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How to Become a Paralegal

By Ajoke Aminu

Published:

Are you looking for an exciting career in law that offers you a good salary and flexibility? It can be difficult to decide if it’s the right move given the vast number of options out there. Learn how to become a paralegal professional in this comprehensive article—designed for beginners, offering you the edge needed to succeed.

Career Summary

Paralegal Salary

Paralegal Salary

When you first enter the field, you might feel like you’re stuck in a slow, upward climb.

With experience and dedication, you’ll soon be zooming downhill toward a higher paralegal salary, according to Glassdoor:

  • Entry Salary (US$49k)
  • Median Salary (US$58k)
  • Executive Salary (US$97k)

Apparently, the paralegal salary is a mid-range paycheck compared to the average earnings in the US.

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal, also known as a legal assistant, is a legal professional who assists lawyers with various legal tasks, such as legal research, document preparation, case management, and client communication.

Paralegal Career Progression

  • Entry-Level Paralegal: Starting position where paralegals assist attorneys with basic legal tasks, conduct research, and handle administrative duties.
  • Junior Paralegal: Gains more experience in legal procedures, document preparation, and case management. May handle more responsibilities under supervision.
  • Senior Paralegal: Takes on more complex legal matters, supervises junior paralegals, and provides support in trial preparation and litigation.
  • Paralegal Specialist: Specializes in a specific legal area, such as intellectual property, immigration, real estate, or litigation, developing expertise in that field.
  • Paralegal Manager/Supervisor: Moves into a managerial role, overseeing a team of paralegals, managing workflows, and ensuring efficiency within the legal department.
  • Executive Legal Assistant: Holds a senior leadership role within a legal organization, collaborates with attorneys on strategic decisions, and manages high-profile cases.
Paralegal Paralegal Career Progression

Pros:

  • Exposure to diverse legal matters and specialization opportunities.
  • The satisfaction of contributing to legal cases and helping clients.
  • Opportunities for career growth and professional development.
  • Working with a team of legal professionals in a dynamic environment.

Cons:

  • Heavy workload and tight deadlines during busy periods.
  • Dealing with emotionally challenging cases or clients.
  • Potential for long working hours and overtime during critical legal proceedings.

Key Skills to Have as a Paralegal

  • Legal research and writing skills.
  • Strong organizational and time management abilities.
  • Attention to detail and accuracy in document preparation.
  • Proficiency in legal technology and software.
  • Effective communication and interpersonal skills.

Popular Paralegal Specialties

  • Corporate Law
  • Intellectual Property Law
  • Family Law
  • Real Estate Law
  • Criminal Law

How to Become a Paralegal

Paralegal Paralegal 5 Steps to Career

Essential Paralegal Education Requirements

You’re about to jump into a fascinating career that will have you working in a fast-paced, constantly-challenging field. But before you can start drafting legal documents and conducting research for your favorite attorney, you’ll need some education. Paralegal education requirements vary depending on where you live, but most programs require at least an associate’s degree or a certificate in paralegal studies.

Are you wondering, “What even goes into a paralegal education program, anyway?” Well, it can involve everything from classes on legal research and writing to corporate law and litigation. And don’t worry, you won’t just be stuck in a classroom–many programs offer internships or hands-on experience to give you a taste of what your future career might look like. So, grab your highlighters and legal pads, because the road to becoming a paralegal is paved with knowledge and caffeine.

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Paralegal?

Before you hit the gas, you should know most paralegal positions require a minimum of an associate’s degree in paralegal studies. Some law firms may even prefer a bachelor’s degree. However, when it comes to entering the legal world, many aspiring legal assistants choose to take the community college route–and who could blame them? Community colleges offer an affordable and convenient way to obtain the necessary education and skills to succeed in the field.

Fortunately, some programs offer flexible online courses, so you can still hit the snooze button a couple more times without being late for class. Whether you go the traditional four-year degree route or opt for a more unconventional path, know that there are multiple ways to achieve your paralegal dreams.

Notwithstanding, having a formal education in the legal field can certainly give you a leg up in the industry, as it is a requirement of a typical paralegal job description. Also, it shows potential employers that you are committed to the field and willing to put in the time and effort to learn the intricacies of law. So, whether you’re just starting your legal journey or looking to make a career change, don’t underestimate the power of the paralegal education requirements!

Valuable Reasons To Pursue A Paralegal Degree

Here are some key reasons why obtaining a degree in Paralegal Studies is valuable:

  • In-Depth Legal Knowledge: A degree program in Paralegal Studies provides you with a comprehensive understanding of the legal system, including legal principles, procedures, and terminology. This knowledge is crucial for performing your duties accurately and efficiently.
  • Specialized Skills: Paralegal degree programs focus on developing essential skills for the profession, such as legal research, case analysis, document drafting, and courtroom procedures. These skills are fundamental to assisting attorneys and contributing effectively to legal cases.
  • Career Advancement: In a competitive job market where almost every paralegal job description requires one, having a degree can give you a competitive edge and open doors to more advanced and higher paralegal salary.
  • Professional Credibility: Obtaining a degree demonstrates your commitment to your career and the legal profession, enhancing your credibility as a paralegal in the eyes of employers and clients.
  • Networking Opportunities: While pursuing your degree, you will have the chance to interact with professors, fellow students, and professionals in the legal field. Networking can lead to valuable connections and potential job opportunities.
  • Exposure to Various Legal Areas: Paralegal degree programs often cover a wide range of legal topics, exposing you to different practice areas. This exposure allows you to explore different legal specialties and find the area that aligns best with your interests and skills.
  • Ethics and Professional Responsibility: Paralegal programs typically emphasize the importance of ethics and professional responsibility in the legal profession. Understanding these principles is crucial for maintaining integrity and adhering to legal and ethical standards.
  • Preparation for Certification: Some professional organizations offer certifications for paralegals, and having a degree may meet the educational requirements for certification eligibility. Earning a certification can further validate your expertise and commitment to the field.
  • Legal Research Skills: A degree program teaches you how to conduct legal research efficiently, a skill that is vital for supporting attorneys in building strong cases and staying informed about changes in the law.

Duration of Paralegal Degree Programs: How long does it typically take to complete?

Earning a degree in paralegal studies is not a never-ending legal battle. Rather, the typical duration of paralegal degree programs varies depending on the type of program you choose and your educational background. Let’s explore some options:

Associate’s Degree or Certificate in Paralegal Studies

Many paralegals hold an associate’s degree or a certificate in paralegal studies. These programs typically take one to two years to complete and provide a comprehensive understanding of the legal system, legal research, drafting legal documents, and other essential skills.

Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies or a Related Field

Some employers may prefer or require a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, legal studies, or a related field. A four-year degree program offers a more in-depth education and can open doors to higher-level paralegal positions.

Bachelor’s Degree in Any Field + Paralegal Certificate

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-legal field, you can consider earning a paralegal certificate. These certificate programs are often shorter in duration compared to obtaining a second degree.

Although certification is not always a legal requirement, obtaining professional certifications can be beneficial for career advancement and showcasing your expertise. Organizations like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offer certifications for paralegals.

Cost of Pursuing a Paralegal Degree in America

Whoever said you can’t put a price on education clearly wasn’t a student. As it turns out, the cost of full-time tuition and fees for a two-year community college degree ranges from US$600 to US$5,400 per annum based on two 15-unit semesters. Another route, an associate’s degree in paralegal studies costs US$21,700.

Furthermore, you can always opt for a correspondence or online course for a paralegal studies certificate which ranges anywhere from US$3,000 to US$10,000 or more. And for those looking to really up their game, there are even bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies available with annual costs varying from US$5,000 to US$23,000, depending on residency status (in-state or out-of-state). The choice is yours – but either way, it’s time to hit the books!

Paralegal Certifications

  • Certified Paralegal (CP) by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA): The CP certification is one of the most recognized credentials for paralegals. It demonstrates competency in various legal areas and requires passing a comprehensive exam.
  • Professional Paralegal (PP) by the Association for Legal Professionals (NALS): The PP certification validates paralegals’ skills and knowledge in legal practice management, ethics, and substantive law.
  • Paralegal Certification by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA): This certification signifies a paralegal’s proficiency in legal research, writing, and ethics.
  • Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) by NALA: The ACP program offers specialized certifications in various legal disciplines, such as contract management, e-discovery, intellectual property, and more.
  • Certified Legal Manager (CLM) by the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA): The CLM certification is for legal support professionals, including paralegals, focusing on management and administrative skills.
  • Legal Research and Westlaw Certifications: These certifications validate proficiency in using legal research platforms commonly used in the legal industry.

How to Become a Paralegal Through Online Education & Practical Experience

Don’t let the idea of sitting in a stuffy classroom listening to a lecture for hours on end let you hit the snooze button on your journey to becoming a paralegal. You can learn how to become a legal assistant while wearing your sweatpants and sipping on your favorite drink (coffee or tea, we don’t judge). It may sound too good to be true, but online education has made it possible to learn the necessary skills and knowledge to become a paralegal from the comfort of your own home.

Websites to Master Paralegal Skills & Supplement Online Education

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, these 10 websites are sure to supplement your online education and boost your skillset.

With everything from legal research tools to job boards and continuing education opportunities, these sites offer a comprehensive toolkit for any paralegal looking to up their game:

  • The Center for Legal Studies: This platform provides online paralegal certificate programs and legal courses for individuals interested in becoming paralegals or enhancing their legal knowledge.
  • ParalegalEDU.org: This resource provides a comprehensive directory of paralegal schools and programs across the United States, allowing legal assistants to find specialized educational opportunities.
  • Paralegal Mentor: This website offers resources, webinars, and coaching for paralegals, helping them grow in their careers and develop essential skills.
  • The Legal Studies Institute: This platform provides online paralegal courses and continuing legal education (CLE) credits, designed to enhance paralegal skills and knowledge.
  • Legal Information Institute (LII): Run by Cornell Law School, LII offers free access to legal resources, including statutes, regulations, and court decisions, which can be helpful for legal research and understanding legal concepts.
  • LexisNexis: This legal research platform offers comprehensive access to legal databases, statutes, case law, and legal documents, often used by paralegals in law firms and legal settings.
  • The Law Dictionary: This online legal dictionary provides definitions and explanations of legal terms, which can be useful for paralegals when working with legal documents and terminology.

Most Important Paralegal Skills to Know

If you’re considering a career as a paralegal, make sure you’re equipped with the right skills to stand out in the field.

Don’t worry if you don’t know all of the necessary legal assistant skills–here is a comprehensive list to help you keep striving to be the best you can be:

  • Understanding Legal Terminology: You’ll become well-versed in legal terminology and concepts.
  • Legal Research: You will learn how to conduct thorough legal research using various resources such as case law databases, statutes, regulations, and legal treatises.
  • Legal Writing: Paralegals develop skills in drafting legal documents, such as memos, briefs, contracts, pleadings, and correspondence.
  • Document Management: You will learn to organize and manage legal documents, maintaining a system to access and retrieve important files efficiently.
  • Case Management: Paralegals assist with case management tasks, including maintaining case calendars, tracking deadlines, and coordinating court filings.
  • Confidentiality and Data Security: Paralegals learn to handle sensitive client information with utmost confidentiality and adhere to data security protocols.
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication is crucial in a legal setting. You’ll learn how to communicate professionally with clients, attorneys, court personnel, and other stakeholders.
  • Interviewing Clients and Witnesses: Paralegals may be involved in interviewing clients and witnesses to gather information for legal cases.
  • Legal Technology: You’ll gain proficiency in using legal technology tools, such as case management software, legal research databases, and e-discovery platforms.
  • Ethics and Professional Responsibility: Legal assistants learn about ethical considerations and their professional responsibilities within the legal profession.
  • Time Management: In a fast-paced legal environment, time management is vital. You’ll learn to prioritize tasks and meet deadlines effectively.
  • Court Procedures: Paralegals become familiar with court procedures and rules, including how to file documents, schedule hearings, and assist with trial preparation.
  • Analytical and Critical Thinking: You’ll develop analytical skills to review legal documents, identify relevant information, and spot potential issues in cases.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: Paralegals often work as part of a legal team. Learning to collaborate effectively with attorneys and other staff members is essential.
  • Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution: Some paralegals assist with mediation and alternative dispute resolution processes.
A Day in the Life of a Paralegal | Video by San Diego District Attorney

The Right Internship Opportunities for a Paralegal

Interning as a paralegal is no picnic, that’s for sure, but with the right opportunity, it can be a thrilling ride! As a paralegal, you have the power to make a difference in people’s lives. And that’s not a responsibility to be taken lightly. So, when searching for the perfect internship, keep in mind what area of law you’re interested in.

Whatever the case may be, make sure the firm or organization aligns with your interests, such as:

  • Law Firms: Many law firms offer internship programs for legal assistants or recent graduates. As an intern, you’ll have the chance to assist attorneys with legal research, document preparation, and other paralegal tasks.
  • Corporate Legal Departments: Large corporations often have in-house legal departments that may offer paralegal internships. This provides exposure to corporate legal matters and the specific legal needs of a business entity.
  • Government Agencies: Various government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Justice or state attorney general offices, may offer internships for paralegals. These opportunities allow you to work on cases related to public interest and government law.
  • Public Interest Organizations: Non-profit organizations and legal aid clinics often offer internships for paralegals interested in public interest law. This allows you to work on cases that serve disadvantaged populations and promote social justice.
  • Courts: Some courts, including state and federal courts, may have internship programs for paralegal students. Interning in a court setting provides exposure to the legal system and court procedures.
  • Legal Research Organizations: Research institutions in the USA or think tanks focused on legal research and policy may offer internships for paralegals interested in contributing to legal scholarship.
  • Law Enforcement Agencies: Law enforcement agencies in the USA, such as police departments, may have legal units that offer internship opportunities for paralegal students or graduates.
  • Pro Bono Organizations: Pro bono legal organizations provide legal services to individuals who cannot afford representation. Interning with such organizations allows you to work on meaningful cases that benefit the community.
  • Private Legal Services Companies: Companies that offer legal services to individuals or businesses and may offer internship programs for paralegal students to assist with legal matters.

Types of Paralegals | Job Opportunities

There are numerous paralegal specialties that offer thriving career opportunities. Whether you are interested in intellectual property, corporate law, litigation, immigration, or even e-Discovery, there is an area of expertise for you.

Therefore, if you are looking to secure a paralegal interview as soon as possible then sharpening up your resume with any of these specialties will give you the upper hand over the competition.

The legal industry is ever-evolving and offers a broad range of opportunities, such as:

  • Litigation Paralegal: Assists attorneys in trial preparation, organizing trial exhibits, conducting legal research, and managing case documents for litigation matters.
  • Corporate Paralegal: Works in the legal department of a corporation, assisting with contracts, compliance, governance, and regulatory matters.
  • Real Estate Paralegal: Specializes in real estate transactions, preparing documents for property sales, leases, and title searches.
  • Immigration Paralegal: Supports immigration attorneys by preparing immigration forms, gathering documentation, and assisting clients with visa applications.
  • Estate Planning Paralegal: Assists with wills, trusts, and estate planning documents, as well as managing probate and estate administration.
  • Intellectual Property Paralegal: Focuses on intellectual property matters, such as patents, trademarks, and copyrights, including conducting IP research and preparing applications.
  • Bankruptcy Paralegal: Works on bankruptcy cases, helping to gather financial records, preparing bankruptcy petitions, and assisting with court filings.
  • Family Law Paralegal: Assists family law attorneys in divorce cases, child custody matters, and other family-related legal issues.
  • Environmental Law Paralegal: Supports attorneys in environmental law matters, such as regulatory compliance, permitting, and environmental impact assessments.
  • Criminal Defense Paralegal: Assists criminal defense attorneys in preparing defense strategies, gathering evidence, and conducting legal research for criminal cases.
  • Labor and Employment Paralegal: Works on employment law matters, including drafting employment contracts, investigating workplace disputes, and handling labor law compliance.
  • Healthcare Law Paralegal: Specializes in healthcare legal issues, such as medical malpractice, healthcare regulations, and healthcare contracts.
  • Insurance Paralegal: Assists in insurance-related matters, such as claims handling, policy analysis, and insurance litigation support.
  • Environmental Compliance Paralegal: Focuses on assisting companies with environmental compliance, environmental audits, and regulatory matters.
  • Personal Injury Paralegal: Supports personal injury attorneys in handling claims, investigating accidents, and preparing legal documents for personal injury cases.

Types of Companies that Employ Paralegals

If you’re a paralegal, there’s a good chance you’ll end up working for one of the many types of companies below that employ people with your skills.

  • Law Firms
  • Corporate Legal Departments
  • Government Agencies
  • Real Estate Firms
  • Nonprofit Organizations
  • Insurance Companies

What’s the Career Outlook for Paralegals?

According to recent projections, employment in the paralegal and legal assistant field is projected to grow 14% over the next decade. That’s much faster than the average for all other occupations. And get this – every year, about 45,800 job openings are predicted to become available. So, if you’re passionate about the law and love to assist attorneys and clients alike, now might just be the perfect time to kickstart your career in this exciting field!

This considerable number of opportunities is a testament to the increasing reliance on paralegal expertise and the valuable role they play in legal operations.

Law firms, corporations, government agencies, and other organizations recognize the cost-effectiveness and efficiency that paralegals bring to legal processes.

Their ability to perform essential legal tasks under the supervision of attorneys allows lawyers to focus on more complex and specialized aspects of cases.

Paralegal Popular Career Specialties

A Work-Life Balance for a Paralegal

Being a paralegal is like being a tightrope walker – the key is balance. You’ve got to balance the demands of work with the need for a personal life. It’s no secret that the legal field can be intense, with deadlines looming and cases piling up. But that doesn’t mean your work has to take over your entire life.

A good legal assistant knows how to manage their time effectively, prioritize tasks, and make space for hobbies and downtime. Maybe you’re a knitter or a runner or a cat enthusiast–whatever it is, make sure you’re carving out time for yourself. After all, a happy, well-rested paralegal is a more productive paralegal. So, go ahead, clock out at a reasonable hour, and have some me-time. Your cases will still be there tomorrow.

Should I become a Paralegal?

Every life decision is full of questions, what-ifs, and uncertainties. You might be wondering if becoming a paralegal is the right path for you. Well, the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. You need to evaluate your interests and skills, weigh the pros and cons, and establish your long-term goals.

This article provides all the essential information to help you make an informed decision. Are you a master of organization, a lover of details, and a problem solver? Then being a paralegal may be the perfect match. However, always remember, the best way to detect if it’s the right fit for you is by knowing yourself, exploring options, and remaining curious!

Careers Related to Paralegal


Ajoke Aminu

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