How to Become A Paralegal

Paralegal Careers Overview

This article provides an overview of paralegal or legal assistant careers and the requirements to become a paralegal. This article will outline paralegal job duties, salary levels, and employment prospects, as well as discuss the career's necessary skills, training, educational requirements, and certification requirements to become a paralegal.

Paralegal Job Duties

Paralegals, or legal assistants, perform many of the same tasks as lawyers. In fact, they are becoming more popular as many enterprises attempt to cut costs by pushing more legal work from lawyers to lower cost paralegals. It is important to note, though, that there are some things that paralegals are prohibited from doing such as setting legal fees, offering legal advice, and presenting cases in court. Beyond that, a paralegal can have a very wide range of job duties, including:

  • Helping lawyers to prepare for closings, hearings, trials, and meetings.
  • Investigating facts, and identifying laws, legal precedents, and judicial decisions for lawyers.
  • Analyzing and organizing information and preparing written reports.
  • Organizing and tracking legal files.
  • Preparing draft contracts, mortgages, agreements, separation agreements, wills, and trust documents.
  • Monitoring and reviewing laws and government regulations.
  • Preparing informative or explanatory materials on laws and regulations.

Paralegals work in all types of organizations with most working in law firms, corporate legal departments, and various branches of Federal, state, and local government. Depending on the type of organization, paralegals can become involved in many different areas of law including litigation, personal injury law, labor or employment law and employee benefits, corporate law, criminal law, bankruptcy law, immigration law, family law, and real estate law.

The duties of a paralegal in smaller enterprises tend to be more varied and broad. Those working for larger enterprises tend to specialize in one or a few aspects of law.

Paralegal Career Skills

Paralegals need to have many of the same skills as lawyers. Common skills needed by a paralegal include:

  • Excellent investigative and research skills including the ability to conduct on-line Internet searches.
  • Familiarity and comfort with computers since they will regularly have to do research in legal databases and on the Internet, interact with and use document imaging systems, and retrieve, organize, and index various materials.
  • Excellent written communication skills to document and present findings, or draft legal documents.
  • Excellent verbal communication skills as they will have to verbally present their findings to supervising attorneys and potentially interact with clients or the public.
  • Strong ethical and confidentiality standards because of the type of work that they perform and the type of sensitive information that they regularly handle.

Paralegal Income

Salaries for paralegals vary greatly depending on education, training, and experience. In addition, the type and size of employer can impact salary. As one would anticipate, paralegals that work in large enterprises or in large metropolitan areas tend to make more. Earnings for paralegals may vary by industry segment with the median annual incomes for the industries employing the largest number of paralegals being:

Training and Education Required to Become a Paralegal

There are an estimated 600 paralegal training programs offered by colleges, universities, and proprietary schools in the United States. About 250 of these are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). While it is not required for a paralegal program to be approved by the ABA, graduating from such a program can enhance one's employment prospects. Paralegal programs include:

  1. 2-year associate degree programs from community colleges. This is the most common way which can help you become a paralegal. There are also a small number of bachelor's and master's degree programs in paralegal studies.
  2. Bachelor degree programs with a certification program. Another common approach for people who already have a 4-year bachelor's degree is to attend a paralegal certificate program. These programs typically take a few months to complete.
  3. Some employers may also provide on-the-Career paralegal training.

The requirements for admission into these programs may vary significantly. Paralegal programs may provide intensive paralegal training. Some programs may also include internships where students could gain practical experience. This experience can be very valuable when seeking a Career after graduation.

Paralegals are not required to become certified. Paralegal certification is available and may offer advantages when entering the Career market. There are two main certifications available to paralegals:

  1. Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) available from The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). This certification has standards for education and experience as well as a 2-day examination.
  2. Registered Paralegal (RP) from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. Paralegals with a bachelors degree and at least 2 years of experience can take the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam to earn this designation.

Many different colleges and universities may provide the training which can be helpful for becoming a paralegal. A list of such institutions can be found on this page of college and universities offering information on Paralegal Schools and related training.

Paralegal Employment

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, there were about 256,000 paralegals and legal assistants in the United States.

Paralegal Career Outlook

Employment of paralegals and legal assistants is expected to grow by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Private law firms would continue to be the largest employers of paralegals but growth is expected in all other sectors that make use of paralegals.

Competition for paralegal Careers is expected to be strong, however, highly skilled, trained, and certified paralegals may have excellent employment prospects. 

Disclaimer: Program outcomes vary according to each institution’s specific curriculum, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.

Paralegal Training

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            Associate of Arts: Paralegal Studies
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