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How to become a paralegal in Illinois
If you want to be a paralegal in the state of Illinois, you may be wondering where to start. With myriad paralegal certifications and education programs available, knowing which are most applicable to you is challenging.
Illinois doesn’t have any specific requirements to be a paralegal, which means there are many avenues available to start your career.
4 steps to become a paralegal in Illinois
Earn your degree.
Most employers want to see that you have completed some level of college education. An associate or bachelor’s degree in subjects such as paralegal or legal studies, criminal justice, communications or business can be beneficial to a paralegal career. Better yet, a degree in paralegal studies approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) could make you a stand-out candidate to employers when you are starting out.
Earn a certificate from a paralegal education program approved by the ABA (optional).
The ABA also approves certificate programs, which are intended for people who already have a degree. These programs vary in length, but typically last between 12 and 24 months.
If you want to start moving up in your paralegal career, it’s time to get some experience. Many paralegal certifications require that you have some experience under your belt. Find jobs that appeal to your legal interests or try out a few different ones—over time, many paralegals begin to specialize in one or several areas of law.
Consider earning a paralegal certification (optional).
There are several national agencies from which you can obtain certifications. Having a paralegal certification on your resume demonstrates a level of expertise to future employers and could possibly lead to more opportunities or a higher salary.
The education and experience requirements to be a paralegal in Illinois depend entirely on the employer and the exact job description. Some jobs may simply seek candidates with an associate degree, while others might want to see that you have a certain amount of professional experience. Still, there are some ways you can improve your qualifications and set you up for the possibility of promotion and higher-level positions in the future.
Graduating from an ABA-approved paralegal education program is one way you can learn what’s needed to be a successful paralegal and demonstrate to employers your commitment to the career. The ABA approves associate, bachelor’s degrees, certificate programs and more.
“It is better to, in Illinois at least—and in the Chicagoland area to be very specific—attend a program that is ABA-approved,” said Gabriel V. Evelyn, the Director-at-Large and Pro Bono Coordinator of the Chicago Paralegal Association. “There are some programs that that are just regular programs that may give you a certificate or a degree, but because they’re not ABA-approved, they don’t have that same level of prestige or professional currency.”
Once you’ve earned a degree, and perhaps a paralegal certificate, it may be difficult breaking into paralegal jobs if they all require experience that you might not yet have. Evelyn suggests joining a local paralegal association to take advantage of their connections and resources.
“What I had done is to actually get out and show [my] face,” Evelyn said. “One of the easiest ways to do that is by joining professional paralegal associations. In my association, the Chicago Paralegal Association, we provide social and networking opportunities to connect with other professionals, whether that’s students or other paralegals, other legal professionals, even attorneys have attended our events as well. I also would say volunteering is of the utmost importance because that gets you experience that you otherwise would not get.”
“…volunteering is of the utmost importance because that gets you experience that you otherwise would not get.”
In Evelyn’s case, he volunteered at a local organization as an administrative assistant while completing his associate degree in paralegal studies. That experience ended up giving him the leg up he needed to break into the field.
“When I first applied to a legal assistant position, one of the first questions that the interviewers asked me was about my actual legal experience. Thankfully the volunteer opportunity that I had already participated in, as well as mentioning that I was a member of a paralegal association, showed them my actual dedication towards the career,” Evelyn said.
No matter what stage of your career you are in, Evelyn emphasized the importance of fostering face-to-face professional connections.
“We live in the internet era where it’s easy for us to go on LinkedIn and just click one button and send a resume and that’s that,” Evelyn said. “In order to distinguish yourself from the hundreds if not thousands of other applicants, you have to find a way to become less of just a digital click, less of just a resume and more of a fully realized human being, a personality, an individual that can fulfill the needs of the position that you’re applying for.”
Certifications are another way to enhance your credentials, especially since some advanced paralegal positions may require that you possess a certification. Two popular choices are getting certified as a Certified Paralegal (CP) by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or as a Registered Paralegal (RP) by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). You need to take a test for both of these certifications, and eligibility requirements to sit for these exams vary. Typically, you need to have a degree and a certain number of years of paralegal experience to qualify.
Illinois does not currently have any state-specific certifications for paralegals.
While these certifications can give you a bit of a professional boost, they are not required to be a paralegal in Illinois. Evelyn said that in his experience, attorneys and law firms tend to look more at your education and legal experience over any certifications you may have.
Illinois paralegal salaries
Salaries for paralegals in Illinois are affected by a multitude of factors, including the type of employer, job description, location and more. Paralegals and legal assistants may have the most earning potential in the Chicago metropolitan area, which has the highest median annual wage in the state. Other areas that have higher annual wages include Champaign, Springfield, Decatur and Peoria. Check out salaries for paralegals in Illinois below.
Median Hourly Wage$28
|Metro area||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Evelyn said accruing diverse professional experiences is an important way to increase your earning potential. One possible way to do that is to be a board or committee member for your local paralegal association.
“The more you have those varied experiences that show that not only are you excellent in this particular legal field, but that you also show the initiative to join an association, become a board member, become a part of a committee, then you have an opportunity to apply for other jobs—such as senior paralegal or management positions, legal marketing or paralegal coordinator positions—that also would lead to a higher salary,” Evelyn said.
Joining a paralegal association, either as a member or in a leadership role, has many benefits.
“When you have that opportunity to join a community that is willing to truly uplift you and try and help you and connect you with other folks, that’s one of the best ways to not only get into the field, not only grow professionally in the field, but it’s also a way to actually help enjoy what you do and learn more,” Evelyn said.