Becoming a Paralegal
The field of law is constantly evolving and continues to interest and engage on many levels. With changing statutes and laws, voluminous court filings, along with the growing number of graduating law students, ambitious legal minds are ready to blaze some legal trails. Law school is rigorous with its heavy curriculum and studies, and also very costly. Maybe you love the idea of studying law but lack the financial means to attend law school. Family responsibilities and obligations may also put a damper on your legal ambitions.
Have you ever considered becoming a paralegal? A paralegal career can afford you the opportunity to work in varying fields of law, pursue your passion, and help clients. All of these can transform you into an instant asset to law firms and other businesses requiring paralegal services. A career as a paralegal can lead you to financially stability as well. Whether you decide to specialize, or even work as an independent paralegal, it can be a rewarding career with endless possibilities.
Growth Projections for Paralegals
The demand for paralegals continues to grow. The number of law firms and organizations looking for qualified paralegals to assist with their growing clientele and caseloads is increasing consistently. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth for paralegals is expected to grow 10% from 2019-2029. This is a much higher average compared to other fields. And that means job prospects for paralegals is incredibly positive!
A Paralegal’s Role
Paralegals perform a wide variety of tasks depending on what type of law they practice and how they are employed (law firm, contract, independent, etc.) Some of their duties might include case preparation for litigation, legal research, real estate closings, and drafting documents. It’s not uncommon to see paralegals take on roles such has handling accounting and billing, as well as becoming office managers. Many paralegals start out as being “legal secretaries” and move up from there as they gain experience.
From my own personal experience, I was able to become an office manager for a mid-size law firm. My experience as a paralegal afforded me the opportunity to lead a team and mentor other paralegals. This diversity within the profession shows the tremendous growth opportunity for your career as a paralegal, making you a vital asset to a corporation or law firm. Also, with the ability to transfer your skills to other areas of law, you can expand your marketability and future job prospects as you see fit.
What Credentials Do You Need?
Depending on the specialty of law, you may find that you can gain entry into the paralegal field without a certification or degree. Areas of law where this might by possible are workers’ compensation and social security law.
I have been a paralegal in the field of workers’ compensation for 20+ years. This is a field of law that is very administrative in terms of the courts and documentation, and most knowledge is achieved as on-the-job-training. While a paralegal education and background is a plus, it is not an absolute requirement to get started.
However, if your goal is advancement and longevity, you will indeed want to expand your education and credentials. The credentials you might want to explore required would depend on a few factors, including: your finances, how quickly you want to begin your career, and the opportunities you’d like to have for advancement.
Certificate and Degree Options for Paralegals
Paralegal Certificate: A certificate in paralegal studies can help launch your career. It’s a less costly option when compared to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and it can certainly start you in the right direction. From understanding legal terminology to developing your writing skills, you can obtain your certificate in a relatively short amount of time.
Depending on the program, a paralegal certificate can be earned in as little as 6 weeks to 12 months. The disadvantage is that to obtain jobs with good earning potential and in specialized fields, the paralegal certificate will not be enough. Education is a major qualifier for paralegals today, and the basic certificate does not prepare you with sufficient knowledge of the law to succeed as a paralegal long-term and in a competitive market.
Associate’s Degree: A 2-year concentration of study, an associate’s degree is the minimum requirement you should obtain to gain entry in the paralegal career field. As previously mentioned, education is a major qualifier. Along with experience, at least having an associate degree will provide better opportunities starting out and is highly recommended.
Bachelor’s Degree: A 4-year concentration of study, employers today are more often seeking this qualification in a job candidate. The bachelor’s degree affords you the opportunity to obtain deeper and concentrated knowledge that gives you a cutting edge over the competition.
Certified paralegal: Not to be confused with a certificate, a certified paralegal is a paralegal that has completed a certification exam and has met specific requirements to earn the certified paralegal title. A certified paralegal is another great step that shows employers your strength, capabilities, and qualifications as a paralegal. Learn more about becoming a certified paralegal at National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
Master’s in Legal Studies: In recent years, the Master’s in Legal Studies has now become available to those who have an interest in furthering their legal careers, without having to commit to law school. This degree has a one-to-two-year concentration. As paralegals take on more roles to support attorneys, they can also work in areas of Human Resources Management, Compliance Directors as well as Mediators. The Master’s in Legal Studies can elevate your qualifications, giving you recognition as a vital paralegal candidate, as well as open the path in boosting your earning potential.
Paralegal Career Next Steps
Choosing a college or university is the first step in your career as a paralegal. Certificate programs are offered at community colleges as well as 4-year universities. Take the time to research schools and the financial aid they might offer.
In the age of COVID-19, many paralegals programs are now available completely online. Make sure that your choice of program or study is an ABA approved curriculum (American Bar Association). Find colleges with paralegal programs that are ABA approved.
A career as a paralegal can be very rewarding and challenging (in a positive way). It can provide satisfaction through the various fields of law and the roles you’ll be expected to fulfill. This is an opportunity that will allow you to expand your knowledge, marketability, and ultimately, your career path. You may also venture into becoming an independent paralegal with control of your own business and schedule.
I truly hope this article has given you some helpful information to becoming a paralegal. Good luck on your journey. If you are an independent paralegal or notary, looking to expand your career opportunities, reach out to us to learn more about joining the NPN network.
by Keesha Hughes