How to Become a Paralegal: A Complete Career Guide

Updated on January 5, 2024

As the demand for legal services continues rising across industries, skilled paralegals have become invaluable to a lawyer’s team. Paralegals take on crucial responsibilities like legal research, document preparation, and general case management support. This enables lawyers to maximize productivity and manage growing caseloads more efficiently.

If you have an analytical mindset and keen attention to detail, a career as a paralegal may be perfect for you. The field is also projected to grow at a faster-than-average rate over the coming years. So, what does it take to secure an exciting and meaningful paralegal job? This comprehensive guide will walk you through the central steps.

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal (or legal assistant) helps lawyers prepare documents, conduct legal research, and carry out office duties. According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), paralegals are not licensed to practice law independently but play a vital support role, enabling lawyers to handle more cases.

Paralegals typically earn an associate’s degree or certificate to enter the field faster than lawyers. Top schools provide American Bar Association (ABA) approved paralegal education programs.

Educational Requirements

To become a paralegal, you generally need an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or post-baccalaureate certificate in paralegal studies covering areas like:

Many colleges and universities now offer specialized paralegal degrees and certificates to equip you with the required skills.

Gaining Paralegal Experience

Beyond formal education, hands-on paralegal experience is equally critical. Entry-level opportunities like paralegal internships allow you to put classroom concepts into practice.

You can find openings on sites like Indeed and LinkedIn. Volunteer positions at legal clinics are another excellent way to obtain work experience.

Develop Essential Paralegal Skills

Succeeding as a paralegal requires certain core skills, including:

You can pick up valuable abilities over time by enrolling in skills courses, pursuing paralegal internships, and volunteering at clinics. Staying continually updated via sites like LexisNexis is also a must.

Paralegals tend to specialize in diverse legal disciplines like:

Your choice depends on preferences and long-term career plans. Seeking internships in targeted practice areas is recommended.

Paralegal Job Outlook and Opportunities

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an above-average job growth for paralegals from 2020 to 2030, as legal teams aim to enhance cost-efficiency. This influx of opportunities makes now an ideal time to join the profession.

Many paralegals eventually transition into leadership roles like senior paralegals, paralegal managers, and even lawyers, after accumulating some experience.

To gain an advantage during your job hunt as an aspiring paralegal, ensure your resume and cover letters highlight your:

Also, tap into sites like LinkedIn, local career fairs, company websites, and alma mater job boards.

Continuing Paralegal Education

Although optional, certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) via the Certified Paralegal exam confirms your expertise. Certification can give your career prospects a valuable boost.

You must also meet annual Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements through seminars, webinars, and conferences. Joining the National Paralegal Association (NPA) provides further learning opportunities.

Now that you know the central steps for starting a paralegal career, it’s time to move! With strong growth predicted over this decade, an exciting legal journey lies ahead.

FAQs

What Is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is a professional who assists lawyers in their legal work. They are not licensed attorneys but are trained to perform tasks such as legal research, drafting documents, organizing files, and preparing cases for hearings. Paralegals work in law firms, corporate legal departments, government agencies, and other legal settings.

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Paralegal?

While not always mandatory, a degree can significantly enhance your prospects in the field. Many paralegals hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field. Some have a degree in another area with a certificate in paralegal studies.

What’s the Difference Between a Paralegal Certificate and a Degree?

A paralegal certificate is a specialized program focusing solely on paralegal studies and is often pursued by individuals who already hold a degree. In contrast, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies includes a broader educational curriculum, including general education courses.

Are There Any Required Certifications to Become a Paralegal?

Certification requirements vary by state and employer. While not always legally required, certifications like the Certified Paralegal (CP) can enhance job prospects and credibility. After passing an exam, these are obtained through organizations like NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants).

How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?

The timeline varies depending on the educational path chosen. An associate’s degree typically takes two years, a bachelor’s four years, and a paralegal certificate program can range from a few months to two years, depending on the student’s prior education.

What Skills Are Essential for a Successful Paralegal?

Key skills include strong written and verbal communication, research and analytical skills, attention to detail, organization, and an understanding of legal terminology and procedures. Proficiency in technology and legal software is also important.

Can Paralegals Specialize in Specific Areas of Law?

Yes, paralegals can specialize in fields like family law, criminal law, corporate law, real estate, or immigration. Specialization can lead to more advanced career opportunities and potentially higher pay.

How Much Can I Expect to Earn as a Paralegal?

Salaries vary based on location, experience, education, and specialization. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for paralegals was around $52,000 as of the last survey, with higher potential earnings in metropolitan areas and specialized fields.

Is Continuing Education Important for Paralegals?

Continuing education is crucial for paralegals to stay updated with the latest legal trends, technologies, and changes in law. Many certifications require continuing legal education credits for renewal.