If you have decided that you would like to becoming a paralegal, it is time to consider your next steps. Fortunately, there are many different paths you can take to become a paralegal. Some of your options include obtaining a degree, on-the-job training, or obtaining an entry level legal position. This article will give you more in-depth information on the different options as well as information on paralegal salary, job market, and types of paralegal jobs available.
How long does it take to become a paralegal?
There is no simple answer as to how long it takes to become a paralegal because it is dependent upon the “path” you choose to pursue. For example, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in any field, you can attend a paralegal certificate program and receive a paralegal certificate in 9-12 months. If you have no prior college level education, you could obtain an associates paralegal degree in approximately 2 years or a bachelor’s paralegal degree in approximately 4 years.
While it is less common, some law firms may be willing to hire someone with no formal paralegal education and give them on-the-job training, in which case if you were hired for that position you could become a paralegal immediately. It is also possible to start working at a law firm in an entry level position such as legal secretary or legal administrative assistant, and work your way up through that law firm to a paralegal position.
Paralegal Education Options
One of the best ways to become a paralegal is by obtaining some level of formal educational training. Paralegal education will give you something to put on your resume that will help you stand out from other job applicants.
There are several options available for paralegal educational training. One is a paralegal certificate. A paralegal certificate is the quickest option and is available to those who have already received a two or four year degree in a different field of study. You can receive a paralegal certificate in anywhere from 9 to 18 months. It is also possible to obtain associates, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in paralegal studies. These programs take longer to complete, but higher degree programs give you more in-depth knowledge and allow you to study more specific legal fields.
These different certificate and degree programs are offered by community colleges, four-year colleges, and online programs. If you are looking for a traditional college experience and live close to an institution which offers one of these programs, you can simply apply for acceptance into one of those programs and attend class in-person. If you do not live close to a school that offers paralegal degrees or you are unable to commute to and from classes during the work day, you can also pursue a paralegal degree online. Online degrees offer flexibility and convenience as you can complete the work during the evenings and weekends from wherever you have an internet connection. The wide availability of online paralegal training makes education as a paralegal easier to obtain for many individuals, and especially those who are already working professionals.
Obtaining a paralegal internship is an excellent way to gain exposure to a law firm and provides more substantial paralegal experience to add to your resume. Many paralegal education programs, especially the associate and bachelor’s degrees, require that you complete a semester long internship before you can graduate. Going through a degree program which requires an internship is one of the surest ways to obtain an internship experience as your school will usually have many resources available to help you locate an internship that fits your interests and is in your area.
Internships provide very valuable experience. They can take place in a variety of different legal settings including private law firms, corporations, or insurance companies. The tasks of an intern will be different at each location, but generally, an intern works closely with a supervising paralegal or attorney as they put into practice the skills they have recently learned in their paralegal degree program. An internship can help a student develop a professional relationship with a law firm in their area and can help him or her learn about the many different facets of paralegal work. An internship will also allow you to discover what types of paralegal work you prefer, which fields of law you are interested in, and what your strengths and weaknesses are in a real world legal environment.
Some law firms will hire interns even though they are not currently part of a paralegal schooling program, but it is less common. In order to land an internship, it is important that you have a good resume and cover letter which point out your strengths, especially in areas like research, writing, and communication. Securing letters of recommendation from past employers (especially if you had a job related to the legal field such as legal administrative assistant) is always recommended. Professors are also a good source for letters of recommendation. To locate an internship in your area, you may be able to simply check your local job listings, but you could also contact you’re a local or state paralegal association to see if they have any additional resources available to those seeking a paralegal internship position.
On-the-Job Training and Entry Level Legal Jobs
If obtaining a paralegal education is not an option for you, there are still ways to become a paralegal. While it may be more difficult to obtain a paralegal job without going through a paralegal certification or degree program, it is not impossible. In most states, California being the exception, paralegals are not required by law to have any particular kind of training and do not need to be licensed or certified to practice. This makes it possible for someone to receive on-the-job training and work up the becoming a paralegal.
While it is uncommon to find a firm looking to hire a paralegal with no experience, it may be more common to find firms looking for legal secretaries, legal assistants or legal administrative assistants. If you have ever held a position which involved any type of administrative assistant or customer service duties, those may be enough experience to allow you to secure an entry level position at a law firm. While working your way up to a paralegal position may take a long time, it is a viable option if you are simply unable to attend any type of paralegal school, but it does hinge upon being able to qualify for an entry level job in any legal field.
Types of Paralegal Jobs
There are many different types of paralegal jobs as well as many different legal fields in which a paralegal can specialize. Paralegals work in private firms, insurance companies, hospitals, nonprofits, and legal departments within large corporations. In some instances a firm may only have one attorney and several paralegals, while in other cases each attorney has his or her own assigned paralegal. Some firms even have large teams of paralegals supervised by a senior paralegal or office manager.
Paralegals work for firms which specialize in many different areas including litigation, real estate, corporate law, immigration, family law, bankruptcy, environmental law, or estate planning. The specific tasks of each paralegal will differ depending on his or her seniority, experience, and the field in which he or she works. For example, a litigation paralegal may perform investigative work into a case, draft pleadings, organize trial exhibits, and assist an attorney during depositions or a trial. A real estate paralegal, on the other hand, may perform none of those tasks but instead focus on researching land use and zoning issues, preparing closing documents, and working with title companies. A paralegal degree program or internship may give you some opportunities to study the different legal fields and find out which one is of most interest to you.
For more detailed information on the job descriptions of different types of paralegals please take a look through “Paralegal Job Descriptions”.
Paralegal Salary and Job Market
The salary for any occupation varies based on several factors including experience, education level, and geographic location. If you are wondering how much you could make as an entry-level paralegal, it is important to research your local job market to find out what paralegals are making in your area. With data compiled from all around the country, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that the 2014 average yearly pay for a paralegal or legal assistant was $51,840 or $24.92 per hour. (The terms paralegal and legal assistant are often used interchangeably). The five locations in the United States with the highest annual mean wage for paralegals in 2014 were the District of Columbia, Alaska, California, New Jersey, and Washington. Bureau of Labor Statistics predictions estimate that the paralegal/legal assistant occupation will have an average job growth rate of 8% (from 2014 to 2024).
If you would like more specific information on paralegal salaries please see this article on “Paralegal Salary”.