What Does a Paralegal Career Entail?
Are you considering a career as a paralegal? If you are interested in legal proceedings and have superior skills in organization, research, and communication, this may be a good fit for you. Paralegals work closely with lawyers and are often responsible for maintaining documentation, organizing files, conducting legal research, and drafting legal documents. In some cases, these professionals may even help gather and arrange evidence for cases, offer assistance during trials, file legal documents with the court, and collect formal statements from clients.
Paralegals can also choose to specialize in a particular type of law, which often dictates the duties they perform. Common legal areas of interest include:Read More
- Personal Injury
- Criminal Law
- Employee Benefits
- Intellectual Property
- Family Law
- Real Estate
Vocational Trade School & Career Paths
Components of a Successful Paralegal Career
A career as a paralegal is extremely demanding. These professionals must be able to function well in fast-paced settings. They often work on multiple projects simultaneously and sometimes work more than 40 hours a week in order to meet tight deadlines. As such, not everyone is suited for this type of work.
Paralegals have several different responsibilities and must be, or become, proficient in a wide variety of areas. Most professionals in this field possess the following traits:
- Communication skills that help with the documentation and presentation of case-related information and research to supervising attorneys
- Computer skills that help with legal research and litigation support, as well as the organization and maintenance of important legal documents
- Interpersonal skills that allow for productive interactions with clients, attorneys, and other professionals
- Organizational skills that enable the management of multiple cases at once, as well as the ability to adapt to changing deadlines
- Research skills that help with fact-gathering for cases and research on relevant laws and regulations
How to Become a Paralegal
Specific requirements to become a paralegal professional vary significantly by state. Keep the following general steps in mind as you begin pursuing a career in this field:
- Develop your interest in law
- Earn a high school diploma
- Research education options
- Enroll in a degree of certificate program
- Select a legal specialty (optional)
- Complete necessary coursework
- Find employment
- Receive on-the-job training
- Apply for certification (optional)
What Does a Paralegal Do?
While the responsibilities of paralegals vary significantly from firm to firm, these professionals always work closely with attorneys. They frequently help investigate cases and collect important documentation. Most paralegals also write reports, manage case files, draft legal motions, and assist attorneys during trial proceedings.
Not all work is done in preparation for courtroom hearings, however. These professionals often prepare civil documents, like wills, mortgages, and separation agreements. They may or may not spend significant time interacting with clients, depending on the organization or the firm they work for.
While paralegals are deeply involved in legal dealings, they are not allowed to offer advice to clients, represent clients in court, or determine client fees.
What Is the Difference between a Paralegal and Legal Assistant?
Paralegals and legal assistants both work closely with attorneys and may, on occasion, fulfill similar roles. There are, however, a few major differences you should be aware of:
- Paralegals typically have more education (either a certificate or degree in law), whereas legal assistants often have only a high school diploma.
- Paralegals often interact with clients by taking statements and drafting important documents, whereas legal assistants interact with clients by scheduling appointments and taking messages.
- Paralegals frequently help prepare for a case by performing vital research and assisting with statement creation, whereas legal assistants usually help by organizing files and scheduling meetings.
It is also worth noting that paralegals tend to earn higher salaries than legal assistants.
Typical Paralegal School Requirements
If you plan to enroll in a paralegal program at a community college or traditional university, it is important that you become aware of the admission requirements well before the application is due. While every institution is different, most share similar expectations for incoming students. In most cases, you will need:
- High School Diploma or GED
- Standardized Test Scores (either SAT or ACT)
Typical Paralegal Certifications Needed
Paralegals are not required to be certified, but earning a certification can be very beneficial. Not only does it mark a high level of professional achievement and set you apart from other candidates in the field, it can entitle you to promotion opportunities and higher pay.
It is important to realize that there is a distinct difference between certification and having a paralegal certificate. A certificate shows that you have successfully completed a paralegal education program. Being certified, on the other hand, means that you have passed a certification exam offered by a national paralegal organization. Popular certifications via examination include:
- Certified Paralegal (CP) administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants
- Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC) administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants
- Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE) administered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations
- Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) administered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations
Academic Standards for a Paralegal Degree
If you plan to pursue a paralegal certificate or degree, you will be expected to meet the academic standards set by the college or university. All educational institutions establish guidelines for their students. While these can vary from school to school, most specify expectations regarding grade point averages (GPA), cheating, and plagiarism.
In all likelihood, you will need to maintain a minimum GPA while enrolled. Failing to do so may result in academic probation or suspension. If you are discovered to be cheating or plagiarizing someone else’s work, you may also be placed on academic probation, suspension, or even permanently dismissed.
Exam and Experience Needed for a Paralegal Degree or Certification
Currently, no state requires paralegals to acquire a specific amount of experience or pass a standardized examination prior to practicing. Some colleges and universities may have different expectations before graduation, but these are program specific. Paralegals can, however, choose to become certified through a national organization. Certification programs do generally require passing one or more examinations, as well as having years of experience in the field.
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a paralegal degree or certificate?
The answer to this question varies depending on the level of education you intend to complete. If you plan to earn a paralegal certificate, this can generally be done in six months to a year. An associate degree, however, takes approximately two years to complete. Earning a bachelor degree will require about four years. These timeframes can vary from institution to institution, so always research this before enrolling.
How much does a paralegal degree cost?
The answer to this question also varies depending on the level of education you wish to complete. According to the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education Series, students paid an average, in-state tuition of $9,970 to attend one year at traditional, public institution in 2017 and 2018. A single year’s fees paid at a public two-year college were $3,570 in the same academic year. Generally, you can expect certificate programs to cost less than both of these options.
It is important to note, however, that the total cost of a degree or certificate is impacted by the school type, location, and your residency status.
How many students graduate “on time,” or within 12 to 24 months?
Graduation timeframes vary depending on the institution and program type. When considering your academic options, research the statistics specific to the colleges and universities you are interested in. In most cases, schools provide information about graduation rates and timeframes on their websites
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How it is regarded in the field?
As with any certificate or degree, it is imperative that you pay close attention to the accreditation status of the providing institution. Colleges and universities can choose to become accredited by highly-regarded organizations and agencies. Accreditation proves that the institution or program meets or exceeds important field standards.
Schools can become accredited through a variety of organizations, but the most prestigious agency is the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA accreditation process is, however, time consuming and expensive. Additionally, it does not accredit online paralegal programs. As a result, many institutions choose to become accredited through a regional association instead. While this is sufficient, it can be limiting if you plan to work in different region in the future.
Paralegal Degree & Certification Options
Because paralegals do not have strict licensure or certification standards, there are many routes to finding a job. In fact, some individuals can find work in the field with only a high school diploma. In most cases, however, paralegals choose to earn a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor degree.
As you consider your options, keep the cost of your education in mind. The following average tuition rates are courtesy of the College Board:
|Degree Type||Public (In-State)||Private|
While some law firms hire paralegals without any postsecondary education, most expect professionals to have completed, at minimum, a certificate program. These take significantly less time than earning a degree because they do not require any traditional liberal arts classes. Coursework usually consists of 20 to 25 credit hours that focus solely on topics relevant to paralegals. Some can be completed in as few as six months.
It is important to realize that most paralegal certificate programs require candidates to have an associate or bachelor degree already. That said, there are some institutions that open enrollment to anyone with a high school diploma.
- Legal Research
- Legal Writing and Reasoning
- Legal Technologies
Many people working toward a career as a paralegal opt to earn an associate degree. These programs provide a basic introduction to law, as well as important liberal arts topics like writing and history. Coursework generally consists of 60 credit hours and can be completed by full-time students in approximately two years. Graduates can choose to find employment as a paralegal or enroll in another higher education program.
- Introduction to Law
- Paralegal Research
- Legal Ethics
- Contracts, Torts, and Wills
- Business Communications
Some individuals choose to earn an undergraduate degree prior to finding work as a paralegal. Bachelor degrees in paralegal studies are actually hard to find, so most people who choose this route will earn a degree in another field. Afterward, they will complete a certificate program to better prepare them for a successful career. Coursework generally consists of 120 credit hours and can be completed by full-time students in approximately four years.
- Foundations of Paralegalism
- Business Writing
- Advanced Legal Research
- Interviewing and Presentation Skills
- Contracts, Torts, and Wills
Fields of Study
Many colleges and universities offer paralegal students an opportunity to specialize in a particular type of law.
- Corporate Paralegal
- Estate Planning and Probate Paralegal
- Family Law Paralegal
- Government Paralegal
- Immigration Paralegal
- Intellectual Property Paralegal
- Litigation Paralegal
- Real Estate Paralegal
- Corporate Paralegal
A specialization in corporate law for paralegals is an optimal choice if you are interested in working with entire corporations rather than single clients. Professionals with training in this concentration typically help large companies succeed and ensure that no state or federal laws are broken. This type of paralegal usually conducts business without any significant interaction with clients, courts, or the public. Coursework often focuses on the creation and review of business contracts. In addition to learning the basics of the field, corporate paralegal students can expect to take classes that will develop their research skills and attention to detail.
- Estate Planning and Probate Paralegal
A specialization in estate planning and probate is ideal if you are comfortable working with people who have recently experienced a loss. These professionals must be able to handle delicate situations with compassion and confidence. Additionally, it is important that paralegals dealing with this type of legal work be good with numbers. People interested in becoming an estate planning and probate paralegal should understand that most of their clients will be older and contemplating their own passing. This process is quite complicated, so professionals must be able to explain the process in simpler terms. The curriculum is often designed to center around topics like writing wills, planning estates, distributing property, and working with probate.
- Litigation Paralegal
A specialization in litigation is perfect for individuals interested in the legal action process. They work on cases in which some sort of legal action has been taken. This can include anything from bankruptcy and personal injury to divorce disputes and eviction proceedings. Work in this sub-field is generally stressful and fast-paced. It requires significant energy and stamina. Coursework often focuses on developing skills that will help this type of professional interview witnesses and prepare for trial. Students should expect to spend a lot of time in courtrooms after they graduate. Additionally, litigation paralegals are often responsible for helping to control the public perception of cases.
Potential Careers and Salaries for Paralegal Graduates
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual wage for paralegals in 2017 was $50,410. This is well above the median annual wage of $37,690 reported for all occupations. Additionally, job outlook for those interested in the field is very good. The employment for both paralegals and legal assistants is expected to grow 15% between the years 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than the average for all other occupations.
It is important to note that level of education has a large impact on the wages earned. While a degree may not be necessary to work at some legal firms, professionals with some level of higher education tend to make more money. Certifications are also beneficial and can result in better pay.
Paralegal Median Salaries by Occupation
Earning a certificate or degree in paralegal studies will provide you with the skills needed to function in a variety of positions. While job titles and pay can vary drastically based on your location, some of the most popular jobs include:
|Occupation||Entry-Level Median Annual Salary||Mid-Career Median Annual Salary||Late-Career Median Annual Salary|
|Attorney / Lawyer||$68,600||$92,700||$127,100|
Paying for a paralegal certificate or degree can seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, there are many financial aid options for individuals interested in the legal field. While loans may be necessary to pay for your education, it is always best to apply for scholarships. Funds awarded this way can help pay for education-related expenses and do not have to be paid back in the future.
While there are many scholarships available to paralegal students, some of the best opportunities include:
NFPA Thomson Reuters Scholarship
Deadline: July 1
The NFPA Thomson Reuters Scholarship is funded by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA). Each year, the NFPA provides one $3,000 award and one $2,000 award on a one-time basis. These scholarships are both non-renewable. The recipients are selected based on scholastic excellence, participation in campus and paralegal program leadership activities, community service, and a writing sample.
The LEX Scholarship is funded by the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE). Each year, AAfPE provides one $1,500 scholarship and one $500 scholarship to be used in the pursuit of a paralegal education. Only Lambda Epsilon Chi members are eligible and applicants must submit a 500 to 750 word essay with the application.
Heather Heyer Foundation Scholarship
Deadline: March 1
The Heather Heyer Foundation Scholarship is funded by the Heather Heyer Foundation which honors Heather Heyer for her devotion to peaceful social change. Each year, the Heather Heyer Foundation provides a minimum of one award to a law/paralegal student who intends to promote peaceful social change. The scholarship is awarded based on an application and accompanying essay.
Minority Scholarship Program
Deadline: April 1
The Minority Scholarship is funded by Warner Norcross + Judd, a law firm in Michigan. Each year, Warner Norcross + Judd provides one $2,000 scholarship to a paralegal student and one $1,000 scholarship to a legal secretarial student. The scholarship is intended for students who are current Michigan residents majoring in paralegal or legal secretarial studies.
Current paralegals and students studying to become paralegals are eligible to become members of professional organizations and associations. Doing this can be very beneficial, as members are often granted access to valuable field resources, discounts, training, certifications, and networking opportunities. Some of the most prominent professional organizations, associations, and societies for paralegals include:
American Bar Association
The American Bar Association (ABA) strives to protect independence of the legal profession and advocate for justice in the United State. It does this by building upon the expertise of its members. The association is committed to providing professionals with opportunities to enhance their skills, as well as access to resources that will help them stay informed. Members will accelerate their careers, connect with other legal professionals, sharpen their practice, and save money on services.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) is dedicated to promoting a global presence for the paralegal profession. As the first national paralegal association, it is now comprised of 9,000 individual members and 50 member associations. Members receive access to educational opportunities, continuing education programs, publications, subscriptions, webinars, special events, and networking.
National Association of Legal Assistants
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) strives to provide continuing education and professional development opportunities to paralegals. As the leading non-profit paralegal association in the United States, NALA offers continuing education, networking, and certification opportunities. Other member benefits include access to legal publications, courses, occupational survey reports, and webinars.
Whether you’re a high school student, college student, or current professional, you can begin working toward your paralegal career right away. As a student, make an appointment to discuss your career goals with a school counselor or advisor. These professionals will be able to point you in the right direction. If you already have a job at a law firm, speak with your supervisor about your interest in becoming a paralegal. In both cases, you should make an effort to become more actively involved in legal work in your community.
Choosing an Accredited Paralegal Vocational School
Selecting an institution and/or paralegal program that is properly accredited should be a priority. While ABA accreditation is optimal, you may have trouble finding a college or university in your area that has completed this agency’s accreditation process. If necessary, opt instead for a school which has been regionally accredited. Attending an unaccredited institution can make it difficult to transfer your credits and find employment. It can also result in a lower annual income.
On-Campus vs. Online vs. Hybrid Degree Programs
When choosing a certificate or degree program, it is important to realize that there are a few different attendance options: traditional, online, and hybrid. Traditional students attend their classes on campus, whereas online students complete coursework virtually. There are benefits to both methods, but a major drawback of distance learning is the lack of in-person instruction and networking opportunities. Some schools attempt to bridge the gap between traditional and distance education with hybrid programs. Students enrolled in one of these will complete the majority of their classes online but have to attend one or more short residencies.
Post-Graduate Job Placement Assistance
Upon graduation, your number one priority will be finding employment as a paralegal. This process can be extremely stressful, especially for individuals who have never job searched before. To make the transition from student to professional easier, some colleges and universities offer post-graduate job placement assistance. While services vary from school to school, it is not uncommon for programs to offer help with interview preparation and resume development. Additionally, some institutions provide career coaching and internship placement, as well as access to job fairs. Not every college and university has job placement programs, so be sure to inquire about it prior to enrolling.
Importance of Overall National Ranking
All colleges and universities have a national ranking. You should take this ranking into consideration when selecting a paralegal program. Higher ranked institutions are often regarded as better by employers. In some cases, law firms care more about the school’s reputation than they do about its accreditation status. Attending a program that is well regarded will offer you more employment and promotion opportunities in the future.