Does working with a law firm or in a legal setup sound exciting? If your answer is yes, then we’ve got an interesting career option for you – consider becoming a paralegal. Now, all you need to know is how to become a paralegal.
A popular choice among young individuals, thanks to the job stability and lucrative pay of the profession, the demand for paralegals is steady. In this article, we’ve focused on how to become a paralegal, the main pathways to pursue a degree or certificate program in this field, and pro tips to help you decide if it’s the right career choice for you.
Let’s start with the basics. If you’re wondering, ‘What’s a Paralegal’, read on to find the answer.
In simple terms, paralegals are legal professionals who assist lawyers with day-to-day activities like research, document preparation, and client communication.
What does a paralegal do?
Well, as a paralegal, you would be part of the backstage crew that helps lawyers deliver legal services. If you’re wondering ‘what does a paralegal do’, here are some of the key aspects that paralegal are responsible for:
- Preparing an attorney for a hearing or trial by investigating the facts of the case
- Conducting background research
- Collecting and organizing relevant documents
- Researching old cases and legal reports to help establish precedent
- Drafting motions, plea agreements and writing reports
- Conducting interviews with witnesses or clients
- Preparing contracts, mortgages, wills and other civil documents
- Liasoning between attorney and the client by maintaining timely communication
- Helping prep the client for trial
Becoming a paralegal typically involves a combination of education, training, and work experience. Here are a quick breakdown on how to become a paralegal that can set you up for success:
Obtain a High School Diploma or Equivalent:
A high school diploma or equivalent is typically required to become a paralegal. If you haven’t already obtained your diploma, it’s best to do so before pursuing further education or training.
Earn a Paralegal Certificate or Degree:
While a paralegal certificate or degree is not always required, it can be helpful in securing a job and advancing in your career. Several options to pursue paralegal education include getting a paralegal certificate online or in person, or opting for an associate or bachelor’s degree. Remember to look for programs that are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) to ensure that you receive a quality education.
Gain Work Experience:
Sometimes, certain employers might prefer hiring paralegals with some work experience. So it’s a good idea to gain experience through internships or entry-level positions. There are several paralegal career options that you could explore. Many legal secretaries have gone on to become paralegals, often adding training on to their on-the-job experience in a law office. When you’re looking out for career options for paralegals, you must consider work opportunities in law firms, corporate legal departments, or government agencies.
While certification is not required to become a paralegal, it demonstrates your expertise and commitment to the field. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers several certification options, including the Certified Paralegal (CP) and Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designations.
Develop Your Skills:
As mentioned earlier, paralegals need a variety of skills, including research, writing, and communication skills. These skills come in handy and you can look for opportunities to develop these skills through continuing education courses, workshops, or professional development programs.
Network with other legal professionals:
Networking is an excellent way to learn about job opportunities and advance in your career. Join professional organizations such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) or local paralegal associations to connect with other legal professionals.
Overall, you can become a paralegal through a combination of education, training, and work experience. Simply following these steps can help you develop the skills and knowledge you need to succeed in this field.
For an aspiring paralegal student, there are multiple pathways that offer flexibility for individuals with different educational backgrounds and career aspirations. The main degree and certificate programs that you may consider are:
Certificate Programs in Paralegal Studies:
While it is not a mandatory requirement to get a certificate to become a paralegal, completing a certificate program in paralegal studies comes highly recommended. These programs offer holistic understanding of the legal system, legal research, and other essential skills that come in handy in the legal world.
Certificate programs in paralegal studies are typically offered by community colleges, universities, and specialized legal institutions. The curriculum may cover legal subjects, such as civil litigation, criminal law, legal writing, and contracts. Also, as a student, you may gain practical experience through internships or clinical programs, which would further enhance your skills and knowledge.
Completing a certificate program is not only one of the quickest ways to become a paralegal, but may also offer a competitive edge in the job market. Often employers prefer candidates with formal paralegal education, as it ensures a solid foundation in legal principles and procedures.
Pursuing an associate degree in paralegal studies is an excellent option if you’re seeking a comprehensive education in the field. These programs usually require two years of full-time study and cover a wide range of legal subjects. An associate degree can offer a solid foundation for entry-level positions in various legal settings.
Although a bachelor’s degree is not a mandatory requirement for paralegal positions, it can enhance your career prospects. A four-year undergraduate program in paralegal studies or a related field offers an extensive understanding of legal principles, research skills, and critical thinking abilities. Many employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree for advanced paralegal roles or positions in prestigious law firms.
A master’s degree is designed to provide in-depth knowledge and expertise in the field of paralegalism. Typically, it spans one to two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree and covers a wide range of legal topics. In this program, you’ll delve into advanced legal research, writing, and analytical skills, preparing you for complex legal tasks.
Many master’s programs also offer opportunities for internships or practical experiences to apply classroom learning in real-world legal settings.
If you’re someone who can learn better with practical experience, then a great segue into the profession could be on-the-job training via practical experience under the supervision of experienced attorneys. This pathway is common for individuals who have a strong background in a specific area of law or possess transferable skills from related professions, such as legal secretaries or legal assistants.
Irrespective of the pathway chosen, remember to consistently update your knowledge and skills through professional development opportunities. One common way to do this could be through attending legal seminars or obtaining specialized certifications.
As a paralegal, you need to build and hone a set of skills that will help you bring your A game to work everyday. While there could be multiple skills and qualities, here are 10 key skills and qualities for a successful paralegal:
- Research Skills:
- Paralegals need strong research skills to find relevant legal precedents, statutes, and case law.
- Effective research ensures that legal arguments are well-supported and thorough.
- Organizational Skills:
- As a paralegal you would have to handle a considerable amount of paperwork and documentation. Being organized will come in handy when managing case files, court deadlines, and client information efficiently.
- Attention to Detail:
- Legal documents require precision. Paralegals must pay close attention to details to make sure contracts, pleadings and other legal materials are accurate.
- Communication Skills:
- Clear written and verbal communication is essential when dealing with clients, opposing counsel, and court personnel. You’ll need to ensure you convey legal information effectively.
- Legal Knowledge:
- Paralegals must possess a solid foundation in legal principles, procedures, and terminology. This knowledge is important for drafting legal documents and understanding case-related issues.
- Computer Proficiency:
- Legal work relies heavily on technology. If you’re proficient in legal software, databases, and word processing tools, you’ll easily be able to draft legal documents and conduct research efficiently.
- Analytical Thinking:
- As a paralegal, you would need to analyze complex legal issues, identify relevant facts, and develop strategies for solving legal problems. Critical thinking skills are invaluable.
- Ethical Integrity:
- Upholding ethical standards is paramount in the legal profession. It’s important for paralegals to maintain confidentiality and adhere to professional codes of conduct.
- Time Management:
- Sometimes, legal cases involve multiple deadlines. Effective time management would let you complete tasks promptly and juggle multiple priorities, reducing the risk of missing critical dates.
- Team Player:
- Collaboration is common in legal practice. Paralegals work closely with attorneys and other professionals. Being a team player and having good interpersonal skills are essential for a harmonious work environment.
Collectively, these skills and qualities will help you offer valuable support to attorneys, contribute to successful legal cases, and aid in maintaining a high level of professionalism in your work.
As per U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for paralegals and legal assistants was $59,200 in May 2022. Also, the employment rate of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 4% from 2022 to 2032, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.
Here are five professional settings where you could potentially leverage your professional knowledge:
- Law Firms: The majority of paralegals work in law firms, where they provide support to attorneys in specific practice areas, such as family law, corporate law, or criminal law. In a law firm setting, paralegals assist in drafting legal documents, conducting research, and preparing for trials.
- Corporate Legal Departments: Many corporations have in-house legal departments that employ paralegals to handle legal matters related to the company’s operations. Paralegals in corporate settings may assist with contract management, compliance issues, intellectual property matters, and employment law.
- Government Agencies: Federal, state, and local government agencies often hire paralegals to support their legal teams. Paralegals in government agencies may be involved in areas such as immigration, administrative law, or criminal justice.
- Non-Profit Organizations: Non-profit organizations, including advocacy groups and legal aid clinics, often rely on paralegals to assist with legal research, document preparation, and client communication. Working in a non-profit organization lets you, as a paralegal, make a positive impact on society while gaining valuable experience.
- Legal Consulting: Some paralegals choose to work as independent contractors or consultants, providing specialized legal services to law firms, corporations, or individuals. Legal consultants may offer assistance in areas such as eDiscovery – the process of identifying, collecting and producing electronically stored information (ESI) in response to a request raised in a lawsuit or investigation, document review, or legal research.
Deciding if a paralegal career is right for you requires careful consideration of your skills, interests, and career goals. Here are some factors to consider when making this decision:
- Interest in the legal field: A paralegal career involves working in the legal field, so it’s important to have an interest in law and legal processes. If you enjoy researching, analyzing, and interpreting legal information, then a paralegal career may be a good fit for you.
- Detail oriented: Paralegals are responsible for preparing legal documents, conducting research, and organizing case files. Attention to detail is critical in this role, as even small errors can have significant consequences.
- Communication skills: Paralegals work closely with attorneys, clients, and other legal professionals. Strong communication skills, both written and verbal, are essential for success in this role.
- Education and training: While a paralegal certificate or degree is not always required, it can be helpful in securing a job and advancing in your career. Consider your educational background and whether you are willing to pursue additional training.
- Career goals: Paralegal careers can vary widely depending on the type of law firm or organization you work for. Consider your long-term career goals and whether a paralegal career aligns with those goals.
A career as a paralegal can be a rewarding and fulfilling path for those with an interest in the legal field, strong attention to detail, and effective communication skills. Before you make your final decision, consider your skills, interests, and career goals to see what best meets your professional needs.
If you’re looking for a rewarding, challenging yet fulfilling profession in the legal world, then becoming a paralegal could be a wonderful choice for you.
With a combination of education, skills, and dedication to the legal profession, you can explore the varied career options that this profession has to offer.
Interested in law but paralegal studies isn’t your calling? Explore our blog to find pathways that may help you enter the legal profession with ease.
Paralegals play an important role in assisting lawyers in preparing for trials. Here are some ways in which paralegals may assist lawyers in trial preparation.
– Organizing trial documents including pleadings, motions, and exhibits
– Conducting legal research on issues related to the trial, such as case law, statutes, and regulations.
– Assisting lawyers in preparing witnesses for trial including interviews, drafting witness statements etc.
– Assist in the discovery process, which involves gathering and exchanging information with the other party in the case.
Paralegals may work in a variety of specialized areas of law, depending on their interests and experience. Here are some examples of specialized areas of law in which paralegals may work:
– Corporate law: Assisting with tasks such as drafting contracts, conducting due diligence, and preparing filings with regulatory agencies.
– Intellectual property law: Assisting with tasks such as conducting patent and trademark searches, preparing patent applications, and managing patent portfolios.
– Real estate law: Assisting with tasks such as conducting title searches, preparing closing documents, and coordinating real estate transactions.
– Family law: Assisting with tasks such as drafting divorce petitions, preparing child custody agreements, and managing client communications.
– Litigation: Assisting with tasks such as organizing trial documents, conducting legal research, and preparing witnesses for trial.