Are you interested in the law but not sure you want to be a lawyer? Maybe a paralegal career is a good choice for you. The paralegal field is one of the fastest growing professions in the country. Here you can find out the answers to some of your questions like, what do paralegals do, how much does a paralegal make and how to become a paralegal.
What is a Paralegal
A paralegal is someone who will assist a lawyer in administration work for clients, gathering information for scheduled meetings and preparing cases for trial. It is possible to gain the skills and knowledge required for a paralegal career with on the job training. There is, however, an increasing demand for a formal paralegal education within the profession.
There are several hundred paralegal schools available throughout the country offering coursework on campus, online or a combination of both. You will find a range of education levels, including certificates, diplomas, associate or bachelor degrees, post degree certificates and master’s degrees. You can also top your education with a paralegal certification to help improve your career prospects.
Paralegal Job Description
So what does a paralegal do? The tasks you will be required to do as a paralegal will vary from job to job, but there will be some standard tasks associated with your position regardless of who you work for. The majority of your work will be geared towards offering assistance to lawyers with tasks such as:
- legal document summarization
- records research
- legal research
- co-ordinating research
- preparing legal reports, correspondence, declarations, form complaints
- investigating the facts and laws pertaining to some cases in order to determine if there is precedence as well as causes of action
- drafting a variety of legal documents and preparing documents for trial
- delivering subpoenas and coordinating activities within a law firm
- checking the legal accuracy of forms, records and documents.
These are all routine tasks, the nature and difficulty of which might increase as you gain experience or prove that you can do the work. These tasks are similar to a legal assistant job description, but as a paralegal you will be more involved in the legal work and less in the admin side of the business.
According to the United States Department of Labour’s Bureau a paralegal generally works a 40 hours per week on a Monday to Friday schedule. However, you will find that depending of the area of law in which you work or whether or not extremely important and sensitive deadlines are to be met, you may be required to work longer hours as well as on weekends and holidays. This is far more typical of paralegals who work in government agencies and corporate law departments. Those who who work in law firms especially law firms with a smaller and less rigorous client base, enjoy a bit more flexibility. Some law firms will also tend to reward the loyalty and dedication of their staff with bonuses and additional time off.
A popular question asked is with regards to the conditions under which a paralegal works. Most if not all law firms or institutions have adopted a formal zero-tolerance policy towards any form of employee harassment. As a result of this you will find that as a paralegal, general or specialized, you will generally work in friendly, safe and reasonably comfortable environment within law firms. With regards to volatile cases you might be associated with, it is very unlikely that as a paralegal you will face any external backlash.
How Much Do Paralegals Make?
As with any other job, there are a variety of factors which affect your paralegal salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of a paralegal is $51,170 per annum.
Legal Careers Salary
|Occupation||Mean hourly wage||Mean annual wage||Lowest 10% earn less than:||Top 10% earn more than:|
|Paralegals and Legal Assistants||$24.60||$51,170||$29,740||$76,960|
|Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators||$36.94||$76,840||$35,110||$136,670|
|Judges and Magistrates||$50.66||$105,380||$31,960||$171,180|
This will be lower or higher depending several factors including your level of experience, your level of education, who you work for and your location. This means that a paralegal with an associate degree and very little experience will not make as much as a paralegal with an advance degree and far more training on the job. It also means that a paralegal working in Legal Compliance and Real Estate can make more than a those who work in Criminal Law. A paralegal who works in Commercial Law in New York or Washington can also earn more than a paralegal who works in the same area of law in Wisconsin. Likewise, a paralegal who works for a government agency is likely to earn less than a paralegal who works for a booming private law firm.
Paralegal Education Requirements
As with any other profession there are certain skills and attributes one must possess in order to be able to do a satisfactory job and succeed in making it your career. Recognizing the presence or absence of these skills and attributes is the first step in deciding whether or not a particular career is the perfect fit for you.
For work in the paralegal field, the skills and attributes most valued include:
- excellent writing and communication skills
- good computer skills
- the ability to interview witnesses and document what is relevant to the case
- an in depth knowledge of legal terminology and principles
- excellent time management skills
- the ability to take initiative as well as think outside of a box to find legal solutions
- the ability to perform in depth legal research within specific time frames
- the ability to analyze legal documents for accuracy
- the ability to prioritize your workload especially on a tight schedule
Your education requirements will vary from employer to employer, but generally you will need an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree to gain employment. Some positions will also require that you hold a professional certification as well.
Paralegal Training and Education Path
Once you have decided you have the skills and attributes needed for a paralegal career you can work on meeting those necessary educational requirements and finding the right path for your career. There are several options available to you and your educational credentials will be a determining factor in the type of paralegal job you obtain. Keep in mind that the more background education and training you have the more qualified and appealing you are to employers. Here are some of your options.
A certificate or diploma in paralegal studies
Getting a certificate is the quickest way to gain entry into a paralegal career. It can be completed in as little as seven months. While having a paralegal certificate alone does not guarantee you a position, it is a good entry point. This is of particular relevance to you if you already hold a degree in another area of study. You should consider this option particularly if you will need to work while you study for a higher certification. The hours required for this certification can often be flexible while allowing you to get the knowledge and experience required for the job.
A two year Associate’s degree in paralegal studies
This program generally requires that you take several key courses, electives and specialty legal courses like legal writing and research, litigation, estate planning and probate, business law. The specialty legal courses of each year are prerequisites to matriculating in the following year and failure to complete and pass these courses will result in your certification being withheld. At the completion of your two year degree you can leave and find employment, or you can choose to continue your studies for another two years and complete your Bachelor’s degree.
A four year Bachelor’s degree from a university
There are several accredited universities which now offer majors and minors in paralegal subjects, and include the same type of coursework associated with an Associate’s degree for during the first two years. The last two years are spent doing more advanced and specialized courses. Note also that if the University does not offer a specific paralegal program you will find that the discipline and courses are similar to that of a Criminal Justice degree and a Political Science degree.
Becoming a Certified Paralegal
After you have received a college degree you will also want to consider an additional certification which takes four to five months to complete. Many paralegals consider this similar to passing the bar for lawyers. Though this certification is not a necessity, it gives added credibility to you as an employee. In the the case of someone with an associate degree, you can opt to complete this additional certification instead of completing a four year degree. You may also have the option of completing your paralegal certification online.
On The Job Training
Training on the job is another option to be considered when thinking about your career path. You may choose to work while completing an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. While this will definitely lower your entry level salary it does provide you with valuable experience. This is a definite advantage as it shows you can manage your time well and that you are serious about your career as a paralegal. You will be a step ahead when you finish your degree and be more appealing to potential employers. There are several ways you can gain experience while studying.
Most paralegal programs require that you intern during your tenure and often a failure to do so will have your degree considered incomplete.
Work in a law firm in an entry level position
Entry level paralegal jobs can be done as part of a part-time program during your summer break from school. You could start off as a legal assistant doing administrative duties like filing and organizing, typing up reports and customer service. You will gain valuable experience while assisting paralegals and lawyers in their duties. Keep in mind that a legal assistant salary may be on the lower end of the pay scale.
Become a research assistant
Many lawyers, university professors and other students need help performing research and offering your services as a research assistant enhances your skills while you are in college. Additionally, this gives you the chance to put your knowledge into practice and learn the latest trends and techniques in the various aspects of research.
The time from initial study to an actual job varies from person to person, but generally takes about 4-5 years if you are completing a university degree and then getting your certification. Naturally, someone who takes time off from studying to work will take a bit longer to complete certification. The great advantage you have however is that you can work while you study, which provides you with an income to help pay for your education as well as providing you with valuable experience on the job.
How to Choose a Paralegal College
So how do you choose a paralegal school for your education? An important step in your career path will be to evaluate your prospective programs while considering your own background and goals. Before you start looking at schools you should determine your own requirements and workout any limitations. Ask yourself these few questions to get you started:
How much you can afford to spend on your education? Your answer here will affect the type of schools you will be looking at for your education. If your funds are limited you can look at completing a two year community college degree. In some locations this will cost you under $1,000, or it could cost up to $12,000. If you decide you want to get a four year degree from a university you could decide to study part time and work part time to help pay the fees.
Do you have to go to school in a particular location? If so, then you will need to start your search for a paralegal school based on that. You may be limited in your choices for a campus course, but you could always look for online paralegal programs if that is more convenient for you.
Do you already have a degree or come college credit? If so, then you can look for programs that will take your previous education into account and allow you to fast track your completion.
There is one particular requirement you should look for when choosing your college or university for your paralegal degree and that is to look for schools with an accreditation by the American Bar Association. A lot of prospective employers will require that your certification is from one of these accredited institutions and preferably one with a track record of providing well prepared graduates. This will make your degree more appealing to potential employers.
While you are studying you should not only consider the importance of the coursework required for your certification but also any extra-curricular activities that will enhance your skills. For instance, being part of a debating society could increase your skills immensely as that requires research as well as the ability to pinpoint areas of relevance to prove your case and will improve your confidence with public speaking.
Below is a short list of schools that are approved by the American Bar Association and highly regarded by the quality of education they deliver. You can start your search here.
|School||State||Level||Program||Time to Complete||Estimated Cost|
|University of California, Los Angeles||CA||Certificate||Paralegal Studies Certificate||5 months (5 days per week) or 12 months (2 nights per week)||$8,000|
|Texas A & M University, Commerce||TX||Bachelor's Degree||Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science with a Paralegal major||4 years full time||$26,500|
|Baker College of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills||MI||Associate's Degree||Associate of Business Paralegal Degree||2 years full time||$21,000|
|Florida State College, Jacksonville||FL||Associate's Degree||Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies||2 years full time||$6,600|
|Georgetown University||DC||Certificate||Paralegal Studies Program||10 week intensive followed by 4 week internship||$10,200|
|Berkley College of New York City||NY||Associate's Degree||Associate Science Degree in Legal Studies||2 years full time||$47,200|
Paralegal Jobs and Careers
A paralegal can work in a variety of positions, the most common being in a law firm providing support and assistance to lawyers. The type of work here can also vary depending on what type of law work the firm provides. You could be in criminal law, business or corporate law, financial law, employment law, civil rights law, personal injury law, real estate law or family law. You could also work in the public or non-profit sector, in the court system or for a private company that provides advice on legal matters. You could also set yourself up as a freelance paralegal picking up contract work as it suits you.
As a paralegal you also have the option to specialize in a particular field that may be of interest to you. This is a good way to advance in your career and really become an expert in your job. You could choose to focus on areas like estate planning and probate, bankruptcy, litigation, immigration, intellectual property or consumer law.
How to Advance Your Paralegal Career
There are several things you can do to advance your career and ensure your job is fulfilling and rewarding.
You can show interest and initiative in your job and your work. Simply doing the minimum work allocated to you will hinder your advancement. Show your employer that you have initiative and you will be rewarded.
Show your employer what you know. Use what you learned when getting your education and show them you know your stuff. You didn’t study all those years to just regurgitate information. Law is fierce arena and lawyers need a paralegal who can complement them.
Gain further certifications and education. A comprehensive resume can get you further ahead in your career. You could learn a foreign language or complete more legal courses. This will expand your knowledge as well as your prospects. The more certifications you have and the more experienced you get, the sooner you will become a highly regarded executive paralegal.
If you have the skills and attributes necessary and you enjoy learning about the legal system and the laws that govern country and society then becoming a paralegal could be a good career for you. You can find work in a variety of fields within the legal system and with the right career path you can have a challenging and rewarding life as a paralegal.