Paralegals function in a supportive capacity, performing important tasks that help the attorneys with whom they work better serve their clients. Whether they work in a private law firm or the private sector, paralegals are crucial to the success of an attorney, and make invaluable contributions to the legal profession. Here are some ways to become a paralegal:
Paralegals are not licensed at the state or national level and there are no federal or statewide regulations that dictate the standards to which paralegals should be held. However, several professional organizations do provide paralegal certification.
In the absence of regulations, employers establish the hiring standards for paralegals, but a candidate who has received an adequate education and professional certification is more qualified than one who has not. At the most basic level, a paralegal should have some formal education to be hired. You may want to consider earning one of the following:
An associate's degree in paralegal studies. An associate’s degree may take about two years to complete and the minimum admissions requirement is typically a high school diploma.
A bachelor’s degree in legal studies or a related field. A bachelor’s degree may typically take four years to complete. According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), employers are placing increasing emphasis on the importance of at least a bachelor’s degree.
A master’s degree in legal studies. If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree, you may want to consider a master’s degree. A master’s degree in legal studies (MLS) may cover courses such as negotiation, intellectual property law, employment law, legal writing, and trial advocacy. According to O*Net OnLine, a paralegal’s tasks will include preparing many legal documents and preparing for trial. An understanding of these tasks may be covered in an MLS program.
Step 2. Complete a Paralegal Certification - Recommended
Beyond your education, the NFPA recommends that you complete a certifying examination to receive your paralegal certification through any one of several professional organizations, including:
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
NALS - The Association for Legal Professionals
American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)
Remember, these recommendations are not mandatory to become a paralegal, but recommended because passing one of these certification exams may indicate that you are knowledgeable and well prepared to become an impactful force in your employer’s organization.
While not a legal requisite, NALA does suggest minimum qualifications that many employers use as a rubric in assessing a paralegal’s preparedness. These qualifications are intended to demonstrate, both to the attorney and to the public, that you have a formal legal education and have received broad exposure to the principles and issues you may encounter as a paralegal.
Each certification has its own criteria for continuing education and renewal, so it is important to choose one that best aligns with your goals.
It’s relatively strict to become a paralegal in California. According to California Alliance of Paralegal Associations, candidates must have a paralegal certificate from a school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) and complete some semester hours in paralegal studies from a school accredited by the state of California.
According to the New York Career Institute, the Empire State Alliance of Paralegal Associations suggests that people who want to become a paralegal in New York should have a minimum of an associates degree in paralegal studies or similar field focus, a paralegal certificate, or a bachelor’s with a focus on paralegal studies.
Paralegals perform an important role in our legal system and depending on your interests. Before becoming a paralegal, there are a variety of specializations to choose from when continuing your education. If you’re interested in pursuing a master’s degree, you may choose a specific area of law and select a concentration within your legal studies program.
Litigation Paralegal - Working with trial attorneys
Government Paralegal - Working with regulatory agencies, law enforcement or politicians
Estate Planning and Probate Paralegal - Communicating with families, tax auditors, and trustees in handling estates
Labor Law Paralegal - Working on issues between employers and employees, such as discrimination or working conditions
While the idea of six months of working experience may feel daunting to a new or recent graduate, most accredited degree programs provide internship experience to their students. This internship experience proves invaluable to applying theoretical knowledge to a practical setting, demonstrating your understanding of legal precepts and your ability to function as a real-world paralegal.
Internships are typically benefits of degree programs, providing for opportunities to network and potentially earn full-time employment post-graduation.
Upon graduating, paralegals have myriad options available to them; they may work for banks, insurance companies, trade organizations, private law firms, or in the legal departments of large corporations.
Within the public sector, paralegals have numerous opportunities to work in state and federal government agencies, public defenders’ offices, district attorneys’ offices, and consumer organizations.
Working paralegals are well positioned to continue their education or pursue new certifications, and the more experience they gain, the better their chances are of receiving promotions to management positions or being entrusted with richer and more exciting casework. Learn more on how to you may be able to pursue a career in law with an online master’s in legal studies.
The work paralegals do is complex and can be quite extensive, requiring a thorough understanding of law and an unwavering commitment to justice. Attorneys rely on their paralegals, and the success of a case is most often a team effort between the attorney and their support staff. Key duties of a paralegal may include:
Preparing an attorney for a hearing or trial by investigating the facts of the case
Conducting background research
Collecting and organizing documents directly relevant to the case
Researching prior legal cases to help establish precedent
Drafting motions, plea agreements, and writing reports
Conducting interviews with witnesses or clients
Preparing contracts, mortgages, wills, and other civil documents
Acting as a liaison between attorney and client, maintaining communication and helping to prepare the client
People who want to become a paralegal should be ready for virtually anything that falls within the umbrella of these duties. Although paralegals are certified legal professionals, there are essential tasks that are beyond the scope of their duties.
Generally speaking, paralegals are prohibited from “practicing law”—performing certain tasks that require a legal license. Providing legal advice, deciding which cases are accepted or denied, and representing clients at a hearing or trial are all beyond a paralegal’s purview.
Skills Paralegals Should Have
Whether you are pursuing your master’s in legal studies degree or a certification, it could be beneficial to keep the below skills in mind and continue to grow them to excel in your career as a paralegal.
Judgement and Decision Making
Emotional Intelligence and Trustworthiness
Complex Problem Solving
Browse our wealth of online resources for paralegals to explore your options for certification and gain crucial insight into how to better serve your clients and stay abreast of the latest industry news in the legal profession.
The online Master of Legal Studies from American University equips students with fundamental legal training and industry-specific knowledge. Students attend online classes and an in-person immersion in Washington, D.C. Complete in as few as 12 months. No GRE or LSAT required.