How to Become a Paralegal Professional

The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Successful Legal Professional in Your State

Written by eLawTalk Editorial Staff • Last updated Dec. 14, 2023

Career Overview | Steps to Become | State Requirements | Education Options | Certifications and Specialization | Employment | FAQs

Are you considering a career in the legal field that offers variety, growth, and the opportunity to make a real impact?

Becoming a paralegal could be the perfect path for you. In this guide, we will take you through the steps to starting this career path, from understanding the profession to obtaining the necessary education and certifications.

What you’re about to learn at a glance:

Paralegals require an associate or bachelor’s degree and a paralegal program to understand the profession.
Professional certification is not always required for paralegals but can help further job opportunities.
Specialization in different areas of law, time management skills, communication proficiency, and technological expertise are essential skills in paralegals becoming more successful.
The job outlook is positive with expected growth over the next decade and average salary of nearly $63,000 per year.

Understanding the Paralegal Profession

Paralegals play a crucial role in the legal profession. They offer invaluable support to attorneys and legal offices, assisting with tasks such as legal research, document preparation, and case management. Paralegals can find work in various settings, including private law firms, corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. The National Federation of Paralegals Association (NFPA) and The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) provide resources and networking opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants.

Each state has its own requirements, but there are some things that every paralegal needs regardless of where they intend to work.

To become a paralegal, you will need:

  • An associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field

  • Alternatively, a bachelor’s degree in another field, plus a master of legal studies (MLS) degree

  • Obtaining a paralegal certificate isn’t required in every state, but can help with job opportunities.

  • In some jurisdictions, paralegals may also obtain a limited license legal technician (LLLT) designation, allowing them to provide limited legal services under certain conditions.

Duties and Responsibilities of a Paralegal

Paralegals perform a wide range of tasks to support attorneys in many work settings. Their responsibilities include:

  • Legal research

  • Document preparation

  • Case management

  • Interviewing clients and others

  • Performing meticulous work

  • Meeting deadlines

They play a vital role in ensuring the efficient functioning of a law firm by handling legal documents.

In a general civil practice, for example, a paralegal might be tasked with responding to discovery requests one day and traveling out to meet a new client the next day. The scope of a paralegal’s duties can vary greatly depending on the size of the law firm and the area of law they specialize in.

Types of Work Settings and Industries

Paralegals have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and specialize in different areas of law. They can find employment in:

  • Private law firms

  • Corporations

  • Government agencies

  • Non-profit organizations

Just like lawyers, paralegals may decide to specialize in a certain area of law. Understanding the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer can help you decide how to purse your legal path. The paralegal specialty can determine the types of cases handled to overall earning potential and demand for skills.

Some of the most popular specializations include family law, real estate law, and intellectual property law. By specializing in a certain area of law, paralegals can develop expertise and increase their value in the job market. This enables them to pursue more advanced roles and higher salaries.

Paralegal Requirements By State

Paralegal Programs and Education

There are several educational paths available for those aspiring to become paralegals. These include certificate programs, associate degree programs, and bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies. It is important to select a program that is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or another reputable organization, as this ensures the quality of the program and its alignment with current legal industry standards.

National University, for example, offers online bachelor’s, associate’s, and certificate degree programs in paralegal studies. These paralegal education program options provide a comprehensive education and equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed as paralegals.

Certificate Programs

Paralegal certificate program courses offer focused legal training and can be completed in a relatively short amount of time, typically less than a year. These programs, often referred to as paralegal programs, include courses such as Introduction to Legal Research, Legal Writing, and Law Office Management, which provide a solid foundation for aspiring paralegals.

These undergraduate programs in paralegal studies cover topics such as:

  • Tort law

  • Wills and trusts

  • Civil law

  • Criminal law

With only a high school diploma or GED as a prerequisite, these programs offer an accessible entry point for those looking to transition into the paralegal profession. It’s a sector that’s accessible to a great number of people from a variety of educational backgrounds; paralegal jobs are among the top career opportunities that don’t require a four-year degree.

Associate Degree Programs

An associate degree in paralegal studies provides a more comprehensive education than a certificate program, typically taking two years to complete. These programs offer a solid foundation for a career as a paralegal and are highly sought after by many employers for their paralegals.

Courses in an associate degree program include subjects such as:

  • Torts

  • Contracts

  • Computer applications

  • Business systems concepts

  • Legal writing

  • Legal research

Graduates of associate degree programs in paralegal studies are well-equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in their paralegal careers.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies offers an even more in-depth education, taking four years to complete. These programs provide additional opportunities for specialization in different areas of law and often include requirements for internships or practical experience.

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies offers several benefits.

  • Comprehensive understanding of the legal field

  • Opportunity to choose specialized courses

  • Fulfillment of internship requirements, which can be beneficial when seeking employment

  • Access to more advanced roles and higher earning potential in the paralegal profession

Gaining Practical Experience

Gaining hands-on experience is an essential qualification for aspiring paralegals. This experience can help you stand out when you start your job search. Practical experience can be acquired through:

  • Internships

  • Externships

  • Volunteering

  • Pro bono work

These opportunities allow paralegals to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned in their education programs to real-world situations.

By participating in internships or externships at law firms or other legal organizations, paralegals have the opportunity to gain valuable experience, develop professional connections, and enhance their resumes. Volunteering for legal aid organizations or participating in pro bono work can also provide practical experience while giving back to the community.

Internships and Externships

Internships and externships are opportunities for paralegal students to gain practical experience and establish connections with law firms or other legal organizations. These programs can be highly competitive and typically require an interview process. Internships usually range from 120 to 280 hours, providing ample time for paralegal students to develop their skills and knowledge in a real-world setting.

Participating in internships or externships not only offers valuable experience but also helps paralegal students build professional networks and enhance their employability. These opportunities can be a vital stepping stone towards a successful paralegal career.

Volunteering and Pro Bono Work

Volunteering for legal aid organizations or participating in pro bono work can help paralegals gain practical experience while also giving back to their communities. These opportunities allow paralegals to apply their skills and knowledge to real-life situations, providing valuable experience and enhancing their resumes.

In addition to gaining practical experience, volunteering and pro bono work can also facilitate the establishment of relationships with other legal professionals and expand a paralegal’s knowledge of the law. By engaging in these activities, paralegals can develop their skills while making a positive impact in their communities.

Professional Certification and Specialization

Obtaining professional certification and specializing in different areas of law can enhance a paralegal’s career prospects. Professional certification is a voluntary process that involves taking exams on laws and related topics or meeting eligibility requirements based on education and experience. The most common options for professional paralegal certification include Certified Paralegal (CP), Professional Paralegal (PP), and American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP).

By specializing in various areas of law, paralegals can develop expertise and increase their value in the job market. This allows them to pursue more advanced roles and higher salaries, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the law and provide more efficient legal advice.

Paralegal Certification

Earning a professional paralegal certification can demonstrate a commitment to the field and enhance employability. There are several organizations that offer certification options, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), and the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAP).

Acquiring professional paralegal certification may offer certain benefits, such as:

  • the possibility of assuming more advanced roles

  • increased credibility with prospective employers

  • demonstrating dedication to the profession

  • a commitment to maintaining high standards of practice.

Specialization in Different Areas of Law

Paralegals can choose to specialize in various areas of law to develop expertise and increase their value in the job market. Specializing in different areas of law can assist paralegals in acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of the law and augment their employability to potential employers.

Some specializations paralegals may wish to consider include corporate law, healthcare law, and litigation. By focusing on diverse areas of law, paralegals can cultivate expertise in their chosen field, pursue more advanced roles, and potentially command higher salaries in the job market.

Essential Skills for Success as a Paralegal

While there are some skills expected for all paralegals, certain specific skills have been more in demand over the past several years. Job expectations for paralegals have changed between 2015 and 2022. There’s a new emphasis for paralegals with skills like family law and legal studies, and additional emphasis on legal document preparation and personal injury law. Knowing these changes in trends, paralegals can adjust their skills and learn legal areas with greater demand.

To excel in their careers, paralegals must possess a range of essential skills, such as time management, communication, and technological proficiency. These skills enable paralegals to effectively manage multiple tasks and deadlines, communicate clearly with clients and other legal professionals, and utilize various software programs and online research tools. Writing skills, legal technology knowledge, and attention to detail are also critical skills for a successful paralegal.

Developing and honing these essential skills can greatly contribute to a paralegal’s success. By regularly refining their skills, paralegals can increase their efficiency, provide better support to attorneys, and ultimately advance in their careers.

Organization is a critical skill for a paralegal

Time Management and Organization

Time management and organizational skills are critical for paralegals, as they regularly manage numerous tasks simultaneously and are bound by frequent deadlines from the court. Effective time management enables paralegals to prioritize their workload and ensure that all tasks are completed accurately and promptly.

Organizational skills are also of paramount importance for paralegals, as they must be able to monitor multiple tasks and deadlines and organize their own workload.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Effective communication and interpersonal skills are essential for paralegals, as they frequently interact with clients, attorneys, and other legal professionals. Paralegals must be able to:

  • Convey information clearly and concisely, both in writing and verbally

  • Practice active listening to understand the needs of their clients and colleagues

  • Offer effective solutions based on their understanding

These skills are crucial for building strong relationships and providing high-quality legal support.

Problem-solving and conflict resolution are additional important abilities for paralegals, as they often need to negotiate disputes between clients and attorneys. By developing strong communication and interpersonal skills, paralegals can establish positive relationships with clients and colleagues and effectively navigate the complexities of the legal field.

Technological Proficiency

Technological proficiency is essential for paralegals, as it enables them to use various software programs and online research tools efficiently and accurately. Some essential software programs and tools for paralegals include:

  • Word

  • WordPerfect

  • Westlaw

  • Case management software

  • Legal research databases

Competence in these tools is crucial for paralegals to contribute to the team’s legal expertise.

To become adept in the use of software programs and online research tools, paralegals can take classes, attend workshops, and practice with the software. By staying current with technological advancements in the legal profession, paralegals can increase their efficiency and provide better support to attorneys and clients.

Paralegal Job Outlook and Salary Expectations

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an average 4% growth in the paralegal field over the coming decade, making it an attractive career choice for those interested in the legal profession. The national median salary for a paralegal is $59,200 per year, with the potential for higher earnings in certain industries or with more experience.

Salaries for paralegals can be influenced by factors such as the size of the firm, the degree of experience, and the area of law they specialize in. By obtaining professional certification, specializing in different areas of law, and continuously refining their skills, paralegals can enhance their career prospects and increase their earning potential.

Conclusion

In conclusion, becoming a paralegal offers an exciting and rewarding career path in the legal field. By obtaining the necessary education, gaining practical experience, and developing essential skills, aspiring paralegals can build successful careers and make a meaningful impact in the legal profession. With a strong job outlook and numerous opportunities for specialization and career advancement, there has never been a better time to embark on a paralegal career.

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