Paralegals are vital to the success of our legal system. And there’s an increasing demand for them.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals is projected to grow 14% by 2031—much faster than the average for all occupations.
With this in mind, if you’re thinking about becoming a paralegal, you’ll find it useful to understand the education required, career opportunities, and work duties that different types of paralegals can take on.
What exactly does a paralegal do?
According to the ABA, a paralegal is a qualified person who performs substantive legal work on behalf of a lawyer.
But what does that mean, exactly—what does a paralegal actually do?
The answer is anything that helps attorneys. A day in the life of a paralegal typically involves any of the following:
- Contacting clients
- Interviewing witnesses
- Conducting legal research
- Speaking to other attorneys and dealing with external vendors
- Drafting, reviewing, and filing briefings, reports, motions and other legal documents.
- Maintaining the law firm’s filing system
- Performing general administrative functions
Simply put, paralegals can do many of the legal tasks that a lawyer would do so long as attorneys supervise them. The only exceptions are tasks proscribed by law.
Their expertise and support help improve law firm efficiency, and with higher productivity, firms can pass those savings onto clients.
The benefits of becoming a paralegal
Working as a paralegal can be incredibly rewarding. Not only does it offer you the chance to work in the legal field without years of law school, you also have the opportunity to do impactful work that makes a difference in the lives of your clients.
Another advantage? Many paralegals find themselves earning a respectable living regardless of which state they practice in.
Be sure to check out our paralegal resource hub for more info.
Paralegal salary and career growth
According to Salary.com, the average salary for a paralegal in the US is between $54,090 and $106,500.
With a range so expansive, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact predicted salary, especially when you’re starting out. Salary ranges depend on several factors, including:
- Type of education
How to become a paralegal
There is no one pathway to becoming a paralegal, but the consensus is that having some foundational knowledge and skills is essential for you to succeed in the workplace.
Typically, becoming a paralegal will look like a combination of the following:
- Education. Most paralegals will have some form of degree or certificate obtained from a program. Paralegal programs are offered at community colleges, state colleges, universities and specialty schools across the country. Another perk is that programs are available in both traditional and online formats.
- Experience. Many paralegals often start on as interns or admin assistants and gain experience working in their respective law firm or legal department.
- Staying up-to-date. Paralegals are required to stay current with changes in the legal industry, law, and procedures. The best way to do this is through CLEs and attending legal conferences (like the 2023 Clio Cloud Conference).
Please note that each law firm, and state, has different requirements when it comes to paralegal education. For instance, while it’s technically optional to have a formal education and become a paralegal through experience and on-site training alone, some states require formal education (see the next section).
It’s worth checking in with a paralegal association to learn more about regulatory nuances.
A paralegal certificate is no doubt the fastest, and easiest, route. A program like this will award you a certificate in a year or less, which means you could be working as a paralegal in a law firm in as little as 14 weeks, depending on scheduling, cost, and the amount of hours you can invest in weekly.
This kind of program usually requires participants to have already completed some levels of college coursework.
It also means, while you’ll be technically skilled, you won’t get a chance to develop some of the interpersonal skills paralegals need to thrive in a law firm, such as time management and communication.
Associate degree programs
The most popular path to become a paralegal is through an associates degree at an accredited college.
These programs take two years to complete, encompassing at least 60 credits of college coursework. Students of paralegal programs at the associate level get to study up on cases, research laws and regulations, prepare legal memoranda, and arrange evidence and documents for attorneys.
Bachelor’s degree programs
If you’re interested in working in a large law firm, you might consider pursuing a bachelor’s degree. As this increased training and knowledge will elevate the value you can bring to a law firm.
In fact, many law firms prefer to hire paralegals with an extensive college background. This is because the coursework and length of a bachelor’s degree equips you with well-rounded skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively, time management and discipline strategies, critical thinking, and relationship-building.
A bachelor program is four years (120 credits) at an accredited college or university and usually offers advanced or specialized coursework and concepts.
Many paralegals often major in non-legal areas, and will combine their formal college degree with a paralegal certificate.
Master’s degree programs
To advance your career even further, you may consider obtaining a masters degree in paralegal studies.
Why? It signals to your future employers that you withstood academic rigor and you’ll be eligible for salary increases.
At the end of the day, there isn’t one right course or training program, and becoming a paralegal requires a mix of skills, training, and experience. Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose how much education you’re willing to pursue
Do different states have different rules about becoming a paralegal?
Yes. A paralegal is not fully licensed to practice law and instead carries out tasks involved in legal work as delegated or supervised by an attorney. This means most states don’t require paralegals to be licensed, but some states have adopted regulations that apply to paralegals specifically, or to non-lawyer roles in the legal industry.
California, for instance, is the only state that regulates paralegals or legal assistants to meet certain education/experiential qualifications and to meet continuing education requirements.
And in Washington and Utah, a form of licensing exists where paralegals and other non-lawyer roles can become credentialed to perform a wider range of legal work.
How to choose the right paralegal program
Choosing the right paralegal program for you will ultimately depend on your needs and qualifications, but also the kind of career you want to have.
For instance, if you have a skills gap, or want to quickly enter the legal field, a certificate program might be the best option.
If you’re looking for more formal education, or want a leg over the competition, but don’t want to commit to four years, an associate degree may be your best option for a quick start.
A bachelor’s degree will provide you with more extensive legal knowledge and give you more job opportunities. As well, it offers not only the education, but the networking and insight you often need to succeed. An accredited program may also help you get financial aid for your schooling.
Consider a paralegal degree or certificate program that has earned the approval of the ABA. This will ensure that the curriculum you complete meets the high standards set by an outside organization.
As well, you may find that your employers prefer candidates who completed their studies in an ABA-approved paralegal program.
When you’ve determined what level of education you’re after, you can narrow down your school search.
Where can paralegals work?
Paralegals may work anywhere that requires legal assistance. This includes small and large law firms, government agencies, banks, large corporations with legal departments, real estate firms, and insurance companies.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 74% of all paralegals work for legal service agencies.
Some paralegals enter the field with on-the-job training, but as jobs get more competitive, it’s clear that becoming specialized in an area is crucial.
As the law gets more complex, paralegals have become more specialized. These are some of the areas paralegals can specialize in:
- Personal injury
- Corporate law
- Criminal law
- Immigration law
- Family law
- Estate planning
- Real estate law
- Civil litigation
- Intellectual property
As of 2021, there were 352,800 paralegals and legal assistants in the field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ current Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts the occupation to grow by 14% through 2031, adding 45,800 jobs each year.
Other tips for becoming a paralegal include:
- Consider joining a paralegal association
- Get an internship
- Brush up on important skills, like legal tech
Final thoughts on becoming a paralegal
Becoming a paralegal can be a rewarding career path for those interested in working within the legal system, and the opportunities for different types of paralegals as legal professionals are seemingly endless.
And the numbers show: there has never been a better time to look for a paralegal job. And a well-crafted paralegal resume and cover letter can help you land the opportunity to fill a demanding role in our growing industry. Read our guide on how to write the best paralegal resume and cover letter.
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