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How to Become a Paralegal

The legal system works more efficiently with paralegals performing essential tasks to maximize legal services delivery to meet clients’ needs. Attorneys give paralegals a wide range of crucial responsibilities to perform legal activities that are often identical to the attorney’s work except for giving legal advice, opinions, and representation to clients.

Working as a licensed or certified paralegal is an exciting career path. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegal jobs are expected to grow significantly (over 9%) over the next decade.

Varying Career Paths to the Paralegal Profession

Once you decide that working as a paralegal is the right decision for a blossoming career, you’ll have various career path opportunities to obtain certification or license to begin your job. Typically, becoming a paralegal begins with getting the best education.

Most law firms prefer to hire legal assistant candidates who have acquired a formal education, especially in states where certification or licensing is necessary for work. Numerous voluntary national paralegal certification programs are available that meet minimal educational requirements.

Other law offices do not require any specific education and usually offer an internship or training program to get their candidate started on their paralegal career pathway. Choosing the best option requires weighing the benefits and what a specific law firm is looking for to fulfill their job requirements.

Paralegal Professionals: Average Salary

The yearly salary for a paralegal position depends on the worker’s location, level of experience, degree, certification, and any work performed in a specialty field of law. Many legal assistants are employed in full-time work, usually spending 40 hours a week on the job to meet deadlines.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals earn approximately $50,500 annually. However, in some parts of the country, a paralegal with a high level of experience in a specialty field could earn up to $110,000 yearly.

Location is a variable factor in the amount of paralegal can receive in annual pay. Wyoming paralegal residents earn approximately $42,250 annually, whereas Illinois paralegals are paid nearly $60,000 a year.

Statistically, attorneys in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington State pay their paralegals more than $60,000 annually. Paralegals working in Washington DC earn over $82,000 yearly.

Legal Assistants: Available ABA Accredited Paralegal Program Studies

Paralegals are part of a highly competitive been lucrative profession, paying substantially more than a legal secretary. While an educational background in a law field is not often required, many aspiring paralegals looking for jobs have acquired licensing and certification before applying.

Some law offices are looking for paralegal candidates who have acquired an associate or bachelor’s degree in any subject, including law. Other firms asked that only candidates with master’s degrees in legal studies acquired at universities and community colleges apply.

The most primary educational pathways to becoming a competent paralegal include:

  • Paralegal Certification – Acquiring a paralegal certificate is often the initial step to becoming a paralegal. Many legal assistants obtain their certificates after completing a paralegal certificate program on campus and online (home study).

Corporate paralegals and immigration paralegals working in the private sector and government agencies typically require advanced legal degrees, including a Master’s paralegal education.

The paralegal education program from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited institution is built on various legal theories with paralegal skills training and courses that offer education on:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Civil tort law
  • Conducting legal research on case law
  • Contracts
  • Discovery
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Family estates and trusts
  • Investigative and interview skills
  • Legal communication skills
  • Legal ethics
  • Legal office software and technology
  • Legal study introductions
  • Organizing case files
  • Preparing trial notes

Paralegal training is crucial in some fields of law when learning to become a legal assistant. These degrees are available in numerous paralegal programs in major universities, community colleges, and online educational institutions.

The certificate programs are designed for the professional paralegal looking for their first job and those with paralegal degrees needing continuing education credits through a certified paralegal certificate program.

Many national paralegal organizations offer certificate programs at various levels of study, including online paralegal programs and continuing education. Many employers in the legal community accept these paralegal classes for anyone interested in a legal career involving criminal and civil litigation.

Litigation paralegals assist lawyers in performing legal case law research at the state and federal court level, including private firms, corporate legal departments, and governmental agencies.

  • Paralegal Study Programs – Associate’s Degree – An associate degree level of paralegal studies typically teaches the student how to gather and analyze detailed information used to build and resolve cases. Students studying to become a paralegal typically learn about performing legal research, developing creative arguments, and working with a legal team. The studies might include hands-on experience and work placement or internship opportunities.
  • Paralegal Study Programs – Bachelor’s Degree – At a bachelor’s level, the student gains in-depth knowledge and a better understanding of the legal system and the skills necessary to succeed in a fast-paced field. The student will develop administrative paralegal skills and prepare documents, including contracts, wills, transcripts, briefings, motions, and research reports.
  • Paralegal Study Programs – Online Bachelor’s Degree – Learning how to become a paralegal through online programs might be the only option for a potential legal assistant candidate to work in a legal setting. Typically, these online universities offer self-paced courses that do not have set classroom times. Others provide designated meeting times for students to participate in scheduled classroom experiences and virtual lectures.
  • Paralegal Study Programs – Master’s Degree – A master’s level paralegal degree (MA – Masters of Arts and Legal Studies or MLS – Master of Legal Studies) usually requires an additional one or two years of further study bachelors’ level degree. Numerous universities and colleges offer over 100 master’s level paralegal programs and legal studies to become a paralegal, teaching an in-depth understanding of the law and justice system.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations provides a paralegal advance competency exam (PACE), and the National Association of Legal Assistants offers a certified legal assistant/certified paralegal examination to become a paralegal.

Applying at Law Firms: Starting a Paralegal Career

Finding an entry-level job working with a law firm without a paralegal certificate usually involves working as a file clerk or runner. In time, the employee can work their way into a paralegal position by obtaining on-the-job training under the supervision of one or more attorneys.

Before deciding to become a paralegal, there are certain factors to consider, including:

  • The strength of the paralegal job market within driving distance to your home
  • The minimum education requirements of local law professional associations to work as a paralegal
  • The extent of the education you already acquired in the field of law
  • Whether you can afford to attend a junior college or university
  • The commitment you have to your long-term goals

Paralegal Program Costs – Financing an Education

Participating in a bachelor’s degree program at a for-profit private school could cost $18,000 or more at a state college or up to $60,000 at a private university or college. This staggering amount may be overwhelming to an aspiring paralegal. However, there are numerous options.

Obtaining a post-degree at a private or public school could cost $7000 to $13,000 or more, or significantly less ($3000-$8000) for the same education at a community college. Many national paralegal organizations work concomitantly with colleges and schools, providing information about grant money, scholarships, and loans.

Any aspiring litigation paralegal should speak to a financial aid counselor who can identify all available loans and grant money and how to apply for financial assistance.

A statement released by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations clarified the difference between a paralegal certificate and certification. The statement identified a certified paralegal as an individual completing a certification examination or other certifying organization requirements.

Alternatively, a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate is usually acquired through an associate or bachelor’s degree required by an educational institution that issues the student a paralegal certificate of completion. Many experienced paralegals working for governmental agencies and private law firms acquired their paralegal education at an accredited college or university.

Paralegal Statistics and Facts

Obtaining an education certificate could take as few as one to two years to start a paralegal career once earning an associate’s degree through accredited paralegal programs. Obtaining a legal certification is optional in many states.

Other paralegal statistics and facts include:

  • Approximately 70% of all law firms in the United States hire paralegals to do essential work.
  • Only approximately 9% of all state and local governments employ paralegals, followed by the federal government (6%), and finance and insurance companies (4%)
  • Optimal paralegal qualities include computer skills, organizational skills, interpersonal skills, researching skills, and writing/speaking skills
  • Statistically, 256,000 paralegals were working in the United States in 2010, compared to more than 302,900 legal assistants in 2020.
  • Washington DC pays paralegals more than any other region in the United States, followed by California, New York, Oregon, and New Jersey
  • Legal assistants working for an hourly wage earn anywhere between $15.82 to $40.94, according to BLS statistics
  • The New York/Newark/Jersey City Metropolitan area employs nearly 28,000 paralegals, compared to Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim area that employs nearly 15,500 legal assistants
  • Working as a paralegal is intellectually challenging, involving high-level skills and innovative thinking
  • While a paralegal was once considered a glorified legal secretary, today’s paralegal does challenging work in one or more law fields, including corporate law, family law, estates and trusts, employment law, and personal injury.
  • A paralegal could arrange mediation, interview expert medical professionals, and contribute to the supervising attorney’s litigation practices and trial preparation
  • Hiring paralegals can open doors for legal assistants providing legal services for administrative hearings that represent clients in various fields of law

Freelancing Paralegal Work

Many legal assistants across the United States have begun their own paralegal business, operating as independent contractors to lawyers and corporate legal departments.

Typically, these businesses handle many case types, including small claims, disability, landlord/tenant rights, human rights, parking ticket disputes, and labor relations.
Successful freelance paralegals run their businesses based on organization, punctuality, motivation, and optimal skills.

Usually, these paralegals have excellent spelling and grammar skills and can operate their business using the best office software and technology to access Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw.

Many private law firms will hire freelancing independent contractor paralegals to avoid the expense and overhead of a full-time paralegal on staff. The demand for a paralegal freelancer has increased significantly over the years, reducing their attorney’s workload.

However, attorneys hiring independent contracting paralegal freelancers must still continuously supervise their work as the American Board Association regulates.

Succeeding As a Paralegal

The pathway to success in the paralegal field requires gaining a competitive edge in the legal industry. A highly successful paralegal will be an effective communicator that knows how to interview clients, contact experts, take witness statements, schedule court reporters, and discuss crucial details of every case with their supervising attorney.

A knowledgeable paralegal has developed advanced writing skills when drafting correspondence and pleadings and working on motions, discovery, legal memorandums, briefs, and other complex legal documents. Highly effective transactional paralegals have a comprehensive understanding of drafting complicated resolutions, contracts, and agreements.

An experienced paralegal has developed a high-level researching skill and has become proficient in using legal research databases (Lexis/Nexis & Westlaw) and Internet researching programs. The paralegal has wide-ranging investigative skills in criminal law, civil law, and transactional contexts to track down documents, evidence, medical records, and eyewitnesses.

Multitasking is a must in the paralegal profession when assigned to multiple cases, tasks or deals. Typically, a paralegal juggles multiple cases simultaneously, working with competing priorities to maximize their supervising attorney’s output.

Teamwork is crucial to a successful legal team where attorneys and paralegals must use their considerable skills when organizing cases through various partners, associates, legal secretaries, and other criminal law paralegals. A successful paralegal focuses on their attention to detail when verifying the legal authority involved in memos, documents, and briefs.

Litigation paralegals working in a law office who assist attorneys in private or public typically enjoy rewarding careers.

Resources:

• National Federation of Paralegal Associations – Certification or Certified?
• Bureau of Labor Statistics – 2020 Paralegal Wages and Employment Facts