If you’re wondering how to become a paralegal or whether it’s the right career move for you, you’ve come to the right place. Paralegals provide legal support services for practicing attorneys, whether in a law firm, a corporate legal office, or a government agency. That means there are a ton of opportunities within the profession to study an area of law that speaks to your interests.
From “How much do paralegals make?” to “What degree does a paralegal need?” we’ve got the answers to all of your biggest questions related to becoming a paralegal.
What is a paralegal?
Paralegals assist practicing attorneys with many of the intricate, practical aspects of a given case, without offering legal advice or services to clients themselves. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), a paralegal is an individual who “performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Similarly, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) identifies a paralegal as a person who “perform(s) substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.”
State bar associations also have their own definitions of paralegals. For example, the State Bar of California defines a paralegal as an individual who “assists with case planning, development, and management, legal research, interviews clients, gathers facts and retrieves information, drafts and analyzes legal documents and collects, complies and utilizes technical information, to make recommendations to an attorney.”
What does a paralegal do?
Paralegals perform “substantive” legal services under the supervision of a practicing lawyer. Although their job duties vary according to their industry or the type of law their firm practices, the scope of a paralegal’s job skills includes:
- Drafting legal notices, including discovery requests, notices, motions, and summaries of depositions
- Locating, contacting, and interviewing witnesses and assisting in the preparation of witness testimony
- Organizing trial exhibits and files
- Performing clerical duties, including talking to clients, filing documents, drafting letters and other documents, and organizing client files
Where permitted by statutory authority or court rule, independent paralegals can perform certain limited legal services without attorney supervision. This includes services like document preparation and even court representation in select circumstances.
There are also many types of paralegals that specialize in specific areas of the law. Their job duties are tailored to the area their firm practices in, such as bankruptcy or criminal law.
What do paralegals in bankruptcy law do?
Bankruptcy paralegals focus on offering legal services to businesses or entities that are at risk of defaulting on their financial obligations and subsequently filing for bankruptcy. As such, they need a firm grasp of both legal and financial matters. They handle bankruptcy court petitions, prepare and organize financial documents, review credit reports, liaise with creditors, and take on other similar responsibilities.
What do paralegals in criminal law do?
Paralegals in criminal law may be required to do everything from preparing for pre-trial hearings to providing attorney support with everything from jury selection to drafting post-trial motions to identifying accomplices, witnesses, and accessories to a crime. They also work alongside attorneys when preparing for preliminary hearings or grand jury presentations, drafting trial memoranda, and drafting motions that deal with requests for a new trial or appeals. Both a criminal prosecution and a criminal defense paralegal, though positioned on opposite sides of a given case, will have many of the same responsibilities over the course of a trial.
What do paralegals in intellectual property law do?
An intellectual property paralegal often performs duties such as preparing applications for trademarks, patents, and copyrights, conducting intellectual property research, and assisting attorneys involved in intellectual property licensing and litigation.
Intellectual property law paralegals also assist attorneys throughout the court process, drafting pleadings, performing research to locate case law, conducting discovery, and preparing exhibits.
What do paralegals in probate and estate planning do?
Probate and estate planning paralegals assist in the preparation of estate planning documents like powers of attorneys, wills, and trusts. They also assist lawyers when opening probate proceedings and distributing the estate, which includes evaluating estate assets as well as drafting court forms, orders, petitions, and court filings.
What do paralegals in property law do?
Property law paralegals are involved in the drafting and preparation of mortgage notes, HUD forms, transfers of title, title insurance, title examinations, property lease agreements, and deeds, among others. They assist attorneys in cases involving landlord-tenant relationships, mortgages, easements, eminent domain, real estate transactions, and more.
What do paralegals in family law do?
Family law paralegals work alongside attorneys involved in any number of family law matters, including divorce, alimony, child custody, child abuse/neglect, guardianship, paternity, domestic violence, and property division due to divorce.
What can a paralegal not do?
A paralegal is not allowed to practice law under any circumstances. They cannot represent clients in court, offer legal services or provide legal advice to the public, and adhere to the legal statutes of their state regarding how the role of a paralegal is defined. With slight variations, all states restrict paralegals from providing legal guidance or advice and require them to perform nearly all work under the direct supervision of an attorney, with few exceptions.
What kind of jobs can paralegals get?
Paralegals can work in a variety of workplaces and industries. Most work at law firms, from independent attorneys and small partnerships to large multinational firms with thousands of attorneys. Paralegals can also work in the business sector, with jobs in the legal departments of corporations, insurance companies, banks, hospitals, and research firms.
You’ll also find paralegal jobs in local, state, and federal government agencies that have a legal department, either as part of its core function or to deal with internal issues. Paralegals can also work as freelancers/independent contractors, offering services to attorneys on an as-needed basis.
Are paralegal jobs hard to get?
For those wondering, “What are my prospects of employment in the field?” you’ll be glad to know that paralegal jobs are in high demand and will continue to be—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the profession to grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030. Additionally, attorneys looking to whittle down their expenses are turning more frequently to paralegals to take on many of the day-to-day functions of the firm. This makes getting a job as a paralegal much more accessible.
How much do paralegals make?
If you’re wondering do paralegals get paid well, you will be glad to know that paralegals enjoy a healthy salary range, though it varies based on the industry they’re working in. According to BLS data for 2020, the median annual paralegal salary was $52,920.
How much do paralegals make according to industry? The highest salaries were found with paralegals working for the federal government, where the median annual salary was $69,490, followed by the finance and insurance industry with a paralegal salary of $66,390 per year. Paralegals working in local government clocked in at $52,660 in 2020, with those in general legal services industries following at $50,600.
How do I become a paralegal?
To become a paralegal, you’ll follow this general process:
- Earn your paralegal degree and fulfill your paralegal education requirements
- Gain experience working with a practicing attorney
- Complete your paralegal certification
- Attain optional national certification
That said, there are no legal standards for paralegal education and training requirements, nor is there mandatory licensure, certification, or other forms of regulation.
Still, many law firms and corporations have their own minimum standards for hiring a paralegal—which begs the question, what degree does a paralegal need to start working? Most paralegals have completed at least an undergraduate certificate program in paralegal studies. Associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees are often accepted as entry-level degrees, while post-degree certificate programs can help anyone who already holds a degree in another field to make a career change into the paralegal profession. For those wondering how long does it take to become a paralegal, the answer clearly varies based on whichever route you take—from a few months with a paralegal certificate, to four years with a bachelor’s degree.
Once you’ve become a paralegal, you can also obtain optional professional and/or national certification to firmly establish your expertise in the industry (and make yourself highly marketable).
What degree does a paralegal need?
Typically, you need at least an associate degree in paralegal studies to get started working as a paralegal, though many law firms require a bachelor’s degree as their minimum education level for hire. Often, the bachelor’s itself doesn’t need to be in paralegal studies. In fact, one of the most common routes into the profession is a post-bachelor’s certificate in paralegal studies that can be stacked on a bachelor’s degree in any major.
You may also pursue a master’s degree in paralegal studies once you’ve gained experience in the field—this will significantly boost both your standing in the profession as well as your earning potential. Which paralegal degree you choose will depend on your individual circumstances, your personal and/or professional goals, and the general requirements where you live or the legal specialty or setting in which you want to work.
What is a paralegal degree?
A paralegal degree is a comprehensive multi-year program that consists of both general education material as well as legal- and criminal justice-specific coursework. Often couched under “Paralegal Studies,” there are paralegal degrees at every level: associate’s, bachelor’s, and even master’s programs.
How long does it take to get your paralegal degree? That depends on your chosen education level, but an associate degree with generally take two years, while a bachelor’s will take four. If you already have an associate or bachelor’s degree in another field and you’re interested in a post-degree certificate in paralegal studies, you can expect that to take between 18 months and two years.
What is a paralegal certificate?
A paralegal certificate can be offered as an entry-level option for aspiring paralegals without any sort of paralegal degree. You can earn a paralegal certificate with just a high school diploma or GED. This is not to be confused with exam-based professional paralegal certification, which requires a degree and extensive experience working as a paralegal.
Even more common are post-degree paralegal certificates, meant for those who have a degree in a different area than paralegal studies and are looking to switch careers without having to obtain yet another full degree.
Paralegal certificate programs typically take just a few months to complete and focus specifically on legal-specific courses to get you into the field quickly.
What is the difference between a paralegal degree and certificate?
With a paralegal certificate, your coursework will be entirely specific to what you need to know as a paralegal. You don’t receive any general education classes (like math, science, etc.) that are included as part of any full degree program. That’s also why a paralegal certificate program is so much shorter than earning a full degree (typically just a few months).
A paralegal degree, on the other hand, will include required general education topics in addition to paralegal-specific coursework. These courses qualify you for an associate or bachelor’s degree (depending on your chosen program). A paralegal degree can take anywhere from two to four years to complete.
Are paralegal certificates worth it? Absolutely, especially if you’re not yet entirely sure whether the paralegal profession is the perfect fit for you. It’s far less of a time and budget commitment and can help you get valuable experience to possibly take that next step in your career.
I have a high school diploma/GED, so what is the best educational path for me?
As a high school graduate, you can choose to pursue anything from a paralegal certificate program to an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
A certificate program is often helpful for high-school grads looking to dip their toes in the water of the profession, or those looking for employment and experience while earning a full paralegal degree. However, if you want to eventually pursue a paralegal degree, many institutions do not transfer paralegal certificate program credits to a degree program.
Otherwise, a degree program—either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies—is your best bet to get your foot in the door with a law firm or legal department, as many organizations require one or the other as their minimum educational standards for hire.
I already hold a degree in another field and want to change careers to become a paralegal, so what is the best educational path for me?
If you already hold a degree in another field, you may qualify for admission into a post associate or post-bachelor’s certificate program in paralegal studies specifically designed for the career changer in mind.
If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you may also qualify for a graduate certificate in paralegal studies. You may even choose to pursue a master’s degree in legal studies, where you will have the opportunity to choose a legal area of focus.
Q: I already work in the legal field as a support professional, so what is the best educational path for me?
If you work in a legal support role, such as a file clerk or legal secretary, and you haven’t already earned a paralegal degree a paralegal certificate program can give you the foundation of knowledge needed to make the change. If you already hold a degree in a different field, this may be all you need (or want) to do in order to switch roles within your profession. Otherwise, you can begin an associate’s or bachelor’s program to earn your full paralegal degree.
Q: I have a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and I want to earn a degree in a specific area of law, so what is the best educational path for me?
If you want to concentrate your career on a specific area of law, you may complete either a graduate certificate in legal studies or a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree. Both avenues typically allow you to concentrate on a specific area of law.
Q: I have an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and I want to become a paralegal supervisor/manager, so what is the best educational path for me?
The best way to advance your paralegal career to a supervisory position is by completing an advanced degree. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in legal studies allow practicing paralegals to focus their course of study on a specific area of law and gain the insight and knowledge necessary to take on supervisory roles in larger firms and corporations.
Q: Does a paralegal educational program offer a general education in paralegal studies, or can I choose to specialize my degree?
Paralegal certificate and associate degree programs offer general paralegal coursework, though some associate degree programs include a few electives that you could use to focus on an area of law that interests you.
Bachelor’s degrees and higher offer the ability to take more specialized classes in addition to general paralegal curriculum.
How do I pay for my paralegal education?
Just like any other degree, you have multiple options for financing your paralegal education program. Federal financial aid is available through loans and grants, and you can apply for scholarships through your chosen college or university. There are also sponsored scholarships available through professional and non-profit paralegal organizations, like the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.
Is professional certification a valuable addition to my paralegal education?
Professional certification is the ideal way to display your competence to employers and clients and set yourself apart from your competition.
Though it’s voluntary, certification could help you land a better job, advance in your current job, or qualify for a pay increase.
How do you become a certified paralegal?
To earn your paralegal certification, you’ll need to provide proof of your experience in the profession, complete continuing education courses, and pass a certification exam through one of the three national paralegal organizations:
- NALA: The Paralegal Association
- Certified Paralegal (CP) program
- Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP)
- NFPA: National Federation of Paralegal Associations
- Certified Registered Paralegal (CRP)
- Registered Paralegal (RP)
- NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals
- Professional Paralegal (PP)
- NALS Specialty Certificate
Several State Bars and paralegal associations also offer voluntary state certification for paralegals. Other states have developed certification opportunities for paralegals who can perform specific duties.
How do I know if a paralegal career is right for me?
A paralegal career is an excellent choice for anyone fascinated by the law. If the client interfacing and years of schooling to become an attorney don’t necessarily appeal to you, a paralegal career allows you to still enjoy the aspects of the legal system that you love—especially if you’re drawn to the research and writing part of the job.
On the flip side, starting out as a paralegal can be an excellent runway to a career as a practicing attorney. Many of those interested in the law wonder, “Will getting my paralegal education help if I want to go to law school?” The experience and expertise you gain during your paralegal job can be invaluable when it comes to your law school classes and taking the State Bar exam, since you’ve already been performing the duties you’re learning about.
Where can I learn more about the paralegal profession?
We have a lot more information right here on this site to help you find answers to questions you can’t get anywhere else, like how much do paralegals make in a given area or industry, what is a paralegal certificate’s value if you’ve already earned a graduate degree, what degree does a paralegal need to work in entertainment law, and more.
You can also find more information through the following professional organizations:
- American Bar Association – Standing Committee on Paralegals
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations
- NALA: The Paralegal Association
- American Association for Paralegal Education
- NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals