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How to Become a Paralegal

August 25, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 02/13/23

If you’re eager to join the legal field as soon as possible, read on to learn more about how to become a paralegal.

There are multiple essential roles in the legal field aside from your typical lawyers. Paralegals, for instance, are crucial members of any law firm that provide necessary assistance to attorneys. 

If you’ve had an interest in pursuing law, but don’t want to write the dreaded LSAT, go to law school, or end up with copious amounts of student debt, becoming a paralegal might be the perfect career for you.

This guide will go over what a paralegal does, how to become one, and how much they make.

Steps to Becoming a Paralegal

Becoming a paralegal is relatively simple. There is only one necessary step you must complete before you can qualify for entry-level paralegal jobs. 

Obtain the Correct Postsecondary Education

In order to become a paralegal, you’ll need to pursue higher education to learn the intricacies of the legal world and how to best assist attorneys.

There are currently three options for you to choose from when choosing the right path for you. The first option, and the most common, is an associate’s degree. This degree will only take two years to complete and will equip you with the necessary skills and knowledge to qualify for most paralegal jobs.

Another option would be to obtain a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. This degree will take four years and is preferred by some law firms. These positions generally pay more, allow a higher degree of flexibility, and give you the qualifications needed to get more involved in legal cases.

The final option you can pursue is a post-baccalaureate certificate. These certificates are generally completed by students that already have a bachelor’s degree but want to specialize in paralegal studies. These certificates can typically be completed in less than a year.

Once you’ve completed your chosen degree or certificate, you can begin working as a paralegal immediately! 

Optional Certification

While this step isn’t required, some paralegals work in the field for a few years to gain experience before pursuing paralegal certifications that can open more doors for them. In order to receive these professional designations, you’ll have to pass certain exams depending on which organization you choose. 

Currently, there are three national paralegal organizations that offer professional certifications:

Some states may have their own certifying organizations that you would have to go through instead of these national ones.

Notably, while these exams can make you stand out as an employee, the majority of practicing paralegals do not have professional certifications. Additionally, in order to qualify to write these exams, you’ll need two to seven years of paralegal experience, depending on the organization you choose and your level of education.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

As we’ve mentioned, paralegals are largely responsible for assisting attorneys on cases. This typically involves:

  • Conducting research
  • Administrative work
  • Preparing legal documents
  • Providing quotes to potential clients
  • Providing clients with legal information
  • Interviewing clients and witnesses
  • Going to court with attorneys

The exact level of involvement and roles you play will depend on the attorney you work for! As such, this job is sure to keep you on your toes. You’ll be expected to learn quickly and be adaptable to best assist the attorney you work with. 

Paralegals can work in several sectors of law, including private or public firms and federal, governmental, and not-for-profit organizations.

Skills Required to Be a Successful Paralegal

Having a passion for law is definitely a necessary trait to excel as a paralegal. In this career, you’ll be a lifelong learner and will have to keep up-to-date with all of the laws, rules, and regulations in order to best serve your clients.

However, aside from just having an interest in law, there are certain traits all successful paralegals have:

  • Excellent Writing Skills: Paralegals are responsible for presenting information through drafts, contracts, correspondence, and other written documentation. You’ll need to know how to write persuasively and professionally without any grammatical errors.
  • Good Reading Comprehension: You’ll be expected to read, interpret, synthesize, and create arguments from a lot of material. You will also have to conduct research to supplement the facts you’re given.
  • Strong Analytical and Critical Thinking Skills: In order to write drafts and present your arguments to the lawyer, you’ll need to be able to critically analyze all of the information and research you have.
  • Attention to Detail: You’ll have to read any information you find or receive very carefully to see where there are gaps, where rules/laws are violated, and where the opposing side could poke holes in your argument.
  • Interpersonal Skills: You’ll be dealing with attorneys and clients on a day-to-day basis. It’s essential you’re comfortable speaking with people and know how to maintain positive relationships with them.

These skills are the foundation for learning and performing paralegal work. Ensure you begin brushing up on them well before you enter the field!

Types of Paralegal Jobs

Like lawyers, paralegals typically choose one specialty to work in. While there are various options to choose from, the following are the most common paralegal specialties:

Administrative Law

Paralegals who specialize in administrative law largely deal with cases involving governments and agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. There is a range of case types you can work on in this specialty, including disability and welfare programs, financial regulation, tax and energy, public health, and immigration. 

Appellate Law

These paralegals assist lawyers in overseeing the process of appealing lower court cases. They may work in a private, state, federal, or governmental law firm appealing civil or criminal cases.

Bankruptcy Law 

Bankruptcy paralegals may represent the creditors or debtors involved in these cases. These paralegals are responsible for providing legal advice, gathering evidence, and conducting forensic research on clients’ accounts to ensure they are eligible for bankruptcy.

Corporate Law

Corporate paralegals help advise businesses on their rights, obligations, and responsibilities. A large part of corporate law involves intellectual property law and legislative compliance.

Criminal Defense or Prosecution Law

Another popular specialty of law is criminal defense or prosecution, where paralegals help defend clients accused of committing crimes or help bring charges against people accused of committing crimes.  

Environmental Law

This type of law specializes in protecting and advocating for the environment and can involve air and water quality, renewable energy sources, energy trade, water rights, agriculture, and more. 

Family Law

Family paralegals generally assist lawyers in cases involving divorce, child support, custody, adoption, child welfare, and prenuptial agreements. 

Immigration Law

Immigration paralegals work for lawyers in the federal government to enforce immigration laws or for private law firms that help with the relocation of individuals to the U.S. 

They may also work for nonprofit organizations that assist clients with obtaining the legal rights to work and live in the U.S.

Healthcare Law

Healthcare paralegals typically represent patients, practitioners, insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, governmental agencies, and more.

Real Estate

Real estate paralegals oversee legal protections that are associated with real estate properties. These paralegals may represent the buyers, sellers, developers, real estate agents, or contractors. 

Paralegal Salary and Career Outlook

There is high demand for paralegals that will only increase in the coming years. Within the next decade, the employment of paralegals is expected to grow 14 percent, with about 45,800 job openings each year within this decade. As such, now is the perfect time to begin pursuing a paralegal degree!

The average paralegal salary is around $56,230 a year, or $27.03 an hour.

FAQs: Becoming a Paralegal

If you have any remaining questions about how to become a paralegal, read on to find your answers.

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?

Depending on the education you choose to pursue, it can take as little as one year and as long as four years to become a paralegal. 

2. What Are the Requirements to Become a Paralegal in North Carolina?

To become a paralegal in North Carolina, students must pursue either an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or post-baccalaureate degree in paralegal studies. After graduating, they may choose to acquire a professional certification through one of North Carolina’s many certifying organizations. 

3. What Is the Difference Between a Lawyer and a Paralegal?

The main difference between lawyers and paralegals is lawyers have more specialized education and training and are thus more involved in each case and lead them. Paralegals are meant to assist lawyers in whatever they need and are typically in charge of preparing cases, whereas lawyers present and defend these cases. 

Lawyers also have to attend law school, while paralegals do not. 

4. What Type of Paralegal Is Most in Demand?

Corporate, criminal, and real estate paralegals are the most in demand.

5. What Is the Best Degree for a Paralegal?

An accredited associate’s degree in paralegal studies is typically the most common degree paralegals hold. This degree allows you to enter the field in just two years and provides you with the skills and education required to qualify for most entry-level paralegal jobs.

6. Do Paralegals Go to Court?

Yes, depending on the type of law they practice, paralegals can go to court in order to assist the lawyer. However, they are not involved in the actual court proceedings; only the lawyer is.

Final Thoughts

If you’re interested in getting into the legal field as quickly as possible, working a job that’s in high demand and pays well, becoming a paralegal might be the perfect career for you! As a paralegal, you can have a fulfilling career providing assistance to lawyers and clients to ensure each case runs smoothly!

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