Paralegals play an integral role in the delivery of legal services, and many assume much of a lawyer’s more important workload, employing an advanced understanding of the legal system. To become an expert in the law, you’ll first need to earn a paralegal degree that meets your state’s requirements and fits your personal career goals. Learn what kind of paralegal education you’ll need to get started in this rewarding career.
What Is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is an expert law assistant who helps practicing attorneys with legal tasks and provides general legal support to businesses. What paralegals can’t do, in any state, is offer opinions or legal advice, represent clients in court, accept new clients into the practice, or set legal fees. These are things that fall strictly within the purview of a licensed attorney.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
The scope of work for a paralegal is broad, offering opportunities to delve into nearly every facet of the legal profession. Paralegals may perform administrative duties, especially in a small office. However, as paralegals typically enjoy higher wages than legal secretaries, many offices reserve their paralegals’ time for more specialized tasks. A paralegal may:
- Draft agreements, contracts, and briefs
- Evaluate potential clients for case viability
- Meet with clients to help with paperwork
- Parse out details from case law
- Prepare exhibits for a trial and assist the practicing litigator in the courtroom
- Represent parties in administrative law hearings
- Review the legal language in contract documents
Paralegals often interface with a variety of people and are expected to be good communicators, strong writers, and adept at conflict resolution and negotiation. This breadth of work means that paralegals can work in a variety of industries outside of strictly case law, including healthcare, business, immigration, intellectual property, real estate, personal finance, and more.
Paralegal Degrees and Certificates
What does a paralegal do to enter the profession? First, you’ll need to complete your paralegal education, then garner applicable legal experience through an internship or an entry-level position. Which paralegal degree you earn depends heavily on what kind of law career you wish to have.
- Certificate: A generalist paralegal certificate can be a good choice if you’re a high-school graduate looking to get an entry-level job in law before or while pursuing a higher degree.
- Associate: An associate paralegal degree is a great option for students new to the field who wish to work at a law firm, or for someone switching careers and already holds a degree in a different area but has no specific paralegal education.
- Bachelor’s: A bachelor’s in paralegal studies will provide you a robust education in the requirements for your field. You’ll complete an internship where you can practice your skills under the tutelage of paralegals in the field.
- Post-Degree Certificate: A post-associate or post-baccalaureate certificate is the perfect option for career changers and degree-holding paralegals looking to specialize.
- Master’s: Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s in paralegal studies, you may wish to specialize your skills and knowledge even further. A paralegal master’s degree or a Master of Legal Studies allows you to focus on a specific area of law to gain expertise in its procedures and principles.
ABA-Approved Paralegal Programs
Getting the right paralegal education is key to your future in law, so it’s critical to find a program that’s approved by the American Bar Association. ABA-approved paralegal programs are thoroughly vetted by the organization and offer high-quality coursework. You can find ABA-approved programs at both community colleges and four-year universities, depending on which paralegal degree or certificate you’re pursuing.
As a paralegal, you also have the option to pursue national certification. Paralegal certification can help set you apart from your peers and show a deep level of commitment to your profession. What is a paralegal certification? It’s a voluntary credential that you can earn by testing through one of four nationally-recognized organizations:
- The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)
- The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI)
There are currently no uniform state-specific requirements or examinations for paralegals as there are for State Bar exams and each offers different levels of certification.
Paralegals are becoming recognized for their ability to develop a degree of expertise, and offer a similar set of services, as fully-fledged lawyers. This is leaving the job market wide open to big opportunities in many industries, and a range of paralegal salaries to match. While many paralegals work in law firms, many others work at government agencies, non-profits, and corporations. A few examples of paralegal careers include:
- Criminal law paralegal: A paralegal focused on criminal law may work with an attorney’s office, for a judge or justice, for a special interest group, or for local, state, or federal government as an assistant to a district attorney or Attorney General.
- Corporate paralegal: In this capacity, you’ll provide legal expertise to businesses as it relates to transactions like investments, mergers, acquisitions, business filings, and more, ensuring that the corporation’s dealings fall within the letter of the law.
- Bankruptcy paralegal: Another branch of business law, a bankruptcy paralegal helps companies navigate the federal process for declaring bankruptcy for debt relief.
- Litigation paralegal: A litigation paralegal has specific expertise in the rules and processes of bringing proceedings to court, criminal or otherwise.
- Personal injury paralegal: When dealing with cases involving physical and emotional pain, a personal injury paralegal must have a deep degree of empathy in addition to their legal expertise.
Get on Board with a Promising Career as a Paralegal
Paralegal careers evolve with the practice of law, but trends point to paralegals continuing to be even more important, both in law firms and corporations. Their status as the right-hand of practicing attorneys has been cemented in the legal field and their business value is being proven daily.
With such a promising outlook, there’s no better time to start your paralegal education. Find an approved program today and join the next generation of law experts who are making a difference.
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