How to become a paralegal
While lawyers are responsible for representing clients in court, paralegals do a lot of the work that occurs is behind the scenes.
Paralegals support lawyers in both the public and private sectors.
You’ll find them at just about every law firm across the country, supporting lawyers in preparing for court, researching cases, communicating with clients, and more. If you want to work in the law field but don’t think being a lawyer is the right fit, a career as a paralegal may be for you.
Let’s take a look at what a paralegal is, how to become one, and how you can land a job.
What does a paralegal do?
A paralegal works behind the scenes, supporting lawyers by investigating cases and helping out with trials. In addition, they prepare documents for law firms and draft things like wills, mortgages, and contracts.
Some paralegals, depending on where they practice, can obtain a license to represent clients in court. They’re able to go to court for things like small claims.
Another aspect of paralegal life is law office administration work. While not all paralegals do this type of work, as it’s often left for a certified legal assistant (CLA), you could be expected to help with admin.
Paralegal job responsibilities
One of the main responsibilities of a paralegal is to assist an attorney in preparing for trials, criminal or otherwise. A lot goes into a trial, and lawyers typically rely on legal assistants and paralegals to handle the research.
You’ll be tasked with identifying legal articles and judicial decisions related to the case, analyzing them, and writing a report for your attorney presenting their relevance.
Paralegals may also interview clients alongside attorneys (or alone) and draft legal documents such as legal briefs, interrogatories, and deposition notices.
Paralegal vs. lawyer
When comparing paralegals and lawyers, the first thing that comes to mind is education requirements.
A certified paralegal can finish their associate’s degree in as little as 18 months and be working just as fast.
On the other hand, a lawyer generally needs four years of undergraduate study plus three years of law school and must pass the American Bar Association (ABA) exam.
Paralegals finish their studies in far less debt than lawyers, but their salaries reflect the amount of schooling they received. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a paralegal will make $52,920 a year while a lawyer takes home $126,930 a year.
Regarding responsibilities, paralegals work closely with lawyers.
A paralegal does much of the legwork in preparing for court. Lawyers do much of the same, with the added responsibility of directly addressing the judge, jury, and witnesses.
But as the workforce adapts, paralegal roles are expected to grow at double the rate of lawyer jobs. So, if you’re looking for stability, little schooling, less debt, and you shy away from the more extroverted side of being a lawyer, a paralegal job may be for you.
What do you have to study to become a paralegal?
To become a paralegal, you have two options. First, most paralegals go to college to get a two-year associate’s degree and begin working right away.
You could also finish a four-year undergraduate degree. While there are no clear benefits to doing the longer program, it may open more doors to higher-paying jobs.
In some states, a paralegal will have to complete a licensing exam. However, in some places, like Ontario, Canada, a paralegal can represent clients in court much like a lawyer would when they complete the licensing exam.
There’s also the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), which has a certification program. It isn’t mandatory, but it could help to make connections with other paralegals and legal assistants.
How to become a paralegal
Becoming a paralegal is quite straightforward and much quicker than becoming a lawyer. So let’s take a look.
1. Earn a paralegal degree or certificate
As previously mentioned, the typical paralegal program is a two-year associate’s degree. It’s generally the quickest and most efficient route to work as a paralegal.
However, many colleges also offer a certificate program for legal studies. It’s generally offered to students who already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Think of it as an expedited paralegal certification program that gets you working in as little as eight months.
Some universities offer a four-year bachelor’s degree in paralegal education. These programs aren’t mandatory but could lead to greater opportunities in the future. In fact, the National Federation of Paralegal Studies insists that law firms are increasingly looking for more qualified paralegals.
You can find a list of ABA-approved paralegal degree programs online.
2. Gain experience through an internship or co-op program
While a formal education is expected, most law firms will hire a paralegal with practical, on-the-job experience before hiring one without. Thankfully, there are many opportunities to find an internship or co-op placement for paralegals.
Some community colleges have a mandatory co-op placement, which is a great opportunity to get experience.
Alternatively, plenty of schools will assist graduates with finding their first opportunity, whether it be an actual job or an internship. Make sure to use all of your school’s resources to advance your career.
You’ll also find internships posted on job boards. As long as you keep an eye out, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding something that works for you.
3. Consider various areas of law to gain employment
Once you’ve gathered some work experience from internships and co-op placements, it’s time to start looking for a more permanent position.
Luckily, many industries offer legal services. As a result, paralegals have many opportunities to find work in this rapidly growing field.
Different areas of law and industries have different salary expectations and growth rates. You could always apply for areas you’re interested in. For example, you could apply to work at a family law firm, a criminal law firm, or to work in litigation.
You’ll also find varying opportunities and salary bands depending on the state you’re in. D.C., California, Alaska, and Washington are the top-paying states for legal professionals. California is also one of the states with high employment rates, so it’s a great place to start your career.
If you’re interested in working for a government agency, you’ll be happy to know that the local and state governments actually employ a lot of paralegals.
Paralegal salaries and employment rates
For how little school is required, paralegals get paid quite well. While the average salary is around $52,920, as we mentioned, top earners can be paid well over $70,000 per year.
Pay depends on experience, the area of law you’re working in, and where in the country you work.
The paralegal job market is promising. It’s expected to grow by 10% between 2019 and 2029, much faster than average.
To compare, the job outlook for lawyers is expected to grow by only 4% (the average speed) in the same timespan.
Paralegal interview questions
Once you’ve landed an interview, it’s time to show off your knowledge.
Depending on the size of the law firm, you may be interviewing with the attorney. So, it’s important to prepare for the interview and make a good impression.
You’ll want to do your research into the law firm or company to see what exactly they do, what areas of law they specialize in, and even learn more about the attorneys' histories. This will give you a leg up during the interview.
You also need to practice positive body language. For example, maintain eye contact, lean in, and keep a strong, open posture.
You’ll also want to practice answering common interview questions.
Here is a sampling of questions to prepare for:
Tell me about your Paralegal experience to date.
Why do you want to work in the Paralegal profession?
Which areas of law interest you the most?
Why did you apply to work at this firm/company?
How do you prioritize work, maintain composure and reach deadlines under pressure?
What does the average day look like for you?
How do you deal with a difficult or frustrated client?
What do you do to stay up to date with legal and regulatory changes?
Paralegal jobs hiring now
There are hundreds of job opportunities for paralegals in every state across the country, and the job outlook will only continue to trend upward in the coming years.
You can find positions in all fields of law, including litigation, family law, real estate, and even cozy government jobs.
Take a look at the search tool here on Joncase to find paralegal opportunities available in your area.
Land your dream paralegal job today
A career as a paralegal is not only lucrative and rewarding, but it can also be exciting and fast-paced.
If you enjoy working behind the scenes, investigating cases, and preparing documents, you’ll enjoy a paralegal career.
You can look at the schools in your area to see what programs are available and use that to propel yourself into a fulfilling career.
For more advice on landing your dream paralegal job, visit the Jobcase Getting Hired Resource Center for additional tips and tricks!
** Would you consider becoming a paralegal?**