How to Become a Paralegal

How to become a paralegalParalegals assist lawyers in preparing for depositions, meetings, and court trials by performing a variety of tasks related to the documents that are needed to research and complete a case. Attorneys turn to the services of paralegals in order to meet the increasing demands of documentation and take on more complex cases. In addition to creating new documents, a paralegal might conduct original research; be responsible for organizing documentation from opposing counsel, physicians, and law enforcement offices; and also accompany an attorney to court to provide support during the trial.

What is a Paralegal Degree Program Like?

Paralegal programs are available at the certificate, two-year, and four-year level. Schools generally require that applicants have a high school diploma or GED. Two-year and four-year programs might ask that applicants also have standardized test scores for the SAT or ACT. During your program, you may take classes such as:

  • Legal writing
  • Civil litigation
  • Common law jurisprudence
  • Criminal law
  • Legal ethics
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Contracts
  • Tort law
  • Advanced legal research

While some paralegals begin their career simply by getting a job at a small legal office, this is becoming much less common as the technical skills required for paralegals increase. Most employers ask that paralegals have completed at least a certificate program or two-year degree program. Some ask that paralegals have a four-year degree and a paralegal certificate. Those who have a four-year degree in a field related to the type of law practiced may be able to secure a job and then complete a certificate program after they are hired.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

When a paralegal works in a small legal office, they might be the only paralegal and work directly with the attorney. In larger offices, paralegals work as part of a team of paralegals, and there is often a managing paralegal. The manager is responsible for ensuring that all work is assigned and milestones are met. Paralegals may give presentations to an attorney or groups of attorneys working on a single case to give their findings.

Paralegals typically work in office environments. However, they may need to work long hours, including weekends, when a trial date is approaching. They may also need to travel within a local area to conduct research. Paralegals can advance their career by specializing in a particular area of law, such as international law. Paralegals might also take management positions not only in law firms, but also corporations and local, state or federal government.

Ready for Practice: Paralegal Employment Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for paralegals are projected to grow about as fast as average in the coming decade. The top five states with the highest paralegal employment rate are California, New York, Florida, and Texas. In 2011, paralegals earned a median annual wage of $46,730, while the bottom 10% earned $29,390 and the top 10% earned $75,400. The highest paying states for paralegals included the District of Columbia, California, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois.

With the growing complexity of laws, both national and international, professionals involved in legal affairs, from attorneys to governments, will need paralegals to provide support. Learning how to become a paralegal can be the beginning of an exciting new career in law.