So, you’re interested in becoming a paralegal: maybe you’ve always had an eye for law, maybe you have always felt comfortable in a corporate or legal setting, or maybe the shows Law and Order and Suits have just given you some inspiration. Regardless of what led you to want to learn more about becoming a paralegal, it’s important to research the ins and outs of the career and field. Here you can learn everything you need to know about paralegals and how to become one (but no promises on landing a TV show).
Paralegals by Definition
Paralegals are often thought of as being legal assistants, which is basically true. By definition, paralegals perform different tasks in order to assist lawyers and attorneys and have knowledge of law which is gained through education and work experience. Paralegals are also cited to follow ethical standards and professional rules.
What Paralegals Do
When people say paralegals have a variety of tasks, they aren’t exaggerating! Paralegals have a large array of tasks which leads to their day to day duties changing frequently, and the tasks can also vary depending on where a paralegal works. Even though paralegals have a lot of different tasks, there are some core duties we know most paralegals perform.
Core Duties of Paralegals
Paralegals often perform administrative duties such as drafting documents, organizing files, scheduling appointments, and taking/retrieving documents to courthouses and other facilities.
Investigating Facts of Cases
Paralegals will assist attorneys in gathering and investigating facts of certain cases. In this instance, they are responsible for also knowing important laws and legal articles that may be relevant to the case(s). Paralegals may also create and draft a document of the findings pertaining to the case(s).
Drafting Legal Documents
Drafting legal documents is an important task paralegals have. Written communication is essential to attorneys and in cases, so paralegals assist by drafting pleadings, trials and correspondence.
Help Lawyers During Trials
Paralegals can help lawyers and attorneys during trials by taking notes, reviewing transcripts, and handling exhibits.
Help Prepare Lawyers for Meetings and Trials
With their detailed record keeping, paralegals assist in preparing lawyers and attorneys for trials, staff meetings, corporate meetings, hearings, and client meetings.
Helpful Skills for Aspiring Paralegals
According to the American Association for Paralegal Education, or AAfPE, there are a few skills that are very important for anyone interested in becoming a paralegal. They are:
- A common core of legal knowledge
- Organizational skills
- Communication skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Good working knowledge of how to research and write
- Interpersonal and customer service skills
- Being detail oriented
- Good time management
According to Rasmussen College, it’s also very important to have great computer and technological skills.
Work Environment of Paralegals
Paralegals mostly work in office settings. They may work in corporate settings, legal offices, private firms, and government offices. Paralegals may also work in different fields, like legal services, finance and insurance, for their local government, the state government, and even the federal government. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, approximately 73% of paralegals work in the Legal Services field.
In addition to most work being completed in offices, paralegals may need to travel relatively short distances for work. They may need to travel to the nearest courthouse to drop off and receive documents, or to a nearby meeting place to assist the attorney.
Paralegals are typically expected to dress professionally in business casual attire, and their mannerisms are also typically expected to be very professional. Paralegals may end up working long or unexpected hours, and need to be prepared to put in some long days.
One attractive aspect of becoming a paralegal is the salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median annual salary for paralegals in the United States was $50,410 in 2017.
Salary for paralegals also depends on the type of field paralegals work in as well as the state they work in. Federal government paralegals made an average of $65,970 in 2017 (coming in at the highest earning) where paralegals in the state government made the least at an average of $46,240 a year. Paralegals working in finance and insurance, local government, and private firms came in between the two.
According to learnhowtobecome.org, there are states in which paralegals earn more than others.
The Top 5 Paying States for Paralegals Are:
- District of Columbia at $74,930 per year
- Alaska at $64,920 per year
- California at $60,940 per year
- New Jersey at $57,600 per year
- Washington at $56,590 per year
Paralegal Job Outlook
Another great aspect of becoming a paralegal is the job outlook. Employment for paralegals is expected to grow at a whopping 15% from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than other legal support workers and all occupations in general. As law firms look to run their companies more efficiently, the demand for paralegals keeps ramping up. It’s a great, growing field to get into!
Paralegal Education Requirements
There are a few different paths to becoming a paralegal. There are no true set requirements as to becoming a paralegal, so employers and firms mostly set the precedent for what they look for in a potential paralegal’s education. This means that education requirements for paralegals vary widely, and depend on where someone is looking to work. You don’t necessarily have to have an education specifically in something law-related, either. Let’s look at some of the main ways to become a paralegal.
Different Educational Paths to Become a Paralegal
As a baseline, any program for paralegals should be at least equivalent to 18 credit hours of paralegal classes, and should be a program that is either approved by the American Bar Association (ABA), an institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education, or a post-secondary program that requires at least 60 credit hours.
Many aspiring paralegals choose to obtain an Associate’s Degree or equivalent credit from an accredited institution. Remember, the school or program of choice should still follow the guidelines above.
Aspiring paralegals also choose to get a Bachelor’s Degree at an accredited institution.
Some paralegals go on to continue their education at a Master’s Degree level. Some who may have gotten a lesser degree in an unrelated field may choose to get their Master’s Degree related to the legal field.
The National Association of Legal Assistants, or NALA, recommends adequate schooling and attending accredited programs, but also recognizes other factors as sufficient preparation in order to become a paralegal. These things are:
- A Bachelor’s Degree in any field plus 6 months of in-house paralegal training;
- At least 3 years of experience as a paralegal and supervised by an attorney (including 6 months of in-house paralegal training);
- At least 2 years of in-house paralegal training.
Although certain certifications are not required for paralegals nationally or at state levels, they may be recommended by an employer or done voluntarily. All credentials require formal training or education in the paralegal field. Here are some of the credentials:
- Professional Paralegal (PP) Credential: given by NALS, or the National Association for Legal Professionals
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) Credential: given by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, or NFPA
- Certified Paralegal (CP) Credential: by NALA, or the National Association of Legal Assistants
- American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) Certification: administered by the American Alliance of Paralegals, or AAPI
Finding an Accredited Program
If you’ve decided you want to pursue an education to become a paralegal, it’s essential that you find a program that’s accredited and right for you. The American Association for Paralegal Education has a user-friendly search engine for finding accredited paralegal programs. Check it out here.
You can also look at the American Bar Association’s Directory of ABA Approved Paralegal Education Programs, and read through the list of Approved Paralegal Education Programs or search for your desired area.
In addition to searching online, if you have a college or program in mind near you that you would like to attend, you can reach out to them directly to see if they have a paralegal program or related program that will give you the necessary education to become a paralegal.
Paying for School
Going to an accredited school to become a paralegal can be expensive, and you may need to fill out a FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student aid. For information on how to fill out a FAFSA application, check out our complete guide!
For additional information on paying for school and college, read through our tips for paying less for college.
Examining the Pros and Cons
Of course, like with every job and career, there are pros and cons to becoming a paralegal. These will of course also be subjective, and depend on each person. Subject to different opinions, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of becoming a paralegal.
- Great job outlook
- Pretty good pay, especially for a field with varying educational requirements
- Potential for advancement
- Safe work environment
- Little physical requirement
- Being of service - your job is greatly benefiting the attorney and others
- Can be a high stress environment
- Long work hours
- Tedious work
- Lack of respect
- Lack of respect can be a factor as some paralegals feel they are not as respected as their attorneys or higher-ups; they may feel less appreciated.
Think You Have What it Takes to be a Future Paralegal?
After reading through all the ins and outs of becoming and being a paralegal, you may feel like you’re ready to chase your dream of becoming a paralegal.
If becoming a paralegal is something you see in your future, remember to research these things:
- What paralegals do
- Work environment of paralegals
- Skills helpful to becoming a paralegal
- Salaries of paralegals
- Job outlook of paralegals
- Education requirements
- Weigh the pros and cons
Getting to know the ins and outs of a potential career field is extremely helpful when it comes to choosing a career path. Now that you know more about becoming a paralegal, you may be one step closer to choosing the career you’ve always wanted!