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What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal works as an assistant to practitioners of law. A paralegal degree assists individuals by educating them in the various functions of a paralegal, as well as the law itself. Paralegals are tasked with researching cases, filing information, summarizing studies, and constructing notes. A paralegal cannot perform certain functions, such as set rates or consult clients, sign forms or appear in court, but they are necessary for the analyses and review of material. Many paralegals will specialize in a particular area of expertise, further differentiating them from lawyers who are required to have a much broader understanding of the law and its various components. Paralegals may research case law for legal precedents that may be relevant to the case, obtain sworn statements from associated parties in the case, drafting legal documents, along with being tasked to keep information organized for the attorney-of-record.
Educational Requirements for Paralegals
Degrees for paralegal studies begin at the associate level, with bachelors and masters degree programs available to interested students. Individuals wishing to pursue an education as a paralegal may do so through their local community college, taking on a two year curriculum that provides the basic skills necessary for employment in a law firm and the ability to perform one's duties without issue. Higher levels of education are primarily for specialization or in depth legal expertise.
A curriculum in paralegal studies may include:
- Legal Research and Writing
- Introduction to Law
- Contract Law
- Ethics and Professional Responsibility
How to Become a Paralegal
In order to become a paralegal, you will need to meet a set of minimum standards and employment qualifications. NALA has established a set of (7) standards for paralegals that include:
- Graduation from an ABA approved program
- Successful completion of the Certified Paralegal examination
- A baccalaureate degree in any field with at least six months training as a paralegal
- Graduation from an accredited paralegal program with at least 60 hours of classroom credit hours
- Paralegal course completion plus at least six months of in-house training as a paralegal
- At least three years of job experience under the direct supervision of an attorney with a minimum of six months training as a paralegal
- A minimum of two years training as a paralegal
Top Skills of a Paralegal
A recent survey performed by the U.S. Department of Labor of paralegal professionals revealed the top skills required for the profession. The top five skills listed in the survey include the following items:
- Communication – the ability to understand both written and oral communication from associates and clients.
- Legal Knowledge – the breadth and depth of legal information including legal documents, legal codes, precedents, court procedures, agency rules, government regulations, and the like.
- Clerical Duties – knowledge of clerical processes such as word processing, transcription, office procedures, managing files, and legal terminology.
- Computers – ability to input and store critical information about cases and legal proceedings.
- Customer Service – keen sense of customer needs and ability to meet & exceed these needs in order to achieve a firms overarching goals.
Do You Need a Degree to Become a Paralegal?
The short answer is that you do not need to have a college degree to become a paralegal. At minimum, you will need to earn a certificate in paralegal studies from an accredited college or university. While the majority of paralegal programs are degree programs, you may elect to earn a paralegal studies certificate as well. The paralegal certificate program is a 18-24 credit hour program indented to provide students with the essentials to step into an entry-level paralegal position with little to no general education college courses. Classes for the paralegal studies program may include classes such as:
- Introduction to Paralegal Studies
- Civil Practice
- Tort Law
- Legal Research and Legal Writing
- Criminal Practice
- Foundations of Law
- Real Estate Law
It is important to distinguish between the paralegal undergraduate certificate program mentioned above from the post-baccalaureate certificate program. The initial certificate program for a paralegal is designed for students just out of high school or working professionals looking to make a career change with no prior experience in the legal field. On the other hand, the post-baccalaureate certificate program for paralegals is for students who have already earned a college degree that includes foundational general education classes like philosophy, English composition, sociology, and math. These courses provide students with the tools to think about the work differently and provide the academic launching pad to take upper-level courses from a number of different areas of study.
A post-baccalaureate certificate for paralegals can range from 18 credit hours to 45 credit hours depending on the program and school’s curricular design. For those industry professionals working on this type of certificate, it is often motivated by pending job opportunities and professional development. In turn, the post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate program will most often carry substantive weight to employers as they are seen as a beneficial step in the career of a paralegal.
Top Paralegal Degrees
Paralegal Certificate Programs. A number of accredited colleges and universities offer paralegal certificate programs that span from 18-45 semester units. The programs that are longer will typically include general education and core paralegal classes, akin to associate level degree programs.
Paralegal Associate Degree Programs. An associate degree program for a paralegal will often be offered 2-year community colleges, 4-year colleges, and select business schools. Students will need to complete sixty to seventy semester units to earn an associate’s degree. The curriculum for an associate’s degree will be a combination of core legal courses plus general education classes.
Paralegal Bachelor Degree Programs. Four-year colleges and universities offer a variety of paralegal degree programs including a bachelor’s degree track in paralegal studies, a minor in paralegal studies, as well as a concentration of paralegal studies within a declared major. Depending on the college or university, the bachelor degree program will be around 120 semester units with around half of the units being in legal studies and associated classes.
Paralegal Master's Degree Programs. A handful of accredited colleges offer a master’s degree program in paralegal studies or Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.) degree. These upper-level courses will fuse together philosophical, theoretical, and historical law with real-world applications. Programs will often leverage government, finance, international business, business, and technology sectors to ensure relevance and applicability for students and practitioners.
Employment Opportunities for Paralegals
Though it is not required to obtain a certificate or degree in paralegal studies in order to obtain work as a paralegal, there are some distinct advantages. As with most jobs, an educated individual tends to edge out otherwise equally qualified applicants; additionally some employers may require a degree, widening the opportunities for individuals who have taken the time to study. Individuals with degrees tend to have higher annual salaries and are more likely to find opportunities for promotion. An individual with a paralegal studies degree may return to school and pursue a law degree.
Paralegals are essential to the operation of a law office. A lawyer's time is precious and must be utilized efficiently. A lawyer bogged down by research, or attempting to locate pertinent files or writing summaries will be unable to best serve his or her clients interests due to the lack of attention given to the overall case. A paralegal fulfills that role by sifting through mountains of information and noting any relevant sections, going through case histories to locate related rulings, searching records for files and materials needed, and more. By conducting these tasks the paralegal frees the attorney or attorneys he or she works for to focus their attentions on the client and the case as a whole.
Paralegals may specialize in a particular area of law, providing knowledge, information, and services related to that field. By choosing a specialty a paralegal may increase his or her effectiveness by accumulating knowledge and experience operating with a particular area of the law, and conducting tasks with greater efficiency due to the more narrowed focus. Paralegals must take the time to research and study their specialization, often taking courses specific to the specialization in order to familiarize themselves with their new area of focus.
Here are some paralegal specializations:
- Criminal Justice
- Family Law
- Labor Law
- Real Estate
- Personal Injury
How Much do Paralegals Make?
The overarching goal of a paralegal is to assist lawyers and attorneys perform legal research pertinent to an upcoming case or project. What a paralegal can make will depend on the size of the law firm and scope of their job responsibilities coupled with their geographic location. That being said, the national median income for a paralegal is just under $50,000 a year. A paralegal salary will depend on the geographic location and company as some law firms incorporate variable compensation into the equation that can drive compensation much higher than average. Additionally, medical and dental benefits that are paid by your employer are considered compensation and NALA reports that nearly all paralegals receive full or part of their health insurance premiums paid by their employer. A list of important national statistics for paralegals can be found below for reference:
Top States of Employment for Paralegals
- California 29,190
- Florida 24,430
- New York 22,210
- Texas 22,120
- Pennsylvania 10,800
Top Paying States for Paralegals
- District of Columbia $76,260
- Alaska $66,950
- Washington $59,590
- New York $59,300
- California $59,130
Top Paying Cities for Paralegals
- San Francisco, CA
- Rockford, Il
- Seattle, WA
- San Jose, CA
- Los Angeles, CA
- Philadelphia, PA
- Washington DC
- Anchorage, AK
- Trenton, NJ
- Dallas, TX
Salary, Job Growth and Related Legal Fields
The average salary for a paralegal is about $49,500 per year adding approximately 21,200 jobs in the coming decade. Job growth for paralegals is expected to remain steady for the foreseeable future estimated to be 6% by the BLS due to the increasing demand for lawyers as new technologies and ideas will demand the attention, interpretation and implementation of laws in order to govern them. This is in addition to the usual turnover already associated with the occupation.
Those interested in a paralegal degree may also be interested in court reporting, legal administrative assistance, or pre-law. Further research may be completed by reaching out to regional and national associations. Examples of top-tier national organizations dedicated to the professional growth of paralegals include the NFPA and NALA.