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What is a Paralegal and What Do They Do?

Students wanting to earn a paralegal degree may be interested in working with those who need legal help. To do so, they can enroll in paralegal programs such as paralegal studies or a legal assistant program.

Paralegals fall within the category of skilled professionals who work in law but are not lawyers or law experts necessarily. Their largest responsibility is to carry out important but secondary legal tasks as a licensed attorney supervises their work. Paralegals don’t offer legal services to the public but they do complete tasks in order to take some of the weight off the attorney for whom they work. They may interview clients and witnesses, assist them with filing paperwork or other things they need done, draft legal documents, carry out basic investigations and data analysis, catalog and file each document received, research legal issues and help with litigation efforts, etc.

A paralegal studies program requires students to complete 60 credits or more. Once they have done so, they may have earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in Paralegal Studies. Some colleges also offer a Legal Assistant Certificate, consisting of 29 credits. You can also choose to earn a bachelor’s in the field, but this may not be necessary depending on where you are hoping to take your career in the future.

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Steps to Becoming a Paralegal

At its most basic, a paralegal’s responsibility is to help attorneys in their law firm to keep their daily duties organized and running smoothly. They will carry out a variety of tasks for their supervising attorney so that the attorney can focus on putting their cases together. Their duties may be as legal document preparers, carrying out legal research, and organizing case files, among others. They may also write up legal briefs and interview both clients and witnesses before a case goes to trial.

Depending on the legal specialty of the lawyer, their paralegals may do work on real estate, contracts, or even civil lawsuits. Lawyers specializing in divorce may ask their paralegals to get documents from the couple and maintain close communication with the case as it is ongoing. Documents required in these cases may include estate planning, insurance, pensions, business and real estate documents, etc. While child custody is a big part of a divorce lawyer’s work, their paralegals are not likely to be focused on that matter.

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The best paralegals focus on details. They are efficient and organized; just what their attorney needs. They should also be able to adapt and change directions quickly, as situations in law firms can change suddenly. Adaptability is also important for a paralegal who may be changing jobs and moving to a different law firm.

Paralegals work long hours during the work week and their roles are vital to law firms all over the country. With little room for error, they have to have an educational background and the experience necessary to drive success. Even tiny mistakes may have big consequences for their employers. Once a paralegal is on the job, they will be focus only on the responsibilities that have been given to them in a particular case. This means that their work focus may shift from day to day and case to case.

  • Step 1: Education Requirements

  • Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

  • Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

  • Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance

steps to take paralegal careers

Step 1: Education Requirements

Students who want to work as paralegals are required to complete minimum educational requirements. A two-year associate degree in paralegal studies can get students into law firms, working for the lawyers. Paralegal education programs have been designed to teach students the skills they need to thrive in legal or corporate settings. However, there is always the possibility that a certain law firm will require a higher education, such as a bachelor’s degree, rather than an associate’s, so you should be aware of this going in, especially if you are hoping to work in a specific firm or for a specific agency.

A paralegal certificate program affords students with a practical legal foundation, along with the skills they need to be successful as a paralegal. Some universities also offer an undergraduate degree in paralegal studies.

As students are researching the paralegal degree programs they are interested in, they need to be sure the programs have been approved by the American Bar Association. Certificate programs give paralegals with their bachelor’s degree the legal foundation they need to assure their success, but only if the program is appropriately accredited. With an accredited program, they can not only find success as a paralegal, but can also earn a law degree should this be a part of their career goals.

Earning a certification or degree also means developing the skills of a paralegal so that you can work within a certain professional setting. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, and organizational skills help carry a paralegal through their workday. They should also be good at multitasking. Students are also expected to develop skills with computers, spreadsheets, and other electronic devices.

Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

Some paralegal degree programs will require their students to enter internships. Internships are highly recommended for students who have no legal experience. Students getting ready to enter their internships must complete the majority of their coursework prior to entering an internship position. Once they have done this, they can submit an application to the internship program, and their resume if they have one.

Internship sites for students are not guaranteed, even when programs specifically offer internship opportunities. That is, students won’t be able to say they want to do their internship in a particular law firm. Instead, they’ll need to research which firms are accepting student interns and submit their application and resume accordingly. The internship sites will decide what level of education or credentialing is required for internships hoping to enter certain available roles.

As students consider which internship programs they hope to enter, they should remember that they need not work with a law firm. in fact, they may work within a court-related services office, any nearby corporations, real estate agencies, or law firms that offer internship programs. Graduates are then able to list their internship experience on their resumes.

Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

As paralegal students consider their options, they need to understand the difference between a paralegal certificate program and a certified paralegal. The certificate only marks the end of the educational process and a program which offers a certificate may not offer certification to the student.

A certified paralegal, on the other hand, has completed a certification program that ends with a certification exam, and they have met several requirements:

  • Graduated from an accredited paralegal program
  • Completed a specified number of work experience hours
  • passed qualifying exams or a series of exams

A number of paralegal organizations and schools offer certification programs and exams. Once the paralegal has completed their study course and passed their exam, these organizations can award one of several certifications to these newly minted paralegal professionals. After earning needed certifications and completing job training, they are ready to enter the paralegal field that they established as their career path.

Certifications that can be awarded include Certified Paralegal (CP) and the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) credentials. An advanced specialty certification exam is also available for paralegals seeking one.

Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance

Paralegals perform several types of work for the lawyers to whom they are assigned. This may be business-related, legal, or regulatory work that the lawyer needs for an upcoming court case. The paralegal career they choose may require highly specific skills.

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While an associate degree or certificate in legal studies are usually required for this type of position, other paralegals with bachelor’s degrees also oversee paralegals holding associate degrees or certificates. Paralegals who want to advance in this profession should look for continuing education certifications. These allow them to maintain their licensure or earn certificates in a specialty that their supervising lawyer has requested they learn, or which can help them find higher-level employment elsewhere.

Some of these specialties and skills include contract negotiation, contract management, corporate governance, regulatory compliance, and insurance. Paralegals working for lawyers in specific specialties, such as litigation or corporate work, may want to look for certifications that may help them in these arenas. For example, corporate paralegals may want to consider certification in employment law or human resources, which will make them more valuable to the corporation.

Where Do Paralegals Work?

Non-profit organizations may hire paralegals to ensure that the work they are doing will satisfy the IRS and other government or regulatory agencies. Corporate paralegals usually work in relatively large corporations. They may oversee the setup for a subsidiary; this role requires the knowledge of closing requirements and post-closing integration as well as a variety of other knowledge.

Some paralegals work for real estate firms or title companies. Larger real estate organizations often have their own in-house legal departments. This means that paralegals can be vital members of their teams. Paralegals in this field will need to be familiar with the different areas of real estate contracts, titles, sales contracts, lien searches, and closing on properties.

Litigation paralegals help lawyers prepare for upcoming civil trials, while public defender paralegals work for lawyers who specialize in criminal law. They help to protect the rights of accused defendants. This particular role takes the right kind of paralegal. Working as a paralegal in this field may be a good lead-in to a criminal justice degree or a law degree.

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Why Become a Paralegal?

Students planning to enter the legal field may have a variety of different reasons for doing so.

  • Flexibility in the Law Field:
    Paralegals are able to choose the legal specialty in which they want to work. By researching the paralegal programs via the Center for Advanced Legal Studies and other organizations, they will be able to find a challenging degree program and find elective classes which allow them to gain skills in other areas of the law where they have an interest.
  • Chance to Help Others:
    This is the gist of what paralegals do - they help others. They help their employer attorneys to increase their efficiency and they help their law firm to be more productive. Most of all, they help the law firm’s clients.
  • Demand for Paralegals:
    When aspiring paralegals earn their associate degree or an undergraduate degree, they have the chance to become a part of a growing field.
  • Salary of a Paralegal:
    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2017, the median annual wage for paralegals was more than $50,000. Even with economic slowdowns, their annual salary still exceeds expectations.

Professional Organizations

Professional organizations for the paralegal profession have been set up to help paralegals earn certifications, network with each other, benefit from professional development, and offer them opportunities for voluntary certifications. Each paralegal association works to improve this legal field for its members.

  • National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
    The National Association of Legal Assistants is the preeminent organization in the U.S. for legal assistants and paralegals. NALA offers Active, Associate, Student, and Sustaining memberships to its members. Regardless of their category, members all receive the same membership benefits.
  • National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
    The NFPA promotes a worldwide presence for this profession, as well as leadership within the legal community. NFPA was the first nationwide paralegal association within the U.S. As a non-profit association, it is policy-oriented and issues-driven.
  • American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE)
    AAfPE was created in 1981, serving paralegal educators and the educational institutions that offer degree programs in paralegal education. Improving the quality of paralegal education has been its main goal. Now, AAfPE has more than 450 educational members; these member schools enroll nearly 50,000 students with almost 200,000 graduates.

Career, Salary and Advancement Outlook

The job outlook for paralegals and legal assistants is showing that the profession is expected to grow by 10% between 2019 and 2029. This is much faster than all other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

One factor affecting the bright employment outlook for paralegals is due to law firms’ efforts to increase the efficacy of their legal services even as they work to lower costs. In achieving these goals, they may be hiring more legal assistants and paralegals. Each law office working to achieve these goals may require their paralegals to operate within a hybrid role, carrying out their traditional paralegal duties and also taking on some of the work that used to be assigned to legal secretaries or support workers.

The average annual salary of a paralegal is $49,000. Their early-career earnings are $34,000, with late-career earnings sitting at around $72,000. The average salary for a legal assistant is $45,000. Their early-career earnings average $31,000 and their late-career earnings are closer to $67,000. The average annual salary of a corporate paralegal is $66,000. Their early-career salary is $47,000 and their late-career salary averages around $91,000.

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