A GUIDE TO FAST TRACKING YOUR PARALEGAL CAREER
In the Legal Field Education Equals Opportunity. Unlock Your Potential and Take Your Career to the Next Level.
- A High-Demand, Highly Stable Field with Lots of Opportunities for Advancement
- Considering the Possibilities: Where a Paralegal Career Could Take You
- Paralegal Degrees: Selecting a Program That Works for You
- Just Getting Started and Don’t Already Have a Degree?
- Already Hold a Degree and Looking to Change Careers or Advance in Your Current Career?
- Professional Certification: Understanding Your State and National Certification Options
- Confidence and Professionalism: Resume Writing and Interview Performance to Wow Your Future Employer
- Building Your Professional Network: From The Social Networks You Already Use to Paralegal Professional Associations
- Increasing Your Value Over Time with Additional Certification and Continuing Education
- Paralegal Salaries: What You Can Expect in Return for All Your Hard Work
As the behind-the-scenes, in-the-trenches legal professionals that keep law offices and legal departments running, today’s paralegals can only be characterized as essential. The integral role these legal professionals play may not earn them the celebrity that some high-profile attorneys enjoy, but that doesn’t make their job any less exciting or rewarding.
Whether working in real estate, healthcare, government, corporate, personal injury or family law, paralegals are key to the success of any legal team. And thanks to changing dynamics in the legal field, today’s paralegals often serve in an expanded role, becoming leaders of legal departments and even entrepreneurs who offer their services as consultants and independent contractors.
Interested in becoming a paralegal?
You’re in luck. The profession is experiencing strong job growth and more opportunities than ever before.
The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) reported that high job growth in the field is being driven by law firms looking to lower operating costs while increasing efficiency. Many businesses are finding ways to expand their in-house capabilities by relying on paralegals rather than billing out to attorneys, and many more are entrusting their paralegals with a greater level of responsibility by handing over tasks that were once the exclusive domain of lawyers.
Three trends have been identified as having the biggest impact on hiring and pay for legal professionals:
- Top candidates receive multiple offers, so employers are moving quickly to secure the best talent.
- The unemployment rates for specialized legal positions tend to be lower than the overall rate of unemployment – demand is high and the supply is low.
- Employers demand paralegals with a college education. In fact, more than 95 percent of jobs created in the legal field since 2009 have gone to those with a college education.
The Robert Half 2017 Legal Salary Guide projects that paralegals will see salaries increase by an overall average of 3.5 percent between 2016 and 2017, one of the fastest in the legal field. Mid-level paralegals with 4-6 years of experience can expect their salaries to grow even faster, at a rate of 5.2 percent during the same one-year period!
The paralegal profession is anything but static, constantly growing and evolving to meet the changing needs of corporations, law practices and consumers.
No matter where the job takes you, people are going to rely on you to be an expert fact-checker and researcher that brings unparalleled organization skills and a keen eye for detail to your work. Paralegals are both generalists and specialists that meet the needs of employers by performing a wide array of administrative and legal tasks, while also becoming niche experts in specialized areas of law.
With a well-earned reputation for improving the efficiency, economy, and availability of legal services, paralegals can be found in just about any organization that requires in-house legal services.
The duties may vary a bit according to organizational structure, work setting, or specialized area of law, but paralegals are virtually always looked at as experts in …
- Maintaining client files
- Drafting correspondence
- Performing research
- Monitoring deadlines
- Drafting documents
- Serving as a liaison between clients and lawyers
Although private law firms continue to be the number one employer of paralegals, there are no shortage of professional opportunities to be found in both the private and public sectors:
From getting a foot in the door with an entry-level undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies to being tapped to head the legal department after earning an advanced degree in law, every great paralegal owes the start – and the advancement – of their career to a college education.
No one degree is right for every paralegal in every situation, so it pays to understand your educational options and how they factor in to getting your career off the ground … or taking it to the next level.
Degree and certificate options include:
- Undergraduate certificates in paralegal studies
- Associate degrees (AS and AAS)
- Bachelor’s degrees (BA, BS)
- Post-associate/bachelor’s degree certificates
- Master’s degrees
Paralegal programs are available through:
- Two-year community and junior colleges
- Four-year colleges and universities
- Business and proprietary schools
Paralegal programs that teach to the highest standards are available on-campus and online…
Web-based distance learning options are ideal for busy professionals, working parents, or anybody that doesn’t live near a school with a paralegal program that fits their career goals. The ability to access an education in paralegal studies is vital to attracting new professionals tot the field.
Though online programs increase accessibility and offer improved flexibility, some students still prefer the on-campus experience.
There’s good news for aspiring paralegal students looking for programs that meet the highest standards – whether online or on-campus…
Recognizing that the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the field’s most esteemed professional credentials along with respected professional development and continuing education programs, many top schools offer paralegal programs that teach to NALA’s rigorous standards.
The American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) is a voluntary membership organization comprised of accredited schools that works to promote high educational standards in paralegal studies.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) endorses campus-based and distance education options that include NFPA’s core curriculum recommendations.
The American Bar Association (ABA) recognizes campus-based post-secondary paralegal education programs at all levels, maintaining a directory of approved programs, organized alphabetically and by state.
If you are just getting started and have no post-secondary education, you will focus your attention on an entry-level degree or certificate in paralegal studies:
Undergraduate (non-degree) certificate programs in paralegal studies are available through proprietary schools, junior colleges, universities, and business schools. Often called entry-level certificate programs, these programs focus solely on the paralegal coursework you need, eliminating all the extra undergraduate courses you don’t really need to get started on the job.
Consisting of between 18 and 24 credits, undergraduate certificate programs are designed for students with a high school diploma and take about one academic year to complete.
In most cases, you’ll just need to take a College Readiness Assessment to be considered.
These programs focus on writing, legal concepts, legal theory, legal terminology, and research. Course topics often include:
- Criminal laws and procedures
- Civil laws and procedures
- The paralegal’s responsibilities in the litigation system
- Laws, the court system, and the paralegal profession
- Administrative laws and policies
- Legal ethics
At the end of the program, you can expect to graduate with a generalist education in paralegal studies that will prepare you for many entry-level positions.
Associate Degrees (AA/AS, AAS)
Associate degrees in paralegal studies may be designed as Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees. Both options involve about two years of full-time study and about 60 credits.
Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees are often designed to be foundational degrees that are sometimes used to prepare students to go on to earn a bachelors. The difference between an AA and AS usually comes down to one or two general education courses, with AS degrees a bit heavier in math and science and AA degrees a bit heavier in the humanities.
Associate of Applied Science degrees are more often designed for those looking to land a job as soon as they graduate.
In the field of paralegal studies, the difference between AS/AA and AAS degrees is usually minimal since both types of degrees can serve as a jumping off point for either career preparation or further study.
Associate degrees in paralegal studies combine a foundation of general coursework with specialized paralegal courses and a few electives. Although you will receive a generalist overview of the legal environment, an associate degree will also introduce you to several legal specialty areas.
In addition to foundation courses in English, communications, and math (all the courses left out of an undergraduate certificate program), associate degree programs offer specialty courses in:
- Torts and insurance
- Legal research and writing
- Estate planning and probate
- Criminal law
- Family law
Bachelor’s Degrees (BA, BS)
Bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies are available through four-year colleges and universities. Depending on the institution, you may major, minor, or concentrate a major in paralegal studies.
These programs consist of about 4 years of full-time study and between 120 and 130 credits. You can find paralegal bachelor’s degree programs housed in a variety of university departments, including political science, criminal justice, business, or legal studies.
A bachelor’s degree is ideal for specializing in a specific area of law or focusing a business management or administration degree on paralegal studies. A bachelor’s degree will provide you with a solid foundation in the liberal arts, along with specialty training in one or more areas of law.
Bachelor’s level core coursework in paralegal studies often includes:
- Administrative law
- Risk management and insurance
- Constitutional law
- Principles of banking
Just a small sampling of the job duties unique to different practice settings and areas of law include…
Working for law firms retained to serve as bond, special tax, disclosure, or underwriter’s counsel, paralegals in banking and finance law handle duties that include:
- Drafting contracts, leases, deeds, agreements, trust indentures, resolutions, and other documents related to bond insurance
- Preparing and filing governmental filings
- Ensuring documentation meets state or federal tax law requirements
- Drafting legal notices
- Participating in due diligence reviews
- Assisting attorneys in researching, drafting, and revising bond issue agreements
Bankruptcy paralegals may work in law firms that represent the debtor, the creditor, or the trustee:
When representing the debtor, bankruptcy paralegals …
- Conduct detailed client interviews to obtain information and signed documents
- Prepare the petition and related schedules and statements
- Discuss credit counseling and debtor course requirements with the client
- Analyze debts vs. assets, classify debts, determine lien status and priority of liens, and determine client’s desire to abandon or redeem assets
- Conduct asset searches and obtain debtors credit report to ensure all assets and liabilities have been disclosed
- Prepare clients for creditor meetings and keep clients informed of hearing, trial, and deposition dates
Paralegals working for creditors in bankruptcy cases …
- Review creditor client’s promissory note and support documents
- Review debtor’s petition, schedules, and statements
- Attend creditor meetings
Paralegals who work for a trustee in a bankruptcy case …
- Review debtor’s schedules, statement, and disclosures to ensure compliance with U.S. bankruptcy code
- Maintain and monitor compliance with debtor’s filing requirements
- Review and determine sufficiency of creditor’s claims
- Review debtor’s reports for compliance with U.S. bankruptcy code
- Prepare file for trustee’s handling of any hearings or objections to claim, confirmation, valuation, etc.
The job duties of paralegals in corporate law often focus on issues related to the incorporation or formation of an entity, as well as mergers, acquisitions, and dissolutions:
- Drafting agreements, including option agreements, employee benefit plans, shareholder agreements, stock option plans, and employee agreements
- Drafting and filing amendments to articles of incorporation
- Preparing and filing annual reports
- Drafting special minutes for corporate activities
- Keeping track of shareholders and their percentage of stock holdings
- Drafting financial documents for loans, mortgages, financial statements, and deeds of trust
- Drafting documents for board meetings
Paralegals working for criminal defense attorneys or law firms perform a multitude of duties related to pre-trial, trial, post-trial, and appeal:
- Legal research for pre-trial motions and trial
- Pretrial motions and discovery responses
- Plea negotiations
- Subpoena preparation
- Attending pretrial conferences with the attorney
- Coordinating the appearance of witnesses at trial
During the trial …
- File motions presented during trial
- Document and organize witness statements
- Manage exhibits and other visual aids
- Assist the attorney when preparing the defendant and witnesses for testimony
- Prepare for appeals process
- Draft post-trial motions and notices of appeal
During the appeal process …
- Draft the required documents and monitor due dates
- Perform legal research related to the appeal
- Assist the attorney in drafting the non-argument portions of the brief
Estate planning paralegals spend much of their time compiling the information needed for the estate plan by:
- Participating in client interviews
- Reviewing current estate plan to check for problems or outdated information
- Analyzing client assets
- Preparing tax calculations
- Tracing funds related to joint assets or community property
- Drafting documents related to wills and trust agreements and provisions
- Supervising or witnessing the execution of wills and trusts
- Recording asset transfer documents
Paralegal job duties in probate, estates, and trusts focus on overseeing an estate, which includes:
Discovery of information …
- Identifying assets
- Completing estate administration questionnaire
- Valuing estate assets
- Obtaining death certificate
- Securing valuable property
- Corresponding with banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms, and others to collect asset information
- Preparing documents related to probate wills
- Preparing interim court pleadings
- Maintaining all estate records
- Monitoring claims
- Assisting attorneys with functions related to tax liabilities and the process of closing the estate
Paralegals in real estate law have a multitude of job duties, depending on the situation. For example, they may work for a firm that represents the client (buyer/seller) or the lender (borrower). They may work in foreclosures, judicial foreclosures, or lease terminations where they are responsible for:
- Overseeing the preparation of closing documents
- Attending real estate closings
- Coordinating the execution of the contract and escrow
- Following up after closing to ensure all documents have been signed and filed
There’s no shortage of options if you either …
- a) Already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and want to further your education and advance in your career
… Or …
- b) Already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree in an unrelated major and want to change careers to become a paralegal
Already have an associate degree in paralegal studies? … Transfer your credits to a bachelor’s degree program. Schools that offer bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies will almost always accept credits transferred from an associate degree in the same major and allow you to complete the program in less time. If you have transferrable credits, you can enter the bachelor’s program as a junior and just focus on bachelor’s-level core coursework.
Through your selection of electives, you would be able to expand your knowledge in a specific area of law like litigation, corporate law, estate law– or even change your paralegal specialty.
So, your current degree is NOT in paralegal studies? … You can still transfer credits to a bachelor’s degree or post-degree certificate program in paralegal studies. No matter what your associate’s degree might have been in, it involved completing general undergraduate courses that you can build on. The credits for those math, science – and even some of those elective courses – can often be transferred toward a bachelor’s degree program in paralegal studies. Fewer credits to complete in your bachelor’s program means less time and money you need to spend.
Alternately, post-degree paralegal certificate programs are designed specifically for career changers who already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree in another field. The idea behind these post-degree certificate programs is to give students that have already completed some general undergraduate requirements a non-degree option for learning skills specifically relevant to the job without all the extras. These programs save time and money.
Master’s in Legal Studies … If you already have a bachelor’s in paralegal studies, the MLS is what you’re after. Most advanced degree programs relevant to paralegals are designed as a Master in Legal Studies (MLS), a professional degree specifically for those that already have some experience in the legal field and want to learn more, but don’t plan on sitting for the Bar Exam to become an attorney.
Most MLS programs offer both a general legal studies degree, as well as the option to tailor the program to a specific area of law.
This makes the MLS ideal for paralegals looking to enter academia as researchers or professors, take on leadership roles in government or corporate legal departments, or further specialize in a particular area of law by selecting relevant electives.
Some of the specializations often offered include:
- Human rights
- Environmental law
- Native American law
- Family and juvenile law
- Intellectual property
- International economic law and policy
- Mining law and policy
In addition to a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, most MLS programs require incoming students to submit:
- Resume detailing legal-related experience and education
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal statement summarizing qualifications and career objective
Professional certification is not required to work as a paralegal, but in a profession lacking any type of regulation or state licensure, voluntary professional certification has become a way for paralegals to set themselves apart from their peers and demonstrate their proficiency, competency, and commitment to the profession. And for many employers, certification is a standard job requirement.
Education and experience requirements for certification often vary. However, most require candidates to take and pass a competency examination. Here are your options for voluntary national paralegal certification that involve an exam process:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA):
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- Certified Paralegal (CP) credential
- NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals:
- Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
The American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)also offers a credential for paralegals—the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential—based solely on meeting specific education and experience requirements, and does not involve passing an exam.
Regardless of which organization you choose to become certified through, maintaining your certification will require regular renewal and meeting specific continuing education requirements.
State Certification Options
Several states, including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, have also developed voluntary paralegal certification, offered through the state bar association or local paralegal association.
State level credentials are viewed much the same as nationally-recognized credentials – it’s not required by law, but in many cases it is required by employers.
If you want to land a job as a paralegal, you need to be sure your resume and interviewing skills are as sharp as you are.
Drafting a resume that will get their attention…
A strict attention to detail, strong writing skills, and equally impressive communication skills…. These are the attributes of any strong paralegal job candidate.
Remember: A large part of your job will include administrative tasks such as writing and filing legal documents and correspondence, so your resume and cover letter should reflect your ability to perform these tasks.
That means your resume must be clear and concise and void of spelling and grammatical errors. It should also include the following points:
- Career Objective: Your career objective is the introduction to your resume, so it really belongs on the cover letter and not on the resume itself. It should be short and straight to the point, immediately allowing a prospective employer to understand your professional goals. Keep your career objective to a single sentence and avoid generic statements; instead, make sure it reflects your specific objective.
- Education: If you just completed your paralegal program and do not yet have experience, this section will be particularly important. Include information on the degree or certificate you completed, along with any specialized coursework you completed during your program. Don’t forget to include any leadership points of interest, such as membership in student and academic organizations, volunteer activities, and community involvement, and academic achievements, such as graduating with honors or making dean’s list.
- Experience: The experience section should be broken into two sections: 1) Legal Experience 2) Other Professional Experience. Although experience as a new paralegal will be minimal, make sure to detail professional experience you may have gained in the form of an internship. Internships are a great way to highlight your skills and the pre-professional experience you have had.
- Skills: Are you a whiz with Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Word? Do you have experience working with Westlaw or Lexis? Are you proficient in a foreign language? Show a prospective employer that you possess a wide array of skills that will make you a better paralegal. Instead of a dedicated section that includes a lengthy list of skills, give the information richer context by showing how you have used those skills in the performance of a job. Do this by listing the skills under the work experience or education sections of the resume to show where and how these sills were acquired and honed.
Robert Half has a great resource on resume formats for paralegals that will help you structure your resume.
They loved your resume … now it’s time to wow them with your interview skills…
Your interviewing skills need to be as spot-on as your resume, so come prepared to wow your future employer. Here’s what you’ll want to remember:
- Dress the part: Professional attire is a must. The legal field demands a great deal of professionalism, and your attire must reflect this.
- Do your homework: Learn about your employer: their history, number of employees, areas of practice, etc. Your knowledge of the company where you are seeking employment will impress the interviewer and display your commitment to landing the job.
- Arrive early: Show your dedication to punctuality and time management by getting to your interview on time.
- Listen and answer carefully: Listen carefully to your interviewer’s questions and answer what is asked. Give complete information in a clear voice and be honest. Volunteering more information or rambling on diminishes your professionalism. Similarly, do not interrupt the interviewer. Allow the interviewer to complete the question before speaking.
- Ask questions: Show the interviewer you are interested in the company by asking questions when prompted. Don’t, however, question the decisions the company has made or bring to light issues that may be controversial or considered pushy.
- Mail a thank you-letter after the interview: After the interview, shake the interviewer’s hand and offer a sincere thank you. A day or two later, send a formal thank-you. This personal touch will go a long way and leave a favorable impression that sets you apart from other applicants.
Networking is a great way to become involved in the profession. Having a go-to network of professional contacts and colleagues is valuable for advancing in the profession, making a name for yourself, and staying on top of the latest developments in the profession.
There is no shortage of national professional associations you can join, and most of those have state and local chapters too. They host networking events, workshops, conventions, and seminars, all of which provide plenty of opportunities to dive into the profession and begin building your professional network.
You can start by checking out your state and local associations. Paralegal Today maintains a list of all paralegal associations around the country organized by state.
You can also get involved in professional organizations at the national level:
- American Alliance of Paralegals Inc.
- American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE)
- Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)
- International Paralegal Management Association (IPMA)
- NALS – the Association for Legal Professionals
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
Social media has also become a valuable resource for paralegals, so it pays to maintain a presence on sites like:
Don’t forget to maintain a professional image on social media. That means not posting anything that could be deemed inappropriate, such as your political or religious beliefs, rude comments, sexual jokes, etc. It also means not posting negative thoughts about your job, your employer, co-workers, or colleagues and not posting any confidential information about your employer, or current or past clients.
Just as the legal field is dynamic and always changing, so is the paralegal profession. Continuing education and professional certification are important for maintaining your skills and upholding your professional reputation.
According to a 2014 NALA survey, the top tools and techniques for paralegal professional growth were:
- Attending continuing education seminars
- Seeking advanced certifications
- Becoming involved in your professional association
- Attending work-related courses online or through community colleges
- Changing your practice area
Advanced National Paralegal Certification
Take your national certification once step further and achieve an advanced designation through:
- PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
- Advanced Paralegal (AP) credential
Both advanced paralegal credentials demonstrate your enhanced level of knowledge, skills, and experience. The AP credential requires the completion of a self-study program in a specialized area of law, while the RP credential requires meeting specific education and experience requirements and taking and passing an exam in advanced paralegal topics.
Legal Research and Writing Certificate Programs
In additional to professional certification, a number of institutions offer certificate programs in legal research and writing, skills that are at the core of your job as a paralegal.
You can even earn a research certificate for LexisNexis®, one of the most widely used databases for legal content and the world’s largest source of legal news, public records, unpublished opinions, and other business forms.
Holding a professional designation in LexisNexis® can increase your value to employers – and your earning potential. A formal LexisNexis® research certificate program takes just a few months to complete, and most are offered completely online.
These programs prepare you to:
- Use search engines and identifying the best Internet service providers
- Locate documents within a library and use print reference sources
- Retrieve legal information through computer databases
A 2015 NALA survey shows how salaries for paralegals increase steadily over the course of a career, illustrating the incentives to specialize, the perks of national certification, and the benefits of gaining experience.
According to NALA, the national average salary for paralegals was $55,188, with total compensation (salary plus bonus) of $58,410.
Paralegals with NALA’s CP certification earned an average salary of $56,516 during this time, while those holding NALA’s ACP advanced certification earned an average salary of $66,051.
The survey shows how the average paralegal salary has increased steadily over the years …
- 2014: $55,188
- 2012: $54,376
- 2010: $52,188
- 2008: $48,211
- 2004: $44,373
Total years of experience is an important factor …
- 1-5 years: $39,653
- 6-10 years: $49,767
- 11-15 years: $53,694
- 16-20 years: $58,489
- 21-25 years: $59,925
- Over 25 years: $60,875
Education also has a noticeable impact on a paralegal’s salary …
- Undergraduate certificate: $56,556
- Post-baccalaureate certificate: $57,282
- Associate degree: $53,506
- Bachelor degree: $50,544
- Master degree: $55,000
The highest-paid paralegals were located in the Far West region ($61,083), followed by …
- New England/East: $60,835
- Southwest: $57,208
- Rocky Mountains: $56,123
- Southeast: $53,141
- Plains States: $52,846
- Great Lakes: $52,035
When looking at paralegal salaries according to legal specialization, the highest paid paralegals were those that worked in mergers/acquisitions ($67,044), followed by …
- Securities/anti-trust: $65,997
- Corporate: $63,285
- Intellectual property: $62,680
- Contract: $61,670
- Banking/finance: $60,996