Paralegals are a vital part of the legal profession. They help attorneys build their cases by doing research, drafting briefs and keeping case files orderly. It is not uncommon for paralegals to do the bulk of the groundwork in a case. However, for all their skills and acumen there are some restrictions to their job duties: paralegals are not usually licensed to give legal advice, set billing rates or represent clients in court.
If you are considering becoming a paralegal, this site is for you. This page contains the basic information you’ll need to get started in this important, endlessly challenging and rewarding part of the legal field.
What Do Paralegals Do?
Paralegals do a lot of work, but the profession also offers a lot of variety in that work from week to week. Some days may find a paralegal in court supporting a litigation team, other times he or she may be ensconced in a law library, hunting down legal tenets to provide strength for an attorney’s case. Paralegals might also interview clients and track down potential witnesses. Paralegals often review transcripts from depositions and informal interviews then summarize them for easy reference by the attorney.
Here is a breakdown of typical paralegal duties:
- Legal research
- Investigate issues pertinent to a case
- Accompany attorney in court or at hearings
- Prepare briefs and motions
- File case documents with the court
- Administer case dockets
- Coordinate with clients, witnesses and opposing counsel
As you can see, paralegals do many of the duties of an attorney. However, they don’t offer representation nor do they give legal advice. Paralegals don’t have clients of their own and they are barred from setting fees. These days there are firms that are overseen by a single attorney, with the paralegals doing the majority of the behind-the-scenes casework. This is because the legal work must be vetted and signed by a sworn officer of the court.
Paralegals do what they do in a variety of settings, but they are most likely to be found working full-time in law firms. However, paralegals can also be found working in government agencies, in-house corporate legal departments or as contract workers.
With the advent of Washington State’s 2013 Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT) program, it may soon be possible to see paralegals hanging out their own shingle apart from a practicing attorney, though this may vary by state. Nonetheless, opportunities for paralegals seems to be on the rise as firms and clients are seeking a more cost-effective way to provide legal services.
Why Get a Paralegal Degree?
While you can work your way into a paralegal job without a specific degree in the field, the vast majority of paralegals have received specialized education, which is generally preferred by potential employers. If you want to achieve as much as you possibly can in your career, a degree in paralegal studies will give you the credentials you need.
If you are new to the working world, or if you are in transition from one field into the legal realm, you should take a realistic look at returning to school. Employers will smile on your efforts to complete a full degree or certificate, and your starting pay might reflect the decision, too. Furthermore, if you achieve a degree you can build upon it later if you decide to seek further education or change your career path entirely.
If you are changing fields, and already have a degree, keep in mind that you can opt for a paralegal certificate program. These programs are designed to focus solely on courses you need to do paralegal work.
HOW TO BECOME A PARALEGAL
Determine Your Interest
First, it’s vital that you determine that becoming a paralegal is really what you want to do. You can do a lot of research on the field using the Internet, and you can talk to friends or family members who may have experience in the legal field. The best way to determine that a career as a paralegal is for you is to take a job in a law firm.
Assess the Qualities of a Great Paralegal
Paralegals possess many of the same qualities you might expect in an attorney. To thrive, you must be analytical, have a keen eye for detail and be able to organize the many moving parts of a case. You will also need to have very strong communication skills, both written and spoken. To thrive in your research, you must be able to read and absorb vast quantities of information and have the research skills necessary to find the most pertinent information for your team’s legal argument. Here is a quick list of qualities to foster and develop:
- Critical thinking skills
- Research ability
- Organizational skills
- Written communication skills
Find a Specialty
The law is not a singular entity. There are many specialty areas that attorneys and paralegals practice, and many are exclusive to these fields. You may have a good idea of what area you would like to pursue based on your real-world experience or intellectual curiosity. For instance, some who have experience with immigration may specialize in that area of law. Others may be fascinated by the new challenges arising in intellectual property law and decide to work for a patents attorney.
Discovering your desired specialty area will be helpful for a number of reasons. First, you can pursue the career area that most interests you, ensuring that you will enjoy and thrive in your work. Second, you can choose a paralegal program that will educate you in the areas that most interest you. Third, your resume and interviews will be impressive when you can speak directly to that firm’s legal strengths. Here are a few specialty areas you might consider:
- Commercial Litigation
- Family Law & Divorces
- Wills and Trusts
- Real Estate
- Bankruptcy Laws
- Criminal Law
- Intellectual Property
- Labor Law
- Personal Injury
- Elder Law
Pursuing Your Paralegal Education
Once you have determined that a career as a paralegal is for you, and you have an idea of what your specialty area should be, it’s time to seek an appropriate education program. These days, many community and 4-year colleges offer programs for paralegals. You can matriculate with an associate’s, bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in paralegal studies. There are also certificate-level programs that focus exclusively on what you need to be a paralegal.
A certificate program is perhaps the quickest route to a paralegal education. Typically, these can be completed with somewhere between 18 and 60 semester hours. The longer programs frequently require a significant number of general education hours. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and think the professional certification is right for you, this is a great route. For those who do not yet have a degree, you might want to consider an associate’s degree program or a longer certificate program to round out your overall skill sets.
A community college education can provide you with a focused program of study that you can complete in approximately two years. When you pursue an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, about half of your credit hours will be spent satisfying general-education requirements such as English or math courses. These extra courses will help you round out your education and may even inform your work as a paralegal. The analytical abilities called upon in a math course, for instance, might certainly help your professional life for years to come.
To take things a step further, you might pursue a bachelor’s in paralegal studies. If you choose to pursue a four-year degree, you can also opt to add a minor or a second major to your education. This will help you hone your specialty area. For instance, if you wish to pursue criminal law, you might broaden your studies with courses in justice and policy studies. Those interested in business law or tax law can take appropriate courses in the accounting or business departments. If you tailor your bachelor’s degree towards your intended career path, your resume might be viewed favorably once you graduate.
If your undergraduate university offers a major in paralegal studies, they might also offer a master’s in paralegal studies, or the equivalent. This level of education will certainly make you stand out in the job market. If a master’s-level paralegal degree is not available, your school may offer other related masters-level degrees, such as legal studies or criminal justice. Alternatively, you might pursue education directly related to your intended field of specialty, such as accounting, social work, business or even computer science.
Legal Courses to Take
As you pursue your degree or certificate, you must take a certain number of credit hours in legal studies. This will all be explained in your school’s admissions office meetings, but a few of the courses you will be required to take (but are not limited to) may include the following:
- Torts/Civil Law
- Family Law
- Wills and Trusts
- Legal Research, which should introduce tools such as Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw
- Litigation and Civil Procedure
- Contract Law
To round out your education in a degree program, you will need to take some general education courses, but also legal courses designed to advance you in your knowledge of a specialty. Depending on your intended area of specialty, you might also take such courses as these:
- Labor Relations
- Immigration Law
- Environmental Law
- Intellectual Property Law
- Tax Law
Online or Campus?
You can choose to pursue your paralegal education either online or in a campus setting. Some schools even offer a hybrid approach that will allow you to take some courses online but be on campus for hands-on simulations or workshops. Some courses may even be online-only. The great thing about online options is that you can take courses from schools that were previously out of scope due to their physical location.
The online option is great for those who are currently working or taking care of a family. You can schedule your school work to suit your real-world duties. For instance, if you are already working in a law firm, your studies might inform your workday, or vice versa.
If you have access to a working law firm, your work might help you achieve deeper insights into your coursework, allowing you to create an integrated experience. To flesh out that experience, you might ask your favorite paralegals or attorneys to serve as mentors or sounding boards for your questions. In this type of setting you might create an education that outstrips any traditional campus offering.
No matter which route you take, check to make sure that whatever institution you choose is fully accredited. One great place to start your search for an approved paralegal program is at the American Bar Association’s website, where they maintain a database of accredited paralegal programs.
You may also attend a program not acknowledged by the ABA, but regionally accredited by one of six Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) agencies. You can check the CHEA website and see if your school is accredited regionally.
Once you successfully complete a paralegal degree or certificate program, you will be considered certificated in the paralegal field. However, you may wish to pursue a certification that will allow you to add initials to your name. This is more than a simple status symbol; it indicates that your professional practice is of a higher caliber. Further, it will likely indicate that you are a member of a professional organization that supports you and your career goals.
Three professional associations provide credentials for paralegals: National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), NALA – The Paralegal Association, and NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals.
NFPA: Bestows two credentials – the CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) and PACE Registered Paralegal (RP)
NALA: Grants the Certified Paralegal (CP)/Certified Legal Assistant (CLP) credentials
NALS: Provides qualified applicants the Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
Each of the credentials has a specific set of qualifications for applicants. These qualifications are some mix of education and experience. Note that the most esteemed education will require the least experience to qualify for the certification test. Thus, a degree/certificate from an ABA-approved program will require less experience. If you only have a high school diploma, you may still qualify for professional credentials, given that you have somewhere between four and seven years of substantial experience as a paralegal.
When you apply to take your certification exam, you will have to pay a fee, and perhaps join the professional body that governs your credential. Then, you will have to sit for the exam. The exams are not made equally, with the shortest test-taking time being two and a half hours for the NFPA’s CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP). The longest test-taking time is up to two years for NALA’s CP/CLA exam which is comprised of five major sections and four practice areas. You will have two years to complete all of the sections. NALS’ PP exam should take one full day.
The exams are all different, so study the materials specific to your chosen credential. However, you should be well-versed in areas including but not limited to the following topics:
- U.S. Legal System
- Legal Writing
- Legal Critical Analysis
- Civil Litigation – Torts
- Client Legal Matters
- Legal Research
- Federal Law
- Legal Terminology
- Criminal Law and Procedures
Paralegals do not currently have a state licensing requirement, with one exception: The Washington State Bar Association has implemented the Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT) credential to help lower-income families receive lower-cost legal help from a licensed professional. LLLTs are currently only able to help families through divorce, child custody matters and other family issues in the state of Washington. However, the Washington State Bar does anticipate licensing legal technicians to work in other areas of law in the future.
The Washington Bar has the following requirements for its legal technicians:
- 45 credit hours in an ABA-approved legal program
- Complete practice-area courses through the University of Washington’s School of Law
- Complete three thousand hours as a paralegal
- Pass the Practice Area and Professional Responsibility Exams
The Washington State model is being considered by many other states, so it is worth your while to consider their pioneering program even if you live in another state. You might consult your state’s bar association to see if they are moving towards such a licensure program.
Job Outlook for Paralegals
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the jobs outlook for paralegals is quite positive. The bureau reports that the median annual salary for this career was $48,810 and that the typical educational level was an associate’s degree. The BLS further reports that the job growth rate for paralegals will be 8 percent through 2024.
Given that the BLS states that competition for paralegal jobs will be fierce, it is important that prospective legal professionals receive the best preparation possible. The agency notes that applicants with strong computer skills will be highly valued over those who do not have these skills. In particular, it is recommended that you study database management and become an expert in software such as Microsoft Office and be proficient with Adobe Acrobat, particularly creating fillable forms for electronic contracts.
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