If you are interested in becoming a paralegal, this article will serve as a guide to inform you about what a paralegal is, what paralegals do, how much a paralegal earns, and the kind of experience required.
You will also get to know about the schooling needed to become a paralegal and the salary and outlook for the occupation.
Before you take the first step in venturing into your new career, it will help you to first understand the requirements and the timing involved in how to become a paralegal.
Once you can understand the possible paths for becoming a paralegal, you will customize an approach for yourself, setting realistic and attainable goals along the way.
What is a Paralegal?
Paralegals play an essential role in the legal system by completing necessary standard tasks to ensure quality legal services to clients with legal needs.
Paralegals are responsible for a broad range of critical legal activities and work on many of the same tasks as attorneys except for giving legal representation to clients or providing legal advice.
Due to the versatile nature of the US legal system and the constant need for legal services by citizens and businesses, working as a paralegal can be an exciting and promising career.
There is a high demand for paralegals; jobs are expected to grow by 18% for paralegals and legal assistants in the decade from 2010 to 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This article provides a launchpad for individuals interested in getting started as a paralegal with information on getting started as a paralegal.
How to Become a Paralegal
A job as a paralegal might be perfect for those who appreciate the intricacy of their countries legal system and are eager to assist lawyers. Experts on this profession say it can be a promising occupation for individuals who are detail-oriented and enjoy writing.
Reading comprehension and written communication are significant skills to cultivate for success as a paralegal; paralegals do a significant volume of writing, so someone more confident in their public speaking abilities than their writing skills might opt for a different occupation.
So, if you’re a broad brush type person, it’s probably not a perfect profession for you because it involves a lot of detail work, and attention to detail is extremely important.
The first and foremost step in becoming a paralegal is to find an accredited paralegal program; there are three various types of academic credentials that someone can use to enter the paralegal profession:
- Associate degrees
- Bachelor’s degrees
- Post-baccalaureate certificates.
It takes two years to get an associate degree in paralegal studies and about twice as long to earn a bachelor’s degree in the discipline.
Post-baccalaureate certificates are an option only for college graduates and can be obtained within one year; future paralegals have the flexibility to choose what type of credential is most suitable.
One advantage of the paralegal profession is that a lot of job opportunities are available for those who only choose to pursue a two-year degree.
Quite often at a community college, where the cost of education is relatively inexpensive, while some of the top-paying positions require a four-year degree, one can make a good living as a paralegal with a two-year degree.
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5 Steps for Becoming a Paralegal
1. Choose a path to become a paralegal
Once you’ve made up your mind that becoming a paralegal is right for you, you can begin to look at the various paths for how to become a paralegal. For most, becoming a paralegal starts with education.
Employers always prefer candidates who have formal education, especially in states where paralegal certification is required. National paralegal certification programs that are voluntary also tend to set minimum education guidelines.
However, some employers require no form of education and may provide training or internship programs to get a person started in the paralegal field.
To choose the best for you, it is essential to understand the possibilities and the cost and time involved for each, and then to weigh that information against what is needed of the specific law firms you are targeting.
2. Explore the options for earning a paralegal degree
While not required, it is becoming more and more common for up and coming paralegals to get an educational background in the subject before applying for jobs, and this tends to make applicants more suitable to employers.
Some employers look for a prospective paralegal to have finished a certificate program in paralegal studies. Others require the candidate to have an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in the course.
Some even opt for paralegals to have a master’s degree in paralegal studies. The necessary educational paths for becoming a paralegal include:
- Paralegal Certificate Degrees
- Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Online Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
Earning a paralegal degree completely takes both time and financial commitments. For those who have no previous college experience/background, an associate’s degree can be achieved in about two years with full-time study.
A bachelor’s degree provides a more enhanced background but typically takes four years to complete. Candidates who have initially earned a degree may wish to consider a paralegal certificate program. The time limit for completing a certificate program varies but generally falls between 10 and 18 months.
Any of these paralegal degree options can help candidates become more competitive in the paralegal job market and also help candidates become qualified for certification, which is covered in more detail below.
3. Consider other paths to a paralegal career
Though having a paralegal degree is recommended, many employers do not require candidates to have a particular background or education in paralegal studies to be hired in a paralegal position. However, up and coming paralegals should be aware that employer requirements tend to vary by geographic area.
Employers in urban regions like New York and Chicago, for example, often set a higher bar/standard for entry-level positions and may expect candidates to have a degree combined with some work experience. Employers in more rural areas may have less complicated requirements.
At the same time, those people with a strong work ethic and skillset may be able to break into a paralegal career without previous experience. Other paths to becoming a paralegal include:
On-the-job training: Some law firms may hire entry-level paralegals with no experience or education in paralegal studies, training them once they are hired.
New employees like these usually have a bachelor’s degree in another field. Still, others may not have a degree at all but may have helpful technical experience in another area of criminal justice.
Work your way up: Another way to become a paralegal is to start in a law firm as an office assistant, legal secretary, or document preparer. Once you become conversant with the terminology and basics of law through exposure, it may be easier to become a paralegal with that law firm.
Internships: Some up and coming paralegals participate in internship programs, often organized through a paralegal certificate program. As someone doing an internship, a candidate will gain practical experience and legal knowledge, which may help them be hired in a full-time role later.
Volunteer work: Though less common than other paths to becoming a paralegal, there are many organizations that welcome volunteer legal assistants.
Having volunteer experience can help candidates get a foot in the door with paralegal employers. Organizations to research include mediation services providers and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) programs.
Whether or not to go after an educational path to become a paralegal is entirely up to the individual. A degree in paralegal studies will not hinder your ability to be hired as a paralegal. Still, this advantage also must be weighed against the cost and time associated with such a degree.
4. Apply for national certification
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals, and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offer paralegals the opportunity to embark on voluntary examinations to test their knowledge of the law and the skills required in the field.
Each organization provides its examinations, but each test provides employers and others with an objective standard to evaluate a paralegal.
Passing a paralegal certification exam offers you an avenue to stand out from other people calling themselves paralegals with documentation proving that you gave an objective test as well as a qualification that you can use as part of your professional title.
The NFPA provides the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE) for entry-level paralegals and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) for more experienced paralegals. Those who pass the PCCE can refer to themselves as CORE Registered Paralegals (CRPs).
Recording a success on the PACE leads to Registered Paralegal (RP) certification. The least qualification to take the PCCE with no prior legal work experience is an associate’s degree in paralegal studies.
To be qualified to take the PACE for paralegal certification, candidates must have an acceptable combination of education and experience. You can read more about the eligibility requirements for these exams on the NFPA’s website.
NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals, provides three pathways to paralegal certification. The Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) certification exam is available for students and early career paralegals who have either completed an accredited business/ legal course or have one year of experience.
The Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and Certified Legal Professional (CLP) qualification is also earned by examination. PLS/ CLP exam candidates must undoubtedly have at least three years of legal work experience, two years of legal expertise plus formal education, or another acceptable credential (such as previous ALP certification), to qualify to sit for the exam.
Lastly, the exam for Professional Paralegal (PP) certification is designed for those who have earned a formal education in paralegal studies (at least an associate’s degree from an accredited program with a least 15 credit hours in substantive law), or who qualify through a combination of education and experience. Detailed qualification criteria are available on the NALS website.
NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants, also provides certification through its CP Certified Paralegal program for entry-level professionals and its Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC) program for experienced professionals.
Becoming successful on the CP certification exam earns candidates the right to designate themselves Certified Paralegals (CPs) while passing one or more of the APC online courses leads to the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) credential.
Applicants for the Certified Paralegal program must have at least an associate’s degree in paralegal studies if they have no legal work experience.
Candidates may chase after certification through more than one organization. However, it should be recorded that employers in some geographic regions may prefer the certification standard of one organization over the others.
It is wise to research the norm in your area by looking at current employment listings or referring to your local paralegal associations before committing to a certification program.
5. Earn state-level paralegal certification, if it’s available in your state
Most states do not need or regulate paralegal certification to work as a paralegal. However, some cities such as California, Montana, and South Dakota have set statewide education and experience requirements for those who wish to work as paralegals.
A town like Arizona has a Legal Document Preparer certification requirement for those who prepare legal documents without an attorney’s supervision.
Some states with voluntary certification programs (aside from national examinations) as of 2015 include Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington (Spokane County).
These voluntary certification programs are majorly administered through the state bar association or local paralegal associations.
Though they are not involuntary, in states where they are available, these programs tend to be the norm for paralegals – meaning candidates should strongly consider their options for meeting the certification needed before embarking on a paralegal career.
Plus, some state bar associations have recommended that employers only hire paralegals qualified by education and experience.
How a Paralegal’s Job Differs From a Lawyer’s
A paralegal’s responsibilities vary depending on how much work is assigned to him or her by the attorney for whom he or she works.
However, in general, a paralegal will write correspondence and documents that a supervising attorney can look over, modify it if necessary, and sign off on.
Paralegals are most times responsible for organizing and updating files on various legal clients. They may work to obtain affidavits and other formal statements submitted as evidence in court cases.
They may also handle scheduling for a legal office and act as a middle man between lawyers and their clients and track deadlines and ensure that they are met.
Bita Goldman, the global general counsel for Unidays Inc. – a mobile app that allows students to discover and reap savings from various brands – has hired and worked with paralegals throughout her career and wrote in a message that paralegals “are the operational brain box of the legal department.
They support attorneys by doing legal research, preparing briefs, and organizing everything needed for trials.”
Nevertheless, there are limits on what a paralegal can do within the legal profession since paralegals are not lawyers and are not licensed to practice law.
There are minor things that paralegals can’t do that only lawyers can do … Paralegals cannot represent clients in court or depositions, “Only a lawyer can be the advocate in that setting. Paralegals can’t enter into representation agreements or set fees with clients. Only lawyers can do that.
And most importantly, a paralegal can’t give legal advice. Only lawyers can. Now what paralegals do is they can come in contact with the clients, and they can gather information, but they can’t give opinions.”
Another primary differentiation between paralegals and lawyers is that lawyers have more decision-making authority and more leeway to use their discretion.
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Paralegal Duties and Responsibilities
Not all paralegals assume the same duties. It depends wholly on who they work for and what kind of legal services their employer provides. Some responsibilities are typical, however:
- Arranging fair talk or expert psychological evaluations in family law divorce and custody matters
- Contributing to trial preparation in litigation practices
- Making available behind-the-scenes support in the courtroom at hearings and trials, or in arbitration, mediation, administrative proceedings, and closings
- Drafting legal documents and pleadings, including deposition notices, subpoenas, motions, certifications, contracts, briefs, and complaints
- Finding out the facts of a case by interviewing clients and witnesses and performing legal research into case law and precedents
- Being in charge of discovery — the exchange of certain information between opposing parties to a lawsuit
- Organizing and managing files, documents, and exhibits
- Filing documents with federal and state courts
Although what a paralegal can’t do is established by law, what they can do is highly dependent on their employers. Some attorneys find delegating tasks more comfortable than others do.
A paralegal’s prime purpose is to free up attorneys’ time so the attorneys can do those things only lawyers can do, like give advice to the clients and appear in court.
How Much Do Paralegals Earn? | Paralegal Salary
Paralegal salaries can be affected by so many factors, including education, experience, practice environment, and geographic location. Those who work for the federal government tend to be the most highly compensated.
- Median Annual Salary: $50,940 ($24.49/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $82,050 ($39.45/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $31,400 ($15.10/hour)
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
Paralegals who work for firms located in metropolitan regions typically earn more than those who work in smaller cities and more rural locations.
Some paralegals with experience and special skills or management duties can accumulate in the six figures annually in large cities. In contrast, entry-level paralegals in rural areas might earn in the neighborhood of $25,000 a year.
Paralegal Education, Training, and Certification
Some paralegals possess no formal training. They get experience on the job under the supervision of attorneys, often assuming the position of paralegal and additional responsibilities after serving as a legal secretary or in another supporting role for some time. This isn’t always the case, however.
Many paralegals process two-year associate degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees. Many junior colleges provide courses toward a paralegal certificate.
Even if they don’t gain it in a classroom setting, paralegals must have a solid knowledge of legal terminology, federal and state rules of legal procedure, and substantive law.
Paralegals can get this knowledge by working their way up from an entry-level position with a law firm or other legal services.
This discipline is not highly regulated, so having a professional certification can help a job candidate stand out from other applicants.
Very limited states have licensing or registration requirements for paralegals.
Paralegals with bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies, or a college degree in any field combined with a paralegal certificate, generally have the best career prospects.
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Paralegal Skills and Competencies
Not everyone has what it takes of being a paralegal. Some skills and behaviors can make all the difference between success and burning out.
- Organizational skills: Paralegals must have excellent organizational skills to manage large files and exhibits, which can number in the hundreds for a single case.
- Communication skills: Paralegals must communicate regularly with clients, experts, court personnel, and attorneys other than their employers.
- Strong research and writing skills: These skills are essential for drafting pleadings, research memorandums, correspondence, and other documents.
- Nerves of steel: An ability to make do with pressure and looming deadlines can be crucial in some specialties that involve a great deal of litigation.
- An ability to multitask: This is a deadline-heavy profession, and more than one case can demand action within the same limited periods. You might have to perform different tasks on more than one case file almost simultaneously, taking a phone call on one matter while sorting through trial exhibits on another — and making mistakes because you’re overwhelmed or distracted is not an option.
Paralegal Job Outlook
An increment in caseloads has encouraged lawyers to delegate tasks formerly reserved for attorneys, creating more opportunities for paralegals.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that paralegal positions will increase by 15 percent from 2016 through 2026, which is much faster than average.
This job increase can be partially attributed to the fact that attorneys can pass off more work to their paralegals at a lower hourly rate than they would individually charge for their time as clients resist high legal fees.
Paralegals always work in tandem with other personnel, such as attorneys and support staff, so being a paralegal is something of a people profession. Client communication is also very common in some regions of the law.
The vast majority of this work is done in offices. Still, paralegals can seldom be called upon to attend court proceedings with their attorney employers or to travel for other aims, such as to file documents or gather information.
Being a paralegal is widely a full-time position performed during regular business hours. Still, overtime and evening hours are often necessary when deadlines loom, and trials are imminent, requiring extensive preparation.
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After going through this article, you shouldn’t have a problem or become confused again on whether paralegal is a suitable profession in general and whether it is also suitable for you personally.
The article highlighted all the necessary information you need to know on how to become a paralegal effectively and become successful in the paralegal profession.