Think a career as a paralegal might be right for you? This article will cover everything you need to know before you make your decision, from typical job duties and education requirements to career outlook and average salary data. We’ll also explain how to become a paralegal step by step, including a look at some certifications to consider earning and professional organizations to consider joining.
What is a Paralegal?
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as “a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Put more simply, paralegals provide support for attorneys and law firms, assisting with various legal duties but not providing legal advice or representing clients in court unless otherwise provided by law.
Many people find a career as a paralegal to be a challenging, fast-paced, and incredibly rewarding experience. As a paralegal, you’ll be empowered to help individuals and organizations in your community, and can work in an area of law that you’re passionate about.
Is a Paralegal the same as a Legal Assistant?
Though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are separate positions with different duties and, in some states, different requirements for practice. According to the employment website Indeed, paralegals are “more involved with legal tasks” than legal assistants, who perform tasks that are “typically more administrative” in nature.
Legal assistants do not necessarily need to hold any degrees, while paralegals are typically expected (though not required) to hold bachelor’s or associate’s degrees. In some states, like California, paralegals have specific educational requirements (or combinations of education and law-related experience), such as completion of an ABA approved paralegal program.
National University has one of the very few ABA approved paralegal programs in the country that offers bachelor’s and associate’s degrees, as well as certificate specializations in Litigation, Corporations, and Criminal Law.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
The specific responsibilities vary, depending on factors like experience level, legal specialty, and the needs of the firm or employer. However, generally speaking, paralegals can expect to have the following types of duties and responsibilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
- Gathering facts and information about legal cases
- Interviewing clients
- Case planning, development, and management
- Drafting and analyzing certain types of legal documents, such as contracts
- Obtaining statements and other forms of court evidence
- Filing legal briefs and other documents with the courts
- Assisting attorneys with trial preparation
- Taking notes or providing other support tasks during trials
It’s important to emphasize that paralegals are not the same as attorneys, and must have their work supervised by an attorney. However, working as a paralegal can provide valuable insight into the practice of law as well as a strong foundation in the basic skills needed to be a successful law student, such as legal research and writing.
Additionally, paralegals can transition into careers as attorneys by graduating from law school and successfully passing the bar exam. Working as a paralegal is a great way to earn the money to pay for law school, and at National University, our J.D. program is designed for the working professional. Many of our J.D. students choose to continue working full-time as paralegals while attending law school to cut down on costs.
If you’re considering a career as a lawyer or paralegal, you may also be interested in related legal careers such as law clerks, court reporters, or legal researchers.
Steps to Become a Paralegal
There are four key steps to becoming a paralegal, which we’ll discuss in more detail throughout this section:
- Enroll in an ABA-approved online or on-campus academic program where you can earn a relevant degree
- Choose the area of law you’ll specialize in
- Consider earning an optional professional certificate
- Acquire job experience by working full- or part-time
Let’s take a closer look at each of these stages and what they involve.
1. Enroll in a Paralegal Program
Whether or not there are specific educational requirements to become a paralegal depends on the state in which you plan on practicing in. Many states do not have specific requirements before you can hold yourself out as a paralegal, but California, for example, has very specific requirements which are set out by statute at California Business and Professions Code Section 6450,(c). To be a paralegal in California, you must either have a certificate of completion from an ABA approved paralegal program or from a nationally or regionally accredited institution that requires the successful completion of a minimum of 24 semester, or equivalent, units in law-related courses.
California also recognizes paralegals who have a baccalaureate degree or advanced degree in any subject, If they have a minimum of one year of law-related experience under the supervision of a California attorney. National University offers one of the few ABA approved paralegal programs in California that offers bachelor’s, associate’s, and certificate options.
Outside of California, there are many states where, in theory, there are no specific education requirements to become a paralegal — but in practice, most employers prefer hiring candidates who hold relevant bachelor’s degrees. An associate’s degree, which can be completed more rapidly, can also help qualify you for many paralegal positions. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, career-focused program, consider NU’s Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies, Bachelor of Science degree (BS) in Paralegal Studies, or Paralegal Specialist Certificate programs.
2. Determine a Specialization
When pursuing any sort of legal career, it’s critical to think about the practice area or field of law you prefer to work in. This decision will impact all aspects of your work as a paralegal, legal assistant, or attorney, from the types of cases you will handle and the regulations you must study, to your overall earning potential and level of demand for your skills.
Here are a few common specializations to consider if you’re planning on becoming a paralegal:
- Civil litigation
- Estate planning and probate
- Corporate law and business litigation
- Family law
- Real estate
- Criminal law
- Tax law
- Personal injury
3. Acquire a Paralegal Certification
To become a paralegal, a paralegal certificate is either required or highly recommended. Even where not required, it can help distinguish your resume and set you apart as a more qualified — and more driven — candidate. Additionally, at National University, you can take extensive course work in legal technology that can be very helpful when seeking employment because many times, it is the paralegals who are in charge of running most of the technology, from case management technology to e-discovery to legal research.
A paralegal certificate entitles you to hold yourself out as a paralegal. You may also opt to go one step further and take a national exam in order to become a “Certified Paralegal.” As the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) explains, “If you have successfully passed a paralegal certification exam, such as NFPA’s PCCE or PACE, you are certified.”
The PCCE is the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam, while PACE refers to the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam. It’s important not to confuse being “certified,” which means passing legal exams like those noted above, with being “certificated,” which means completing a paralegal degree program. Learn more about paralegal exams and certification here.
4. Gain Real-World Experience
The legal field is competitive, so it’s vital to set yourself apart by offering distinctive value. Having an advanced education and earning one or more certifications can give you an edge by making you more appealing to prospective employers. Paralegal411 recommends “pro bono work, internships, and contract-based assignments” as methods for gaining experience, while ZipRecruiter suggests “joining a law firm as a legal secretary to learn basic law terms and practices” before applying for a paralegal position.
How a Paralegal Program Differs from Law School
Paralegals and attorneys fulfill different roles within the legal system. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they are subject to different education requirements. One of the most significant differences is that attorneys are generally required to attend law school and must pass the bar exam to practice. Attorneys who graduate from law school successfully will earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, a process which generally takes three to four years.
The criteria above do not apply to paralegals: you may be qualified to become a paralegal after earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. However, as we discussed a little earlier, you can increase your marketability by becoming both certificated (i.e. completing an academic degree program) and certified (i.e. passing professional exams).
How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?
Becoming a paralegal may take anywhere from one year (if you already hold a degree and are applying to a paralegal certificate program only) to more than four years. It depends on factors like what sort of degree you’re pursuing (for instance, if you are also looking to obtain a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree); whether you decide to pursue optional paralegal certifications, and if so, the amount of time you require to study and prepare for your exams; and whether any additional requirements apply in your state.
For example, as discussed earlier, the state of California generally requires paralegals to hold a degree from an accredited postsecondary program and complete at least 24 semester hours of law-related courses, among meeting other requirements you can learn more about here.
Eager to hit the ground as soon as possible? There are two ways you can complete your degree program faster than average:
- When applying to colleges and universities, be sure to choose paralegal programs that are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Not only does approval act as a stamp of quality, but it also ensures that you will be prepared with foundational skills early on so you can get a headstart in the professional world. Additionally, some states may require students to earn their certifications from ABA-approved programs. National University’s paralegal degree programs have been approved by the ABA, whose rigorous eligibility requirements you can read about here.
- Look for academic programs that offer accelerated options. National University’s unique course modalities — which include on-site, online, and hybrid options — and one-course-per-month programs enable students to complete their bachelor’s and associate’s degrees rapidly and flexibly, working at their own pace and on their own schedule. The paralegal certificate program at National University is designed to be completed in as little as eight months.
Necessary Skills for Paralegals
If your goal is to become a paralegal, you’ll need to develop and maintain certain skills that are essential for the role. Examples of skills needed include:
- Critical thinking
- Research skills
- Organization skills
- Written and oral communication skills
- Computer and technological skills
National Associations for Paralegals
Becoming part of a professional association will help you network and form connections, exposing you to more opportunities while providing you with helpful resources like MCLE. Two prominent examples include the National Federation of Paralegals Association (NFPA), which we also discussed in the section on certification, and the Paralegal Association (also known as the National Association of Legal Assistants, or NALA), which was formed in 1975 to “provide exceptional continuing education and professional development.”
In addition to these national associations, you should also consider joining associations at the state and/or regional level, such as the San Francisco Paralegal Association (SFPA).
Job Outlook and Salary for Paralegals
Are you focused on professional development and building your career? If so, there’s good news: the paralegal field is expected to grow rapidly in the coming decade, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projecting robust 14% growth. Compared to the 5% average growth rate for all occupations, the BLS describes this as “much faster than average.”
The BLS reports that the median salary for paralegals and legal assistants is over $56,200. However, those who worked for the federal government earned a higher median salary of $69,680.
Ready to Start a Paralegal Program?
Think a career in law is right for you? Apply to an accredited paralegal degree program at National University. We offer both bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs, as well as a paralegal certificate program, designed for students who want to complete their coursework 100% online. Contact our admissions office to learn more, or apply to NU online today.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, depending on the college or university you apply to. National University conveniently offers 100% online paralegal programs, including online bachelor’s, associate’s, and certificate degree programs.
Most paralegals hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a program that has been approved by the ABA. It’s also helpful to complete an optional paralegal certification, such as NALA’s Certified Paralegal (CP) exam. Finally, there may be state rules you need to comply with, like California’s strict requirements.
Yes! However, you’ll also need some additional skills and qualifications, like excellent research and writing skills. If you aren’t ready to commit to a traditional four-year program, you can also explore an accelerated bachelor’s degree program or an associate degree program.