How To Become A Paralegal

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A lot of work goes into every legal proceeding. Often the work falls on the shoulders of paralegals. Paralegals don’t practice law but play a significant role in the success of a law firm in its cases. If you’re interested in law, but not interested in spending years in law school, becoming a paralegal is another career path to check out. Here’s a look at how to become a paralegal.

What Is A Paralegal? 

A paralegal is someone employed by a lawyer or law office or other entity who supports lawyers by completing various legal tasks. Being a paralegal requires extensive knowledge of legal concepts. Typical functions for paralegals include:

  • Administrative duties
  • Organizing files
  • Legal research
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Assisting with case preparation
  • Taking notes
  • Scheduling interviews

Paralegals help lawyers prepare for hearings and trials. A significant amount of documents and other data are generated for any legal proceeding. It’s often up to paralegals to collect, organize, and catalog this data so that it’s readily available. Specific tasks often depend on the size of the law firm or organization.

How Much Do Paralegals Make? 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a paralegal was $50,490 in May 2018. Salaries vary depending on experience as well as the specific industry. Paralegals who worked for the federal government had a higher median salary at $67,340.

The employment of paralegals is expected to grow according to the BLS. Paralegal jobs are expected to grow 12 percent between now and 2028, much higher than the average growth for all occupations in the US.

How To Become A Paralegal

If you’re considering a career as a paralegal, It’s important to understand the steps it takes to become one. Most state bar associations have their own guidelines and requirements for paralegals. Your career path might look slightly different depending on where you plan to live and work.

1. Get An Education

There are several educational paths to become a paralegal. Typically, paralegals pursue an associate’s degree in paralegal studies. If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you could try to earn a certificate in paralegal studies. For some employers, this will be enough to secure a job. Here are some educational options to consider if you want to be a paralegal:

  • Two-year Associate Degree program
  • Four-year Bachelor’s Degree program
  • Post-baccalaureate certificate program
  • Private for-profit college certificate program

Many employers have higher standards when hiring, such as a Bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) encourages future candidates to have a four-year degree, which is considered an industry-standard in many markets.

Something to keep in mind while researching schools is whether or not it offers an ABA-approved program. The American Bar Association (ABA) sets the standard for education for paralegals. The NFPA recommends choosing an ABA-approved program if you’re serious about becoming a paralegal.

The minimum education required to be a paralegal is a certificate in paralegal studies. However, please note that most employers prefer candidates with more education.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some paralegals earn a bachelor’s degree in another subject, such as criminal justice or law, and then pursue a paralegal certificate.

Currently, the ABA does not approve any fully online degree programs. However the ABA recognizes the value of online education and has approved some online courses in ABA-approved paralegal degree programs.

2. Get An Internship

You may be required to complete an internship in a legal setting, depending on the educational program you choose. A good internship experience gives you a chance to learn the necessary skills needed to succeed as a paralegal.

You might be placed in an internship, or you’ll have to find one yourself. Internship spots for paralegals are competitive since they often lead to job offers. Any internship will work, but it’s a good idea to find one within your desired area of law that aligns with your career goals.

Some advance work may help you land a job interview for a paralegal internship. It starts with gathering references and recommendation letters from instructors and other key individuals. You’ll also need a quality resume and cover letter to land an internship. An internship may not last very long but can have a tremendous impact on your career.

For more resume help, check out our guide on how to create a paralegal resume.

3. Get Certified

There’s no license requirement for paralegals. With that said, many employers prefer to hire people who are certified paralegals.

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Being certified is not the same as completing a certificate program through a school. Certification involves passing a paralegal certification exam. Several paralegal organizations offer certification exams. Here’s a list of some of the more popular organizations and the exam(s) they offer.

National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA): Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE) and Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE)

National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA): Certified Paralegal/Certified Paralegal Assistant Exam (CP/CLA)

The Association of Legal Professionals (NALS): Professional Paralegal Exam (PP)

Along with passing an exam, organizations may also require meeting specific education and work experience requirements.

4. Find A Paralegal Job

Your next step is to find a paralegal job. If you impress your employer during your internship, they may offer you a job. If not, the good news is there are plenty of opportunities for paralegal work. For private-sector jobs, employment opportunities exist with:

  • Private law firms
  • Insurance companies
  • Banks
  • Real estate firms
  • Corporations

Paralegals can also find work with state and federal government agencies, non-profit legal services programs and other organizations, public defenders’ offices, and public prosecutors’ offices.

5. Continue Your Paralegal Education

As you excel in your paralegal education, it’s essential to continue the learning process. Doing so allows you to stay on top of changes in the law, changes in technology, and learn new tips and strategies for paralegals.

Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs exist for paralegals and other law professionals. Not only are they a good idea to help you in your career, but many paralegal organizations require you to continue taking CLEs to renew your certification credentials.

Skills Needed To Be A Successful Paralegal

In addition to completing paralegal studies, it’s important to possess the necessary skills needed to excel in the paralegal profession. Here are some of the skills you’ll need as a paralegal.

Communication and interpersonal skills: Paralegals communicate regularly with their supervising attorney, as well as clients, experts, other attorneys, and court staff.

Research skills: Legal research is one of the most important tasks handled by paralegals. It’s critical to the success of any legal proceeding.

Writing skills: Paralegals spend considerable time drafting documents and corresponding with various people.

Multitasking: As a paralegal, you’re called on to juggle a host of tasks at any given time. Being able to switch course quickly is vital.

Organizational skills: Paralegals typically are in charge of managing a large volume of files, exhibits, and other documents for each case.

Computer skills: Computers are used both for research, communication, storing information, and organizing important documents. Being proficient in computer programs like Microsoft Office is invaluable in this career field.

On top of the skills listed, paralegals must be calm, cool, and collected, and able to work under pressure. They play a vital role in most legal matters, and a paralegal needs to handle stressful situations well.

Types of Paralegal Careers

There are several areas of law that require the use of paralegals. Here’s a list of some of the kinds of paralegal career fields you can pursue:

  • Bankruptcy
  • Corporate
  • Criminal
  • Healthcare
  • Immigration
  • Intellectual Property
  • Judicial
  • Litigation
  • Personal Injury
  • Real Estate
  • Title Insurance

If you aren’t sure what area you want to concentrate in, take time to research each one or use your time in school and at an internship to narrow it down.

Important Things To Know About Becoming A Paralegal

As mentioned earlier, paralegals have a promising future. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a stressful job or without a downside. It can be a demanding profession. Being a paralegal is a full-time profession, often accompanied by overtime and evening hours, depending on the workload.

There’s a lot of pressure on paralegals to perform well—every detail matters. Little mistakes can have enormous consequences in a legal proceeding. Just because you handle pressure or perform well doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded for it. Since paralegals often handle the mundane tasks, it’s easy for your value to be overlooked. Despite all of this, it’s an important role in the world of law and one that can be extremely fulfilling.

Paralegals perform many legal tasks, but there are specific tasks they aren’t permitted to perform. Unauthorized practice of the law is not permitted, and doing so could lead to fines and even imprisonment. Also, each state has its own regulations concerning paralegals. Take time to familiarize yourself with these regulations, which is available from your state bar association.

Where To Look For Paralegal Jobs

There are several ways to find quality paralegal jobs. Online job boards, like Indeed, are full of paralegal job listings. Paralegal associations are another way to search for jobs.

Some law firms don’t advertise job openings. If you have specific law firms or organizations in mind, don’t wait for them to list a job opening. Send them a resume and personalized cover letter, so it's on file when something opens up.

If you enjoyed your internship, check with your employer to see if they have any job openings.

Most paralegal programs have career placement offices to help graduates find jobs. Take advantage of these resources.

Networking is another way to find a paralegal job. Sometimes finding a job is about who you know or meet. Find ways to network with other law professionals, either in person or online at a site like LinkedIn.

Final Thoughts

Paralegals play an important role, whether working for a law firm or in another setting. It’s also a great way to work in a law environment without going to law school or preparing for the LSAT exam. If you’re interested in becoming a paralegal, do yourself a favor and spend time honing the skills you’ll need to become successful in the career field. Find a quality paralegal program and start working towards your career goals.