How to Become a Paralegal
Lawyers would have a lot of trouble getting anything done without the help of a trusty paralegal. From conducting valuable research in legal cases to filling out and filing necessary paperwork, paralegals have a hand in almost every aspect of the justice system.
The level of training required is higher now than in generations past, but if the law is your passion, paralegal work can offer you a career in the field without the extensive education and knowledge required to become a lawyer.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
As a paralegal you’ll support lawyers, law firms, corporations, government entities, nonprofits, or any other organization with a legal team. You won’t be able to work as a practicing attorney, but you can do many of the things lawyers do, such as:
- Conduct research: When lawyers build a case they do extensive research about similar cases and related statutes. They often rely on paralegals to do a lot of the legwork.
- Communicate with clients: Most lawyers are incredibly busy, and they often don’t have time to talk with their clients about issues that aren’t pressing. You might relay information, explain procedures, and respond to clients who have questions (and refer them to the lawyer as necessary).
- Prepare for trials and hearings: This can mean any number of things. You might:
- Collect needed documents
- Draft or review new documents
- Organize files
- Locate and interview witnesses
Paralegals work everywhere from small, single-attorney private law offices to massive law firms and the legal divisions of major corporations. You can choose from several different career paths based on your interests and skills.
Career Paths for Paralegals
Skilled paralegals work in virtually any area of the legal field and in every environment that relies on a legal team.
As a criminal law paralegal you will work on either side of the criminal justice system, supporting prosecutors or defense attorneys. You’ll do much of the same work as other paralegals, but a lot of your workload will be dedicated specifically to building or refuting cases against people accused of crimes.
In this type of career you’ll be involved in the investigation of the facts and circumstances of cases involving one party taking legal action against another. You might organize evidence, prepare witnesses, and conduct research as the lawyers you assist attempt to maneuver their clients into the strongest possible position.
As a personal injury paralegal you will typically assist lawyers seeking compensation for injured parties or those who are defending clients against lawsuits. This often requires a fairly wide base of skills and knowledge. You’ll be expected to understand terminology, processes, records, and procedures that are unique to both the medical and legal fields.
Corporate paralegal work will require you to assist attorneys through the legal maze that all businesses must navigate. That can include anything from major projects like taking a private company public or mergers and acquisitions to more run-of-the-mill legal work involving things like banking, finance, contract law, and insurance.
Family law is among the most intimate and personal divisions of the legal system. You may assist in cases involving divorce, paternity, surrogacy and adoption, marriage and domestic partnerships, property settlements, child support, child protective proceedings, and juvenile law. Family law paralegals should be good at communicating with distressed clients in emotionally-charged situations.
Debt and Bankruptcy
As with other fields you can work as a paralegal on either side of debt and bankruptcy law. You might work with corporate lawyers to pursue the payment of a debt, with attorneys representing businesses or people who file for bankruptcy, or for a government agency overseeing the bankruptcy process.
In this area you would assist lawyers working to enforce immigration laws in the United States or for one of the many nonprofit, private, and corporate organizations that provide legal assistance to immigrants and their families. This specialized segment of the legal field requires knowledge of the laws and processes governing things like naturalization, deportation, and work visas.
As a real estate paralegal you’ll assist lawyers on both sides of property and land sales. You might support attorneys working for homeowners or buyers, help businesses expand into new areas, or negotiate corporate office purchases or leases. Real estate paralegals work for government entities, nonprofits, and any other organizations that buy, sell, rent, and lease land and structures.
From music and movies to pharmaceuticals and agriculture, intellectual property law reaches into virtually every aspect of American industry. As a paralegal in this field you’ll have to understand concepts such as patents, copyrights, trademarks, publicity rights, and proprietary information.
Paralegal Salary and Career Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2018 the mean annual salary for paralegals nationwide was $54,500. However, some states pay better than others. The five highest paying states are:
|State||Mean Annual Salary|
|District of Columbia||$80,470|
Your salary also depends on the industry you work in. The five highest-paying industries that employ paralegals are:
|Industry||Mean Annual Salary|
|Grantmaking and giving services||$94,710|
|Motor vehicle manufacturing||$82,560|
|Natural gas distribution||$82,160|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||$80,320|
The BLS projects faster-than-average job growth of 11% for paralegals between 2018 and 2028. According to O*net, the top five states for projected growth during the same period are:
There are three steps to becoming a paralegal:
- Education: It used to be that a two-year associate degree or even a certificate was good enough for aspiring paralegals. While that level of training may still satisfy some employers, the National Federation of Paralegals (NFP) and other associations recommend getting one.
- Experience: Experience will make you a better candidate, and some employers require it. You can often gain experience through an internship that’s part of your paralegal program.
- Certification: No state has regulatory requirements for certification, although some are considering it. Most professional organizations, however, recommend getting certified.
Before exploring paralegal programs, consider which area of law you want to work in. Also focus your research on paralegal programs approved by the American Bar Association. ABA-approved paralegal programs must meet certain standards and may carry more weight with employers.
You can complete an associate degree in two years at a community or junior college. Although it can serve as a standalone degree, an associate degree can also satisfy the first two years of a full bachelor’s program if you transfer to a four-year school. Coursework will include an introduction to the legal system, legal writing, and research.
There are two types of certificate programs. You can earn a technical certificate right out of high school in about a year. This certificate covers the basics, prepares you for only the most entry-level work, and carries less weight than an associate degree.
The second kind of certificate is a post-baccalaureate certification program that runs between 18–45 semester hours. These certificate programs are similar to graduate programs and are available only to people who have completed undergraduate education.
You’ll usually complete a bachelor’s program in about four years or, if you already earned a transferable associate degree, two years. Your studies will include industry-specific courses like legal ethics, civil litigation, criminal law, and legal document preparation. You’ll also be required to complete general education credits such as humanities, math, history, and literature.
If you pursue a master’s degree as a paralegal, you’ll likely emerge with a Master of Legal Studies (M.L.S.) or a Master of Arts (M.A.) in legal studies (although some schools offer a master’s degree directly in paralegal studies). You’ll encounter coursework like advanced legal studies, legal research, contract law, and comparative justice. A master’s degree in paralegal studies can be completed in as little as one year.
Online Paralegal Degree Programs
In most cases you can earn any type of paralegal degree, including a paralegal certificate, entirely online. As previously discussed, some programs include an internship or other real-world experience, which must be done in person. In such cases you can enroll in a hybrid program that lets you take most classes online and conduct your internship locally.
Online degrees are exactly the same as those earned through on-campus education, and they’re often taught by the same instructors. You will have access to similar services, aid, support, and resources as your counterparts on campus.
Distance learning is no less challenging than traditional study, but it is far more flexible and accommodating to the schedules of working adults. You can typically take classes at times that fit into your schedule and pace yourself depending on the amount of time you can dedicate.
Paralegal Professional Certification
The paralegal profession is largely unregulated and inconsistent from state to state—no state administers paralegal licenses. Professional certification is not the same as licensing—it is a voluntary process in which nationally recognized legal bodies rigorously test your knowledge and skills. Being certified shows employers that you are dedicated and knowledgeable. In addition, according to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), certified paralegals earn an average of $4,880 more than those who don’t have this voluntary credential.
Three national associations offer paralegal certification:
- NALA certification is open to those who have finished, or are about to finish, an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved paralegal program, an associate or bachelor’s degree program, or a post-baccalaureate certification program. To earn the certificate you must complete a comprehensive two-part exam.
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associates (NFPA) administers two different credentialing exams. The Paralegal CORE Competency Exam is for those who recently completed a paralegal program and are seeking to enter the workforce. The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) is for working professionals with several years of paralegal experience.
- The National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS) offers several certification exams: the Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) exam, the Certified Legal Professional (CLP) exam, and the Professional Paralegal (PP) exam.
Skills and Traits of a Successful Paralegal
Paralegals perform a wide range of tasks and services, but the good ones all have a few things in common.
Good paralegals are:
- Highly organized and meticulous—strict attention to detail is probably the single most important trait of a successful paralegal
- Skilled researchers
- Strong communicators, both written and verbal
- Discreet—you will not be able to discuss the cases that you are working on with anyone outside of the office
- Good at taking direction
- Hard workers—paralegals often work long hours under considerable pressure
The following organizations offer resources and assistance to paralegal students and professionals throughout their careers. Even if you don’t join an association, you can benefit from their free resources.
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA): NALA offers not only certification but also continuing education and professional development resources for working and aspiring paralegals.
- American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.: The American Alliance of Paralegals was formed by 11 paralegals in 2003. It’s a member-based organization dedicated to advancing both the industry as a whole and individual professionals.
- National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS): Aside from several certifications, NALS offers its members education and training resources, professional support, and continuing education opportunities.
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA): The NFPA offers certification, professional development opportunities, and career assistance. It also does pro bono work and distributes its own publication.