Legal clerks and legal assistants, better known as law clerks and paralegals, are two different job niches within the modern U.S. legal system. Law clerks are future lawyers. As law students, they often take temporary summer positions as researchers for attorneys or work as aides to judges for one or two years after graduating from law school. Unlike law clerks, who fill temporary niches on their way to becoming attorneys, paralegals fill permanent jobs within the U.S. legal system. Paralegals are paraprofessional assistants to attorneys, and are usually trained by paralegal programs.
In the 19th century many aspiring U.S. lawyers did not attend law school. Instead they became temporary law clerks for practicing attorneys, studying law books and preparing legal documents, a process described as "reading law." After a few years as law clerks, they took a state bar examination, and if they passed, they became lawyers. The option of "reading law" has been abolished in most states in favor of attendance at accredited three-year law school programs. Current law students compete intensely for summer law clerk positions, also known as summer associate jobs and for post-law school positions as temporary law clerks for judges.
Law Clerk Workplaces:
Law clerks who work as summer associates are well-paid for their work because law firms use these temporary worker slots to fill their future attorney job openings. In 2012, the law firm of Foley & Lardner paid its summer associates between $2,000 and $3,000 per week. Summer associates deemed satisfactory by law firms may receive job offers at the end of their summer stint, dependent upon completion of law school with high grades. Law school graduates who become judges' clerks receive a median annual pay of $54,000. Law firms often give higher salaries and added job seniority to recently hired new law school graduates who have previously worked as judges' law clerks because of their added "behind the scenes" court system experience and contacts.
Evolution of Paralegals:
Paralegals are a new profession within the law. Experienced legal secretaries became the first paralegals in the 1960s, after being promoted to the then-new title of legal assistants and handed work previously reserved for lawyers. As the demand for legal assistants grew, the title of paralegals became popular. The first paralegal training programs were founded in the 1970s. Paralegal training programs offer credentials ranging from certificates to master's degrees. Paralegal programs typically offer classes that resemble the first year or two of law school, including legal research and writing, litigation and contract law.
The paralegal profession is scheduled to grow by 18 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Paralegals are paid a median annual salary of $46,680. As the profession continues to develop, paralegals are specializing in various legal fields, ranging from estates and trusts to bankruptcy law. Paralegals are sometimes promoted to other managerial, specialist and administrative positions within law firms, such as e-discovery project manager.