What is Paralegal?
A paralegal is someone who is specially educated and trained to perform work requiring knowledge of legal concepts, but who is not fully qualified as a lawyer.
Responsibilities of a Paralegal
The paralegal is generally retained as part of the support staff in most law firms or as a direct assistant to a single attorney. Having a paralegal allows the attorneys to deal with the execution of legal matters while still being able to take care of secondary responsibilities behind the scenes. Both “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are generally synonymous terms in course descriptions and job listings.
Origin of the Paralegal Profession
The paralegal profession originated in the 1960s during the “War on Poverty.” The aim was to provide quality public legal services to a broader cross section of the population who, until that time, had been under-represented due to socio-economic conditions. It was not long before the concept was adopted in the private sector as many law firms and private companies began recognizing the benefits of having qualified support staff to assist or act as a liaison with retained legal services.
Training and Certification
State laws vary on the certification criteria for a paralegal. Some states simply require state certification while others require a bachelor’s degree in pre-law as a prerequisite for certification.
Paralegals spend their time helping lawyers carry out a wide variety of tasks. Some paralegals simply keep up with the paperwork that attorneys carry around, while others perform actual research. The exact duties that are carried out depends on the lawyer a person works for. To enter into the occupation of a paralegal, a person will need to go through paralegal training. There are many community colleges and universities that offer such programs.
Going to School to Become a Paralegal
When it comes to being a trained paralegal, there are several educational paths for a person to choose from. For starters, an associate’s degree in this line of study is available as well as a bachelor’s-level degree. And while a master’s can be obtained through some schools, most law firms don’t require their paralegals to obtain such a degree. In fact, with this much schooling, a paralegal could legally be allowed to take the BAR exam and become an actual attorney, which would pay significantly more money.
Earning Certification as a Paralegal
If a person doesn’t want to earn a formal degree to become a paralegal, there is always the option to become certified. Certification can usually be obtained in less amount of time than a degree takes to earn; however, when it comes to employment opportunities, a person will benefit the most from an actual degree.
Online Paralegal Degrees
If a person is interested in becoming a paralegal, it should be noted that the proper training to do so can be completed via the Internet. There are many schools that offer online paralegal programs, with the most of them leading to the earning of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Sometimes, it is even possible to earn a master’s paralegal degree online.
Benefits of an Online Degree
Online degrees have their advantages. They allow students to complete their required coursework from anywhere that has an Internet connection. In doing this, students are enabled to be at home with children and/or tend to their work duties. Most online paralegal programs can be completed in anywhere from 15 to 48 months depending on the type of degree being earned. A higher level degree will of course take longer to earn; however, the job opportunities accompanied with a higher level degree far outweigh those available with only an associate’s degree.
When a student chooses to take part in an online paralegal program, the coursework completed will focus on the following topics:
- Intellectual property
- Civil litigation
- Criminal law
- College algebra
- Dispute resolution
- Bankruptcy law
Finding the Best Paralegal School
In today’s job market getting a career in the field studied at college is getting harder and harder to accomplish. As a result when studying to be a paralegal, it is necessary to go to one of the best schools to give an extra boost on the resume. There are some things to look for in a potential college that will make it stand out.
Accreditation is important. In this case it really is about who you know. Such big names as “Ivy League” schools stick out in almost everyone’s minds. While you may not be thinking about such a high end college even state universities and community colleges are often accredited. Attending a school that is not can lead to a harder job search down the road.
Look into job placement ratios at the school. Ideally the school should have a really high job placement in relation to graduates. If there is a lower or mediocre ratio, consider looking at other colleges. Many schools now have staff designated to help with the job search after completing a degree in the paralegal field. In addition to this, find a school that will help find and support a good internship program.
Ultimately, after a few “musts” the best school is really based on personal preference. Make sure the cost is affordable and you enjoy the atmosphere of the school; enjoying school is the best way to learn the most that you possibly can. Find a school with a good accreditation and you will be well on your way to a great paralegal career.
Getting the Right Education
Paralegals work alongside lawyers on a regular basis. As a paralegal, you’ll conduct important research to help attorneys build a case for a client. You’ll scour books, research websites, and even look through legal dictionaries while you try to find information. Additionally, you might be responsible for bookkeeping at the legal firm you work at, which includes billing clients and processing payments.
Education for Paralegals
Perhaps one of the most important parts of becoming a paralegal is seeking the appropriate training. Unlike many office jobs, becoming a paralegal requires training ahead of time. You’ll need to learn about different legal dictionaries, how to research for cases, and even the important cases throughout history that you may come across in your work.
Paralegals typically choose to pursue certificates of paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Your decision will be based primarily on how much time you want to put into your degree, how much training you want, and whether you want to have a specific specialty upon your graduation. While many paralegals are satisfied with a certificate, especially if this is their secondary career path, others choose to go all out and earn a bachelor’s degree in their field.
Pursuing a career as a paralegal is an incredibly rewarding decision for many young adults. Paralegals have the opportunity to work in close conjunction with lawyers on legal cases without the need to attend several years of law school.
Paralegals may choose to pursue a degree in Paralegal Studies or may opt to simply earn a certificate. While a B.A. in Paralegal Studies certainly offers more in-depth and specialized training for paralegals, many young legal assistants choose to pursue a certificate due to time restraints, convenience, and the cost. Additionally, many paralegals may earn their educational degree online rather than attending in-class lectures as a way to earn their certification more quickly and on a more convenient schedule.
Paralegals may work in a number of legal fields, including real estate law or even family law. The type of law you choose to learn about as a paralegal will vary based on your personal interests and career goals. Paralegals with a high interest in family law, for example, may enjoy working with an adoption lawyer.
Paralegal Job Description
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegals (also known as legal assistants) typically assist lawyers by investigating facts for cases, conducting research on laws and regulations, compile and organize data, write reports and documents, collect affidavits and other formal statements and assist lawyers during trials.
Specific duties can vary depending on where the paralegal works. Paralegals who work for smaller firms have more varied tasks, and will often assist a lawyer with all aspects of a case. In larger law firms, paralegals will typically only work on one specific part of a case. Some paralegals also specialize in certain areas of law, such as litigation, corporate law, personal injury, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law and real estate.