Want to add a little muscle to your title? Consider specialization. While a basic paralegal certification or degree program prepares the paralegal as a generalist, there are plenty of opportunities to focus your career on one—or more than one—area of law.

Paralegal specialization is not about being boxed into a specific area of law; rather, it’s about broadening your skillset. So, while you may have a specific interest or expertise in a specific area of law, you are still undoubtedly a generalist, capable of taking on any project in any area of law your employer is likely to put on your desk.

In the paralegal world, specializing doesn’t mean backing yourself into a corner and committing yourself to just one area of law like it does in other professions. While a law firm might specialize in immigration or environmental law, it is unlikely that everyone within the firm spends one hundred percent of their time working within the narrow scope of those specialties.

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In fact, among paralegals who specialize, the majority report spending less than 20 percent of their day focused specifically on that area of law, according to NALA’s 2016 salary survey…

  • Fifty-three percent of paralegals working in criminal law reported spending less than 20 percent of their time focused on this specialization, while just 23 percent reported spending between 80-100 percent of their time on this specialty.
  • Among paralegals working in trusts and estates, 49 percent reported spending less than 20 percent of their time focused on this specialty, while just 14 percent reported spending between 80-100 percent of their time on this specialty.

In response to the National Association of Legal Assistant’s 2010 salary survey, paralegals ranked the amount of time spend in their specialty area by what percent of their working hours they spent working within the specialty. Nearly equal numbers of paralegals reported spending less than 40% of their time in their specialty area and more than 40% of their time in their specialty. Paralegals also reported having and using multiple specialties within their jobs.

Reasons for Specializing

So, why specialize?

Given that paralegals are still generalists at heart, it may lead you to wonder why the heck you should even bother specializing. Well, there are plenty of reasons.

Types of Paralegals

For one, if you have your sights set on working for a larger firm, specialization may be the very thing that gets your foot in the door. Paralegals in smaller firms and one-man law practices often serve as the sole paralegal on staff or as part of a small team, so by the very nature of the practice their role will be as general as it needs to be to work cases for every client that walks through the door.

It’s a completely different story in large firms that manage hundreds of cases and employ dozens of paralegals used to staff different departments responsible for handling cases in specific areas of law.

Specialization also looks good on a resume, and having an advanced level of knowledge or training in a legal specialty may not only make you attractive to a potential employer, but it could also translate into a larger paycheck. For example, a criminal law attorney will undoubtedly pay more to snag and keep a paralegal who knows her way around the criminal court system.

You may also choose to specialize to gain a deeper level of understanding of a legal specialization that’s of interest to you for the sake of personal discovery or as a way to prepare to offer legal document services independently.

How to Specialize

There are two ways to go about specializing in the paralegal profession:

  • Experience
  • Education

Education and experience often go hand-in-hand when it comes to specialization. For example, you may focus your paralegal degree program on civil litigation by taking electives in this area of law and then seeking out an internship with a law firm that specializes in these kinds of cases.

Or, you may find yourself working cases related to healthcare law in your first paralegal position out of school, develop an affinity for it, and choose to head back to school to earn a more advanced degree focused specifically on this area of law, opening up options that include everything from working for a firm that handles malpractice suits to working as in-house legal staff for the corporate offices of a major healthcare provider or insurer.

There’s no right or wrong way to gain the knowledge and skills needed to market yourself as being proficient in a specific area of law.

Experience

You don’t have to always seek out specialization. In many cases, specialization will find you. Ask seasoned paralegals why they specialized and they’ll likely tell you it happened organically, simply because of who they landed their first job with.

But you can also specialize through experience in a very purposeful way by choosing an internship in an area of law that interests you and/or by targeting employers that practice the legal specialty you’d like to work in.

Experience can’t be beat when it comes to getting a true feel for the nuances involved in working in a particular area of law.

Education

There are many ways you can use education to become a specialty paralegal. For example, you can focus the electives in an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies on your area(s) of interest. Although an entry-level paralegal studies program is focused on producing generalists, you can always take advantage of electives to specialize your course of study.

You can also go back to school and pursue a higher-level degree that allows you to focus solely on a specific area of law. For example, if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, you can complete a master’s degree or master’s certificate in legal studies with a concentration on immigration law.

And, of course, there is always advanced specialty certification…

Certified Specialists

Once you’ve achieved an advanced level of competency and knowledge in a legal specialty through education and/or experience, you can use professional certification to seal the deal and show clients, attorneys, employers, and colleagues that you have what it takes to call yourself an expert.

Professional certification at the basic level demonstrates that you possess an advanced level of knowledge and competency as a paralegal, while professional certification at the advanced level is your time to develop your expertise in a specific area of law through one or more of the following paralegal certification agencies.

The following paralegal associations certify paralegals at both the basic and advanced levels. Expect to first earn basic certification before you are eligible to move on to advanced certification:

  • NALA: The Paralegal Association – NALA’s specialty certification (called Advanced Paralegal Certification) requires taking a web-based course in the appropriate legal specialty (there are 26 to choose from). All courses include a set curriculum that is organized into multiple modules and culminates in an assessment.
  • NFPA: National Federation of Paralegal Associations – NFPA offers advanced specialization through the Advanced Paralegal Institute. To achieve NFPA advanced specialization, you must take the appropriate courses in a recognized advanced specialization. All specializations include 3-4 web-based, instructor-led courses, each of which is about 5 weeks long.
  • NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals – NALS specialty certification requires obtaining at least 50 continuing legal education credits in your legal specialty of choice within a five-year period. You may satisfy this requirement by attending workshops and seminars, by teaching seminars and workshops, by authoring articles, and by completing post-secondary courses, among others.

Areas of Specialization

There are as many legal specialties to choose from as there are areas of law, and in some cases, there are even a variety of niche specialties within an area of law. Some of the more popular areas of specialization are:

Administrative

Administrative law deals broadly with governments and agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Government regulation, governmental agencies, and actions taken by the government are collectively housed under the administrative law umbrella. If you work in administrative law, your work could be focused on everything from disability and welfare programs to financial regulation to public health and immigration.

It is common to work for attorneys in a specific area of administrative law, whether in the private or public sector. In the private sector, administrative law often includes helping private clients comply with governmental regulations in areas such as tax and energy.

But administrative law may also concern federal regulations that deal with things like human rights abuses and environmental protection, so you could also aim your career toward nonprofit organizations and pro-bono firms that handle cases concerning everything from immigrant rights to the environment.

Want to show your expertise in administrative law? Consider the NALS: Administrative Law specialty certification.

Appellate

Appellate courts and the lawyers who work in them oversee the process of appealing lower court decisions. In appellate law, you may work for an attorney or law firm that deals with appeals in either state or federal courts, for civil or criminal cases. Your work in appellate law may include specializing in a specific practice area, such as tax law or criminal law, and you may work for a state or federal governmental agency or a private law firm.

Want to show your expertise in appellate law? Consider the NALS: Appellate Law specialty certification.

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy lawyers may represent creditors (individual or corporate) or debtors party to insolvency issues. If you work alongside a bankruptcy attorney, you will be highly versed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Want to show your expertise in bankruptcy law? Consider the NALS: Bankruptcy Law specialty certification, NALA’s Commercial Bankruptcy specialty certification, and NFPA’s Foreclosure and Creditor/Debtor Law specialty certification.

Constitutional

Constitutional law is a highly complex area of law that involves the rights of individuals based on state and federal constitutions. Attorneys working in constitutional law may represent the rights of individuals, or they may work in state or federal government where they study and interpret the roles, power, and structure of state and federal governments.

Corporate

Corporate lawyers and law firms advise businesses of their responsibilities, rights, and obligations. Corporate law can and does often encompass legal issues ranging from contract law to intellectual property law to legislative compliance. Activities involve the formation, organization, dissolution, and financing of corporations and includes mergers, takeovers, internal reorganization, and acquisitions. You may work with corporate lawyers in law firms (usually large) or with in-house corporate counsel.

Want to show your expertise in corporate law? Consider the NALS: Corporate Law specialty certification, the NFPA’s Corporate Law specialty certification, or NALA’s Business Organizations: Incorporated Entities or Business Organizations: Noncorporate Entities specialty certifications.

Criminal Defense or Prosecution

Criminal defense attorneys represent clients accused of committing crimes, which can range from misdemeanor traffic violations to first degree murder. You may work alongside a criminal defense attorney employed by a governmental agency (at the local, state, or federal level), or with one that serves as private counsel. Like criminal prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys deal with issues focused on individual liberties, responsibilities, and basic rights.

Criminal prosecutors and District Attorneys bring charges against individuals engaged in illegal behavior. Like criminal defense attorneys, they deal with fundamental issues of the law and personal liberties. They present the interests of the state in prosecuting individuals accused of crimes.

Want to show your expertise in criminal defense or prosecution? Consider the NALS: Criminal Law specialty certification or NALA’s Criminal Litigation specialty certifications.

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

Disability

Disability law encompasses Social Security disability law and workers’ compensation claims, as well as the rights of individuals protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawyers specializing in disability law often help clients file disability claims and fight rejected disability and workers’ compensation claims. They may also seek damages involving discrimination in areas such as employment, education, and transportation.

Want to show your expertise in disability law? Consider the NALS: Employment Law specialty certification or NALA’s Personal Injury Certification in Worker’s Compensation.

Employment

Employment law governs the relationship between employers and workers and the laws surrounding this relationship. Your work alongside an employment/labor attorney will focus on federal and state laws, administrative rules, and court opinions designed to protect the rights of both employers and employees. You may work for a private firm, a nonprofit organization, and federal, state, local, and international governmental agencies. Your work may involve working alongside an attorney who represents employers, employees, unions, special interest groups, and groups of employees.

Many employment disputes deal with wage violations, health and safety violations, and discrimination. As a paralegal specializing in employment law, you will be an expert in everything from the American with Disabilities Act to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Want to show your expertise in employment law? Consider the NALS: Employment Law specialty certification.

Energy

Energy law, a subset of environmental law, is focused on regulation and litigation related to energy generation and consumption. You will work alongside attorneys representing companies or governmental agencies involved in energy policy issues, environmental protection, energy security and justice, barriers to renewable energy sources, and smart grid technologies, among many others.

Environmental

Environmental law is a massive legal specialty that touches on the regulatory issues related to air and water quality, oil and gas exploration, water rights, agriculture, energy trade regulation, and real estate, just to name a few. If you work in environmental law, you could lend your expertise to attorneys in private law firms, in-house corporate counsel, governmental agencies at all levels, and advocacy groups. Just some of the government agencies dealing with the environment include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Energy.

Estate Planning

Estate planning encompasses a variety of instruments and processes involved with helping individuals arrange their financial affairs to ensure proper distribution upon their death. If you work in estate planning, many of your daily activities will focus on the preparation, creation, maintenance, and distribution of wills, living trusts, and charitable trusts, among others.

Want to show your expertise in estate planning? Consider the NALS: Contract Law specialty certification or NALA’s Estate Planning specialty certification.

Family

Family law is an umbrella term used to describe legal issues involving divorce, child support, custody, guardianships, adoptions, and prenuptial agreements. If you work in family law, chances are you will work for a small law firm, although some larger firms will dabble in family law for individuals with a high net worth. You may also work in the public sector, such as through the public defender’s office, where you will provide assistance to attorneys dealing with cases involving juvenile delinquency, child abuse, or child welfare.

Want to show your expertise in family law? Consider the NALS: Family Law specialty certification or one of the following NALA specialty certifications:

Healthcare

Healthcare law is a swiftly growing field focused on legislation as it pertains to healthcare. You may work under an attorney that represents patients, practitioners, insurance companies, hospitals, health systems, and more and in a number of settings, such as governmental agencies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies.

Healthcare lawyers are often brought in to deal with company matters involving employee benefits and contract negotiation, in healthcare systems to deal with physician recruitment, HMO and insurance regulation, and health reform issues, and in federal and state agencies to deal with issues involving the regulation of the healthcare industry. They also often work for healthcare providers dealing with healthcare related litigation, such as medical malpractice, antitrust issues, and breach of contract disputes, among others.

Immigration

Immigration is a broad field of study that deals with the naturalization process. In this area of law, you could work alongside lawyers for the federal government who are responsible for enforcing immigration laws, for private law firms that facilitate the temporary or permanent relocation of individuals to the U.S., and for nonprofit organizations that help clients go through the proper channels to obtain the legal right to live and work in the U.S. You may also work for lawyers who specialize in specific areas of immigration law, such as criminal and deportation defense and asylum/refugee law.

Want to show your expertise in immigration law? Consider the NALS: Immigration Law specialty certification.

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

Insurance

Insurance law encompasses a wide range of issues related to insurance coverage and other disputes. You may work for an attorney whose clients include individual and corporate policy holders, insurance companies, or insurance brokers.

Want to show your expertise in insurance law? Consider the NALS: Insurance Law specialty certification.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property law focuses specifically on the protection of inventors’, authors’, and businesses’ rights. This is a rather broad field of study, so it is common to work for an attorney who specializes in patent law, trade secrets, or copyright and trademark law. As a paralegal specializing in intellectual property, you will work alongside an attorney who provides services related to intellectual property counseling, protection, and enforcement. You will be well-versed in preparing and filing applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), responding to PTO actions, and the litigation process in cases of intellectual property infringement.

Want to show your expertise in intellectual property? Consider the NALS: Intellectual Property specialty certification, NFPA’s Intellectual Property specialty certification, or NALA’s Trademarks specialty certification.

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

International and Human Rights

International law is focused on protecting human rights at the domestic and international levels. You may work for attorneys in inter-governmental agencies, such as the United Nations, federal government agencies, and in private law firms. This area of law often encompasses immigration and refugee law. Many times, multinational companies require the assistance of international lawyers when dealing with topics related to finance and trade.

Want to show your expertise in international and human rights law? Consider the NALS: Immigration Law specialty certification.

Juvenile

Juvenile law is a subset of family law that deals specifically with juveniles, identified as children under the age of 18. Your expertise in juvenile law will include state juvenile code, the juvenile justice system, and the methods for dealing with juvenile delinquency.

Want to show your expertise in juvenile law? Consider the NALS: Juvenile Law specialty certification.

Litigation

Litigation is a broad area of law that deals with any legal action brought as a result of unlawful or unethical practices. Litigation can result if an individual claims personal injury or a loss of finances. If you work in litigation, you may work with attorneys who specialize in civil litigation, personal injury litigation, public interest litigation, or business litigation, just to name a few.

Want to show your expertise in litigation? Consider the NALS: Civil Litigation or Personal Injury specialty certifications, NFPA’s Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution specialty certification, or NALA’s Personal Injury specialty certification, available in the following practicing areas:

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

Maritime

Maritime law, also referred to as admiralty law, focuses on economic transactions and property transactions related to maritime law.

Military

Military law focuses specifically on legal matters involving the U.S. armed forces. Military law is governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Most paralegals working in military law are members of the armed forces who work under lawyers serving in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

Patent Law and Trade Secrets

Patent law and trade secrets is a subset of intellectual property law. Patent attorneys work with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to draft patent applications that protect an inventors’ rights to a creation for a period of time. Their work also includes maintaining patents and enforcing them in cases of infringement.

Want to show your expertise in patent law? Consider the NALS: Intellectual Property specialty certification or NFPA’s Intellectual Property specialty certification.

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

Personal Injury

Personal injury is a broad area of law that deals with individuals who are damaged, either physically or psychologically. It includes medical malpractice, product liability, wrongful death, and workplace injuries, among others.

Want to show your expertise in personal injury law? Consider the NALS: Civil Litigation or Personal Injury specialty certifications, NFPA’s Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution specialty certification, or NALA’s Personal Injury specialty certification, available in the following practicing areas:

Also consider NALA’s E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications and the NALS: E-Discovery and Discovery specialty certifications if you have advanced competency in the investigative process of litigation.

Real Estate

Real estate law oversees legal protections associated with real estate and real property. You may work for an attorney who represents buyers, sellers, developers, real estate agents, or contractors, dealing with topics such as landlord-tenant issues, mortgages and foreclosures, real estate investment, and zoning and land use, just to name a few.

Want to show your expertise in real estate law? Consider the NALS: Real Estate specialty certification or NALA’s specialty certifications in Real Estate Land Use or Real Estate Principles.

Sports and Entertainment

Sports and entertainment law focuses on individuals involved in the professional sports and entertainment (arts, music, television, movies) industries. You will likely work for lawyers in private law firms or in in-house legal departments of media companies. Lawyers in this role oversee legal matters related to sports and entertainment, such as intellectual property, labor and employment, insurance, rights and royalties, bankruptcy, and defamation, just to name a few. This area of law may also include amateur sports, particularly for layers involved in sports at the university level.

Trademark and copyright law, a subset of intellectual property law, deals with the legal aspects of brand names, slogans, and creations by authors, composers, and artists. Attorneys in this area counsel individuals and enforce their rights under U.S. Patent and Trademark law. Technological advances in software publishing and digital reproduction and transmission has resulted in this field growing substantially in recent years.

Want to show your expertise in trademark and copyright law? Consider the NALS: Intellectual Property specialty certification, NFPA’s Intellectual Property specialty certification, or NALA’s Trademarks specialty certification.

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