As the saying goes, “you’ve gotta start ‘somewhere,” which is to say, you should expect to start at the bottom.
But working hard never bothered you, and you’re willing to put in the time and effort needed to become a trusted and respected paralegal. And make no mistake; it’s going to take some time to get there… and a lot of effort.
After all, every successful paralegal career begins with an entry-level job. It’s during this time that you’ll begin understanding the nuances of this highly rewarding career and applying the skills you’ve developed through a comprehensive post-secondary education or certification program.
You have some options for trying the legal environment on for size in other entry-level positions even before taking courses in paralegal studies.
An introduction to the legal environment doesn’t always have to begin with an entry-level paralegal job. In fact, many get their first taste of law firm culture through less specialized positions that let them work alongside lawyers and paralegals without taking on the massive responsibility associated with the substantive legal work paralegals perform.
These kinds of roles provide a great introduction to the work paralegals do and offer a chance to get the kind of real world experience in a law firm or local court that is hard to come by any other way. You’ll get a chance to establish yourself as a trusted professional and begin making valuable connections and establishing professional relationships that will bode well for you when you make the transition to a paralegal. At this stage, it’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open and taking advantage of opportunities to learn more.
Legal Secretary or Office Assistant in a Small, Local Law Office
Legal office secretary positions are often a good place to start. Many times, government agencies, small law firms and one-man practices will hire legal secretaries with little more than a high school diploma, an impressive showing during the interview process and the ability to demonstrate an eye for detail.
If you have wicked typing skills and are familiar with all the basic word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, you’re likely to be able to present yourself as an asset to a law firm looking to hire office support staff. You’ll also want to have good interpersonal skills because you will be expected to interact with attorneys, and co-workers in a professional manner as well as field phone calls from clients and prospective clients– and even greet them face to face as they come into the office to meet with attorneys.
As a legal secretary, you’ll answer phones, take messages, transcribe correspondence and legal documents, organize and file documents, open and sort mail, schedule new and existing client meetings. In a smaller firm you might even get the chance to maintain attorney calendars; great practice for a would-be paralegal since calendaring and maintaining court appearance schedules and document submission deadlines is a vital core function of any paralegal. Even as a secretary, you could have a chance to become familiar with things like court rules and filing procedures, performing non-legal research on the Internet, and using services like Lexis or Westlaw to retrieve court decisions that can be presented as legal precedent… all of which would be amazing practice for anybody looking to become a paralegal.
Administrative Assistant for the Municipal Court in Your Area
Gaining some legal experience outside of a law firm can actually provide you with some of the best exposure to the workings of the U.S. judicial system you can get. If you have any interest in going on to work in civil or criminal litigation, few things can prepare you as well as an entry-level job with the court system in your area.
Look for entry-level opportunities for administrative assistants for the courts. While it is possible to land a job like this in a small municipal court system with a high school diploma, you will be expected to provide outstanding customer service and be an organizational whiz. Any office experience you might have, or even any volunteer experience you might have working in the office of a school, nonprofit or charity would help put you in a position to compete for an admin position with your local municipal court.
As an administrative assistant, you will coordinate and respond to requests by judges, the judicial staff, and court reporters. You’ll schedule staff, receive and process transcript requests, and keep the court reporter scheduling database and rosters up-to-date.
File Clerk with a Small, Local Law Firm or Court
File clerks are found working in any office or government agency that processes a lot of paperwork, and nowhere is this truer than in the legal field. This means these types of positions can be found in both law firms and with the courts.
As a file clerk with a law office, you can expect to organize and file mountains of legal documents – surprise, surprise. If you’re lucky enough to land a file clerk position with your local court, the job could also involve assigning case numbers and judges and receiving and processing fees.
Runner with a Small, Local Law Firm
Even while the rest of the world is fast going paperless, the judicial process often still often requires notarized hard copy documents. Runners – as the name implies – are responsible for ensuring documents get where they need to be, quickly. This might mean picking up documents from clients and delivering it back to the law firm, or seeing to it legal documents get to the courthouse in time to meet filing deadlines.
Working as runner will require you to make sure your interpersonal and customer services skills are on-point since and you will be interacting with everybody from clients to attorneys to court clerks.
Entry-Level Paralegal Job Functions
Ok – the monotony of filing an endless stream of documents, fielding phone calls and running documents all over town isn’t for everyone. If you have a basic education in paralegal studies and plan to step directly into an entry-level paralegal job, there are a few things you can expect early in your career.
The biggest difference between the entry-level paralegal and the experienced paralegal tends to be the type and complexity of job duties and the amount of independent work that you’ll be expected to handle. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in the corner, collating documents all day. Even while learning the ropes you can expect to handle things like preparing court documents, maintaining attorney files, filing pleadings with the court and performing research.
However, much of your time will be spent assisting mid-level and senior paralegals perform these tasks. This is your chance to learn how each partner in the firm prefers things to be done, and it’s wise to take notes since you’ll likely be working cases with all of them at some point over your tenure.
You will also learn a lot about the workplace culture. This could include everything from getting a feel for which senior partner rules the roost – the one whose delegated tasks always needs to be handled first – to where and when you’ll eat your lunch. As an entry-level paralegal, your job will be as much about observing the rules of the playground as it is about learning the ins and outs of performing your core duties.
Your first weeks and months in a law firm won’t likely be spent working alongside attorneys, but instead working with the mid-level and senior paralegals who do, so it’s important to pay close attention to the paralegal-attorney dynamic. Now is the time to watch, listen, and learn from seasoned paralegals. As you gain more experience, you will begin being assigned to tasks like researching case law and supporting attorneys during trial. You’ll know you’ve arrived once you find yourself proactively handling the complex tasks that will become your core duties even before anybody tells you to…
- Examining statutes, articles, constitutions, codes, etc. for the preparation of documents
- Calendaring for attorneys, which involves scheduling everything from client meetings to court appearances to filing deadlines
- Composing briefs, appeals, wills, contracts, articles of incorporation, stock certificates, deeds, etc.
- Filing pleadings with court clerk
- Maintaining files and preparing affidavits
- Delivering or arranging for the delivery of subpoenas
- Serving as an arbitrator or mediator between parties in dispute
- Investigating facts and laws to determine causes of action for case preparation purposes
Don’t forget that your role as an entry-level paralegal is like an extended job interview. You’ll be groomed to take on more advanced roles, but you’ll also be under the microscope as partners and other staff see how well you rise to the challenges put in front of you. It’s important to remember that displaying an eagerness to learn and a positive attitude can go a long way in getting you recognized as a valuable member of the legal team.
Career Specialties for Paralegals
Not all entry-level paralegal jobs are going to be identical. In fact, depending on the type of law practice you’re working for, some job duties can vary…
Bankruptcy – Paralegals in entry-level positions in a firm that specializes in bankruptcy law may be tasked with:
- Arranging for the appraisal of assets and real and personal property
- Attending bankruptcy hearings and meetings
- Preparing for evidentiary hearings
- Preparing debtor’s monthly operating costs, petitions, schedules, and statements
Litigation – Litigating cases in a court of law can apply to either criminal or civil law, but in either case it would involve:
- Assisting attorneys when preparing for trial or appeals
- Investigating and researching facts
- Drafting legal documents, including briefs, pleadings, and memoranda
- Maintaining accurate records of all court dates and deadlines
- Assisting attorneys during trial preparation
- Interviewing witnesses
Estate Planning – Entry-level paralegals in estate planning are often responsible for supporting attorneys with tasks related to:
- Drafting wills and other estate planning documents
- Preparing and filing state and federal tax returns
- Valuating and transferring assets
- Preparing paperwork for probate hearings
Corporate – Corporate law is focused primarily on high-level business transactions, including mergers, acquisitions, and stock offerings. Corporate law may also deal with protecting intellectual property, including patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Job duties of entry-level paralegals in corporate settings or with firms that specialize in corporate law may include:
- Preparing and scheduling board meetings
- Reviewing business operations and corporate bylaws to ensure all laws are followed
- Keeping corporate minutes
- Conducting trademark and patent searches
- Preparing documents related to shareholder agreements
- Preparing financial statements
- Ensuring all securities reporting requirements are met
Labor – An entry-level paralegal in a law firm that specializes in labor law would deal with cases concerning everything from worker’s compensation to wrongful termination and perform tasks that might include:
- Preparing documentation and collecting evidence for wrongful termination trials
- Investigation wrongful termination cases
- Drafting and revising employee policies, practices, and handbooks
- Preparing draft pleadings and affidavits for service disputes
Real Estate – In real estate law, entry-level paralegals may specialize in either commercial or residential real estate and work alongside senior paralegals and attorneys while performing job duties that include:
- Drafting and revising real estate documents
- Researching title claims and related documents
- Negotiating and drafting purchase agreements, lease agreements, etc.
- Providing assistance for the buying, selling and leasing of real estate
Preferred Training and Credentials for Entry-Level Paralegals
Yes, there are law firms that will hire entry-level paralegals with nothing more than a high school diploma and a willingness to learn. But it’s important to know that this is the exception and not the rule. These kinds of opportunities are so rare these days that you’re almost as likely to find a unicorn to commute to work on as a law firm willing to take you on without at least some training or experience.
If you want to try your luck and bypass an education in paralegal studies and pursue an entry-level paralegal job, you’ll want to look to smaller firms and nonprofits that may be willing to put the time and energy into training staff with no formal education. Really, it’s a lot more reasonable to expect to land a job after you’ve developed the skills on your time – and on your own dime.
Certificate and Degree Programs in Paralegal Studies
You will quickly find that the majority of corporations, law firms, and governmental agencies require entry-level paralegal candidates who have completed a post-degree paralegal certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
What’s great about paralegal programs is the sheer number of them and the fact that most are available online. If you want to complete a program that will get you from the classroom to job-ready in just a few months, you could consider an undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies. However, these short courses are starting to go the way of the dinosaur, as the role of paralegal has taken on all new dimensions in recent years.
In fact, the American Bar Association, state and national professional associations, and all the institutional players in paralegal education advocacy – American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), etc – all recommend an associate’s degree at minimum, and encourage paralegals to work toward a bachelor’s degree. The ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals only recognizes paralegal studies programs structured as associate’s, bachelor’s or post-degree certificates – they don’t recognize the short-course undergrad certificate programs.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean this has to be an associate’s in paralegal studies. In fact, it is so common for people to come into the paralegal profession as career changers that the vast majority of certificate programs in paralegal studies are designed as post-degree (post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s) programs that build on general undergraduate courses – no matter what the undergrad major may have been.
Sure, if you’re fresh out of high school and know you want to become a paralegal, an associate’s or bachelor’s in paralegal studies is your best bet. But if you already hold a degree in any other area, you’ll find no shortage of post-associate’s and post-bac certificate programs specifically designed to impart the core knowledge and skills you need to be a paralegal without making you repeat any of the general undergraduate courses you’ve already taken.
You don’t have to wait to be promoted to a mid-level paralegal position to add to your credentials. Professional certification through a recognized paralegal association is a great way to display your commitment to continued learning and advancing in the profession.
To be clear, certification is not the same as an academic certificate. Certification is how you demonstrate through examination that you mastered your coursework enough to present yourself as a well-prepared entry-level paralegal ready for anything that comes your way. Plus, earning certification means you can add a credential after your name on your email signature or business card.
The following paralegal organizations offer voluntary professional certification for entry-level paralegals like you:
- NALA: The Paralegal Association: Certified Paralegal (CP)
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations: CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP)
- NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals: Professional Paralegal (PP)
All three organizations require candidates to take and pass an examination designed to assess a candidate’s knowledge of the American legal system, and all require continuing education for certification renewal. All these professional certifications include options that apply specifically to entry-level paralegals and allow you qualify on the basis of education alone before you have gained any formal legal experience:
NALA’s Certified Paralegal (CP)
- Graduate from an ABA-approved program
- Graduate from an associate degree program
- Graduate from a post-baccalaureate certificate program in paralegal studies
- Complete a paralegal program that includes at least 60 semester hours, of which at least 15 semester hours are in substantive legal courses
NFPA’s CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP)
- Earn an associate’s degree in paralegal studies
- Earn an associate’s degree in any subject, followed by a paralegal certificate
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in any subject, followed by a paralegal certificate
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
NALS’ Professional Paralegal (PP)
- Graduate from a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
- Graduate from an ABA-approved Paralegal Program
- Graduate from another accredited paralegal program that includes at least 60 semester hours and includes at least 15 semester hours in substantive law