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How to Become a Paralegal

paralegal

How to Become a Paralegal

Most people who are interested in law already know that lawyers can specialize in many different areas. Well, so can paralegals! Depending on the program, paralegals may take any number of elective classes that deal with different aspects of law. When they enter the field as working professionals, paralegals generally seek employment with law firms that specialize in the types of law that interest them the most or in which they have prior experience through internships.  Here are just some of the ways students seeking paralegal careers can specialize when they graduate.

Getting into the law sector is something that many strive for, and there are different options depending on preferences. One of these options is becoming a paralegal, an important role that entails assisting lawyers with various tasks. It’s a good option for those who want to get into law but don’t want to go through 4 years of college to earn a degree. You may be wondering how to become paralegal. The following are steps and guidelines to explain how to become a paralegal.

First, it is necessary to determine what a paralegal does. A paralegal, or legal assistant, helps lawyers with conducting research for cases, drafting letters, getting important documents organized, and taking care of communication between the lawyer and the client.

Skills Needed to Become a Paralegal

To be a paralegal one needs to be very organized, have the ability to multi task, be at ease with using legal software and computers, and have very good communication skills.

Learning how to become a paralegal can prove to be a very satisfying experience. It allows you to test drive the law profession while not costing the thousands of dollars and time that it would take to become a lawyer. Should a paralegal choose to become a lawyer however, they will be that one step closer by having the work experience necessary.

Whatever route you choose to follow on your journey to become a paralegal, you will certainly find that reaching your goal of becoming a paralegal was an excellent decision.

Different Paralegal Careers:

Litigation Paralegal Careers

Because litigation attorneys work with lawsuits and court cases, a litigation paralegal career can be exciting and heavily involved in trials. A litigation paralegal will spend a great deal of time before a trial interviewing witnesses, preparing affidavits and other documents that may serve as testimony, and sifting through records for evidence. Litigation paralegals may attend trials with the attorneys they work for to help them with courtroom tasks like setting up exhibits, going through trial transcripts, and interviewing jury members. When a case is settled out of court, a litigation paralegal will help the attorney prepare the necessary settlement paperwork in accordance with the terms of the agreement.

Constitutional Law Paralegal Careers

Students who are interested in contemporary and hard-hitting issues being debated right now may find a perfect fit in the field of constitutional law. Law firms that deal with cases involving civil liberties, human rights, privacy, gay rights, and workplace discrimination rely on paralegals to research these cases. Whether you dream of helping to protect the NRA’s right to bear arms or working for the ACLU on freedom of press issues, paralegals involved with constitutional law cases can make a real difference in the world.

Immigration Paralegal Careers

Immigration is another aspect of law that is always being debated and constantly changes with the political climate. An immigration paralegal must stay current with all new legislation about how people may legally enter, work in, and live in the U.S. Immigration paralegals interview clients about their specific circumstances and help them secure necessary documentation like visas and green cards to maintain legal status.

Real Estate Paralegal Careers

Anyone who has ever bought or sold a house knows how much legal legwork is involved in the transaction. What most people don’t realize is that real estate paralegals do much of this work behind the scenes. Real estate paralegals draft all sorts of documents involved in selling, purchasing, and renting residential and commercial property. It’s a good idea for people who want to become real estate paralegals to have some experience in sales and finance, particularly lending.

Corporate Paralegal Careers

Instead of working for a law firm, a corporate paralegal performs similar functions for a corporation under the supervision of a company attorney. This kind of paralegal career requires skills in many areas of law, as corporate paralegals are called upon to do everything from drawing up employee contracts to keeping minutes of board meetings. They may also work on securing loans and researching how new legislation will affect the company.

Many states will not demand that a person reach a particular level of training or education. This allows quite a bit of flexibility for those thinking of taking this career route. However, lawyers are held responsible for the paralegals that work under them, so they would be the ones to regulate who they choose, in order to protect themselves and their firm. Some lawyers may require a certain amount of experience or education in these cases.

There isn’t really any one formal route to becoming a paralegal. Some will go for their associates or bachelors degree and become a paralegal graduate. Others learn through hands on experience, developing their paralegal skills through work. You can join online paralegal programs which will allow you to work through getting a paralegal certificate in your own time.

The paralegal profession itself has not been recognized outside of law firms. However, because the job entails a wide skill set, it is recognized by the judicial system, employers, and the government.

How Do I Become a Paralegal?

Discovering how to become a paralegal starts with graduating from High School with good grades. From there you can choose to obtain a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in the field of paralegal studies. There you will learn how to conduct legal research, become familiar with legal software, and other such skills. Associate degrees normally take 2 years to complete, and a bachelor’s degree can take 4 years.

There are actually 5 ways in which you can become a paralegal:

  1. Get work as a legal secretary in a law firm. This will allow you to work your way up to becoming a paralegal. While not the best option, one could learn quite a bit if they are motivated, show aptitude, and do well learning and utilizing the necessary skills. In some cases you may be offered a paralegal position in the company you have started with. In any event, this gives you the work experience that many employers require.
  2. Enroll in online paralegal programs or paralegal studies courses that require physical attendance at a paralegal school. This is actually a good option for those who need to be working while obtaining the necessary skills, especially if you are going to be making a career change. Here you will earn your certification of paralegal studies upon completion. From here you would look for an entry level position or an internship in a law firm or law office.
  3. A more effective and efficient means of becoming a paralegal is to embark on a 2 year program at a local college in order to get your associate’s degree. This option gives you a stronger foundation of knowledge and will make it a bit easier to get that first entry level or internship position.
  4. Another option would be to go for the traditional 4 years or master’s degree in paralegal studies. If you already have a college degree in a different field, you can get your paralegal studies certificate this way.
  5. Lastly, if a person has no college experience but does have certain industry, field, or technical knowledge they can often be hired by a law office to cover an expertise area that they don’t currently have available to them.

Paralegal Certification

Your next step will be to get your paralegal certificate which gives you a stronger advantage when looking for work. Quite a few programs aimed at certification are done by practicing lawyers. It also allows you to get some hands on training. Most of these certification programs take between 6 months to a year to complete.

Distance and online paralegal programs are another way to gain a certification. But keep in mind that the ABA doesn’t approve of these online programs in most cases. It would be a good idea to check whether your chosen program is ABA approved. Currently there are around 270 paralegal study programs that are ABA approved. While not a requirement to work as a paralegal, taking an ABA approved program can give you that advantage in this competitive field and it looked at favorably by employers.

Another route towards certification would be to become a member or an organization that offers professional certification. This usually requires one to pass certain exams. There are 4 of these national exams:

  • PACE – this is offered by the NFPA – National Federation of Paralegal Associations
  • PCC – also offered by the NFPA
  • CLA/CP – this is offered by the NALA – National Association of Legal Assistants
  • PP – NALS, or the Association for Legal Professionals offers this one

Finding Paralegal Jobs

Once you have finished your paralegal studies you will want to start looking for a relevant job that allows you to gain experience working in the legal environment. You may be a receptionist or clerk in a law firm for example. There are a lot of employers who want potential paralegal employees to have 1 year of working experience in the legal field. You can often find internships with law offices where you will assist another paralegal. In this way you gain hands on training from those professionals who have been in the law field for some time.

You can send your resume in to law offices and law firms, and apply for any open positions. Keep in mind that this is a very competitive field. You will want to apply for as many positions as possible.

At this stage you may want to think about continuing your paralegal education. Attending seminars and taking courses can help to advance your career. One option would be to sign up for continuing legal education courses so that you remain up to date with changes in the law field.

While there really isn’t any one path to becoming a paralegal, an employer’s requirements will vary. The more work experience and education you have, the better your chances of standing out amongst other applicants.