Since paralegals and legal assistants help conduct legal research on relevant laws and regulations, draft documents, organize and maintain files, investigate facts of a case, take notes in trial and much more, it's clear that they play a vital role in the legal process. There are various areas a paralegal may specialize in, such as litigation and corporate law. Corporate paralegals, for example, help lawyers prepare everything from employee contracts to shareholder agreements. Paralegal school, or a program in paralegal studies at a vocational school or technical school, may be an important step in entering this sustainable, growing field.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) lists several specializations that paralegals can pursue, offering more depth in the field and the opportunity to work in a particular area of interest. Some of these paralegal areas include:
- Litigation: Conducts research for lawyers, maintains client documents and organizes and retrieves evidence for use in trials and depositions.
- Personal injury: Reviews laws on personal injury, gathers medical reports, interviews clients, obtains insurance information and more.
- Employee benefit: Uses tax and accounting knowledge of retirement plans and benefits to assist attorneys in related cases.
- Intellectual property: Prepares trademark, patent, and copyright applications, carries out related research and helps attorneys with litigation.
- Corporate: Helps lawyers prepare everything from employee contracts to stock-option plans and reviews and monitors government regulations.
Paralegal Certifications and Degree Options
In a paralegal program, you can expect to learn about legal research, writing and the legal use and reach of computers, as well as study in core academic areas, according to the BLS. Whether you enroll for an associate or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies or a certificate program, which sometimes only takes a few months to complete, you can find many opportunities to learn more about the paralegal field through postsecondary education
There are no state licensing requirements, but paralegals may want to seek certification after finishing a certificate or postsecondary program. Certifications aren't required by most employers, according to the BLS, but could give a job applicant an edge in landing a job. Certifications usually consist of an exam. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers two certification exams for paralegals. These are the:
- Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE), which is 2.5 hours in length and has 125 multiple-choice questions with the test administered by computer. Those who pass this exam are allowed to use the CRP credential after their name.
- Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) is offered to candidates with both knowledge and experience in the field. They have four hours to answer 200 multiple-choice questions and can use the RP credential after their name.
As well, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers certification, which includes the Certified Paralegal credential and Advanced Paralegal Certification, which tests a candidate's knowledge in different core areas. Renewal may be needed for some credentials and may mean completing continual education.
How to Become a Paralegal
Becoming a paralegal requires commitment, a strong work ethic and an understanding of law and its applications. Below is a list of steps to take on the path to becoming a paralegal.
- Finish high school or complete your GED. Many postsecondary schools require you to have a high school diploma or a GED to continue on in your education. Besides, a diploma or GED is often the minimum qualification needed for hiring in many fields and shows that you have acquired basic high school skills and knowledge.
- Enroll in a postsecondary program. Most paralegals and legal assistants, according to the BLS, have an associate degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in another field paired with a certificate in paralegal studies (since very few schools offer a bachelor's or master's in paralegal studies). Sometimes people with a bachelor's degree and no legal experience or education may be hired and then trained on the job.
- Seek certification. While certification is not necessary, it can show that you took extra effort to validate and prove your skills, as well as give you the ability to use a special credential after your name. In fact, certification can be an indication that you can provide certain skills and services on the job, and that you are committed to career success.
- Continue on in education. It's true that many paralegals have only an undergraduate degree or a certificate, but some may want to continue on in their studies, particularly in continuing education. NALA, NFPA, The Paralegal Institute, and the Institute for Paralegal Education are a few of the organizations offering continuing education.
Expert Q&A on Paralegal Vocational Schools
Paralegals typically earn a degree in legal studies, but it's also common for individuals from other majors/backgrounds to enter the field as well. To learn more about what to expect from your education if you're thinking about becoming a paralegal, we spoke with Monica Carter. She's the senior paralegal at Vethan Law Firm in Texas, and will answer questions about the career path to becoming a paralegal.
Monica Carter is Senior Paralegal at Vethan Law Firm in Texas.
RWM: What is the typical educational path needed to become a paralegal?
Carter: Schools all across the county are developing paralegal certificate programs which are usually a 6-9 month course. There are other available options for those who would like to have a degree for their schooling, [including] associates and bachelors degree programs at colleges and universities. I obtained my Bachelors in Paralegal Studies from American Public University, while in the United States Army. After receiving my degree, I continued my educational path by testing and becoming certified with the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
RWM: How long does it typically take to complete education for this job?
Carter: While some programs can provide you with a certificate in a short amount of time, degrees require years of dedication and provide you with a far greater amount of knowledge -- to obtain a bachelor's degree it can take 4-5 years. To be eligible to test for NALA certification, you would have to complete a paralegal program over 60 hours, a bachelors in any field plus one year paralegal experience, or a high school diploma and 7 years experience as a paralegal plus 20 hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE). I was fortunate to obtain a job while in college as a paralegal and after 10 years of being a paralegal, being a military paralegal, being a military court reporter, and completing my bachelors in Paralegal Studies I then became certified by NALA. My skills stand out in a crowd because I have an office administrator background, knowledge of client billing, family law, civil litigation, trial experience, military justice experience, and court reporting and exhibit experience combined with my ability to multitask, plan, organize and manage, but those were not just developed yesterday. They grew over time.
RWM: Why would you encourage someone to pursue a career as a paralegal?
Carter: I would encourage individuals who have strong research skills, who want to learn and continue to grow, and who are interested in the legal field to pursue a career as a paralegal. Being able to multitask is an extremely useful skill to have as well as knowledge of software and programs. The advantages are numerous. I am always learning new skills or laws, [or] creating new documents. Most federal holidays the office will be closed, and I enjoy traveling and since the Vethan Law Firm has clients all across the country and offices in two states, I am able to travel often. My favorite advantage to being a civil litigation paralegal is preparing for and attending trials, managing the exhibits and getting to know more about each of the clients. The disadvantages are that if there is a trial near a federal holiday, you may have less time off than you hoped for. I love to do trial and deposition prep and so much more can be accomplished on the weekends and when you are out of the office.
RWM: Do you have any advice for young people who are just starting out in this career?
Carter: I would tell them to get as much education as they can. If you start with a certificate program, be sure it will go towards an associate's degree, and the same for a bachelor's. Education is not only useful, but it shows that you are dedicated and have follow through. Take the time to be certified, market your certification to prospective employers and keep increasing your knowledge. If you don't know something, use your resources and ask questions.
Paralegal Salary and Career Outlook
The BLS reports that many law firms are turning more frequently to use of paralegals to carry out some tasks previously done by lawyers to save money on costs. These 'hybrid' type roles are creating opportunities for businesses to become more efficient and to bring more legal affairs in house, too. In fact, a focus on in-house legal departments could lead to greater demand for workers in areas such as consulting work, healthcare, finance and insurance, according to the BLS.
Paralegals who also have developed computer and database management skills could find some of the best job prospects, according to the BLS. Because the paralegal field is one with many specializations, you could be able to find an opportunity that is in a field that interests you. After heading off to college, technical school or vocational school and earning a degree or certificate in paralegal studies, you can begin applying to join this vital profession.
- Certification, National Association of Legal Assistants, Accessed September 25, 2014, http://www.nala.org/Certification.aspx
- Employee Benefits Law, National Paralegal College, https://nationalparalegal.edu/LGL-558.aspx?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
- Long Term Occupational Projections, Projections Central, paralegal and legal assistants, 2012-2022, https://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
- Paralegal and legal assistant, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
- Paralegal and legal assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm
- Paralegal Certifications, National Federation of Paralegal Associations, https://www.paralegals.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=3298
- What is an Intellectual Property Paralegal? Paralegal Alliance, http://www.paralegalalliance.com/what-is-an-intellectual-property-ip-paralegal/#axzz4MLg56tir