Learn If a Paralegal Career Is Right For You
Paralegal Resources: education, careers, salary information, and more.
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All Criminal Justice Schools has compiled the most current and complete information on the paralegal profession.
With lawyers using paralegals to make their work more efficient and cost-effective, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ current Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts the occupation to grow by 15 percent through 2026, adding over 41,000 jobs. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.
Keep reading to find out how to become a paralegal and join the thousands of people who enter the field every year.
How to Become a Paralegal
As of May 2016, there were 285,600 paralegals and legal assistants in the United States. But how did they get to where they are? Some paralegals enter the field with on-the-job training, however, as competition gets fierce, getting a specialized education may be key. Employers are looking for highly-skilled workers with a portfolio of skills. Some even prefer candidates who specialize in certain areas of the law.
What does this mean for you? Consider earning a certificate or degree; this is one of the best ways to become a paralegal.
Employers often look for paralegals who have at least one year of experience working in a law firm or related field. Many students strengthen their professional background by participating in an internship during school.
While working in a law office or other legal organization can teach you about specific paralegal duties, it’s also a good opportunity to hone your communication, computer, research and organizational skills. These will all be necessary to succeed as a paralegal.
Once you’ve finished your schooling, you’re ready to start your paralegal career. Unlike some career paths, you don’t need professional certification to become a paralegal. Earning this credential is strictly voluntary, but can showcase your knowledge and skills in the field. One organization that offers certification is the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
Ready to find out more about a paralegal education? Keep reading.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by NALA, 33 percent of respondents had a paralegal associate’s degree. Meanwhile, 9 percent held a paralegal bachelor’s degree and 14 percent earned a paralegal post-baccalaureate certificate.
Before you can dive into your paralegal courses, it’s best to consider your experience level, current education and other needs. For instance, if you’re interested in entering the workforce sooner, a two-year associate’s degree can be a good option.
No matter which education route you choose, look for a paralegal degree program that focuses on the entire scope of paralegal activities. Find a curriculum that prepares students for legal research and investigation and utilizes the latest legal research tools and techniques. Hands-on experience is also important; many students benefit from internships while in school.
Paralegal Associate’s Degree
An entry-level degree gives you a solid foundation for a career in legal support. Aspiring paralegals can find associate’s degree programs at community colleges and online. The latter option can sometimes be completed within 18 months, depending on the school.
You can expect a varied curriculum. One week you may be studying Latin legal terms and the next, you’re analyzing economic principles. Even if you plan to specialize in a certain type of law, it’s helpful to understand a broad range of topics. On the job, you’ll need to navigate complex issues and communicate effectively. Here’s a list of sample classes offered to paralegal students earning their associate’s degree:
Business communication: Drafting correspondence, writing reports and research are essential duties for a paralegal. This course examines how to communicate effectively in different formats.
Torts: Paralegals must understand how to traverse the world of torts, especially if they work in civil law. Students will learn the basics on how the law deals with wrongful acts, such as malpractice, assault or libel.
Legal terminology: Students will delve into an extensive vocabulary lesson learning legal terms related to criminal defenses, family law and other areas. Stay focused; these words will help you interpret legal documents.
Ethics: Paralegals handle sensitive documents, confidential information and money. Learn about conflicts of interest and attorney-client privilege.
Family Law: Family law covers everything from premarital agreements to divorce. Students will learn the fundamentals about this area of the legal system.
Criminal Law: Learn how a paralegal’s role is needed in criminal proceedings. Classes will cover the background of criminal law, details about criminal conduct, plea bargaining and more.
Civil Litigation: Understand the difference between civil and criminal law. Students will learn how to file a complaint, manage the case file and help in the courtroom, among other topics.
You’ll find that associate’s degrees are common among paralegals, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many employers are requiring job applicants to have a bachelor’s degree.
Here’s what you should know about a four-year degree.
When it comes to bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies programs, you may find they’re a bit harder to come by than associate’s degrees. While it is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree from either an on-campus or online school, you may find it easier to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field in conjunction with a paralegal certificate.
If you enroll in a paralegal bachelor’s degree program, you can expect in-depth and advanced coursework that you may not find in a two-year program. Students will be required to take foundational classes like those listed above in addition to the following:
Advanced legal research, writing and analysis: Building on previous coursework, students develop methods to research complex law and prepare documents.
Risk management and insurance: With an emphasis on business and healthcare, coursework will teach students about risk retention and costs from loss.
Corporations: Upon completing this class, students should be able to explain corporate structure and understand by-laws and articles of incorporation and common documents used in business.
Persuasive writing: Hone your research skills and learn how to write legal documents in an articulate manner. Students will also be taught about proofreading.
Introduction to forensic science: An elective in some programs, this course will provide details about the crime scene investigation process and how forensic science is used in law.
Organizational communication: From interviews to conferences, paralegals must have robust communication skills. This course highlights the different patterns of communication in an organization.
Although a bachelor’s degree will take longer to complete, the additional education can help you earn more on the job. According to NALA’s survey, those who held a bachelor’s degree and had 17 years of total experience received an annual compensation of $62,201. Paralegals with an associate’s degree and 22 years of experienced earned $58,290.
If you already hold a bachelor’s degree, a paralegal certificate program can be an efficient way to get the education you need. (You can also find certificate programs designed for students without an undergraduate degree.) Most certificates take a year or less to complete.
Online, on-campus and hybrid programs are available, and no matter which format you choose, you’ll be exposed to paralegal essentials such as legal theory, litigation topics and specialized areas of the law.
Upon completing the program, you should have a strong grasp of the legal system and be ready to tackle paralegal duties.
One of the best ways to experience a paralegal’s role is to participate in an internship while you’re in school. If you’re interested in gaining practical experience before graduating, look for a paralegal school that has an internship program. In some cases, you’ll receive course credit.
An internship offers students a chance to see day-to-day tasks of a paralegal. If you’re interested in a particular type of law, look for an internship at a related organization. NALA notes that many paralegals work in a range of practice areas, however, 16 percent said they worked in one specialty area. The top three are litigation-civil, corporate and contract.
Here are a few examples of internship locations:
- Private law firms
- Government agency
- Office of an attorney general
- Office of a public defender
- Corporate legal department
- Legal aid organization
Interning isn’t just about gaining experience. It also gives students a chance to network and make connections in the field. When it comes time to look for a paralegal job, reaching out to your contacts can often be helpful. Be sure to include your internship experience on your resume.
What You’ll Do as a Paralegal Intern
While every organization is different, paralegal interns typically provide support to paralegals and lawyers. This may include tasks such as organizing files, paper and electronic file administration, preparing reports, updating records and prepping legal research notebooks.
Once you’ve completed your paralegal program, you’ll be ready to join this growing field. Be sure your computer and database management skills are strong; paralegals with this background are expected to have the best job prospects. Another way to differentiate yourself? Gain experience in a high-demand area of law.
Paralegal Career Information
Paralegal Salaries. Law firms are the largest employer of paralegals, but what is the median annual salary for paralegals? Find out here.
Paralegals vs. Legal Assistants. These terms are often considered synonymous. However, recent efforts by the National Association of Legal Assistants to clarify the roles could change that.
Paralegal Certification. Paralegal certification is voluntary, but certified paralegals may be viewed more favorably by some employers.
Paralegal Schools. Know your priorities. Considerations such as location, flexibility, faculty and internships are some of the more important factors when choosing your paralegal school.
Paralegal Degrees and Programs. Depending on your needs and goals, you can start a paralegal career with a paralegal certificate, associate’s, or online paralegal degree. Here are the benefits of each.
Paralegal Accreditation. Get answers about accreditation. Find out which organizations accredit paralegal programs and how important accreditation is to your future employer.