GUIDE: how to become a paralegal

Last updated: February 27, 2024
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GUIDE: how to become a paralegal
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If you're looking for a career change, the legal field is worth considering. You don't have to become a qualified lawyer, as supportive roles are available.

Today, we're going to discuss paralegal positions. This is an in-demand profession with a positive job growth outlook.

In fact, over the next 10 years, paralegal jobs are poised to grow by 14%. Right now, there are 352,800 paralegals working in the U.S. So that means by 2031, there'll be an additional 49,900 jobs.

Is this the career for you? We've put together this comprehensive guide with everything you need to know.

From the most common paralegal duties to the required education path and salary range, you'll learn about it below.

What is a paralegal?

Paralegals commonly work for law firms and government agencies. They support lawyers with a range of tasks.

For instance, they can help build cases by researching and writing reports. They can also organize and file documents to make sure everything is ready for court.

They write summaries and use their legal writing skills to compose letters. Paralegals speak to clients and witnesses and prepare statements. They answer phones, schedule meetings, and take notes.

A paralegal's responsibilities can vary depending on the law firm’s size and the types of clients they represent.

So what's the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer? Lawyers have to complete a higher level of education than paralegals. They can stand up in court and represent clients.

Paralegals, on the other hand, work in more of a supportive role. While they still require education, they can't practice law.

Where do paralegals work?

74% of paralegals work in legal services, which include private law firms. 5% work for the federal government, and the rest work in finance, state, or local government roles.

Paralegals also work in teams and support other legal professionals. They primarily work in office environments and often sit behind a computer. They can also travel between locations. For instance, they may meet with a client at one location at the beginning of the day and then spend the rest of the day in court.

Paralegals can choose from a wide range of specialties. Popular options include family law, real estate, corporate law, estate planning, and personal injury law.

Most paralegals work full-time. Cases with tight deadlines may require overtime.

How much do paralegals make?

The average salary for a paralegal in the U.S. is $56,230 per year or $27.03 per hour. The lowest earners make less than $36,410 yearly, while those in the top percentile make over $88,640.

Actual salaries can vary depending on where you work and your experience. For example, the average salary of paralegals who work for the federal government is $69,680.

Those in finance can expect to make $64,740, and paralegals working in general legal services have a median wage of $48,270 per year.

Your location can also make a difference. In the District of Columbia, the highest-paying state, paralegals make an average of $83,420 per year. Next are Washington and California at $71,900 and $70,290, respectively.

Further down the list is Massachusetts, where the median salary is $66,820 per year. In New Jersey, it's $65,950, and in New York, it's $63,270.

When you apply for a job and start the interview process, you'll learn more about the employer's salary range.

Steps to becoming a paralegal

Ready to start your paralegal career? Here are the steps you'll need to take:

1. Complete the basic requirements

Before you kick off your paralegal career, you'll need to be prepared. To start, you'll need a high school diploma or equivalent and an interest in law. Some colleges or universities may also require a minimum grade point average (GPA) score.

The minimum age can vary between states, but it's usually 18 or 21 years old.

Any office or law-related experience can be beneficial. For example, you can look for a legal secretary or administrative assistant position to gain key skills that'll help you later in your legal career.

Studying is a commitment, so you should be certain this is the pathway for you before you pursue it.

Not sure if a job as a paralegal is the right fit for you? Check out our job quiz to match your personality to a career.

2. Choose your specialty

Just like lawyers, paralegals can work in different fields. It's never too early to start thinking about your specialty.

Knowing where you're headed can help you choose the right subjects at college, and you'll also have an idea of the types of jobs you can apply for after you graduate.

The field of law you pursue will depend on your personality and skills. For example, are you interested in real estate law? Do you have a flair for numbers and want to deal with bankruptcy and financial crimes?

Can you see yourself working on immigration cases? Or would you prefer to work in a corporate setting?

If you're not sure, you can chat with a college career counselor.

3. Get qualified

You have a few different paralegal study options, depending on your current education and career goals.

The first option is an associate degree program. An associate degree in paralegal studies takes around two years — or longer if you study part-time.

Then there are bachelor's degrees, which take at least four years to complete. Employers often prefer candidates to have these degrees; as such, completing one can improve your chances of getting a job.

Not all educational institutions offer a bachelor's degree in legal studies. Fortunately, you can still become a paralegal by obtaining a similar degree, such as one in social science, business, or criminal justice.

The third option is a master's degree in legal studies. You can only enroll in a master's program if you've already completed a bachelor's degree, and it will add around two years to your study time.

4. Get a certification

A certification isn't required to work as a paralegal. However, it's a step worth taking because many employers expect it.

There are many organizations to choose from for certification, including the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS).

There are two ways to get a certification, and this can depend on the organization.

Some certifications can be gained after you submit details of your qualifications and experience. Others require you to pass an exam. These exams are usually multiple choice and are taken in person.

Once you have met the requirements, you can pay a fee and receive your certification.

You'll also need to keep your certification up to date. The organization you receive the certification from will have its own rules for continued certification. For example, you may need to complete a set amount of training each year or pay an annual fee to remain certified.

5. Apply for a job

Once you have completed the educational requirements and gained your national certification, you can start applying for jobs.

There are opportunities for paralegals across the country, and you can start your job search here.

Remember, you'll need to update your paralegal resume and write a winning cover letter. Be sure you include your education and work experience.

Each law firm is unique. You can expect at least some on-the-job training when you start a new role.

6. Keep networking

The paralegal field offers opportunities for career growth. Once you have a job, you can keep an eye out for training and leadership programs.

Professional networking is also beneficial, as those around you can support your career journey. For example, someone you know may refer you to a job, or a former boss may give you a glowing reference.

You can grow your network both in-person and online. Read our guide on how to grow your professional network.

The top paralegal skills

Your paralegal education will only take you so far. If you want to be successful, you'll need a range of skills.

Here are five of the top paralegal skills.

  1. Time management

Most of a paralegal's job duties require good time-management skills. Organization and reliability will be key to your success.

For example, paralegals support lawyers during trials and need to follow a strict schedule. They need to arrive at court on time and make sure any necessary documents have been filed.

Paralegals may schedule meetings and appointments. They have to make sure they haven't double-booked anything on their calendar.

It's also not uncommon for paralegals to juggle multiple tasks at once. As long as you have good time management skills, you shouldn't miss anything.

  1. Computer skills

Paralegals need to keep accurate records. They also need to type letters and share documents with others in the legal department.

These professionals rely on technology to do their jobs. Strong computer skills are essential for this role, and you should be comfortable spending long hours in front of a screen.

You'll need to be familiar with common software, including Microsoft Office and Google Workspace. You should also be a confident typist with both accuracy and speed.

Some law firms will use dedicated software that you'll be trained on. Any confidential electronic documents need to be handled and stored correctly.

  1. Communication skills

You'll also need excellent communication skills. This soft skill is transferable and useful in any industry.

Paralegals need to speak with their clients. They should be able to speak clearly and confidently and know how to make others feel comfortable. They'll occasionally need to explain confusing legal jargon and help clients through difficult times.

Paralegals also need to be good listeners. They help lawyers put the pieces of a case together and get relevant information by listening to others.

These team members need to be mindful of their body language. For example, you should avoid crossing your arms, slouching, and pointing at people.

Written communication skills are also on the must-have list for a paralegal.

  1. Research skills

Next, there are research skills. Cases can be complex, and lawyers often need paralegals to help them build their arguments.

Paralegals can gather research in a range of ways. From printed resources to online searches to speaking to witnesses, all the information they learn has to be accurate and relevant.

For example, paralegals can look at previous cases to see if a precedence has been set. If a case similar to theirs was won in court, for instance, they need to find out why.

A good paralegal will have strong investigative skills and know what to look for. They'll then share their findings with their legal team.

  1. Attention to detail

The law can be black and white with no room for error. Any mistakes can have a negative impact on the outcome of a case.

Successful paralegals have attention to detail. They make sure their work is always to a high standard and take their time to get it right.

For example, paralegals need to be committed to fact-checking. And if they type up a document, they'll need to check it for spelling and grammatical errors.

If a paralegal is ever unsure of something, they'll ask for advice rather than take a guess.

Where to find a job as a paralegal

Want to provide legal assistance and support? Once you've completed your training and earned a paralegal certificate, it's time to look for work.

You can start by browsing paralegal positions on our job board. You can see what vacancies are available in your area or farther away if you're ready for a change in location.

You can sign up for a Jobcase account to set up job alerts and chat with others. You can even use our free resume builder to create a professional resume.

While paralegals can be found in different settings, their main role is to support lawyers.

They perform a range of duties, including filing documents, doing research, typing letters, and scheduling appointments.

If you're interested in working as a paralegal, you'll need a high school diploma. Choose your specialty, then study for an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree.

Certification isn't essential to be a paralegal, but it's recommended. Completing this step can boost your chances of getting hired. When you’re ready, you can apply for a job and start building your professional network.

Remember, you'll also need a few key skills to succeed in this role. The list includes time management, computer skills, and research skills. Paralegals also need excellent communication skills and the ability to pay close attention to detail.

Not sure if this is the right career choice for you? You can see who is hiring on our job board. And you can also visit our resource center for more career guides.

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