Considering a Paralegal Career

If you possess exceptional research, organizational, and communication skills, you may be suited for a career in paralegal work. Legal assistant professionals are an integral part of the law team and can be found in many different environments. Maintaining client files, drafting affidavits, and providing case-specific research are just a few of the myriad ways in which legal assistants support their lawyers, firms, or employers. Education and preparation courses for paralegals are abundant; locating a trade school or university in your area should not be difficult.

Only one state in the U.S., California, regulates the certification and practice of its paralegals. If you live in any other state, you will be free to choose an associate degree program, bachelor's degree program, or even a certification program in legal assisting to get started. Your program choice may depend on your financial status, the degree desired, and how eager you are to get started on the job. Some firms may offer on-the-job training, and you may find paralegals with years of experience but little to no formal education in this profession. A good place to start researching paralegal programs is the American Bar Association.

Certification courses offer the quickest way to get started as a paralegal. Offered by both business schools and community colleges, these courses cover litigation, real estate, and corporate and estate law, but do not usually delve into the specialty areas of legal assisting. Depending on your educational background and school choice, a certification course may take a few months or a few years. If you already have a BS or BA in a related field, you will get certified faster than those with a high school degree or equivalent.

Paralegal programs can be found at the community college and university level, resulting in an associate or a baccalaureate degree. College paralegal programs will provide a comprehensive study of all aspects of paralegal work, including litigation, personal injury, immigration, and even family law. Associate degree course completion may take from two to four years, depending on your availability for classes, and may result in an associate degree in science or art. If you prefer a four-year degree, both a BS and a BA may result from a major or minor in paralegal studies, or you could study a related field such as criminal justice or business to start.

Certification as a legal assistant is not hard to find, with at least four different national organizations offering certification courses, testing, and recognition as a paralegal. Although certification is not required in most states to practice as a legal assistant, this voluntary process may help set you apart from your peers. The National Association of Legal Assistants, for example, provides testing to award the Certified Legal Assistant, or CLA, and Certified Paralegal, or CP, designators, as well as the Advanced Paralegal Certification if you want to specialize in a specific area of law. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers an even more advanced recognition: the RP, or Registered Paralegal. Candidates must hold a baccalaureate degree and experience as a paralegal to be eligible for this advanced examination. Depending on the organization, you may have to maintain each certification with periodic renewal fees and continuing education in the field.

An internship is a valuable career tool. Sometimes, an internship is a part of the certification, associate degree, or baccalaureate paralegal program. You can get on-the-job experience while assessing if that particular specialty is a good fit for you. There are myriad specialties available to paralegals - take your time and explore them. Working in litigation will have a totally different set of responsibilities and tasks than working in immigration law, for instance. The internship may help you get your foot in the door, as it will give you a chance to exploit your work ethic, intelligence, and drive, especially if you have little work experience to back it up.

The hours, work environment, and daily routine of paralegals vary widely based on personal preference and the type of law their employers practice. You can work full time, part time, or even on a per-diem basis by contracting your skills to the highest bidder. If you are involved in a high-profile case or work for a multitude of busy lawyers, you may work more than the traditional forty-hour workweek.

Computer, communication, and organizational skills are an asset in this profession. Paralegals must be expert multitaskers, assisting in more than one case at a time and collaborating with many people. As you gain experience, the complexion of your workday will change based on your individual skills. A regular workday may start with poring over legal texts and tort laws, or in front of a word processor constructing appeals. You may research and investigate case files to help a lawyer prepare for trial, or arrange notes for corporate meetings.

As a paralegal, you will always work on the outskirts of law-related proceedings. You cannot practice law; the legal assistant supports those who practice law and have passed the bar exam. This means that a paralegal cannot give advice, set fees, or charge a client for services directly, or accept a new case or represent a client in the courtroom. These functions are relegated to lawyers who have passed the bar exam after law school.

On average, paralegals may expect to bring home between $36,000 and $59,000 a year, not including benefits such as performance bonuses, which are not unheard of.

As with any career field, you can find higher incomes working in large cities or in highly specialized practices. Federal positions and those in management may yield higher incomes for the paralegal as well.

Important Facts about Paralegal Education

Paralegal educational opportunities are as diversified as the people entering this career field. Vocational schools, community colleges, and universities offer paralegal certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor's degrees in this field. Some individuals may gain entry to the field through work experience or on-the-job training; however, if you are trying to enter the field as a career change later in life or as a fresh high school graduate, a well-rounded education as a paralegal is valuable while fighting for job placement.

Although thousands of schools offer a paralegal curriculum, only 270 are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Accreditation from the ABA is a voluntary process. An accredited school has undergone and passed a comprehensive evaluation that includes judging the curriculum, matriculation and attrition rates, school services, and student assistance, among many other qualifying factors. Check with the ABA frequently, as accreditation and ABA approval is a finite process - a school accredited five years ago may no longer be considered an ABA-approved paralegal program if faculty, curriculum, or another standard has dropped below evaluation measures.

Each school or university will have particular preadmission requirements, which may vary greatly. You can start learning about these requirements by contacting the admissions or business offices of each school you are considering. Make a list of standardized questions to ask each, so that you can compare and contrast their opportunities before making a final decision on where to get your paralegal education.

  • Orientation: This is not commonly found at the community or trade school level, but usually at the bachelor's or higher level. Does the school provide a program or campus orientation? Does it offer an opportunity to meet faculty, alumni, or other students in the program? Some schools have quarterly or biannual orientations for new students entering the system. Be sure to inquire about the orientation schedule if one is offered.
  • Financial aid: Every school should have a form of financial assistance, from a department specializing in grants and tuition assistance to a counselor who can help you tailor you education to your financial restrictions. Even if you are one of the lucky few who does not need any assistance to pay for school, ask about the potential benefits or discounts that may be available by paying for classes ahead of time, or other discounts that may be available (military, spouse, or academic).
  • Career counseling and job placement are important aspects of paralegal education. As this career field gains popularity, competition at the law firms will increase. Ask if the school has a job placement program upon graduation. If it does not, it may have demographics on successful graduates.
  • Internship opportunities are a valuable tool for both the fresh high school graduate and the adult seeking a career change. They provide a way to gain on-the-job experience and work within the field during your didactic instruction. Not all paralegal educational programs offer internships.
  • Preadmission requirements will vary by school and degree. Whether you are seeking a certificate or a college-level degree, there are a few questions you need to ask to ensure your eligibility to start the paralegal program. Admission requirements may include aptitude testing, such as SATs, a high school diploma or equivalent, written essays, or professional referrals and interviews for acceptance into the program. Furthermore, if you are seeking an advanced degree, such as a bachelor's degree, you will be required to have a certain number of transferable college-level credits prior to acceptance.
  • Assess the program faculty. You will want to know who is providing your education. Are they certified? Are they leaders in the field? Inquire about the faculty's background and criteria to provide instruction within the educational institution.

Once you have the majority of your educational questions answered, consider the most basic way to judge a program: word of mouth. What do the community legal leaders have to say about the program? If you are already linked into the legal community, ask your peers about the reputation of each school. You can also access this information on paralegal organizational websites, such as NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants.

Read Our Paralegal Job Description

You've heard the buzz about jobs in the legal system, read about the benefits and education, but you still don't understand the day-to-day operations of a paralegal. You've come to the right place. The paralegal job description is not a well-defined concept due to the ever-changing complexion of this versatile career. However, as a professional, you will have limits and ethical responsibilities specific to a paralegal. Rather than explore the myriad chores you may complete daily, put the focus on what you can and cannot do as a paralegal.

What Paralegals Are Not

Paralegals are not lawyers and they are not glorified secretaries. The American Bar Association has a defined position statement incorporating the professional limitations of paralegals.

  • A paralegal is not allowed to practice law. In short, leave the attorney privileges to the attorney. Although you may assist in preparation for courtroom procedures, you will never defend or plead a case.
  • A paralegal cannot give legal advice. You may be asked to prepare legal facts and conduct research to support a case, but you will never be allowed to give advice to clients as a paralegal.
  • A paralegal does not take cases. The attorney accepts or declines cases, not the paralegal.
  • A paralegal cannot set the price or directly charge clients for their performance. The paralegal is paid by the law firm, lawyer, or contracting company, not directly by the client.

Paralegal Qualifications

Within each paralegal job description, you will find a list of qualifying factors, including personality and work ethics, educational requirements, and competencies. Each company, attorney, or firm will have a specific set of qualities that they are looking for in future paralegals, to help grow and support the law practices.

A proficient paralegal is an individual who is well organized, motivated, and a multitasker. You may be supporting several cases at once, handling myriad responsibilities that are individual to each case. You must have excellent communication skills, including written and oral competency. Attorneys and firms are looking for creative individuals who can "think outside of the box" and perform at stellar levels with little or no guidance. You should be able to anticipate the needs of the firm and clients through well-developed critical thinking and analytical skills.

The job description competencies will list entry-level expectations. These competencies are not tasks that the company wants to teach a paralegal; rather, the company wants proficient professionals. Competencies may include a proficiency in legal research and applications, communication, legal documentation and terminology, and the laws and legal concepts of the state.

Entry-level paralegal job descriptions may incorporate a period of close supervision until both parties, the employer and employee, are confident that you can perform your job duties competently. Your scope of practice may be very limited initially, but as you prove yourself and gain experience, you can expect to be given more latitude.

Advanced paralegal jobs may include supervision of other legal staff, including secretaries and fellow paralegals. You may have a wide range of competencies and be expected to manage the office staff and finances adjunct to your paralegal duties.


As a paralegal your job responsibilities will vary widely based on your chosen specialty and the size of the firm or employing company. For instance, if you specialize in real estate law, you may not be drafting wills all day. However, some facets of the paralegal job description are consistent despite your specialty:

  • Conducting research. This is an integral part of any paralegal job. You will spend time fact-finding on cases, contracts, and recent judicial decisions that could affect the practice, as well as performing background searches on clients and witnesses.
  • Organizing, analyzing, and maintaining case files and supporting documentation. You may edit files and documents for clarity and proper use of terminology, validate information in case files, or construct briefs for the attorney.
  • Drafting legal documentation of varying types. You may be responsible for all incoming and outgoing legal correspondence, including contracts, official documents, and appeals. You may write reports on research or background checks.
  • Interacting with paraprofessionals daily. You will work closely with other law offices and staff, judicial employees, witnesses, and clients.
  • Maintaining relevancy by keeping your legal knowledge up to date. Follow the newest judicial decisions and be abreast of new regulations and laws that may affect your employers. | © Copyright 2019 | All Rights Reserved