How to Become a Paralegal in Virginia

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If you want to work in the legal field but are concerned about the long and costly process of becoming a lawyer, being a paralegal is a fantastic career choice.

As a paralegal, you’ll have the opportunity to assist on important legal cases by providing valuable support to lawyers and their clients.

There are no statewide standards for paralegals in Virginia. However, many employers prefer entry-level paralegals to have relevant education, such as an associate degree or a certificate that involves paralegal studies. For that reason, if you’re considering work as a paralegal, it’s a great idea to get a credential that shows you’ve studied the profession and are skilled at carrying out the required duties.

Role of paralegals in Virginia law firms

Virginia paralegals perform numerous vital tasks in law firms, or wherever they might work. Generally speaking, they perform the role of researcher, helping lawyers by preparing legal documents, investigating the facts of a case or researching legal precedent.

There are just over 10,000 paralegals employed in Virginia, with an average wage of around $60,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most paralegals work in law offices; however, some are employed in various levels of government, such as state and local government. Others may be involved in managing companies.

Tasks and duties performed by paralegals

For the most part, paralegals work at law offices under licensed attorneys. As a researcher, a paralegal in Virginia will take on a wide range of crucial activities designed to maximize the lawyer’s time on a case, so the lawyer can focus on other important matters.

Paralegals may be involved in

  • Interviewing clients and witnesses
  • Preparing draft pleadings, court documents, and agreements
  • Reviewing transcripts
  • Writing legal memos
  • Collecting information
  • Conducting legal research
  • Managing projects (such as developing work plans and budgets)

The exact paralegal duties will depend on the law firm you work at. In a smaller firm, paralegals might be required to take on a range of responsibilities. In a large law firm, paralegals may specialize in one area of legal proceedings, such as research, or one practice area, such as family law.

Ethical considerations for paralegals in Virginia

Because they are not lawyers, paralegals are not allowed to offer legal advice to clients. While they have access to information and resources linked to cases, they cannot advise clients on legal matters and they cannot represent clients in court unless otherwise authorized by the court.

Although paralegals are not direct participants in attorney-client privilege, as non-lawyers at a firm, they are subject to the rules of professional conduct, which include confidentiality. This means they must not disclose information about clients, cases, or legal matters without obtaining proper authorization.

Paralegals must also watch for potential conflicts of interest and take steps to manage any that may arise, such as working with (or against) friends, family, or anyone who could impact the paralegal’s ability to use objective judgment.

Additionally, paralegals are required to maintain a high level of professionalism and report ethics violations. Finally, because the law is constantly changing and policies shift, paralegals should commit to continuing education. Some organizations require paralegals to undertake a certain number of professional development hours each year.

Requirements for paralegal certification in Virginia

certification for paralegals

To obtain the Virginia Registered Paralegal (VARP™) credential, a paralegal must have:

  • a Bachelor’s degree, Associate’s degree, or Certificate in Paralegal Studies from an accredited program and a certain level of substantive experience;
  • five years of substantive paralegal experience and six hours of Continuing Legal Education within the two years before the VARP™ application; or
  • a credential approved and recognized by the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA).

VARP™ is an entirely voluntary paralegal credentialing system, but it has been established to help distinguish qualified paralegals.

Benefits of obtaining paralegal certification in Virginia

Having a Virginia paralegal certification shows employers you are committed to the career and that you have expertise in the area. Programs cover important areas such as an introduction to law, understanding torts and personal injury, civil litigation, and legal research and writing.

Education and training in these highly specialized areas will better prepare you for a career as a paralegal in Virginia.

Career prospects and job opportunities with a paralegal degree

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be approximately 38,000 openings for paralegals and legal assistants across the US each year from 2022 to  2032. The employment rate is projected to grow four percent each year, which is about the same rate as the average for all occupations.

Steps to becoming a paralegal in Virginia 

Paralegals are not regulated in Virginia, so you can enter the profession through on-the-job training or unrelated education.  However, the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA) recommends employers hire paralegals with an educational background that includes paralegal training, or a high level of work experience.

You can also learn more about being a paralegal, and about changes to the industry, by subscribing to one of the informative paralegal newsletters we’ve highlighted for you.

Education and training options

paralegal education

There are numerous ways to get an education that will help you become a Virginia paralegal. While you aren’t required to have a degree or certificate to become a paralegal in Virginia, employers prefer entry-level paralegals with either a degree or a certificate. The main credentials offered for paralegal programs are

  • Certificates
  • Associate degrees
  • Bachelor’s degrees

As part of your degree or certificate, you may have the opportunity to obtain work experience through an internship, practicum, or job shadowing opportunity. This experience is highly valuable for you to find employment after your education.

There are also professional organizations that offer certification exams to people who meet their eligibility requirements. These are:

Skills and qualifications required

Paralegals should be skilled at communicating with others, researching, and organization. They should also have computer skills and interpersonal skills. Although there is no state or federal educational requirement for paralegals, most employers prefer to hire paralegals who have a degree or certificate, because the credential indicates an ability to conduct research and write professionally.

Read our article on questions to be prepared for in an interview, to learn more about what employers will expect of you.

Additionally, to obtain certification through the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA) as a Virginia Registered Paralegal, you must have either a degree or certificate, or you must have at least five years of paralegal experience along with six hours of continuing legal education in the past two years, or you must have a recognized credential.

Programs and courses offered by featured schools

courses for paralegals

The American Bar Association has approved the following Paralegal Education Programs:

  • American National University: Paralegal Associate Degree and a Paralegal Studies Certificate (post-associate, both available on campus).
  • Duquesne University Thomas R. Kline School of Law: Certificate (available online)
  • Reynolds Community College: Paralegal Studies Program, AAS (available on campus)
  • Northern Virginia Community College: AAS Paralegal Studies Program (available on campus)
  • Tidewater Community College: Paralegal Studies Program, AAS and Certificate (available on campus)

Other paralegal programs in Virginia include:

  • Bryant and Stratton College in Virginia Beach offers an Associate of Applied Sciences in Paralegal Studies (both on campus and online).
  • George Mason University offers a Minor in Legal Studies.
  • Hampton University offers a Certificate in Paralegal Studies and a BA in Paralegal Studies (both available online).
  • Southwest Virginia Community College offers a Legal Studies Certificate (available on campus and online)

Various other universities and colleges offer degrees and certificates in paralegal studies, legal studies, or legal office assisting.

Admission requirements and application process

Each school has its own requirements and application process. Some programs require applicants to have a certain amount of experience in an office setting before applying to the program.

Overview of major cities in Virginia for paralegal careers

There are a large number of law firms in and around Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Richmond, in particular, has a high number of legal and government offices because it is so close to Washington, D.C. This also makes it a great city for paralegals to find employment. The Richmond Paralegal Association offers continuing legal education and networking events for paralegals in the central Virginia region.

Although it isn’t in Virginia, Washington, D.C. also has a high number of paralegals. According to Fremont University®, the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. is one of the largest employers of paralegals in the country. The National Capital Area Paralegal Association is affiliated with the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations.

What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant?

A legal assistant usually performs administrative duties and tasks. This might include managing documents and files, scheduling appointments, scheduling court dates, and communicating with clients. They may also proofread legal documents, manage client billing, maintain the lawyer’s calendar, and make travel arrangements for the lawyer. 

The paralegal is involved more with research and technical support for a lawyer on a case, such as attending legal proceedings, summarizing testimony and depositions, and performing legal research.

What is the difference between a lawyer and a paralegal?

A lawyer has gone to law school and passed the Bar exam, which allows them to give legal advice and represent clients in court. Paralegals do not have to have graduated from a program to obtain work, although many employers prefer to hire paralegals who have graduated from a program. As a result, paralegals are not allowed to give legal advice to clients or represent clients in court. 

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