Paralegals provide comprehensive support to lawyers and legal teams in a variety of specializations. Aspiring paralegals can take several paths to begin their careers. This guide covers how to become a paralegal, including degree and certification options.
Essential Career Information
- Assistant Paralegal
- Legal Aide
- Legal Assistant
- Summer Associate
- Summer Law Clerk
What Is a Paralegal?
Paralegals assist lawyers and legal teams, providing research, administrative, and organizational support. Paralegals are often responsible for writing reports, drafting correspondence with clients and colleagues, and helping to gather evidence for legal cases. Since most lawyers follow an "electronic discovery" policy by law, paralegals must know how to use technological and computer systems for filing and organizing documents and collecting data.
Paralegals typically gain a formal education through an associate degree at an accredited college or university. Aspiring paralegals can also earn a bachelor's degree in legal studies or a related field to increase their competitiveness in the job market, though they will often need a paralegal specialization or certification. Some employers hire applicants without a paralegal degree and train them on the job.
The paralegal profession suits professionals with excellent communication, organization, and research and technological skills. Paralegals enjoy strong job prospects — the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 12% increase in paralegal jobs through 2028.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals perform many duties to support lawyers with legal casework. These duties typically require a combination of research, written and oral communication, and data management skills. The day-to-day responsibilities of paralegals vary depending on the employer, as larger employers tend to hire multiple paralegals who focus on specific phases of casework, while smaller firms and law offices may hire a single paralegal to support all aspects of a case from start to finish.
Lawyers require the assistance of paralegals to prepare and present trials and hearings in a courtroom; however, paralegals spend most of their time in offices. They often interview witnesses, gather evidence, file exhibits and briefs, and help lawyers review trial transcripts for cases. Many paralegals assist lawyers who specialize in a particular area of law, such as personal injury, bankruptcy, or immigration law.
Several national associations award professional certification for paralegals who specialize in various areas. Examples include disability paralegals, who assist lawyers in litigating workers' compensation and social security disability claims, and family law paralegals, who work with child support, custody, and prenuptial agreement cases.
Legal Assistants vs. Paralegals
Essentially, paralegals and legal assistants differ in title only. The core function of both occupations is to assist lawyers in researching and collecting data for case materials.
Some sources mistake legal assistants for legal secretaries, which adds to the confusion behind the titles. Paralegals and legal assistants work alongside lawyers to conduct research and collect data for case preparation, while legal secretaries focus on preparing legal documents under the supervision of a paralegal or lawyer. Paralegals and legal assistants need a higher degree and more specialized training than legal secretaries.
How to Become a Paralegal
An associate degree is the most common educational path for aspiring paralegals; however, many paralegals pursue higher degrees or certification to advance their careers. Though uncommon, some employers provide on-the-job training for entry-level paralegals who don't have education or experience.
Paralegals looking to specialize in an area of law can pursue additional training through a postsecondary certificate program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Intended for graduates with an associate or bachelor's degree, paralegal certificates provide intensive, career-oriented coursework in legal writing, computer software and applications specific to law, and legal research.
While an associate degree is the field's most common education requirement, some employers hire candidates with a paralegal certificate. Students can often enroll in a certificate program through a vocational school, community college, or four-year university. Some ABA-approved law schools offer accredited certificates alongside associate and bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies.
Certificate students complete core coursework on topics like business law contracts and torts, civil litigation, legal research and writing, and paralegal ethics. Most paralegal certificates take roughly two years to complete, though some schools offer accelerated completion options.
Associate Degree Programs
An associate degree is the most common requirement among paralegals. An associate degree means students can access degree options through a variety of community colleges, four-year universities, and business schools across the United States. It is worth noting that aspiring paralegals should pursue paralegal degrees; a legal studies degree is related, but will require additional specialized training to qualify graduates for paralegal positions.
Paralegal associate programs include both general education and law courses and typically comprise 60-70 credits. General education courses cover topics such as English, math, and writing, while legal courses examine topics like business law, civil litigation, and computer technology. Most students graduate within two years of full-time study.
Bachelor's Degree Programs
While paralegal bachelor's programs are limited in U.S. schools, an increasing number of employers prefer or require a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. Most bachelor's degrees comprise 120 credits and take about four years of full-time study to complete.
While some schools offer ABA-approved paralegal bachelor's degrees, many students earn a bachelor's in an unrelated major and pursue a certificate in paralegal studies for career training. During a bachelor's in paralegal studies, students take classes on topics like law office management, alternative dispute resolution, and court and judicial administration.
- The Best Online Paralegal Bachelor's Programs
- The 25 Best Bachelor's in Legal Studies Degree Programs
Master's Degree Programs
Though uncommon, some paralegals advance their careers by earning a master's degree in paralegal studies, sometimes called a juris master or master of jurisprudence. Most master's in paralegal studies students focus on a highly specialized area of law.
Students must complete roughly 30 credits, typically graduating within two years of full-time study. Coursework explores topics like the American legal system, legal research and writing, and contracts and torts. Some schools offer optional concentrations on topics like commercial law, real estate law, and immigration.
Professional Licensure and Certification
While not required, paralegals can pursue certification to advance their careers. Several national organizations offer paralegal certifications, including NALA, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and NALS. Paralegals can also pursue general credentials, such as certified paralegal (CP), accredited legal professional (ALP), certified legal professional (CLP), or professional paralegal (PP). Additionally, paralegals seeking to specialize their careers can pursue certifications in areas like administrative, bankruptcy, or corporate law.
Most certifications require candidates to hold an associate degree and pass an exam, and some certifications require professional experience. Paralegals must meet various continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials, depending on the certification.