledge of the law and legal processes, whether through experience, training, or education. While a paralegal is not a lawyer and has not completed law school or passed the bar exam, they are an irreplaceable part of the legal landscape.
1. How Is a Paralegal Different From
A lawyer (also called an attorney) is an officer of the court who has graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and is licensed to practice law. A lawyer may appear before the court, offer legal advice, and practice law independently. While some jurisdictions let paralegals perform some or all of these tasks, most places do not. Further, in many places where it is legal for a paralegal to appear before the court or offer legal advice, they must be supervised by a licensed lawyer.
A Law Clerk
A law clerk is a lawyer or other law school graduate who helps a judge in researching and drafting legal opinions. This is a prestigious position most often occupied by lawyers at the beginning of their careers. A paralegal cannot be a law clerk without becoming a lawyer.
A Legal Administrator or Secretary
A legal administrator or legal secretary is an administrative professional who works in legal circles and may have special knowledge of appropriate formatting and procedures for legal documents. A legal admin is not as well versed in the law as a paralegal and performs more office and clerical duties than research and legal functions. Their expertise lies in the practice operations and office management side of legal practice.
Law firms are busy places, and often paralegals can create documents and correspondence better than lawyers busy with client meetings and court appearances. While documentation may be routine, paralegals have the special knowledge and training to be sure that each text they create is legally and technically accurate.
Legal Research and Fact Investigation
Research is a huge part of the job for most paralegals, and a point of pride. They are responsible for reviewing and summarizing documents, depositions, and testimony; locating and interviewing witnesses; conducting investigations; and reviewing case records.
Communicating with Clients
Clients often speak with paralegals before they ever talk to a lawyer. Paralegals are responsible for conveying accurate information with compassion and professionalism. Since clients are typically less familiar with the law and how legal proceedings work, a paralegal should be ready to answer questions and explain ideas to a layperson in multiple ways.
Clerical and Organizational Tasks
Paralegals are not file clerks, but that doesn’t mean that clerical and organizational duties aren’t part of the job. Depending on what other staff are available, they may be responsible for keeping records organized and doing office work. Even if a firm has a separate administrative staff, paralegals are to keep their own work and research organized and return materials to their proper places.
Other Possible Duties
Paralegals in some locations may practice law and represent clients in lower courts. They can even become partners in law firms! This allows those who otherwise could not afford it access to the justice system, since the hourly rate for a paralegal is much lower than that for a lawyer.
How Do You Become a Paralegal?
There are several routes to becoming a paralegal, and the required education and certification depend on local laws. A paralegal comes to their position through experience, formal education to earn a paralegal certificate, and certification through various programs and agencies. The first step in any of these processes is to have a high school diploma or GED.
1. Education to Earn a Certificate
There are three types of paralegal education programs. You can earn a paralegal certificate while you pursue your undergraduate degree, add a certificate to your degree after you’ve completed it by taking more classes, or enroll in a school’s proprietary paralegal certificate program. A certificate is unnecessary to become a paralegal in most places, but it makes you a stronger candidate.
While “certificate” and “certification” sound like they should mean the same thing, when it comes to paralegal qualifications, they are different. A certificate indicates that you’ve completed an education program, but becoming a certified paralegal means you have taken the steps to be credentialed after your initial education. These credentials may require you to take an exam or to provide proof of a certain number of years of professional experience. Four organizations in the US certify paralegals.
Within your specific area of practice as a paralegal, you may pursue a specialization. Certain national boards offer certification in a specific part of the law or legal practice.
3. Experience Gained from Work
Practical experience is crucial for any profession, but in the legal world, it is especially important. Paralegals who have been in the field for many years often have an in-depth understanding of their area of law and the procedures associated with it.
While education and certification are important, nothing is as valuable as the learning that comes from hands-on work in the legal field. An experienced paralegal can help train young associate lawyers and supervise a team of legal assistants.
How to Succeed as a Paralegal
Education will give you the basics of how to become a paralegal, but there are some core qualities you must have to be successful.
Time Management and Multitasking
Paralegals are constantly managing many tasks and responsibilities, so it’s necessary to have good time management skills and to be able to multitask effectively. This includes the ability to create and follow your own schedule, work independently on assigned projects, and switch tasks seamlessly when interrupted. As a paralegal, your job is to support the lawyers at your firm. To do that, you must be ready to stop what you’re doing and focus on their needs at a moment’s notice before resuming your original task.
Communication and Documentation
Much of a paralegal’s time is consumed by writing documents and emails and otherwise communicating on behalf of the firm. You need impeccable writing skills, including a clear, concise, professional style. Keep your writing consistent with your firm’s standards and convey information plainly. You must also be able to answer questions fully and directly, knowing what information is necessary, and what would be too much detail.
When paralegals are dealing with the law, they must also abide by Plain Language legislation, making their writing clear and easy to understand. Tech tools like WordRake and PerfectIt can keep all these details in check.
Law is a high-pressure, high-stakes field, and many of the people you will encounter in the workplace are under immense stress. This is where people skills are necessary for success.
Paralegals are often the primary point of contact for clients finding themselves in an unfamiliar situation and way outside of their comfort zone. Compassion and an ability to remain calm when others are losing their cool are important for clear communication that serves the client’s needs. Delivering information in a kind, clear way will help ease frayed nerves while providing a view of the situation’s status and next steps.
On the other side, you may need to manage subordinate paralegals and staff, and “manage up” to lawyers. These high-stress situations require a level head, and as the one moving between the different parties involved, a paralegal may need to be that calm person.
People skills do not mean doing whatever is asked of you, no matter how unreasonable. People skills are not the same as people pleasing. Part of the art of people management is maintaining firm boundaries and having the ability to say “no” or otherwise deliver bad news with tact. You will sometimes need to give people answers they don’t like; learn to do it well.
Working in a high-impact environment can be difficult, and a positive attitude can make or break a paralegal’s career. Approaching work with enthusiasm and the belief that you can accomplish what you’ve set out to do goes a long way in building relationships and instilling confidence in your abilities.
Take on everything with a growth mindset: your current case, your firm, and your career can benefit from learning, growing, and enthusiastically striving to do your best. Paralegals are human, and you will make mistakes. Look at errors as an opportunity to learn.
A lot of a paralegal’s time is spent teaching, so to succeed, you will need to be good at it. Be ready to explain ideas in different ways. Use clear, familiar vocabulary and avoid jargon. Have patience with questions. Prepare diagrams if the concept that you’re trying to share can be visualized.
All legal professionals have a duty of technology competence, but as the person doing a lot of the research and drafting in the firm, a paralegal needs to be especially proficient with a computer. Make sure you understand how to get the most out of commonly used programs like Microsoft Word and that you know how to develop new skills. Learn new technologies and software quickly and use them efficiently.
Critical and Analytical Thinking
When researching and analyzing the law, a paralegal needs to think critically. You must be able to determine what is or is not true and how the law applies. Drafting legal documents, motions, and briefs requires you to apply legal concepts to different situations and explain those applications to others.
Collaboration with Lawyers
1. What can a paralegal learn from lawyers?
Lawyers understand the ins and outs of the law and legal proceedings. A paralegal can learn a lot about their area of law and how to better create documents from lawyers. If a lawyer is taking the time to give you feedback and instructions, pay attention. They are giving you valuable tools to advance your career, as well as building a professional connection.
2. What can lawyers learn from their paralegals?
Experienced paralegals often know more about the law than young lawyers. They also know procedures and details of practice that may be skipped over by busy lawyers. Lawyers should take the time to listen to and learn from the paralegals in their midst. A strong partnership between lawyers and paralegals leads to the best outcomes for clients.
3. What should you expect from others in a professional legal environment?
Law is a high-stress profession. Deadlines, finances, poring over research, and needing to prove a case or negotiate with opposing counsel to succeed all contribute to exhaustion and frayed nerves. As a paralegal, you will likely experience those pressures firsthand, as well as absorbing them from the lawyers in your firm. Be ready to be a buffer on all sides—presenting a cool front in times of high anxiety.
You may also experience a sense from lawyers that you are beneath them. In terms of office hierarchy, this is likely true, but it may feel personal. While the most effective law firm is one where lawyers, paralegals, and support staff work together as equals, some lawyers don’t see things this way. They see their education and litigation experience as a reason to be proud, but sometimes also as a license for exclusivity. You may need to put up with some big egos. These folks have earned their laurels and will expect to be treated accordingly. Lawyers who see a significant qualitative difference between themselves and the rest of the firm’s staff require “managing up.” Learn how to communicate and work with them and use these strategies to bring clients the best possible outcomes.
That said, you should not have to face personal abuse or harm. Be confident in asserting your boundaries. A big-name lawyer may have earned their right to respect, but there is never a situation in which you deserve to be attacked or abused. Humans sometimes make mistakes, so remember that if you feel you’ve been mistreated, but if there is an ongoing issue, it is time to move on. There are plenty of places you can contribute without feeling like there’s a target on your back. Stress and power are no excuse to mistreat someone. If you are being harmed at work and it is not being effectively addressed or corrected, it’s time to look for new employment.
Insights from the Field: Interviews with Paralegals and Paralegal Educators
There’s no substitute for real-world experience and wisdom. Check out our interview series with fresh perspectives on paralegal work and paralegal education. In this series, we interviewed paralegals with traditional, non-traditional, and outstanding career paths and we asked them about technology, teamwork, and skills for success. They share their experiences, advice, and tips on effective legal writing and the role of technology in their work.
Paralegals are the legal professionals most likely to use tech tools regularly. The tasks delegated to paralegals, like document drafting and research, are those which most consistently require a firm grasp of technology. As such, paralegals should know how to use the basics like Word, be able to manipulate PDFs, and understand how to use all industry-specific software packages used by their firm.
1. The Duty of Technology Competence
While paralegals are not personally held accountable to the Model Rules of Conduct as put forth by the ABA, the lawyers they work with are. This means that for all real purposes, paralegals must also comply with the rules. In 2012, the duty of technology competence was added to the comments on Model Rule 1.1 (the lawyer’s duty of competence). To competently represent clients, lawyers (and, by extension, their firms) must understand the tools of the trade, including basic technologies like Microsoft Word.
While not all states and municipalities have formally adopted the new addition, being comfortable with all the tech tools used in your firm (and more broadly in common practice) is the best policy for a paralegal. Technology can make a major difference in things like document creation and modification, saving your firm and your clients time and money.
2. Technology Basics for Paralegals
What technology is a paralegal expected to use? While details and platforms vary from one firm to another, there are certain tech tools you will be expected to know. This includes the Microsoft Office suite, in particular, Word and Outlook. Word is the go-to word processor for legal professionals. As document work is a large part of most paralegals’ jobs, knowing how to use its features is crucial.
These basic skills include:
Tracking and accepting changes
Cutting and pasting, with or without formatting
Finding and replacing text
Formatting fonts and paragraphs
Inserting page breaks
Adding and fixing footers
Inserting and changing hyperlinks
Automatically numbering paragraphs or adding line numbers
You should know how to use and manipulate your firm’s database, research and e-discovery software, and any relevant court e-filing software. If you can’t do it already, learn how to create and modify PDFs as well.
3. Technology Upgrades for Paralegals
While Word and Outlook themselves are great programs, several tech tools can help you make the most of your time and deliver polished, professional documents. These include:
PerfectIt - Cleans up messy documents, making sure your style guide and formatting are consistent throughout.
Woodpecker - Legal document automation within Microsoft Word that lets you easily create new versions of commonly used documents.
CounselHQ - Lets you reuse related wording from previous documents to streamline the document creation process.
WordRake - Facilitates clear and concise writing using the familiar track changes style in Microsoft Word and Outlook.
What these tools and those built into Microsoft Word and Outlook have in common is that they save you time and money in the document creation process. This translates to more polished documents and better outcomes for your clients.
4. Helping Your Lawyers into the 21st Century
The legal profession is cautious regarding process changes and technological advances. This makes sense for several reasons. Lawyers work in a field based largely on precedent: what decisions have been made and worked in the past. In many firms, the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the byword for workflows and document creation. Concerns about security and confidentiality compound this attitude, so innovation is a struggle.
Fortunately, paralegals are in the perfect position to evaluate and execute changes to improve a firm’s processes. As you discover new tools and methods to speed up your research, document creation, and communication, don’t be afraid to share them! Paralegals are trusted team members, ones expected to know the tools of the trade better than anyone else. You can use that position to introduce and teach new methods to others in your firm. This benefits your organization and your clients: you comply with the duty of tech competence, and your clients receive better services at a better rate.
How WordRake Helps Paralegals
In an industry where precision, clarity, and efficiency are key, WordRake will elevate the quality of your writing and streamline your workflow. WordRake for Microsoft Word and Outlook is an intuitive editing program that works with you to eliminate legalese and improve clarity and brevity in your documents. Created by New York Times bestselling author and legal writing educator Gary Kinder, WordRake is the perfect tool for paralegals looking to produce clear, concise documents.
1. What WordRake Does
WordRake is in-line editing software that operates from the ribbon in Microsoft Word and Outlook. You can decide whether to use Simplicity mode, Brevity mode, both, or one after the other to Rake your document. When you click Rake, WordRake’s 35,000 editing algorithms search your document, making recommendations in Word’s familiar track changes style. Once it’s finished, WordRake tells you how many sentences it checked and how many recommendations it has made, letting you manage your time effectively.
Browse through WordRake’s recommendations at your own pace, deciding which options are right for the meaning you hope to convey, and which you would rather reject. Use WordRake to tighten up wordy sentences, remove legalese, eliminate nominalizations, and improve readability.
WordRake is based on algorithms rather than AI, so it resides entirely on your local machine and never contacts the cloud. This makes it extra secure, an important factor to consider when dealing with confidential information.
2. Examples of How WordRake Helps
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The purpose of thisThis document is to explain explains the rationalereasoningbehind our decision to invest in a new product line.
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Negotiations are at a standstillhave stalled.
The court previously ruled on behalf of Smith in 2018.
Even assuming arguendo thatif this assertion is correct, Plaintiff has failed to show harm.
Plaintiff did not file a motionmove to reconsider, nor did defendant seek limiting language.
3. Why You Need WordRake
As a paralegal (or prospective paralegal) you are probably an excellent writer already. Even so, legal writing is a specific skill set that requires smooth control of prose and dedication to clarity.
WordRake was designed for legal professionals to bring that clarity and brevity to their work. It’s like having a personal editor in your computer available 24/7, helping you refine your drafts.
Jackie Van Dyke, MPS, CP®, Founder, The Paralegal Writer™ shares:
"WordRake editing software is indispensable for any legal writer. Even if you think you’re a great writer already, it can quickly open your eyes to writing improvements you might not have considered. The download experience was seamless and the Help feature is very user-friendly, which is golden for a non-techie person like me. The WordRake tab appears at the top of each Word document with easy-to-identify icons for simplicity, brevity, and complexity; these features help me adjust my editing depending on the type of document I am creating. It gives me quick, accurate solutions to make writing clear and concise, suggesting exactly which words to remove or how to rephrase. WordRake can help paralegals become better communicators. I can’t believe I ever edited without this software!""
Developing Tomorrow’s Paralegals: WordRake in Paralegal Programs
We work with paralegal programs to provide software that helps with editing practice, which reinforces and complements the legal writing skills applicants are learning in class. Through this collaboration with paralegal programs, WordRake helps develop paralegals and legal support staff who are excellent communicators.
Since 2020, WordRake has worked with the Paralegal Studies Program, within the School of Education and Public Service, at Midlands Technical College:
“Paralegals are expected to have mastered the document creation process and all technology that’s part of it before they start work. By incorporating WordRake into my legal writing and legal research courses, my students will have better legal writing skills and technology abilities that will prime them for success as a paraprofessional.”
Debra C. Galloway, Lawyer and Paralegal Professor for Midlands Technical College
In 2023, we expanded our offering through our collaboration with the National Society for Legal Technology to integrate WordRake courses into their Legal Technology Certification program. Now any paralegal programs with NSLT will have access to the complete module of WordRake for Word and Outlook through their school-branded Intellek LMS instance for no additional charge. To offer year-long WordRake licenses school-wide, and embed it in legal writing and law technology curriculums, institutions must purchase a license to use WordRake.
Strengthen your students’ written communication skills with WordRake!
“WordRake is amazing and it has made me a better writer. Every paralegal should use it!”
“Concise, professional writing skills require constant reinforcement and WordRake delivers. WordRake teaches better writing habits by offering editing suggestions that you must review and accept or reject. It’s exactly the feedback and training I searched for when I was a paralegal drafting documents with little guidance. Now that I run a company dedicated to helping firms become efficient, I recommend WordRake licenses for everyone!”
“I was so enormously impressed, I instantly bought three-year licenses for every lawyer, manager, and legal assistant on my staff.”
“I have been a huge fan of WordRake for several years now. I see a lot of software programs in my line of work, but very few have impressed me the way WordRake does. This is game-changing software! Schools should be using this technology and putting it in the hands of every legal student from day one!”
“I am a big fan of WordRake software and I use it to edit briefs, memoranda, and other documents. As an IP lawyer, I write a lot, and my documents must be clear and persuasive. I am recommending WordRake to others in our firm, both lawyers and administrative staff. It is an excellent tool that is useful for any professional.”
“For legal writing professors, a top priority is making sure paralegal students graduate not just with knowledge of the law but with valuable practical skills that will get them hired by law firms. WordRake helps students improve their writing abilities, leading to well-drafted legal documents and improved legal support in general.”