Paralegals are the assistants at law firms who help with various administrative and legal duties. Most paralegals research the law for lawyers and help draft legal documents a lawyer will need for their cases. At the same time, paralegals organize and maintain all the legal files that are in a law firm. Paralegals may work in a typical law firm environment or work for large corporations, which often employ legal departments to help with internal or external legal issues.
Since a paralegal is an integral assistant and partner to lawyers, their academic and professional training is quite high compared to other assistants in similar industry sectors. If a student or person is interested in becoming a paralegal, they should follow the unique professional routes that can help them toward their goal of paralegal employment.
1. Decide on an Educational Path
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegals have several opportunities to invest in academic enrichment toward a paralegal career. One of the more basic paths is to enroll in an associate’s degree program in paralegal studies. Most of those degree programs are available at community colleges. Some 4-year colleges provide bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies as well. If one already has a baccalaureate degree, there are master’s degree or certificate options in paralegal work. Many programs may offer an online paralegal degree as well; helping working professionals work while they earn their education. Whichever path one chooses, try to enroll in a program that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Like law schools, paralegal programs are reviewed and verified by the ABA as meeting the highest quality standard of paralegal learning. The BLS states that, as of May 2012, there are 270 ABA-approved paralegal programs across the country and across education levels.
2. Content of Paralegal Curriculum
Any program, like an online paralegal degree, will focus on the daily operations of paralegals. Conducting legal research and properly citing and writing down legal code is an essential skill that is learned in most paralegal classes. In addition, classes on forms of law are taught, such as property law, tax law, constitutional law, criminal law, and business law. Besides those classes, basic computer classes are also recommended in the curriculum as many paralegals will need to use the computer for administrative and research purposes. Other classes may include public speaking, college-level mathematics, business leadership, and college-level research skills.
Internships are proving to be integral assets for paralegals and many academic paralegal degree programs will offer internships in the curriculum. Internships will give the student practical experience working at a law firm or a corporate office. The experience gives the student the chance to apply what they learn in school to a workplace environment. Arguably, such an experience will benefit the graduate when they enter the paralegal job market.
Many law firms or corporate offices will desire candidates who may have training in the paralegal field. However, the BLS notes that some organizations may hire a person and then train them in paralegal work because of the candidate’s experience in a particular field. Say the candidate has worked in a tax office before and a law firm focused on tax law hires this candidate because of their tax experience. The law firm will have to spend some time training the candidate, but the candidate had previous professional experience in the field. The best rule of thumb is to have some administrative work experience, experience in the similar field of law as the law firm or corporate office, or have internship experience.
Certification is professionally optional according to the BLS. Certification is provided by organizations like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Association of Legal Professionals (NALS). Certification is awarded to a candidate who meets education and experience prerequisites and pass a specific certification exam, like the Certified Legal Assistant certification. Having these certifications could be helpful to a paralegal graduate who wants to stand out from competitors.