Finding a stable and challenging career is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.
With so many career options out there, it's important to find something that will leave you happy and well compensated.
One such profession with a promising future and growing demand is Paralegal Work.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Paralegal Work is expected to grow at a rate of 8% through 2024.
That projected growth is higher on average than other industries; meaning, there is work to be found in being a paralegal!
On top of that, paralegal work is exciting and challenging and intellectually stimulating.
Most paralegals work in law firms, government offices, and corporate legal departments.
Paralegals can also be found working anywhere that deals heavily with contracts, legal documents, and regulations.
There may also be non-profits that provide pro-bono paralegal work for a number of causes and for low-income people.
Paralegals can perform almost any task that a lawyer would except for actually practicing law.
For instance, both paralegals and lawyers research cases, prepare documents, and draft contracts, but only lawyers may provide services like legal advice, courtroom counsel, and setting legal fees.
Paralegals often do most of the basic research for a case and prepare the documents upon which the lawyers will rely.
First off, before we go any further, we have to answer some questions:
What is a Paralegal?
Paralegals work side by side with lawyers assisting lawyers in whatever way they need help.
As a vital part of the professional legal system, paralegals perform a variety of tasks. Below are just a few of the tasks paralegals perform.
The tasks and duties of a paralegal will vary depending on what type of law firm they are working corporate law vs. accident injury law).
As assistants to lawyers, the most important duties of a paralegal include researching cases and preparing documents for lawyers to use.
Since lawyers have large caseloads, they do not have enough hours in the day needed to manage all of the research, paperwork, and preparation for their cases themselves.
Paralegals do the brunt of this work with the lawyer in a supervisory role.
Because of paralegals doing so much of the work that a lawyer would otherwise have to do, a lawyer can focus all their attention on practicing the law.
Without paralegals, lawyers would be grossly inefficient, and the legal system would become even slower and more lethargic than it already is -- they are a vital part of the American Legal System.
What do they do?
A simple analogy is that paralegals are to lawyers what nurses are to doctors.
Like nurses do for doctors, paralegals perform those essential tasks and duties that a lawyer needs to do their job, but that would otherwise not be the best use of their time.
And like nurses in hospitals and clinics, so much of the important work that keeps a law office running is due to the hard work, passion, and commitment of paralegals.
To put it basically, paralegals are there to support lawyers in whatever way they can.
By delegating certain tasks to paralegals, lawyers can focus on the big picture aspects of winning cases for their clients and running their law firms.
Because of paralegals, lawyers and law firms are able to take on more clients and give people the legal help they need.
Without paralegals, lawyers would be pinched even more in their workload, and their prices for their services would rise, prices which are already considerably high.
So it suffices to say that without paralegals, access to a lawyer would be harder and more expensive; they truly are the unsung heroes of the legal system.
Types Of Paralegals
Like lawyers, paralegals have a choice in what kind of law they want to work in. Because of this liberty, future paralegals have more control over what kind of work they want to do.
Each type of paralegal work will bring its own set of challenges and expectations, but if you pick the right field, the work will be rewarding.
Choose the field you believe will suit you best and focus on that in your education and certification process.
How does one become a paralegal?
Competitive and exciting, the paralegal profession offers a wide range of careers and niches to focus your work on.
Depending on what field you to focus on, the company you want to work for, and what region you live in, education and training requirements will vary.
For example, some places may take on a candidate with only a high school education if they see something special in the person and want to give them a leg up in the industry.
However, most paralegals have had some education beyond high school.
There are several ways of becoming a paralegal.
Community College Associate Degree Programs
Because of the explosive demand for paralegals, many community colleges offer associate degree programs in paralegal work.
There are many benefits to going the community college route to becoming a paralegal.
First, community colleges are more affordable than a four-year college or university in the form of lower tuition rates, fees, and associated expenses like books, parking permits, and other school fees.
In fact, some states like New York and Washington offer free community college to residents who meet certain requirements, and other states like California and Arizona offer tuition waivers that greatly reduce the cost of college, pending certain requirements.
Another benefit of community college is that they offer classes at all times of the day.
So if you have a 9-5 job that you must absolutely work to pay your bills, you can take paralegal classes at night and work on shifting to a new career.
Finally, a community college paralegal program is a great way to try out the career if you're still not too sure if this is the path for you.
If the community college program confirms that this is the career path for you, awesome! Go forward and finish. If it leaves you thinking this is not the career path for you, you can exit at minimum cost to your wallet and time.
Overall, community college is a great way to become a paralegal, especially for working adults who want to make a career change.
Four-Year College Or University Programs
The advantage of a four-year college program is that you get the name and recognition of a four-year school when you graduate, which will make you more competitive in a job field that needs more qualified candidates than anything else.
Another advantage is that you get the experience of a full college experience, which will not leave you in regret in later years for not having used up your golden years.
Also, a four-year college library will have a greater deal of resources than a community college or a certification program elsewhere. The resources of the college make it easier to study paralegal work because those are resources that are accessible to all students.
Paralegal Certification Programs
For those with a bachelor's degree, some college education, or just a high school degree, a certification program may be the way to go.
In fact, many schools offer certification programs that don't require an associates or bachelors degree in paralegal work or pre-law.
These programs are specifically designed to get people trained in paralegal work and certified within a reasonable time frame.
How Are Paralegals Certified?
Since paralegals are not licensed by the government, there are no requirements set in stone by law to become a paralegal in the way that there are requirements to become a lawyer or a physician.
However, that doesn't mean paralegals are not regulated.
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
In fact, paralegals are certified and voluntarily regulated by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), two national organizations.
These organizations administer certification exams that legal firms abide by and invest trust in.
Passing the NALA or NFPA certification exams demonstrates that a certified paralegal meets sufficient standards of capability and education in legal matters appropriate to a paralegal's duties.
The certification exams cover essential subjects such as
What Is The Kind of Work A Paralegal Does?
The work that paralegals do will depend on what field they work in and what law practice they work.
The following are some of the tasks that you would expect a paralegal to do
Investigate & Gather Facts of a Case
Conduct Research on Relevant Laws, Regulations, & Legal Articles
Organize & Maintain Documents In Paper or Electronic Filing Systems
Gather & Arrange Evidence and Prepare Legal Documents For Attorney Review & Case Preparation
Write or Summarize Reports to Help Lawyers Prepare for Trials
Draft Correspondence & Legal Documents Like Contracts, Mortgages, etc
Collect Affidavits & Other Formal Statements As Court Evidence,
Assist Lawyers During Trials by Handling Exhibits, Taking Notes, or Reviewing Trial Transcripts
File Exhibits, Briefs, Appeals, & Other Legal Documents with The Court or Opposing Counsel
Call Clients, Witnesses, Lawyers, & Outside Vendors to Schedule Interviews, Meetings, Depositions
What Skills Are Required Of A Paralegal?
Like every profession, paralegal work requires a certain type of skill set to experience success and enjoy the work. These are skills that you would learn in a paralegal program.
Strong Writing Skills
Because so much of the work requires technical legal writing, being a strong writer is an essential skill for being a paralegal. Writing is one of the core ways a paralegal expresses his competency. A weak writer will make a weak paralegal.
Reading & Comprehension
Along with writing, one must be able to read lots of material at once, comprehend their content, and analyze it for its relevance to help you and your client out for your particular case. Having a good understanding of legal vocabulary and the technical jargon associated with legal writing will also make you a better reader.
Paralegals need to be familiar with using computers for legal research and litigation support. They also use computer programs for organizing and maintaining important documents.
Furthermore, a modern law office depends on computers for intra-office communication, sharing files on shared networks like the Cloud, and for drafting legal documents on specific writing programs.
Strong Relationship Skills
Paralegals spend most of their time working with clients and other professionals and must be able to develop good relationships. They must make clients feel comfortable sharing personal information related to their cases.
To help out with this, paralegals must be adept at Emotional Intelligence, and be able to read a person' emotional state through their physical and facial expressions, and to use that information accordingly when communicating or interacting with a client.
Paralegals may be responsible for many cases at one time. They must adapt quickly to changing deadlines. More importantly, paralegals are also responsible for keeping attorneys up to date on changes or recent developments on changes, and helping them shift legal strategy as a situation calls for.
Research & Analysis
Paralegals gather facts of the case and research information on relevant laws and regulations to prepare drafts of legal documents for attorneys and help them prepare for a case. It's not just about gathering facts and evidence and compiling them into a case; it's choosing what facts and evidence go where and how to best structure a legal argument that will make it easier for a lawyer to do their job.
Choosing The Right Path
Choosing the right path for your paralegal certification is no easy task. Each option has its positives and negatives that must be weighed against each other.
When choosing where you want to get your certification -- community college, four-year school, or a certification program -- consider the following in your decision.
1. Check To See What Kind of Accreditation Your School Has
Before moving forward, check if your school has an Accreditation from an Accreditation body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
A school with Accreditation has been found to meet the minimum standards for teaching paralegal work; therefore, it can be trusted to provide a quality education that will give you the proper preparation and education for working in this field.
Another way of looking at this would be to not suckered into a program that promises a great education but just wants to take your money and leave you with very little in exchange.
Furthermore, students who study sat unaccredited schools cannot receive Federal financial student aid and their credits may not be transferable.
So before signing up at a school, make sure it's accredited to save yourself a headache later.
2. Check To See If It's An American Bar Association Approved Program
The American Bar Association is the top accreditation organization for lawyers in the country. The stringent standards they have set and upheld are ones that all lawyers must adhere to if they want to practice law in the United States.
Because of that, some law firms will not hire people from paralegal programs that do not have an ABA certification.
Check and see before signing up and take it from there.
3. Check Out The School's Support Structure
Before picking a school, research on what kind of support services the school has to offer.
Unfortunately, not every school will offer the same amount of support services in the form of tutoring, counseling, financial aid, computer labs, and work placement programs.
These programs can make all the difference in a student's success, and the presence or absence of these programs should be calculated into one's decision whether or not to attend a school.
Another bonus about these programs is that its tuition and fees that pay for these programs, so they are free to all enrolled students.
4. Check Out The School's Campus & Facilities
Not all campuses are created equal. A school may offer a paralegal program, but the resources dedicated to it may be sparse.
Check if there is a designated building, wing in a building, or certain classrooms for the program.
See if they have a legal library that will provide you with the legal texts you will need to put you ahead of the paralegal studying game.
Also, another reason to visit a campus where you are considering studying is to see if the campus is for you.
Sometimes a campus might not be a right fit for a person, and that will affect the level of success they can achieve in that school.
5. Check Out The Program's Curriculum
The program you choose will give you the foundation for you to build your paralegal career.
A good program will provide with the education and skills to make your transition from student to professional seamless.
Most programs will cover not only the actual nitty-gritty skills required of paralegal work, but will also provide elective courses that teach you those other skills that are necessary to be a successful paralegal, but may not be obvious at first.
Coursework should consist of the following:
Finally, on top of everything else, the program must develop students critical thinking skills within the framework of the paralegal profession.
6. Check Out The Graduation Requirements
A good way to see if the coursework is something you want to undertake is by looking into their graduation requirements.
Every school will vary, and the requirements will reflect what are standard skills are that necessary industry-wide, and skills that are reflective of a school's individual philosophy and mission statement.
Another important reason to check them is out because YOU are the one who will be taking these classes!
If these classes don't excite you, or at least confirm that this is the career for you, you may want to check out a different school before you get a case of buyer's remorse.
If serious about a school, consider talking to a counselor to get more information.
And if possible, perhaps it's possible to visit a class and get a first-hand experience of the environment and the requirements made of students before matriculation.
7. Check Out The Faculty
Finally, after you've done all the other stuff, another important question to investigate is: who teaches here?
The faculty of your school will ultimately determine the quality of your education and your overall school experience.
Great instructors will teach you what you need to know and those essential skills that don't necessarily come in a textbook.
They will share their knowledge willingly and will be invested in your success.
They will welcome you as future brothers and sisters to the great legal profession which they have given their lives too.
And a bad instructor will have the complete opposite effect.
At minimum, they'll make learning with them; at worst, they may ruin your education experience.
So it doesn't hurt to check out who you'll be learning from.
How To Survive Paralegal School
The journey of becoming a certified paralegal can be long and hard. Although not an easy subject to study, the reward at the end of the journey will be well worth it.
Here are some tips and tricks to surviving Paralegal School.
1. Make It A Priority
Whether selecting it as your major at a four-year college or university, or studying in a certification program after graduation, making this a full-time priority is the foundation of your success in this profession.
Essentially, this is an attitude shift, and it is you making a contract with your future self that you will give everything you have become a paralegal, and to do whatever it takes to get certified.
Image via Pixabay
Although it may sound a little mystical, reminding yourself why you are doing this
You are doing this because you want a well-paying job in a stable career that will excite and challenge you and leave you fulfilled.
Whenever it all seems like it's too much, remind yourself why you are doing this, and use that motivation to go forward. You can do this!
2. Form Study Groups
This isn't something you have to do alone! Connect with your fellow classmates and form study groups to help each other out.
The benefit of study groups is that students can help each other out in a variety of ways. What is one student's weakness can be another's strength, and both students can help each other out.
The basic premise of study groups is that two heads are better than one, and it is true. You will be surprised at the knowledge and intelligence your peers have, and you might surprise them with how smart and intelligent you are!
Also, another unspoken benefit of study groups is the power of information sharing.
People in your study group may have access to information that may help you out in your paralegal certification journey.
For example, someone in your study group may know of a law office that is seeking legal interns and will bring anyone on currently undergoing a certification program.
3. Connect With Your Teachers
Once your teacher says, "Class dismissed," that should not be the end of your interaction with them. In fact, it should be the beginning of it!
Approach your teacher and pick their brain about the paralegal profession.
Ask them questions about how they became a paralegal, their opinion on the work and field, and why they became a paralegal.
Most people are more than happy to talk about themselves, especially when it pertains to their career or something they love.
Although breaking the ice may be hard, the risk is well worth it. If your teacher likes you, they may form a relationship with you and become a mentor, an element that improves your likelihood of success in school.
Finally, if you do form a relationship with one of your teachers, they may be able to help you find a job after graduation.
They may have a connection at a law firm that is looking for paralegals, or they could draft up a letter of recommendation for you that may be the key to getting your foot in the door at a law office.
4. Hold Yourself Accountable
Since this your future you are working on the only person who can hold you accountable is yourself. If you fail, you will pay the price.
However, if you, succeed, you'll be able to share that success with loved ones in many ways.
But before you can even arrive at that point, you must follow through on homework assignments, legal office internships, and doing whatever it takes to finish your program in time.
Accountability is a promise to your future self that your present self will do whatever it takes to make his life easier. Don't' forget that in the end, you'll always be alright.
How Does The Future Look For Paralegal Work?
The current trend is for law firms, and other employers continue to cut budgets while demanding more legal services.
Because of this, employers are choosing to utilize paralegals whenever possible since paralegals can perform legal tasks at a lower cost per hour than attorneys.
The BLS predicts that the industries with the strongest job growth for paralegals over the next few years will be finance and insurance firms, consulting firms, and healthcare providers.
How Much Do Paralegals Make?
The average annual paralegal salary was $55,188 according to a 2015 National Association of Legal Assistants & Paralegals (NALA) study on paralegal salaries.
Paralegals also received an average of $4,581 in bonuses each year, according to the 2015 NALA survey.
The BLS provides a significantly lower number, listing the average salary for paralegals in 2015 at $48,810
Because of the large range of salaries a paralegal could possibly earn, it's important to understand that how much an individual paralegal makes is contingent on many variables.
Factors such as background, job performance, type of employer, and area of law all impact how much an individual paralegal can make.
In fact, it is possible for an experienced paralegal working in a highly specialized or technical field to make a six-figure salary.
Furthermore, a great deal of paralegal positions come with other benefits such as medical, dental, life, and disability insurance, paid time off, and company-matched 401(k) or IRA accounts.
As an added bonus, many employers also provide tuition reimbursement or pay for classes and seminars.
The Future Is Paralegal
The legal industry has seen a radical shift in the way legal services are delivered in the past several years.
Lawyers no longer have a monopoly on the law.
New laws are opening doors for paralegals to perform a wider range of tasks than ever before.
For example, paralegals can now represent clients in administrative hearings, providing direct services to the public by preparing legal forms or drafting wills.
In fact, some entrepreneurial individuals have even launched virtual paralegal firms that support attorneys in all practice areas.
As paralegals change the way law is practiced from the inside out, they will serve a vital role in controlling the costs of legal assistance and making access to legal help equal and equitable.