What Does a Paralegal Career Entail?
As a paralegal, you won’t be an attorney or need to pass the bar and obtain licensure from the American Bar Association(ABA). However, you’ll still have to have some degree of legal knowledge with which you’ll help the attorney to whom you’re assigned. A good definition to use is this: “A paralegal is a professional employed by a law firm, corporation or government agency to work with lawyers on legal issues.” That’s it in a nutshell. You’ll be trained to work with lawyers. You can get this training through paralegal studies in the form of a paralegal degree or earn certification in paralegal studies and training through on-campus or online paralegal programs. Any paralegal certification program or degree in paralegal studies you consider should be approved by the ABA. Paralegals and legal assistants should use their certificate program or degree to gain skills in legal research and legal writing.
Components of a Successful Paralegal Career
As a paralegal, you'll need to have a variety of skills. Each skill helps to serve your career as a paralegal.
Dedication - You should want to do the work you do. For you, it should be more than “just a paycheck”. It may be more of a mission for you to learn everything you can as a paralegal, so you can help the legal professional you’ll support and fulfill your role well.
Excellent Listening Skills - You should be able to take in the spoken word and understand the unspoken meanings behind those words. You’ll read the potential case and you may interview the future client and write down what they tell you. You’ll attend meetings with the lawyer and their clients and you’ll also spend time in court.
Detail Oriented - You know there are small but important details buried in the pile of work your supervising lawyer just gave you. It's vital that you be able to search for, find, and assemble those details when preparing documents. You will also need to fill out technical forms that must be completed in a specific way with exacting content.
High Level of Intuition - You might be able to easily read situations and people. You should have a highly developed sixth sense that gives you an understanding of when something is off or not as it’s being presented. You can also read people, from judges to clients. You’re able to provide the needed insight into a case.
Excellent Research and Writing Skills - You should have a love of research, whether you're looking through law books or every nook of the internet looking for that one elusive piece of case law.
Earn a Paralegal Degree to Become a Legal Assistant
What is the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant?
A legal assistant is not a paralegal and a paralegal is not a legal assistant; the difference lies in the educational levels of each.
A legal assistant doesn’t need very much college education, although it is vital that they get to their high school graduation and earn their diploma. Becoming a paralegal only requires that they attend a legal assistant certificate or paralegal certification program. Once they complete the program and earn certification in paralegal studies, they are capable of taking care of several administrative tasks in the law office.
Those who wish to become paralegals and legal assistants need to find an accredited paralegal degree program, complete the courses, and earn their paralegal degree. A great piece of advice: Look for an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved school or community college, where you’ll learn the skills you’ll need, such as legal writing. Becoming a paralegal is just that easy. Then, you’ll gather evidence for cases and existing legal documents for your supervising attorney to review. You’ll help with case preparation and perform legal writing for forms and documents that need to be filed with a court. The one thing you cannot do is provide legal advice. You don’t have the qualifications or the license to provide actual legal advice and you can get into a lot of trouble for trying to do so.
Typical Paralegal Degree Requirements
The services a paralegal provides are highly valuable. The paralegal degree requirements are also high - you must earn either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in paralegal studies so that you can work in a law office.
Employers will highly prefer having a paralegal with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in hand rather than a paralegal certificate. If you have a background or education in criminal justice, you’ll be highly attractive to criminal defense lawyers.
Typical Paralegal Certifications Needed
Once you graduate and begin looking for a job in your new field, you should also study for the (voluntary) national Certified Paralegal (CP) examination. Once you take this certification in paralegal studies and pass, you’ll receive a certificate that allows you to work as a paralegal.
Students who have earned their associate degree, but nothing more advanced, can take the Certified Legal Assistant exam, as long as they meet requirements established by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
If you are enrolled in a paralegal studies certificate program, this will enable you to earn the credits to become a paralegal, but you will still be required to sit for the CP exam. However, the certificate you earn from the program is recognized by some employers. It’s just one step toward earning your certification in paralegal studies, so it’s still important to take the licensing exam.
Once you have your certificate, you’ll have to take continuing education classes in your field, mostly these will be classes that pertain to legal ethics. You’ll renew your paralegal studies certification every two years with four mandatory CEU hours.
Academic Standards for Paralegals
Before you can legally represent yourself as a paralegal, you have to hold, at a minimum, a Bachelor of Arts in paralegal studies. You also need one year of law-related work experience, and this has to be verified by a practicing attorney.
In school, you have to maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5 in all of your classes (cumulative) before you can graduate. When you begin the paralegal studies program, you have to complete your certificate classes, and graduate, in at least five years.
Exam/Experience Needed for Paralegals
This short listing of certification exams should narrow things down for you:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers the ‘Registered Paralegal’ certification to those who meet requirements for education and work experience and pass the Paralegal Competency Exam (PACE).
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) awards the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) to those who meet its requirements. Advanced specialty certifications (CLAS) are also given by NALA, along with some state-specific competency exams.
- NALS, which is the Association for Legal Professionals, provides three paralegal certifications at different levels.
The experience and skills or qualities you’ll need include:
- Friendly, approachable, and professional
- Have the ability and desire to help others even as you watch deadlines closely
- Excellent spelling, writing, and grammar skills, along with an ability to correct citations
- Ability to prioritize
- High level of communication skills
- Research skills
Important Questions to Ask
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Paralegal Bachelor’s Degree Online?
A bachelor’s degree requires at least 120 credits. About half of these credits will count toward general education requirements, with others counting toward your major.
If you take a minimum of 12 credits per semester you may graduate in about four and one-half years. If you add one more three-credit class to your course load each semester, that means you’ll graduate more quickly. Summer session classes are another option.
How Much Does a Paralegal Bachelor’s Degree Cost?
Different universities and colleges structure their tuition in different ways. Some offer a flat-rate while others offer credit hours at a specific rate per hour. The flat rate covers every credit per semester. And, some institutions charge a fee for every credit over 18 credits, because the work and study load are so heavy.
Expect to pay, on average, $998 per credit, for fewer than 12 credits; $14,970 flat rate for 12 to 18 credits. However, every institution is different, and rates can vary between in-state and out-of-state rates.
Does the School Have the Major(s) You are Considering?
If one school has you excited with the possibility of attending and graduating there, slow down for a few minutes. If you have a paralegal studies major in mind, you need to verify whether that school has that major.
The presence or lack of a major is your biggest concern now. Call the student admissions office and ask if that school offers a paralegal studies major. If they do, you may also want to research what other programs they offer if you plan to take a minor in a related field, such as criminal justice.
How Many Students Graduate “on Time,” in Four Years?
Incoming freshmen have a “less than 50 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree within four years,” says the Star-Ledger. In times when a student’s parents’ money may not be in much abundance, students have to be mindful of the funds they commit every semester— if you go over four years, college will cost more.
To be more assured of graduating in four years or less, take a higher course load—15 to 18 hours. Listen closely to your advisor and take classes when they say you should. Use summer sessions to get ahead or catch up.
What Kind of Accreditation Does the Program Hold? How is it Regarded in the Field?
Paralegal programs that have been accredited have high quality faculty and course material. As a student majoring in paralegal studies, look for accredited programs in your preferred colleges. These programs should be of high quality and be well-regarded by the legal community. You can research accrediting agencies on the Department of Education website if you’re unsure of the qualifications of a schools accrediting body.
Proficiency in general computer use will be necessary. You’ll be sending and receiving a high volume of emails, digital photos, texts, messages, spreadsheets, and Word files.
Other technology you should be familiar with includes USB drives, mobile devices, and social media websites. Your supervising attorney, in working on a case, may find evidence within a computer hard drive or even network servers.
Your supervising attorney will tell you when they need research completed. Because little, if anything, waits in the field of law, you’ll need to be able to access it quickly. You also look up legal precedent, so you need to know which law text the case law is in. Research is of vital importance in this field and you’ll need to be able to complete any necessary research in both digital and physical formats.
Paralegal Associate's Degree
When you enter an associate degree program, you’ll have approximately two years to finish your coursework satisfactorily. Your coursework may look like this:
- Paralegal Today
- Legal Research
- Legal Analysis and Writing
- Litigation and Trial Practice
- Administration Law
- Business Organizations
- Real Property
- Criminal Law
- Torts: Personal Injury Litigation
- Interpersonal Communications
- Business Management
- Mathematics Essentials
- Domestic Relations
- Trusts, Wills, and Estate Administration
- Immigration Law
- Environmental Law
- Intellectual Property
- Social Security Disability
Paralegal Bachelor’s Degree
A bachelor’s degree will take around 4+ years to complete, but it is the most common degree for entry-level paralegal professionals. In the Bachelor’s Paralegal Studies Program, you’ll take courses such as:
- Writing Communication, I: Writing and Rhetoric
- Written Communication, II: Writing About Literature
- Quantitative Reasoning
- Oral Communication
- Natural Sciences
- Social Sciences
- Information Fluency and Academic Integrity
- Liberal Arts Core Foundations
- White Collar Crime
- Foundations of Law
- Legal Research and Writing
- Constitutional Governance
- Business Organizations
- Interviewing, Negotiation, and Alternative Dispute Resolution
- Litigation and Trial Advocacy
- Ethics in a Legal Environment
- Contemporary Legal Issues
- Electronic Discovery and Legal Technology
- Law Practice Management
- Victim Advocacy
- Community Corrections and Alternative Sentences
- Intercultural Communication
- Employment Law
- Intellectual Property
- Transactional Law
- Law Practice Management
- Independent Study
- Experiential Learning
- Youth at Risk
Paralegal Master’s Degree
A master’s degree requires that you have completed a bachelor’s, either in paralegal studies or another related field. It usually takes students around 2 years to complete their master’s, though some accelerated programs do exist. Moving into the Master’s Paralegal Studies, you’ll study the following courses:
- American Jurisprudence
- Legal Research and Writing
- Advanced Legal Writing
- Business Entities
- Administrative Law
- Government Contracts
- International Law
- Intellectual Property Law
- Independent Research
- From “American Jurisprudence” to “Business Entities,” your courses will be the same as the first option. The following courses are related to healthcare corporate compliance:
- Introduction to Healthcare Corporate Compliance
- Compliance with Specific Laws and Regulations I
- Compliance with Specific Laws and regulations II
- Case Studies in Healthcare Corporate Compliance
- Independent Research
Master of Science in Legal Administration with concentrations in Law Firm Administration, Court Administration, or International Court Administration; Master of Legal Studies with concentrations in Criminal Justice, Environment and Natural Resource Law, Human Resources and Employment Law; or Healthcare Compliance.
Paralegal Careers & Potential Salaries
Your educational level impacts your level of pay once you graduate and find a job. However, educational level isn’t the only factor to consider.
Your years of experience also become something valuable for you. The more years of professional, working experience you have, the higher your annual salary will be. When you hear “entry-level median annual salary, mid-level median annual salary and late-career median annual salary,” those years of experience have a major effect on your annual pay.
Paralegal Fields of Study Median Salaries
- Corporate Paralegals serve an entire corporation, not just a succession of clients. As a corporate paralegal, you’ll spend much of your time on contracts, finding business impropriety, if it is present, and researching business regulations. While most corporations operate within the law, others may not be so careful.
- Family Law Paralegals work with attorneys who represent families in the middle of custody disputes. You’ll be involved with preparatory findings and drafting correspondence to attorneys, clients, and the court. You’ll also send case files to opposing clients. You’ll use your people skills to help emotionally upset families to regain control of themselves.
- Estate Planning and Probate Paralegals work with people who have lost family members. The families may be experiencing grief and touchy situations, so you’ll have to be sensitive to that. You’ll also need to be skilled in working with numbers and details found in wills. You’ll help elderly people who can’t figure out where they are as far as retirement funds and willing money to family.
- Immigration Paralegals work in a law office or large company with an immigration lawyer. You’ll work with immigrants and help them in filing legal documents requesting that they be allowed to stay in the U.S. or, so they can fight deportation orders. If they have requested political asylum, you’ll help them with that.
- Government Paralegals work closely with the community, providing legal aid assistance and community outreach. The duties you perform will be the same as other paralegals, but you will do them for a division of a local, state, or federal government.
- Intellectual Property Paralegals work exclusively with patents or trademarks. You may work in a law office, a government organization, or for a large company. You may be given responsibility for helping clients with charges of trademark infringement, intellectual property matters, and patent and copyright applications. You will work closely with diverse people.
- Real Estate Paralegals specialize in real estate law, working with clients who are dealing with large amounts of paperwork to complete real estate purchases or sales. You’ll review and file documents, maintain correspondence between all parties, and coordinate schedules and deadlines. Matters you may deal with include zoning disputes, foreclosures, and boundary issues.
- Litigation Paralegals work with legal actions. You’ll work in areas where any type of legal action, such as a lawsuit, is being prepared. Depending on your interests, you’ll work in one of several subspecialties within litigation. These may include intellectual property, corporations, or personal injury. Your supervising attorney will assist their clients in filing lawsuits. Expect a fast-paced environment.
Field of Study with Associates Salary, Bachelors Salary, Masters Salary
|Field of Study||Associates Salary||Bachelors Salary||Masters Salary|
|Family Law Paralegal||$47,450||$52,955||$61,599|
|Estate Planning & Probate Paralegal||$32,000||$47,000||$69,000|
|Intellectual Property Law Paralegal||$39,000||$53,000||$72,000|
|Real Estate Paralegal||$32,000||$47,000||$69,000|
|Litigation Law Paralegal||$38,000||$54,000||$74,000|
Paralegal Certification Salaries by Occupation
Looking at the different paralegal specializations, it’s easy to see where you’ll make more money, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Payscale.com. Working in corporate law as a paralegal specialist you’re likely to earn more than if you work in government law. You can earn upwards of $40,000 annually in corporate law, even with only an associate degree, but government and real estate paralegals are more likely to earn about $8,000 less.
At the master’s level, when you consider the specializations, the wage spread isn’t as large. By now, you’ve taken some pretty specialized, high-level classes, so you’re of much greater value to any agency, law firm, or government agency where you’re employed.
Occupation & Job Descriptions by Degree Types
- Litigation paralegals delve deeply into researching case law for the attorneys they are assigned to. They help maintain documents provided by clients, organize and retrieve evidence to be used at depositions, and independently draft settlement agreements. Some paralegals in this specialty will also handle the logistics of attending trials, to include reserving office space at the court house.
- Corporate paralegals oversee the monitoring and review of government regulations, so that the corporation and lawyers are aware of changes in the law. They prepare shareholder agreements, employee contracts, annual financial reports, and stock-option plans. They also take care of existing corporate issues and incorporation and formation of entity.
- Bankruptcy paralegals are responsible for representing the debtor (person declaring bankruptcy). They take part in the first few client interviews and begin to gather documentation and facts from the client. They provide legally required standard disclosures and forms for the client to sign. They also discuss credit counseling and financial management course requirements with clients.
- Banking and Finance paralegals handle the issuance of bonds. They draft various documents (resolutions, deeds, leases, contracts, trust indentures, agreements, bond certificates, opinions and other documentation relating to bond issuance. They also draft TEFRA and other legal notices and coordinate publication with local media.
- Criminal Defense paralegals work solely in the criminal law area. They interview defendants, gather information, including that of the client, any prior records, current charges, work history, family information and education background. They explain the bail process, preliminary hearing, trial, and the appeal process to clients. Anything having to do with defending a client against criminal charges, the paralegal will be involved in.
- Banking and Finance
- Criminal Defense
- Jail Credit
- Estate Planning
- Probate, Estates, and Trusts
- Family Law
- Legal Services
- Real Estate
Entry, Mid and Late Career Paralegal Salary by Occupation
|Occupations||Entry Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late Career Salary Range|
|Finance and Insurance||$37,690||$60,730||$90,630|
This $1,000 award is given annually to one undergraduate paralegal student and one graduate paralegal student. Students who qualify must be pursuing a Paralegal Certificate. They must also demonstrate they have a financial need for the scholarship. Students who will add to the diversity of the paralegal profession are chosen.
Graduate Student Department Scholarships
Awards of up to $2,000 will be given to new graduate Paralegal/Master’s in Legal Studies (MSL) students. This is a one-time award for each student who receives the scholarship. The funds will be given in the first academic year and distributed evenly over the student’s first two semesters in the program as long as the student is attending at least part-time.
Thomson Reuters Scholarship
The National Association of Paralegal Associations offers this scholarship to two paralegal students each academic year. The award is $3,000 for one student and $2,000 for the second. Eligible students should not have criminal records. Winning students will be provided with a travel stipend to receive their awards.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Awards are provided to paralegal majors at Roosevelt University, located in Chicago. Award amounts are $3,000 per scholarship. Students interested in competing for this scholarship should submit an essay written from assigned topics related to the paralegal field. Students should already have a bachelor’s degree, in any major, before they enroll in the Paralegal program.
Professional Paralegal Organizations
The American Bar Association
The ABA does accept paralegals for membership. As one of the largest voluntary professional associations worldwide, the ABA says it has 400,000 members coming from different professions within the legal field.
You’ll be able to participate in specialty groups, keep up with new developments in the legal field and receive career advice.
National Association of Legal Assistants
NALA is a non-profit association focusing on the professional development and continuing education of both legal assistants and paralegals. You’ll be one of more than 18,000 legal professionals.
The National Paralegal Association
You’ll be mingling with other members who work in legal offices, government agencies, and in law firms. You’ll find that the NPA focuses on continuing education. You can join NPA before you even begin your paralegal studies.
Choosing an Accredited College
Before you enroll in any university or college offering paralegal studies, you need to verify the accreditation status of each school and program in which you are interested. “Accreditation” is a special recognition given to an institution that maintains high educational and professional standards. This focus on excellence benefits you while you’re in school and after you have graduated. If you choose an unaccredited program or university, you will not be able to apply for financial aid or, possibly, scholarships—so, this may be a major consideration for you.
Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid
As you think about attending school and majoring in paralegal studies, you may be wondering whether you should attend school traditionally (on-campus), online, or in a hybrid program. Each has advantages and drawbacks. Some of these may be more important to you, based on your personal preferences and how you learn.
When you take classes on campus, you have to respect the schedules your professors give you for readings, assignments, and tests. However, you’ll get a much higher level of face-to-face contact with fellow students and your instructors. You’ll also be able to participate in daily university activities, allowing you to meet other students socially.
When you take online classes, you lose that interpersonal contact—everything takes place through your computer screen, including discussions with professors. You will still be able to discuss questions and issues with them through email. Student interactions take place in forum discussions, which are usually required by professors. However, you’ll be able to study based on your own schedule.
Hybrid courses give you both face-to-face and online opportunities. You may only have face-to-face sessions once or twice in the term. The remainder of the time, you’ll be working online.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help and Assistance?
A career services office provides several services for students who are in school, as well as for graduates. If you haven’t yet begun to attend college, and you don’t know what you plan to major in, you could take a career aptitude test to give you some insight and help you make that decision.
Workshops, career fairs, resume assistance, cover letter writing help, and interview tips can help you land the paralegal job you’re planning on.
Why You Need to Consider How the Rating/Accreditation can Affect Your Salary
You may read magazines or online articles with rankings of certain colleges and universities. Some are helpful, others, not so much. Whether a university is “good” or “bad” depends on the individual student and what their needs and goals are.
The best way for you to find the best university for your goals is to visit several and ask questions of the staff, as well as of students.
Accreditation is so important that it can affect your future salary. As you apply to various positions, you may be asked to send copies of your official transcripts. Employers use these to verify whether your program was accredited or not. If it was you may be offered a higher salary.
- What Does a Paralegal Career Entail?
- Components Of A Successful "Paralegal Career"
- What is the difference between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant?
Criminal Justice & Law Paths