Behind the scenes of all legal proceedings is a team of paralegals who play an integral role in the justice system. These professionals provide support to lawyers and judges in the form of legal research, clerical work and the completion of special projects. If you are interested in joining the fascinating and vital legal professional, here’s how to become a paralegal.
Skills and Traits of Top Paralegals
Before learning what it takes to get started in a paralegal career, you need to determine if you could excel in this demanding and competitive field. This line of work appeals to people from a diverse range of backgrounds, but the most successful paralegals have the following skills and traits:
Paralegals must be able to manage a number of complex projects at the same time.
Paralegals must be able to anticipate the future even as they focus on the present.
Paralegals must be able to confidently and capably communicate with a number of different audiences in every type of medium.
Paralegals must be able to perform in-depth research on a variety of complex subjects such as statutes and historic law case proceedings.
Paralegals must be able to take advantage of all of today’s technologies while adapting to technological advances that are changing the legal profession.
Paralegals must be able to keep vast collections of documents carefully organized and adapt to different systems of organization.
Paralegals must be able to effectively perform a specific role within a larger team of legal professionals.
Professionals must be able to abide by the highest standards of professionalism and display a total commitment to legal ethics.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?
How long it will take you to become a paralegal largely depends on how you choose to pursue your career. Since paralegals are not absolutely required to have any specific credentials, it is possible to start working in the field as soon as you can find someone to hire you. However, given the complex nature of the work, most employers choose to hire paralegals who have some prior education and training. Options range from certification programs that take a year or less, associate’s degree programs that take two years, or bachelor’s degree programs that take four years. Pursuing more education will mean that it takes longer to become a paralegal, but also increases the chances of landing an exciting job and excelling in that role.
Even after you earn a certificate or degree, you’ll also want to continue your education because the law changes frequently. There are professional certification programs available from agencies that will show your mettle and earn respect from your peers. These certifications generally last two years, require passing a rigorous exam and paying a fee, and completing a set course of continuing education units in the two-year interval to keep the credential current and valid.
Paths to Become a Paralegal
In most states, there are no formal requirements to become a paralegal, but there may be credentials that have been recommended by state-wide legal organizations. It is highly recommended that any aspiring paralegal does some research into what is required or recommended in their state before deciding how best to pursue a career as a paralegal. Once that has been determined, there are a number of ways to gain the education, training and credentials necessary to thrive as a paralegal:
On the Job
Someone with a legal background may able be to find employment as a paralegal with the expectation of receiving on-the-job training. These opportunities are rare but not unheard of. The advantage of this option is that it takes the least amount of time to get started. The disadvantage is that a working paralegal with no experience may discover they lack the character, temperament, or aptitude to succeed on the job.
These programs offer a broad overview of paralegal studies condensed into a short amount of time, typically less than a year. The advantage is that they are quick and affordable. The disadvantage is that they offer a minimum amount of training, which some employers may view as a red flag when hiring.
These programs offer significant training in paralegal studies over a period of about two years. Most working paralegals enter the field after completing an associate’s degree. The advantage is that these programs adequately prepare paralegals for most roles without requiring a huge investment of time or money. The disadvantage is that candidates with more education will get the majority of job offers.
These programs take four years to complete and offer a substantial level of training, study, background, and hands-on experience. The advantage is that they qualify paralegals to work in almost all legal settings and step into the most interesting and lucrative positions. The disadvantage is that they take years to complete and often involved taking on student debt.
These programs are typically only a consideration for working paralegals who want to advance their careers. Paralegals with a master’s degree will be qualified to work in the most prestigious institutions and take on supervisory roles. The advantage is that a world of job opportunities opens up to paralegals with an advanced degree. The disadvantage is that this option requires the largest investment of time and money.
How Much Do Paralegals Earn?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says much of what a paralegal (or any profession for that matter) earns depends upon three things:
- Level of education attained
- How many years’ experience you have
Location plays a huge part in paralegal salary. It makes sense that a paralegal working in a large metropolitan area would earn more than a paralegal in a small town law office where the cost of living is lower. Places such as Washington DC and its surrounding areas are federal government hubs, so the demand for qualified paralegals is higher—as are salaries. That said, select your state from the map below and learn what the BLS says you might expect to earn.
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Long-Term Success as a Paralegal
According to the BLS, the demand for paralegals is expected to grow by 15 percent through at least 2026, adding 41,800 new paralegals to the field nationally. That means now is a great time to pursue a career in this growing, evolving and stable line of work. However, finding a first job is only the start of a successful career as a paralegal. In order to enjoy long-term success, ambitious professionals will need to take the following initiatives:
- Prioritize Professional Development – Paralegals must always be picking up new skills and abilities in order to remain relevant. Professional organizations offer certificates, training programs, and conferences that empower paralegals to expand their credentials.
- Develop a Professional Network – Connecting with other paralegals and participating in the conversation around the field of paralegal studies is a reliable way for professionals to stay informed about the issues and ideas that are most relevant for the present and future.
- Accept a Bigger Role – The work of a paralegal is dynamic and diverse, but repeating the same duties can create a feeling of complacency. Professionals who ask to work on bigger, more complex and more important projects can pick up new skills while demonstrating their drive and ambition. These types of projects may fall into your lap if you earn certification, which will show employers you are committed to the profession and becoming the best in your area of specialty.
- Specialize and Excel–Specializing in a particular area of law, such as will and trusts or immigration law, may help you stand out in a crowd of generalists. You’ll be a valuable asset to the team of attorneys you support both in and out of the courtroom because you’ll grow your knowledge in a focused field, and devote your time and energy to a specific area of law.
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