How to Become a Paralegal in Illinois

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Paralegals are the heroes of any law firm or legal practice. They are a vital support to lawyers and staff, trained to perform many of the same tasks as a lawyer, but without the full legal responsibility attached to an attorney. This makes the profession attractive, as you can engage in interesting and engaging work without the professional liability—or the debt incurred at law school. If you are living in Illinois, or thinking of moving to the state to start a career, this page will help you learn how to become a paralegal there.

Steps to Becoming a Paralegal

There is no specific degree needed to become a paralegal in Illinois, however competition can be fierce for jobs, and those with a degree and professional certification often are the first to be considered. With Chicago being the largest city in the state you can bet competition will be high in some of the upscale law firms there, so you’ll need to be prepared to show how competent you are if you get an interview.

Here are four steps to consider before you enroll in a paralegal program:

STEP
1

Is this for Me?

If you’ve never worked in the legal field before, this may be hard to answer. It may sound like a good choice for a number of reasons, but is the law really something that will inspire you and sustain you on more than a financial level? You might start out by asking the following questions:

Do you like research? Paralegals often have to comb through lots and lots of research materials. They also must know how to find information in such a way that the results are accurate and useful to the lawyers on the case. If you get lost running down facts and data to support your position you’re on the right track.

Do you like logic? Not everyone is a logical person. That’s okay, but law is founded on the principles of logic. In fact, the LSAT, which is a test that lawyers take prior to entering law school, is primarily comprised of logic problems. One way to determine your logical aptitude is ask yourself whether you often fix things and are able to quickly arrive at solutions. People who enjoy puzzles are also a good fit.

Are you a critical thinker? This question is somewhat of a combination of the first two. Critical thinkers are characterized as those who seek facts and use logic to support their opinions.

STEP
2

Education

Though there are no strict educational requirements to become a paralegal, as there are for lawyers, you will want to be prepared with the best education possible. If, for instance, you are seeking your first job in Chicago, you will be up against a sea of other potential paralegals who likely have a specialized paralegal education. There are three basic paralegal education levels to consider:

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Certificate Programs
A certificate is an ideal option if you already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and don’t need to repeat all of the core curriculum. If you don’t yet have a degree, you can still pursue a certificate, but you will fare better with a degree program such as an associate’s degree.

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Associate’s Degree
There are schools that offer an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or the equivalent. Though it takes two years of full-time school to complete a standard associate’s degree, the payoff will be worth it. Pay special attention to writing intensive courses such as English or History, as those classes will sharpen the skills that can help make you a top-notch paralegal.

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Bachelor’s Degree
When you earn a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, you may find yourself considered for entry-level jobs. Since a bachelor’s degree takes approximately four years to complete, you might consider finding internships or part-time work in law firms as you study.

Online Paralegal Studies
These days, you can find accredited degree and certificate paralegal programs online. These offer you the opportunity to study while you work. You can go ahead and find a full or part-time job in a local law firm and study to become a paralegal along the way.  Once you have completed your degree or certificate, you will be in a great position to be hired from within.

STEP
3

Choose a Specialty

Either while you’re still in school or after you’ve worked in the field for a time, you will want to choose a specialty. Investigate a few specialties that might fit your interests. Your critical thinking skills should help you determine which area most appeals to you. A few specialty areas include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Torts/Civil Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Family Law
  • Wills and Trusts
  • Civil Rights Law
  • Personal Injury Law
  • Professional Liability
  • Environmental Law
  • Tax Law
  • Bankruptcy Law
  • Contract Law

STEP
4

Become Professionally Certified

Once you are working as a paralegal, you will want to pursue a professional credential. There are different levels of designations but all require passing an exam administered by an established paralegal association. Here are the most sought after credentials:
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) Certification

  • Paralegal Core Competency Exam–This will verify to an employer that your skills and knowledge meet a higher standard, as the initiative it takes to study for and pass the exam will be apparent.
  • Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam–After you have passed the PCCE and practiced as a paralegal for a few years, you will want to sit for the PACE. These credentials will tell Illinois firms that you not only have the education, but also the depth of experience it takes to help support the law firm’s caseload.

National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) Certification

  • Certified Paralegal–Once you have passed this exam you are certified by NALA, a designation that is sure to enhance your status when you seek jobs.
  • Advanced Paralegal Certification–This is the top certification available from NALA and your ability to achieve this credential will demonstrate your dedication to the profession.

Salary and Job Outlook

The demand for paralegals should continue growing for the foreseeable future. Many law firms, in cost-cutting measures, are looking to hire more paralegals than attorneys.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the median salary for paralegals is $49,500, and the standard entry-level education is an associate’s degree. Paralegals working in Chicago earned a mean annual wage of $56,160.

Further, the Bureau projects a healthy 15 percent job growth rate through 2026.

Paralegals who have more education and who have more experience on the job may command a higher salary. Location may also play a factor.

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