You’ve decided that a paralegal career is right for you: You’re interested in law and love the idea of getting get paid to do research and learn more… you’ve got a keen eye for detail and you’re analytical by nature… you’ve got a good track record for being able to rise to the occasion and handle anything that comes your way… You know you’re cutout for the work, so what’s next?
Earn a certificate or degree in paralegal studies? Find an entry-level job with a law firm as a runner or file clerk and work your way up to a paralegal position? Try to get in with a small firm that is willing to provide on-the-job training?
The right answer for you could depend on a number of different things:
If you’ve begun researching what it takes to enter the paralegal field, chances are you’ve 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:
Maybe it’s the story of the paralegal who made it big at one of America’s top law firms without any education beyond high school… Or maybe it’s the tale of the legal secretary who worked through the ranks to eventually become the most trusted paralegal in her firm.
Are these scenarios possible? Without a doubt. But are they likely? Not at all. These scenarios represent some pretty rare exceptions to the well-established rule: You’re going to need some 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 in the form of an academic certificate or degree are typically considered an absolute minimum. Sure, there may be small mom-and-pop law firms that will take on the herculean task of training a paralegal with absolutely no legal background or education, but the vast majority of the time, particularly in the legal field, where time is of the essence and billable hours are the life blood of the business, employers are looking for paralegal candidates with a solid foundation in the legal field who will be an asset to them and their business.
For most paralegals, this type of knowledge is best gained through a comprehensive degree program in paralegal studies or post-degree certificate.
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 is 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 simple pre-degree undergraduate certificate program might be acceptable for entry-level employment.
But also imagine where this career may take you. Is eventually enrolling in a graduate program and specializing something that’s on your mind?
Since we’re talking about a profession with no licensing requirements, there are no educational minimums that have to be met to be right with the law. None. Zip. Zero.
But, ask any law firm looking to bring a new paralegal onboard or any organization representing the profession and you’ll hear something very different. 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 is 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.
And lucky you, you’ve got quite a few options:
In 2017, consulting firm, Robert Half Legal reached out to 200 of the biggest law firms and corporate employers in the U.S. to find out more about the kind of educational standards in place for paralegal job candidates competing for positions with the nation’s top employers. Multiple responses were allowed, which produced a total higher than 100%, but the findings still painted a clear picture of the kind of education employers expect from their paralegals…
Paralegals with Law Firms …
The biggest portion, 46%, required a post-associate certificate from an ABA-approved program, followed closely by a bachelor’s degree at 42%. An associate’s degree was accepted as the minimum by 28% of lawyers that responded to the survey.
Corporate Paralegals …
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’s degree. Finally, about 13 percent of employers had no educational requirement at all according to the survey.
Both with law firms and corporate legal departments, the short-course undergraduate certificate for high school graduates has fallen out of favor as the profession has evolved and paralegals are consistently being tasked with duties that not long ago were the exclusive domain of attorneys. Though undergraduate certificate programs open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED are still widely available as a viable option, the legal industry has shown its preference for college-educated paralegals that hold either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a post-degree certificate.
So, which one 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…
Taking anywhere from a few months to a year depending on how you schedule classes and consisting of between 18-29 credits, the undergraduate certificate is the epitome of a focused course of study. In fact, the only courses you’ll be taking are those directly related to the paralegal profession and the legal field. These programs 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 and will and trusts to civil law to criminal practice and procedures.
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 the 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.
But while a certificate program in paralegal studies is the easiest path from classroom to courtroom, it may not be enough to get you the job you want. While some employers welcome paralegals with a certificate in paralegal studies, larger employers and those in certain areas of law prefer paralegals with a higher degree of education. Not to mention that a certificate is technically not a degree, which, in some cases, can make it tricky to transfer credits if you choose to earn a degree later on.
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’s degree but working toward a bachelor’s degree.
What makes it different is that it also offers up the general education college courses that allow you to become a well-rounded professional. Plus, complete an associate’s degree and you’ve set yourself up for easily continuing your education with a bachelor’s degree down the road.
In addition to the required legal courses, you will receive a college-level education in the social sciences, the natural sciences, math, and English. 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.
The total course load of an associate’s degree is about 60 credits, including a student internship. If you attend full-time, you can complete an associate’s degree in paralegal studies in about two years.
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 and 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.
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’s 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. Think of it this way, an associate’s is now recognized as the bare minimum for entry-level paralegal work, while a bachelor’s is strongly preferred, and no matter what the degree is in, you’ll need paralegal specialty courses to understand the paralegal role and perform the work. This has made the undergraduate degree-paralegal certificate combo a very popular option.
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. These programs 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. Internships provide valuable, on-the-job experience for the aspiring paralegal, as they involve working in a law office or corporate environment, under the supervision of an attorney. 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.
In addition to a prior associate or bachelor’s degree (or a degree in progress with general education courses complete), admission into these programs is often dependent upon a minimum GPA, an admissions interview, and 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.
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.
But internship opportunities aren’t limited to the ones available – or not available, as the case may be – through your education program. Even for recent graduates and students in programs that don’t include an internship, summer internships and other short-term arrangements are frequently available through law firms, non-profits, government agencies, and even occasionally through corporations with large legal departments.
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, needless to say, just like any other job, you would be paid if you get accepted.
The benefits to you are clear, but organizations that take on interns also see plenty of benefits. Interviewing and hiring interns gives them a chance to shop out the job market and select the most promising candidates without making a long-term commitment. And if you’re lucky enough to land a position, the fact that you will get an introduction to the office culture and the nature of the work they do, the nuances of their processes, and how they approach their projects is something that would be mutually beneficial to both you and the employer. This kind of soft-introduction would prepare you to make an easier transition to a full time position if they decide to hire you on, while allowing the employer to groom you to meet their expectations without a lengthy easing-in period. For more information on how to land an internship with a firm you’d love to work with, click here.
Choosing a Paralegal 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. After you decide what level of education is best for you, it’s time to find a program that meets your needs.
It’s always a good idea to check out programs offered through schools that have received regional accreditation through one of the following agencies:
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 times, 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.
Program Costs and Financing
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.
While these numbers can cause even the calmest aspiring paralegal to break out in a cold sweat, don’t abandon the idea of getting an education over cost concerns alone.
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).
Delivery Options – Online Programs
Need to work while completing your paralegal program? You’re not alone.
Most institutions have programs and/or delivery formats designed specifically for the non-traditional student. For example, there are plenty of campus-based programs that offer courses in the evenings or on weekends.
Many more offer partially or fully online programs, which feature web-based interactive learning platforms that allow you to schedule classes around your busy life and develop the skills you need from the comfort of home. Many paralegal certificate programs are self-paced so you have the option of completing the program on your own time and in accordance with your own schedule.
Professional Certification Options
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.
As a newcomer to the paralegal profession, you may be curious about whether you are eligible to take one of the exams required to earn professional certification or whether it makes sense for you at this time.
Professional certification is voluntary, although many paralegals do pursue it to gain a competitive edge in the field. Once you complete your education, you may decide to pursue one of the entry-level professional designations. As long as 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 degree programs teach to national certification standards and even provide a pathway to taking the certification exam after graduation.
Again, this 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 you 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:
- NALA: The Paralegal Association
- NFPA: National Federation of Paralegal Associations
- NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals
You may also live in a state that has its own voluntary paralegal certification, usually offered through a state bar association or state paralegal professional association. While these certifications are also voluntary, you will find that many employers in these states prefer paralegals who hold the designation.
A 2017 survey found that 62 percent of paralegals held no professional certification. The largest number of paralegals who held certification (14 percent) held NALA’s CP designation, followed by NALS’ PP designation, at 6 percent, and NFPA’s CRP designation, at 2 percent. About 9 percent 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 you can be 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. At any time – before or after you complete your education – you can consider taking workshops or classes that will help you develop and refine certain key skills that will make you a better paralegal.
You could find opportunities through your local paralegal professional association, state bar association, or community college, and 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 everyday will help you in your future career as a paralegal:
- Oral Communication: As paralegals are frequently dialoging with lawyers, clients and other professionals, strong communication is a must. Any class, conference, workshop or meeting that gives you the chance to practice clear and precise speaking can be 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 on paper and 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. You should seize upon 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 definitely helps become more 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.
Finding a Job as a Paralegal
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.
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.
While you will surely be on the receiving end of a lot of advice about how your resume should look, your goal should be to produce a resume that is pleasing to the eye, free of grammatical and spelling errors, and easy to scan. Always concentrate on strength of content. In other words, don’t pad your resume with unimportant filler. Include only information that shows you would be a true asset to a potential employer.
Even if you are fresh out of college and haven’t yet acquired any practical experience, this 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 taking on 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 make 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. Give NALA’s Job Bank a try, or turn to NFPA’s Career Center. NALS’ Career Center also lists current jobs, and also offers a free Resume Review service just by creating an account with NALS.
The career centers at colleges and universities often have job boards as well, 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 places 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.
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 more rare all the time. 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 obtaining education.
Many paralegals who choose this path 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.
Other Avenues for Becoming a Paralegal
If you are not ready to enter a paralegal studies program, you may consider other ways of getting your foot in the door while you complete your education. It’s possible to shoot for an entry-level position as a runner, office assistant or receptionist and complete your education on your own time in hopes of being able to fill a paralegal job opening that may come along at a later time.
It’s well within the realm of possibility to begin working in such positions before going on to develop the skills you need to become a paralegal through a combination of formal education and employer training.
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. You know, the one in the beautiful office building with the grand lobby you’ve been visualizing – you can already see yourself walking through those big glass doors on your way to work everyday.
If you want that job bad enough to go and get it, then 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. Enough said.
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.
Nailing the Interview
The legal field is a professional one. 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 a little bit about the organization their interviewing for.
Make sure your personal references are ready to field a call on your behalf even before you interview.
Take a test run to make sure you can find the place easily if you aren’t sure where they are located; you don’t need the extra stress the day of your interview.
All the social skills and rules of likeability apply here; and there may be no more important time in your life to make sure they are fully polished: eye contact… firm handshake… natural smile… confidence and ease of presence… 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…
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.