Just like other professionals – such as doctors, nurses, lawyers, and engineers – paralegals have many opportunities when it comes to picking a career path. Namely, they can decide to become generalists, or they can specialize in one or more areas of the law.
For many paralegals, that choice is made for them.
Many people land a job with a law firm right out of school and tend to practice whatever area of the law the firm tells them to. Some firms will even rotate paralegals through various departments to provide them with experience in different specialties.
Ultimately, however, it’s up to each paralegal to choose the most rewarding career path for themselves.
In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of having a general practice vs. specializing in a particular area of the law. We’ll discuss a few of the most popular and sought-after specialties. Finally, we’ll take a look at which paralegal specialities are likely to reap the greatest salaries.
To specialize or not to specialize
Many years ago, I had a doctor who was as old as the hills. He was the best doctor I’d ever had.
Although he was a general practitioner, he diagnosed and treated every malady my family could come up with, and he often did it with greater skill and care than many of the specialists I’ve come across. I once asked him how he knew so much about so many types of medicine.
“Easy!” he replied. “I specialize in not specializing.”
At the time, I was just about to enter my legal career and it really got me thinking about which path I wanted to take.
As I dug a little deeper, I learned that there are definite pros and cons to general practice vs specialization within the legal profession.
Here are some of the main factors to consider.
General practice: PROS
- You’re extra employable. If you have experience across multiple practice areas, you can land a job almost anywhere. You’re also a highly attractive candidate for a firm with many different departments because you can be “plugged in” anywhere.
- Greater problem-solving skills. Because you’ve practiced different areas of law, you might be able to transfer principles from one area of the law into another. This is a distinct advantage over your more specialized peers.
- You can help clients prevent legal problems. People with a broad knowledge of the law are able to trouble-shoot various problems that frequently impact individuals and businesses. By doing this, you may actually help clients avoid problems that specialists could miss.
General practice: CONS
- The risk of mistakes. Being a jack of all trades might mean that you’re a master of none. One of the cons of being a generalist is that clients (and employers) may want specialist-level work out of you when you’ve only done generalized work across many practice areas. You may lack the depth of knowledge to handle tricky situations.
- Lower pay. For the most part, generalists tend to make less than their specialized counterparts. There’s also more competition for jobs because more people take the generalist route.
Specialized practice: PROS
- Less competition. While there may be fewer jobs out there for you to apply for, there will be less competition for each job you seek. Fewer people take the time to seek specialized credentials.
- Opportunities for more substantive work. Because you’re highly specialized, your employer may give you greater responsibility than they would a generalist.
- Higher pay. As with many professions, those with a higher degree of specialization tend to enjoy higher salaries.
Specialized practice: CONS
- Fewer job opportunities. Let’s face it, even if you’re the best maritime paralegal in the country, there are still going to be fewer opportunities posted for your position than there are for generalists.
- Your practice is subject to legal trends. Legal practice areas tend to ebb and flow when it comes to workload. If your specialty is in a downturn, it could be even more difficult than normal for you to find a job.
What specialties can paralegals pursue?
Just about any legal practice area you can imagine can benefit from the skills of a specialized paralegal. Here are some of the more popular specializations:
- Litigation paralegal. Litigation paralegals may actually have an advantage over other specialties because, despite their expertise, they may still be exposed to various areas of law. For example, a litigation paralegal may work on labor and employment cases, business disputes, or insurance fraud cases. Regardless, much of the value they provide to their team comes from their specialized knowledge when it comes to preparing for trial.
- Corporate paralegal. Corporate paralegals assist attorneys with mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, contracts, public filings and numerous other transactional tasks that mostly take place outside of the courtroom.
- Intellectual property paralegals. Intellectual property paralegals assist attorneys with things like copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Because this work is often highly technical, those with a background in science or engineering may be particularly employable.
- Real estate paralegals. Real estate is an interesting speciality for paralegals because job opportunities may extend far beyond the law firm setting. Indeed, some paralegals are employed by realtors, banks, and businesses with large real property holdings.
Show me the money
So, with all those specialized opportunities out there, which paralegal specialists are reaping the greatest financial rewards? Here’s what the paralegal educators are telling us:
- Intellectual property paralegals: $86,000+ per year
- Nurse paralegals: $82,000+ per year
- Labor & employment paralegals: $80,000+ per year
- Government paralegals: $78,000+ per year
- Corporate paralegals: $66,000+ per year
A couple other points are important to make here.
Paralegal managers and paralegal project managers have the opportunity to make substantially more, earning over $100,000+ per year in some cases. Also, salaries vary depending on things like the state you’re in, the amount of education and experience you have, and whether you work in law firms, in-house, or with a government agency.
Regardless of which path you choose, paralegals are in high demand and are invaluable to their attorney counterparts. The most important thing here, as with any career choice, is to do something you love around people you respect. Loving your career is one of the most important things for long-term success and happiness.
Feeling like you’ve lost that passionate spark?
Get our free eBook: How to fall back in love with your legal career. It walks you through a phase of self-reflection to see where the love has gone, then helps you build a path to bring back the joy and fulfillment in your career.
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