If you’re in the paralegal profession, you probably already know that it’s an important role of the American criminal justice system. Paralegals, aka legal assistants, assist lawyers with much of the background work for cases. Depending on the state, paralegals often do nearly all the work that lawyers do. This includes doing legal research, filing cases and organizing them, interviewing, creating trial notes and legal briefs, drafting paperwork (including pleadings and contracts) and more, but not giving legal advice, presenting cases in court, setting fees and signing documents and other tasks that state laws permit only lawyers to do.
The work can be rewarding for the right type of person, in the right environment. If you’re planning a career as a paralegal, or you already are one but want to achieve the most you can out of the profession, read on. Maybe you want to work on cases or a paralegal niche that is more interesting, get a promotion, better benefits, get work done faster, or recognized for the work you do. We’ve put together a list of tips that may help you get started towards some of these goals. Use what suits you now; keep the rest in mind for later.
1. Upgrade Your Education: Paralegal Degrees
Taking a few courses, participating in forums and keeping up with legal news will only get you so far. Advancing your paralegal education formally typically will increase your career opportunities. Depending on where your paralegal career is currently at, there are several options for a formal paralegal education: associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree. (Consult the Web pages of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Paralegals for additional information about the education and promotion of this profession.)
Typically in the United States, you need to complete at least a two-year associate’s degree to practice as a paralegal, although some firms in some states may employ people to do paralegal work without a certificate. Certification itself generally requires a two-year associate’s degree, though it’s possible to complete a certificate program in a year to a year and a half. Alternately, if you decide to combine a bachelor’s degree and a paralegal certification, it could then take you four years to become a paralegal. In other combinations, you can complete a bachelor’s and a certificate in a total of five years.
Getting a bachelor’s or master’s degree relevant to paralegal work can increase your opportunities and pay scale. Keep in mind that if you’re employed by a firm (as opposed to being a contractor/freelancer), your employer may be willing to cover some or all of your tuition. If you’re working while completing a bachelor’s or master’s paralegal degree, you may be fortunate to find a mentor at your place of employment (or online on a professional social network). If your work schedule is tight, consider online paralegal degree options.
2. Get Certified
While it is possible to do some work in the paralegal profession without certification, the likelihood of being hired by a firm to a salaried position is lower than if you’re certified. Getting certification from NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) or another organization is key to being hired full-time as a paralegal. This is the experience you need, should you later decide to become a contract paralegal. NALA certification should not be confused with a certificate of completion that might be issued from the college that awards you a paralegal degree. Getting proper paralegal certification is done through NALA’s Certified Paralegal Program (or that of another organization), which requires successfully completing the CPE (Certified Paralegal Exam). Upon successful completion of the CPE, your designation is CLA (Certified Legal Assistant), sometimes referred to as CP (Certified Paralegal). See NALA’s examinee handbook/application Web page, which has all the relevant links that you will need.
3. Understand the U.S. Legal System
It should go without saying, but the more you understand the American legal system, court protocols, deadlines, statutes, the more qualified you are to handle more than just legal administrative work, if this is your interest. This sort of knowledge is also valuable should you eventually decide to be a freelance paralegal. While you do not need to know as much as a lawyer might need, keeping up to date on trends in the legal system is worthwhile. Start with the Law Library of Congress, as well as some of the other resources mentioned later in this list.
4. Develop the Right Qualities
Doing paralegal work means interacting with many different types of people – lawyers, other paralegals, witnesses, clients, experts and more. So it takes certain qualities for a person to thrive and succeed in this profession. Some of these qualities include attention to detail, diplomacy, team spirit, a structured approach to completing tasks, Arguably some of the more important qualities are being ethical (especially adhering to confidentiality rules), being detail-oriented, being able to work under pressure, able to multi-task, being diplomatic and being a team player (discussed below).
If you do not have these and other necessary qualities, you can develop them. Archive.org has one of the classics, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in personal development books in a readable format online. The book’s main points are summarized in a PDF on the Sacramento State website, as well as summarized in five slides (PDF) on the Penn State site. The Market Index site also has free PDF copies of this and four other popular/classic personal development books that may be of some value to your career.
5. Be a Team Player
In the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” one of the key points is that people are interested in what *they* need. Lawyers, whom all paralegals work for, typically need team players. Winning a case can be critical for clients, and with all the details surrounding a case, it sometimes takes several people working together. The lawyer(s) you work for will also rely on you to keep them organized, do sometimes tedious but essential work for cases, and deflect negative opinions of them from other people (clients, witnesses, experts). It’s also important to keep your own opinions to yourself and, if you cannot be diplomatic, at least be neutral. Being able to anticipate what a lawyer needs is plus. If you know that a lawyer you work for will need a document, some information, or a reminder of a pending deadline — do not wait to be asked; deliver the item in question or reminder ahead of time. In short, paralegals need to be team players. It may be a cliched saying but it’s no less relevant.
6. Get All the Experience You Can
Being a team player increases the likelihood that you will get the opportunities to gain the experience you want as a paralegal. Use work assigned to you as opportunities to learn whatever you can about the profession, develop every skill you might need, at least to a rudimentary level. Every paralegal is new to the work at one time and you will be no different. Learning on the job is normal and expected, so do not be afraid to ask questions where appropriate. Take the answers you get and put in the extra effort to learn. Keep track of what you are learning and what you still want to learn. (See entry #15, about tracking personal goals.)
7. Stay Updated: Paralegal Blogs
A degree and paralegal certification will give you the grounding, the actual work gives you practical experience, but there’s always something new to learn — trends, changes in laws, new software and more. Professional development for a paralegal, as in other professions, is an ongoing effort. Even experienced paralegals can occasionally learn something new. Following blogs is often a low effort way to keep up with developments in a profession. For paralegal blogs, we’ve filtered through nearly eighty, assessed them based on posting recency and two unrelated ranking systems to give you a top-ten list to start with.
- The Paralegal Society
- The Estrin Report
- The Paralegal Mentor
- The Empowered Paralegal
- The Researching Paralegal
- Paralegal Blaw Blaw Blaw
- Pamela the Paralegal
- The Paralegal
- Paralegal Associates
8. Stay Updated: Keep a Good Reference Library
There are more than just blogs to keep your paralegal knowledge updated. For books, litigation paralegal Jenny lists the top five books for paralegals on her blog, and you can find other similar lists by searching online. There’s also Paralegal Today magazine, and Indeed.com’s paralegal forum. Some of this content may even be available in digital formats for tablet computers and ebook readers
9. Know the Paralegal Job Market
At a 17% expected growth rate in available jobs between 2012 and 2022, the outlook for Paralegal and Legal Assistants is higher than average for the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – including higher than the average for all legal professions. This 17% translates to an expected increase in 46K new jobs in this profession during that time period. This type of work had a 2012 median pay rate of just a bit under $47K/year, or about $22.59/hour. ONet ONline shows a slightly higher median rate for paralegals for 2014 of $23.24/hour or over $48.3K/year. In both cases, this is median pay. Some firms pay much higher for paralegal work specifically (in some cases over $75K/year) and some pay less (as low as about $29K/year). It’s worth keeping updated on new niches, legal trends and how that affects rates. Don’t end up working for the proverbial peanuts — or bananas — just because you didn’t research the job market. See elsewhere in this list for resources to stay updated.
10. Develop Your Skills
As you gain experience as a paralegal, you’ll find that certain skills get further developed than others, depending on the type of work your position requires. At larger firms, it’s not uncommon that paralegals end up doing more administrative tasks. Regardless, there are some basic skills that are important to the profession, in no particular order:
- Writing and communication skills, and the mechanical ability of typing efficiently.
- Listening skills. If you do more than just legal administrative tasks, you will probably interview clients, witnesses and experts, as well as take directions from one or more lawyers.
- Diplomacy skills, which we touched upon earlier in this article.
- Networking abilities and general being able to work with different types of people.
- Research skills, which is a core part of casework preparation.
- Knowledge of and experience with research software/ systems such as LexisNexis, as well as CaseMap, LiveNote and other software. (See the “Have the Right Tools” sections, below.)
- Experience with word processing and spreadsheet software, amongst other software.
- Other technical skills — varies by firm.
- Knowledge of email protocols and etiquette.
- Problem-solving abilities
- Analytical skills
- Critical thinking
- Time management and organizational skills, which are discussed in the next section.
This is for starters. If you have aspirations to becoming a paralegal manager, there are additional skills you will need, including relationship-building and delegation. Until you have a strong sense of where you want your paralegal career to go, take advantage of all opportunities to develop a broad base of basic skills and improve specifics as necessary.
11. Be organized
Arguably the most important non-legal skill you could have as a paralegal is strong organizational abilities. Even if you are at a firm where you perform more than just administrative tasks, developing organizational skills will still stand you in good stead — simply because paralegal work is detail- and deadline-oriented. Putting in the extra effort to be organized is important not just to the lawyers you work for and their clients but your own success. For example, in early 2015, it was discovered that a paralegal supplied incorrect information to lawyers at JPMorgan Chase Bank NA — a mistake that could cost the bank $1.5 billion.
12. Have the Right Tools: Desktop/Laptop Software
Software is always a boon for paralegals; in fact, some desktop applications are a must, from word processors, to PDF readers, spreadsheets, email clients and a variety of other apps that should be standard in your paralegal software toolbox. What you use will depend on your employer’s policies. For example, they might ask that you use Microsoft Office products instead of Cloud-based services such as Google Docs/Spreadsheet, to reduce the risk of sensitive information being stolen. The type of email client you use might fall under similar rules — e.g., Microsoft Outlook instead of Google Mail.
13. Have the Right Tools: Web Sites and Services
As with desktop software and mobile apps, there are far too many Web sites and services to list them all, however a few that you might find helpful are as follows, in alphabetical order:
- CataLaw – has search indices for legal and governmental information worldwide.
- FindLaw – Has legal dictionary, forms, lawyer search, legal news and more.
- Harvard Law School Topic Research.
- Law Dictionary – Alphabet-indexed search for law/legal terminology (has other topics, too).
- Law Guru Internet Law Library – Originally built for the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Law.com – has paid services as well as a variety of free tools, including search for expert witnesses and other features.
- Legal Talk Network (LTN) – Has an audio podcast series about intellectual property, technology, litigation and more, with contributors that include Boston University School of Law
- Nolo – Has legal dictionary, free and paid forms and ebooks, articles on different facets of law, and more.
- Public Legal – The ILRG (Internet Legal Research Group) offers a list of links to legal sites, not just in the USA.
- United States Courts – Has links to federal court sites, lists/search for federal courts by state and district and more.
14. Have the Right Tools: Mobile Apps
The sheer volume of available mobile apps means we can only highlight a few apps that might be of use to paralegals. Some are free; others are fairly pricey. Check with your employer to see if they have a budget for mobile apps — else you may be able to write off the purchase. If you’re a freelance paralegal, you can write off legitimate professional expenses against income as well. Check with your accountant/tax preparer in either case. Here are few mobile apps for the Apple iOS platform, specifically the iPad tablet computing device. Where possible, links are to the app’s Web profile page for the American Apple App Store.
- CLE Mobile (free) – Provides access to CLE (Continuing Legal Education) course content — over 4,500 courses available.
- Fastcase (free) – Contains searchable case info for all 50 states and federal government.
- Westlaw Case Notebook Portable E-Transcript (free) – Lets you review and annotate E-Transcripts (electronic witness testimony transcripts).
- Rulebook (free; has in-app purchases) – Provides access to a mobile law library and supports highlighting of sections. Free-book Fridays promotion lets you download a free book each Friday.
- Lexis Advance HD (free) – Provides access documents (requires subscription from LexisNexis), annotation, offline sync, alerts, remote access to files and folders and more.
- Wild About Trial (free) – Provides access to updates/news on major trials in the United States, live feeds of proceedings, facts of cases and bios of judges, defendants, etc.
15. Track Your Personal and Professional Goals
If you don’t know where you career is going, it’s probably going to slump at some point. Make a roadmap of all of your professional goals as a paralegal, as well as any personal goals that are related to the professional goals. While you could keep your roadmap as a simple list in a word processor file, something more structured, such as a spreadsheet or a mind map — or both — gives you room to develop your roadmap, add sub-goals, tasks that need to be completed towards goals, different types of date information, etc. This roadmap is for you, to track what you have accomplished, what you still need to do, and for easy updates. Tools to consider include, but are not limited to, Google Spreadsheets and XMind.net – both free in their basic forms. Be sure to look for alternatives, to suit the workflow that you prefer for a professional roadmap.
16. Upgrade Your Education – Learn Another Language
The United States is a multi-cultural country with people of many nationalities — some of whom either may not speak English or who may be bilingual but with poor English skills. Learning other languages increases the potential client base of your firm, even if you are the only person who can understand particular clients.Knowing another language can help cases in other ways. For example, a paralegal’s ability to read French helped a judge in the United States reverse a $4.25M award in a truck accident suit, where the wrong beneficiaries of the victim were initially being awarded the monies. Additionally, bilingual or multilingual abilities are in demand for court interpreter work — something might be allowed in your terms of employment, or if you are contract paralegal. Knowing other languages also expands your outlook on life in general.
In either case, certain languages are more in demand in the U.S. than others. If you’re serious about this, study US Census Bureau data to see which immigrant groups are increasing in population in your region and then determine the languages on which you might want to focus. There are many language resources that can get you started. Here are just a few:
- Memrise – 200 languages (free).
- Duolingo – 20+ languages (free).
- Lernu – For Esperanto only (free). However, learning it makes it easier to learn certain other languages by which it is influenced.
- Fluent in 3 Months – multiple languages plus learning strategies (paid).
Worth noting: Google Translate can help you with conversion between many languages, and they’ve made strong efforts not to be colloquial. In addition to this Web service is available in mobile app form as well.
17. Join a Paralegal Organization
Joining a paralegal organization gives you many extra benefits, from having a network of colleagues, gaining access to potential mentors, receiving discounts on products and services, access to special reports/ newsletters, access to workshops/ seminars and other special events — all depending on the organization in question. Yearly fees are typical, however, they could possibly be written off on your tax return form as a professional expense. Two organizations of particular interest are NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) and NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations). Both are non-profit organizations having paralegal certification programs. NALA is discussed earlier in this article. NFPA, in particular, offers the PCCE (Paralegal CORE Competency Exam) and the PACE (Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam). You will have to determine whether membership is suitable for you by researching both sites. A third organization is AAP (American Alliance of Paralegals), which exists to help members gain a “legal education and opportunity to be heard.” AAP offers discounts to members on various content/exams and services.
18. Utilize Professional Social Networks
This is the age of the Internet and it’s difficult to have any sort of career without some use of social media networks. While some networks might be time wasters, if you’re already an organized person, you can learn to control the amount of time you spend. On the positive side, social networks can be valuable to you in many ways.
As a full-time paralegal, being registered on a professional network such as LinkedIn means that you can join groups for paralegals with local, state and national members, learn about relevant events, have a support group, and learn about career opportunities — for starters. If you’re a contract paralegal, a professional network is even more valuable to you as a potential source of client leads, if you know how to leverage the LinkedIn publishing platform. Finally, if you decide to continue your paralegal education in the future, both LinkedIn and Facebook can be useful for connecting with classmates, teaching assistants and sometimes professors — something to consider especially if you decide to take your classes online.
19. Pick a Paralegal Niche
After you have gained some general paralegal experience, you might find yourself preferring one niche over another. If you decide that you want to work in a specific niche, Rasmussen College has a helpful breakdown of several top paralegal niches, which we summarize here:
- Corporate paralegal
- Estate planning & probate paralegal
- Family law paralegal
- Immigration paralegal
- Intellectual property paralegal
- Litigation paralegal
- Real estate paralegal
These are by no means the only paralegal niches but are amongst the largest by caseload. Other niches include entertainment, tax law, trademark/patents/IP, Human Resources, SEC, bankruptcy, healthcare and several others. Paralegal Alliance discusses some of these paralegal niches as well. Which niche you choose obviously depends on both your interests and the work that is available to you. If you cannot find paralegal work in the niche you want as an employee, consider being a freelancer/contractor.
20. Contracting/ Freelancing
Being solely a contract/freelance paralegal is actually common, though it may also be possible to contract on the side in addition to being employed somewhere full-time — if your employee terms allow you to do this. Either way, contracting means that you have to take care of all of your own salary deductions (taxes, 401K, health insurance, etc.) as well as likely have to sign new confidentiality agreements for every case with which you assist.
While it means that vacation or sick days are days that you will not earn anything, there are the typical benefits that you get working for yourself. The full list of benefits is beyond the scope of this article, but it includes being able to work from home, being able to legitimately write off certain expenses, having the flexibility to choose what type of paralegal work you want to do and the firms you want to work with, teaming up with other paralegals or hiring your own team, taking on multiple clients, working extra hours if you feel like, etc. Typically, freelance/virtual paralegals work from their own office, whether that’s from home or somewhere other than clients’ offices. Check labor laws in your state. If you spend a significant portion of your time at an attorney’s office, you might be classified as an employee by your state’s labor board.
21. Improve Your Opportunities: Have a Job Search Plan
If you feel it’s time for a new paralegal opportunity, whether because you feel you’ve reached the limit at your present position, or because you want a change, create a job search plan. If you’ve already picked a paralegal niche that you are interested in, make sure you know both your relevant skills and experience as well as what you still have to learn. Return to your professional roadmap for reference, to determine any skills upgrade you may want to complete. Develop a job search plan, including scheduling time for researching potential employers, going through interviews, putting together references and so on. If you’re in a state where an employer does not need a reason to fire you, be extra careful how you conduct the search. Use your own time and do not use company assets to conduct your job search. Also check out salary sites, such as the following, for information on what you might expect for a compensation range:
22. Improve Your Opportunities: Know the Market, Part 2
When you start searching for new opportunities, keep in mind that paralegal job titles vary. So make sure that you do not limit yourself to searching for just “paralegal” or “legal assistant.” Some possible job titles are as follows:
- Legal Assistant
- Litigation Assistant
- Judicial Assistant
- Legal Document Specialist
- Title Clerk
- Legal Services Specialist
- Legal Analyst
The first four are common within law firms. The rest are typically paralegal job titles for non-law firms and government agencies. There are other titles, which also depend on the industry in question. Another opportunity that may be available to you, depending on your experience level is not so much niche-based but task-based — that of a paralegal manager. This role entails typical management tasks, plus training of new paralegals. Consider your professional goals as part of your job search plan.
23. Improve Your Opportunities: Change Employers
Finding a new job is not like shopping for some average consumer product. It’s more like shopping for a new home. You will hopefully be there for some time, so you need to make sure that you consider all your options. To get you started, we’ve put together a set of Web sites/pages where you can find legal/paralegal job postings. In addition to the paralegal listings for sites like
- Filcro Legal Staffing
- Hire Counsel
- Legal Association Career Network
- Martindale-Hubbell Career Center
- NFPA Career Center
- Paralegal Jobs Network
- Special Counsel
- Washington Post Paralegal Jobs
- Linda’s Paralegal Resources
Spend some time researching potential employers before you spend your valuable job search time on applications. You may find that the kind of paralegal work that you want to might not be available at a particular firm, company or agency. Or you might find the *perfect* employer, through research on their website, with information that is not as apparent in a job listing.
24. Improve Your Opportunities: Move to Another City
If you’re reading this list in sequence, by this point you’ve possibly picked a paralegal niche to focus on. Sometimes, the job opportunities that you’re seeking are just not available where you are – especially if your interest lies in a small niche. If you’re the adventurous sort who does not mind moving to another city, you may find far greater opportunities elsewhere than where you are now.
Areavibes.com provides their ranking of major cities and towns around the United States. This includes overall ranking, jobs, housing, education, crime and other factors. Google Maps will stand you in good stead to create custom maps of locations of interest. For real estate, check out Trulia, Zillow and Redfin, depending on whether you want to rent or buy. For scouting a potential city/town to move to, Airbnb might be of some for short-term accommodations if you don’t feel like going the hotel route.
25. Upgrade Your Career: Become a Lawyer
At some point, you might realize you are one of those people who has achieved all they want out of a paralegal career and that you’re really interested in being a lawyer. Or this might always have been the case, but for your own reasons you spent time first as a paralegal. The salary of a lawyer is much higher, of course — lawyers had a 2012 median salary of just over $113.5K/year ($54.58/hour). However, the flipside is that lawyers have more demands, more pressure on them. There is extra stress, as well as an additional commitment of time and expense to completing a law degree, plus the increased competition for jobs. (At 10%, estimated job growth between 2012-2022 for lawyers is several percentage points lower than for paralegals.)
Whatever your reasons, if you decide that you want to become a lawyer, here is a summary of the steps typically followed:
- Complete a bachelor’s degree, which takes four years.
- Write the LSAT (Law School Admission Test).
- Apply to law schools, wait to be accepted, then enroll.
- Complete law school, which typically takes three years, achieving a doctoral or professional law degree.
- Complete the bar exam in the state in which you want to practice. (In some states, you will take a Multistate Bar Exam (MBA).
- Submit a personal evaluation that includes a check for background, credit score, traffic fines and more.
This site has several articles listing various top paralegal degree programs as well as some law school lists (check navigation links from the home page), with more to come. In particular, look at Top 50 Locations for Lawyer Jobs, which might help you shorten the list for law schools to which to apply. Also consult the site Criminal Justice Degree Hub.
If you’re employed by a firm, they may be willing to pay some or all tuition costs towards you becoming a lawyer. At the least, they may be willing allow you some flexibility in work schedule in order for you to take courses. If you cannot afford the commitment (or negative cash flow) of studying full-time, there are part-time degree options at some schools as well.