How to Become a Paralegal

You’ve decided that a paralegal career is right for you. You’ve always had an interest in law and love the idea of getting paid to research and learn even more. With a keen eye for detail, an analytical nature, and a good track record of handling things that come your way, you’re cut out for the work.

So, what’s next? What’s the proper course to becoming a paralegal?

If you’re considering becoming a paralegal, you’re in the right place. Get need-to-know information for how to become a paralegal, including critical qualifications and requirements, here.



Step 1: Complete a Formal Paralegal Education Program

If you’ve started researching what it takes to enter the paralegal field, you’ve likely come across some iffy information. There’s no shortage of paralegal education programs, yet you’ve likely heard plenty ‘I know a guy who knows a guy’ stories about those who made it big at a top law firm without any education or worked through the ranks to become the best paralegal in their firm.

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While these scenarios are possible, they’re not likely. These scenarios represent rare exceptions to the well-established rule: You’re going to need formal education in paralegal studies.

In the legal industry of the 21st century, where attorneys are looking for the most qualified paralegals to work alongside them, formal qualifications such as an academic certificate or degree are typically considered the absolute minimum when becoming a paralegal.

Sure, there may be small mom-and-pop law firms that will take on the herculean task of training a paralegal with no legal background or education, but most of the time, employers are looking for paralegal candidates who already have a solid foundation in the legal field.

For most paralegals, this type of knowledge is best gained through a comprehensive degree program or post-degree certificate in paralegal studies.

While the educational path you choose will largely depend on your personal preferences and goals, it’s also worth your while to contact your state paralegal association and ask what employers in your area are looking for.

For example, in larger metropolitan areas, it’s quite common for employers to demand that paralegal candidates hold two-year degrees and a post-degree certificate or even four-year degrees in paralegal studies. On the other hand, in small firms outside the major metro areas, a basic entry-level pre-degree undergraduate certificate program might be acceptable for entry-level employment.

This is a profession that has no licensing requirements enforced by state law, but there are plenty of skill requirements to actually land a job. Just ask any law firm looking to bring a new paralegal onboard or any organization representing the profession. Everyone from employers to paralegal professional associations have specific recommendations for the educational minimums they believe are required to understand the work and perform the job well.

This means it’s on you to pursue a course of education that will allow you to easily transition into the paralegal role—and satisfy your professional and personal goals along the way.

What Qualifications Are Needed to Become a Paralegal?

It’s important to know the baseline paralegal requirements to assist you in your education journey. In employer surveys about how to become a paralegal, 46%, required a post-associate certificate from an ABA-approved program, followed closely by a bachelor’s degree at 42%. An associate degree was accepted as the minimum by 28% of lawyers that responded to the survey.

In the corporate environment, nearly 21% of employers surveyed reported that a bachelor’s degree is the educational minimum for their paralegals. However, about 40% required a post-degree certificate (post-associate or post-baccalaureate) through an ABA-approved program or regionally accredited school, while about 13% of employers required a minimum of an associate degree. Finally, about 13% of employers had no educational requirement at all according to the survey.

How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?

The complexity and difficulty of becoming a paralegal differ depending on the educational path you choose. There is no simple answer to how hard it is to become a paralegal. Depending on the path you take, it may take anywhere from a few months of training in a vocational program to over four years of education if you choose to become a paralegal by earning a bachelor’s degree.

So, which educational path is right for you? No one can make that decision for you, and since there are no licensing requirements, there really is no pre-determined path to becoming a paralegal.

What we can do is offer up the information you need to make a fully informed decision…

Pre-Degree Undergraduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies

The undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies is the minimum educational program available and is therefore the shortest. You can find them through many proprietary schools and community colleges. This is the no-extras, get-me-the-training-I-need-in-the-shortest-amount-of-time option that meets the barest of paralegal qualifications.

The undergraduate certificate requirements are relatively simple:

  • Takes a few months to a year to complete
  • Programs consist of 18-29 credits, depending on the certificate and program offerings
  • Courses are tailored directly to the paralegal profession and legal field and don’t include general undergraduate courses of any kind

You will get a primer in legal research and legal writing and then spend most of your time studying law, from tort law, to wills and trusts, to civil law, to criminal law.

Convenience and quickness is the name of the game for these programs. Requiring nothing more than a high school diploma/GED and a willingness to learn, undergraduate certificate programs give every type of student the opportunity to gain a solid foundation in law and the paralegal profession.

And for many, the opportunity to complete these programs via interactive online learning platforms makes getting an education in paralegal studies easier than ever.

Reflecting this preference, the American Bar Association, along with the national paralegal associations, NALA: The Association of Paralegals and the National Federal of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), all recommend earning a minimum of an associate degree but working toward a bachelor’s degree.

Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies

An associate degree in paralegal studies, usually found through community colleges and proprietary schools, is the comprehensive course of study many employers are looking for in their paralegals.

With an associate degree, you’ll receive:

  • A basic education in the paralegal profession and the American legal system
  • General education courses including social sciences, natural sciences, math, and English.
  • The ability to easily continue education with a bachelor’s degree later on
  • 60 credits total
  • Student internship

At the end of the program, your written and verbal communication skills will be sharper, and the general knowledge you gained will serve you well when interacting with clients and attorneys.

If you attend full-time, you can complete an associate degree in paralegal studies in about two years.

Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies

If you want to strive for the highest level of education available to you out of high school and set yourself up for the best employment opportunities, consider a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. It’ll take you about 4 years of full-time study to complete (about 120 credits), but it will satisfy ABA, NALA, and NFPA recommendations and position you nicely for a job with a larger firm or corporation. There are a variety of top bachelor’s degree paralegal programs out there to help you find the best fit for your learning style and needs.

Another perk of a bachelor’s degree is the ability to choose specialized courses and complete an internship, both of which are always beneficial for propelling your career and allowing you to begin working in a legal specialty of your choice.

Admission requirements for a bachelor’s degree often include:

  • A minimum high school GPA
  • Passing scores on a standardized exam like the GMAT
  • Letters of recommendation

While bachelor’s degree programs accept students with a high school diploma or GED, many programs are quite competitive and require candidates to sit for a personal interview or submit a personal essay.

Post-Degree Certificate in Paralegal Studies

The large number of post-degree paralegal certificate programs (post-associate and post-baccalaureate) is proof positive that not all paralegal careers need to start early. If you’ve already earned an associate or bachelor’s in another area and you want to make a career change to the paralegal field, a post-degree certificate in paralegal studies is just what you need to transition into the role.

Though these programs are generally designed for professionals with an undergraduate degree in another field, that doesn’t mean they are exclusively for career changers. Earning a degree in an area like business and stacking that with a post-degree certificate in paralegal studies is one of the most marketable educational credentials out there. In fact, it would make you an ideal candidate for a corporate paralegal position or with a law office that specializes in corporate law.

You can even earn a post-degree certificate while your associate or bachelor’s degree is in progress, an option that is becoming more and more common as students recognize the value of combining an undergraduate degree in relevant areas with a certificate in paralegal studies.

These programs, which are designed for students who have already completed general undergraduate requirements, consist of a broad foundational education in the legal system and the paralegal profession. They also provide you with the opportunity to specialize your course of study in a particular area of law, such as corporate law or real estate law.

Post-degree certificate programs often offer students the option of completing either a capstone course or paralegal internship. Though not required to begin practicing as a paralegal, the American Bar Association (ABA) praises the value of internships when it comes to preparing for the profession.

Admission into a program like this has a few requirements:

  • Prior associate or bachelor’s degree (or a degree in progress with general education courses completed)
  • A minimum GPA
  • Admissions interview
  • Letters of recommendation

Most of these programs can be completed in just one academic year, and many are designed as either partially or fully online programs that provide working professionals with a convenient way to complete the program on their own time.

Choosing a Paralegal Program

Once you’ve determined the best educational route, you need to choose a program. Paralegal programs for the high school graduate or GED holder are not in short supply. From proprietary schools to community colleges to four-year colleges and universities, you’ll likely have plenty of options.

It’s always a good idea to check out programs offered through schools that have received regional accreditation through one of the following agencies:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • New England Association of Colleges and Schools
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

The ABA also approves specific paralegal programs (this is different from institution-level accreditation), but only those delivered on-campus and only those that have applied for approval. Just a fraction of the schools offering paralegal programs choose to pursue ABA approval. So, while ABA-approved programs do provide a quality paralegal education, there are many other programs that are of equally high quality but that do not carry ABA approval.

Some of the other factors to consider when looking for a paralegal program include:

  • Faculty: Many courses in paralegal programs are taught by seasoned professors or experienced lawyers and paralegals.
  • Price: You will soon find that a paralegal program can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Often, community colleges and state schools are a better value than private colleges.
  • Student support: Student support services are an important part of a paralegal program and range from tutoring to resume writing assistance to job placement services, among others.

How Much Do Paralegal Programs Cost?

A post-degree certificate program through a public or proprietary school can range in price from $7,000-$13,000, while a similar certificate program through a community college will cost between $3,000-$8,000.

A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies through a state college is about $18,000, while through a private college or university, it can cost between $40,000-$60,000.

Contact your local professional paralegal association and your school or college of choice for information about costs, scholarships, grants, and loans. A financial aid counselor can help you identify what grants and loans are available to you and how to apply for them.

Get a jump on understanding what loans and grants you are eligible for by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Step 2: Gain Legal Experience

There is no better way to answer the question, “is becoming a paralegal a good job?” than by getting out into the field and finding out for yourself.

Gaining hands-on experience is a key paralegal qualification that will help you when you eventually start your job search. Most paralegals do this through internships and on-the-job training.

Internships

One advantage of completing an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies is the internship opportunity that it affords. Internships provide you valuable on-the-job training and a chance to work in the field, where you will network and build valuable professional relationships. While not all degree programs include an internship, those that do often partner with local law firms to devise formal internship arrangements. Internship programs often range from 120-280 hours and contribute to the credits you earn in your degree program.

“Spend some time with the job counselor at your school to identify law offices, corporations or government entities that will get you that valuable, real-life experience you’re after. If you’re interested in a specific area of law, seek out an internship that will immerse you in that legal specialty.”

An internship is just like any other job, in that you would be expected to meet minimum requirements set by the organization that’s hiring you, and you would need to bring your A-game during the interview and selection process since these positions can be very competitive. And just like any other job, you do get paid.

On-the-Job Training

In some parts of the country and with some firms it’s still possible to enter the field without formal training, but this is becoming rarer. Some small firms outside of large cities may offer more opportunities for on-the-job training, particularly if there are no paralegal programs nearby. Some people may have a contact at a law office and be able to turn that into a job without first getting a formal education.

Many paralegals who choose this path to supplement their on-the-job learning with formal classes, even working towards a degree or certificate after landing an entry-level position.

Even if you come into the field with the highest qualifications, you can still expect a considerable amount of on-the-job training as you learn the ropes, and the nuances of the office culture and their processes.

Step 3: Earn a Professional Certification & Develop Additional Skills

First, it’s always a good idea to clarify the difference between a ‘certificate’ and ‘certification’ for people new to these concepts. There can be some confusion around how these terms are used and what they are meant to describe. So much so that the National Federation of Paralegal Associations has released a statement in an effort to clarify matters.

Really, the difference is simple: An academic certificate is available through a community college or proprietary school and teaches the skills you need to be proficient in performing your work. Think of it as being very much the same as a degree… Professional certification, of the other hand, describes a credential you earn through testing and is awarded by one of a few nationally recognized certification agencies.

Once you complete your education, you may decide to pursue one of the entry-level professional designations. If your program meets the agency’s educational minimums you would be qualified to do so even before you start gaining experience on the job. All three of the major national certification agencies offer a path to qualifying for their certification exam based on education alone.

“You will even find that many schools offering paralegal certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree programs teach to national certification standards and even provide a pathway to taking the certification exam after graduation.”

Choosing to pursue paralegal specialty certifications is a voluntary endeavor and one you can pursue at any time during your career, but consider how it would look to a prospective employer that you were ambitious enough to get your ducks in a row and earn your credential before beginning the job hunt.

The three national paralegal organizations that offer entry-level professional certification are:

A 2017 survey found that 62% of paralegals held no professional certification. The largest number of paralegals who held certification,14%, held NALA’s CP designation, followed by NALS’ PP designation, at 6%, and NFPA’s CRP designation, at 2%. About 9% held professional certification through their state bar or paralegal association.

A small number of states also offer voluntary credentials that grant some level of expanded autonomy, allowing paralegals to perform certain select tasks without working under the supervision of an attorney. In Arizona and California, paralegals may earn a document preparer’s certification, allowing them to prepare legal paperwork independently. In Washington State, paralegals can earn the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) designation, allowing them to advise and assist clients in family court if they cannot afford an attorney.

Unless you live in one of these three states, this wouldn’t apply, and even if you do, this isn’t something you need to worry about before beginning the job hunt since these designations are largely designed for paralegals that work independently.

Developing Additional Skills

Making sure you are the strongest and most marketable job candidate means more than just getting an education in paralegal studies and earning certification. It’s about being the most well-rounded and capable person you can be. Before or after you complete your education, consider taking workshops or classes that will help you develop and refine certain key skills that will make you a better paralegal.

You can find opportunities through your local paralegal professional association, state bar association, or community college. It’s even worth looking at free courses at your local library or community center. Or you could simply practice on your own and focus on being mindful of how mastering the skills you use every day will help you in your future career as a paralegal:

  • Oral Communication: Paralegals are frequently dialoguing with lawyers, clients, and other professionals, so strong communication is a must. Any class, conference, workshop, or meeting that gives you the chance to practice clear and precise speaking is helpful. Look for Toastmasters International, debate clubs, public speaking workshops, and other opportunities.
  • Written Communication: Strong written communication skills are imperative for paralegals since they present information in written form on correspondence, drafts, pleadings, motions, briefs, contracts, and numerous other documents daily. You must be able to communicate accurately and precisely across many forms of media: letters, documents, email, and fax. You must have a strong command of grammar, punctuation, and factual, persuasive writing. Give yourself many opportunities to practice through tutoring, writing classes or self-study.
  • Computers and Technology: From correspondence to calendaring to legal research, naturally paralegal work involves spending most of your time in front of a computer. Paralegals will be well served by having a strong command of word processing, databases, spreadsheet, presentation platforms and the like. Take any opportunity to become familiar with legal research databases like Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw.
  • Research: While many research skills are taught in paralegal studies programs, practice helps one become proficient. Additional workshops on Boolean searches, legal research databases, library and information sciences, and other research opportunities will improve your efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Both in day-to-day dealings with lawyers and other professionals, and in working with clients, strong interpersonal skills will benefit you as a paralegal. Consider supplemental training in conflict resolution, mediation, active listening, group communication, and other avenues for both honing your own interpersonal communication skills and assisting others.

Step 4: Find a Paralegal Job

The proper education and professional certification add to the validity of your skills and competency. But even the most impressive background won’t get you very far if you don’t capture the attention of an employer. Finding the right paralegal job for yourself will help you with finding an area of interest you love, while also allowing you as a paralegal to make good money.

Writing a Resume

You’ve done the hard work and completed a program in paralegal studies, so now it’s time to craft a resume that speaks to your knowledge and stands out from the stack of other resumes on an employer’s desk.

A good resume includes:

  • Eye-pleasing structure
  • No grammatical or spelling errors
  • Easy readability
  • Information relevant to the position you are applying for

Even if you’re fresh out of college and haven’t acquired any practical experience, that doesn’t mean your resume can’t be a nice summary of your accomplishments. List any unique courses you took in college and talk up your accomplishments. Consider adding anything from writing for the school newspaper to leadership positions in academic or social organizations.

Ask friends, professors, and colleagues to proofread your resume and critique it for style. Also, never send blind resumes to employers. Always take the time to personalize a cover letter for each firm and call ahead to confirm who to send the resume to and the spelling of their name.

Your cover letter should be professional in tone and font, strongly written and grammatically flawless. However, your cover letter also gives you an opportunity to let some of your personality show. Don’t simply summarize your resume. Tell the hiring manager what makes you the right candidate for this job. Go into detail about relevant work experience or skills that would make you an asset to the organization. Research the organization to strengthen your case and show your interest in working for them.

Searching for a Job

Resources abound for locating paralegal job openings. For example, many professional paralegal associations and bar associations have job banks that are available to their members including:

The career centers at colleges and universities often have job boards and may also host career fairs. Temp agencies may place paralegals in temporary-to-permanent jobs. Online legal job banks, classifieds and Craigslist are also where employers advertise job openings. You may also send out job inquiries and resumes to local firms and follow those up with a phone call.

Positioning Yourself for Success

Paralegal work is all about the details and so is positioning yourself for the best shot at landing a job with that firm you’ve had your eye on.

If you want that job bad enough to go and get it, it’s worth getting a few things in order in your personal life to stack the odds in your favor:

  • Have positive references available. Contact educators and former coworkers to ask if they would feel comfortable giving you a glowing reference. Have a list of these contacts available.
  • Pay attention to your personal appearance. Your clothing and hair will make a first impression on a potential employer. Professionalism is of the utmost importance. You will be working face-to-face with attorneys in expensive tailored suits, not to mention the clients that pay for them. Look and dress the part, especially at job fairs and interviews.
  • Ensure that your presence on the Internet conveys a professional message. Expect any potential employer to do some online investigating to find out more about you. Everything from your Facebook page to your LinkedIn profile and Twitter feed to any blogs you might be writing or contributing to are fair game. Search yourself and make sure that your e-presence conveys a professional image.
  • Have a professional sounding voicemail message. When a hiring manager calls to offer you an interview, you want your outgoing message to sound professional.
  • Network. Most employers would prefer to hire someone they know than someone they don’t, or at least someone with a personal reference from a person they trust. Networking can be highly valuable in helping you find employment. Join your local paralegal professional organization or bar association where you can attend educational and social meetings. Ask paralegal educators for advice and contacts. Create a LinkedIn page and tap into contacts through your friends, former coworkers, and classmates.

Interview Success Tips

Wear appropriate business attire to your interview, regardless of whether you’re interviewing with a high-powered firm on the top floor of a Manhattan skyscraper or one that does pro-bono work for non-profits.

  • Prepare for the interview by researching the firm or company. Nothing says ‘prepared’ like a candidate who knows about the organization they’re interviewing for.
  • Take a test run to make sure you can find the place easily if you aren’t sure where they are located.
  • Arrive early.
  • Maintain eye contact, have a firm handshake, natural smile, confidence, ease of presence, and finally a sense of humor. Be the person you would want to spend 50 hours a week with.
  • Enlist the help of a friend to conduct a mock interview, so you’ll be prepared to offer up clear, articulate answers to common interview questions.
    • Why do you want to work for our firm?
    • Why do you want to be a paralegal?
    • What is your biggest strength/weakness?
    • Tell me about a difficult client interaction you have experienced.
    • Describe a time you encountered conflict and how you resolved it.
    • What is your understanding of legal procedure?
    • How has your training or education prepared you for this job?
  • Be prepared to describe your accomplishments in a way that is humble and flattering, not boastful. Be prepared to speak to the many ways you think you’d be an asset to the team.
  • Then own it: proceed with confidence knowing that you are the best candidate for the job.

How Much Do Paralegals Make?

When researching how to become a paralegal, some of the most common questions have to do with paralegal salary. Frequently asked questions of those beginning their journey are “do paralegals make good money?” and “can paralegals make six figures?”

These are important questions to ask as your livelihood depends on you getting a good salary that you can thrive on. Luckily, many employers are happy to negotiate compensation for educated and experienced paralegals.

Studies show that entry-level paralegals tend to start their career making between $40,000-$60,000 depending on the firm they are working with.

As far as whether paralegals can make six figures, they most certainly can after around seven to 10 years of experience with larger law firms. With that type of experience at a smaller firm, the salaries are a little lower, staying in the $70,000 range.

Of course, when first getting hired, negotiating your salary is a must, but keep in mind the realities of the position, as well as the size of your potential firm. Smaller firms tend to pay less, but your advancements may come a bit faster as you get more on-the-job training. At a larger firm, it may take longer to move through a series of promotions.

Other Avenues for Becoming a Paralegal

Completing formal education may not be a possibility for you currently. If you are not ready or not able to enter a paralegal studies program currently, there are other ways of getting your foot in the door either before or even while you complete your education. Start by looking at entry-level positions within a firm as a runner, office assistant or receptionist, and work on your education on your own time. If there is a paralegal position to fill later, you will likely get first consideration.

It’s not unrealistic to start working for a firm in such positions before being able to develop the skills you’ll need to become a paralegal. Following the steps above will help you to navigate this journey as you work your way up the company ladder.

Find the Right Paralegal Certificate Program for You

Now that you know the steps for how to become a paralegal and the paralegal requirements, you’re ready to get started on your journey. Learning about certificate programs will guide you step by step through finding the right fit for your needs, based on various things such as the states offering some of the best programs in the United States and more. From there, you can begin your education and start stepping through the process one day at a time.

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