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Becoming a Paralegal

Paralegals are professionals who provide assistance to lawyers and other individuals in the legal field. They have a broad range of functions that span from clerical and administrative, to technical. Common tasks include editing written communication and researching cases, organizing files and maintaining records, bookkeeping and preparing financial statements, drafting high-level correspondence and examining legal documents, and responding to legal questions on behalf of lawyers.

In the United States, paralegals are employed by federal, state, and local governments, and by nongovernmental offices such as law firms and nonprofits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) places paralegals under occupational classification 23-2011, which is shared with legal assistants. The BLS reports that while there are more than 275,000 paralegals employed around the country, the demand for their services will continue to grow by at least 15% through the year 2020. Paralegals are not to be confused with legal secretaries who, although immersed in the same environment, are not as trained in law and legal procedures. Although many of them have attended law school, paralegals should not also be mistaken for federal law clerks, judicial law clerks, and clerks of court.

If you are interested in a career as a paralegal, and feel that you have what it takes to excel in the profession, it’s best to understand the demands of the job and the qualities needed to stand out. Even with the number of jobs in the field increasing, individuals without the required education and experience will see opportunities pass them by due to high competition.

Continue reading below to learn about the basic steps required to become a paralegal:

Step 1 - Meet the Minimum Requirements

There are no uniform set of standards for paralegals. Within civil service, federal, state, and local governments typically have different requirements. Within the private sector, screening and selection criteria differ from one firm to another.

  • Be a US citizen.
  • Demonstrate strong moral character and have no felony convictions.
  • Qualify for and maintain high level security clearance.
  • Pass a background check, urinalysis, and polygraph test.
  • Possess strong organizational and communication skills.

The rationale for the maximum security clearance is that paralegals assist in the research, drafting, and transmittal of highly sensitive legal documents, many of which contain matters of national or international consequence. In light of this, aspiring federal paralegals (also called paralegal specialists) must demonstrate strength of their character (no felonies or misdemeanors) and be of sound mind (no behavioral issues). All candidates will be subjected to thorough background investigations, where their personal and public life will be scrutinized (credit history, work experience, driving history, and the presence of drugs in their system).

State and local governments have relatively lenient standards in comparison to the federal government, but many states will require applicants to undergo a series of character and personality checks. Another common requirement is residency within the jurisdiction for a minimum number of years.

Private organizations, such as law firms and insurance companies also have varying recruitment criteria. Where some require entry-level paralegals to have considerable experience in a related field, or academic training in law, others are willing to accept inexperienced applicants who hold an advanced degree in a relevant area.

Step 2 - Obtain a Degree or Relevant Experience

The easiest way to become a paralegal is to obtain a post-secondary education in law. In fact, it is common for many paralegals in top-notch law firms to have attended law school; some are even law school graduates waiting to take the bar.

Relevant undergraduate programs include bachelor's degrees and associate degrees in paralegal studies, legal support services, criminal justice, justice administration, and public administration. Foundation courses include the American Legal System, ethics in criminal justice, constitutional law, the U.S. Criminal Justice System, criminal law, civil law, contracts, legal research, legal project management, law office management, litigation technology, among others. Electives include human resources management, managerial accounting, human resources management, database administration, computer literacy and applications, public speaking, and specific practice areas in law (e.g., civil rights, consumer law, employment law, family law, and international law).

While enrolled in a degree program students also develop soft skills that are important to their future success. Soft skills are an often overlooked benefit of earning your degree, but they are vital nonetheless. Fostering interpersonal relationships, understanding diverse cultures, working in collaborative environments, responding to pressure, and honing your problem solving abilities are all skills that are developed over the course of your education- and needed in the workplace once you are hired.

Step 3 - Apply for a Position

Paralegals are in high demand, though it may not seem that way when you first start looking for open positions. It is common within the industry for open jobs to go unannounced, which makes it challenging for some candidates entering the field (if they are ill-prepared). That said, any person who is truly suited for the job, should have strong research and communication skills, which makes the process of finding open jobs a relatively simple task. For those who lack the confidence to reach out directly to HR departments at private firms or government agencies, it is possible to work with a job placement professional who will assist you with finding open positions.

For newcomers, it is wise to meticulously review your application and any other communication you submit for consideration to ensure that you stand out for all the right reasons. Any cover letter, résumé, or supporting documents must be completely free of errors (spelling or grammatical) and lodged in the manner prescribed by the application rules. Don’t underestimate the negative impact of submitting a poorly written cover letter or resume. Remember that the documents you submit speak volumes about your professionalism and approach to work- all before you have an opportunity to make a case for yourself in person (the interview).

Step 4 - Complete On-the-Job Training

Candidates who are offered employment following the interview phase are often hired on conditional terms, which is commonly referred to as a “probationary period”. This is a common practice in any industry, not just in the legal system. During this phase, employees are provided with on-the-job training that familiarizes them with the organization and its policies, and employers are given the opportunity to closely scrutinize the work of the employee with an option to terminate at any time. It is common for employers to schedule frequent reviews with the employee during this time, so that both parties are clear about quality expectations and process. For paralegals, this means that a substantial part of their initial training may be spent performing clerical work, although it is not unusual to be assigned to casework immediately.

Step 5 - Pass the Certified Paralegal Exam

Career advancement for paralegals involves taking the Certified Paralegal (CP) Exam, which is administered annually by the National Association of Legal Assistants. Eligible candidates must meet the standards issued by the American Bar Association (ABA). These standards include completing of any one of the following: a certificate program in paralegal studies from an ABA-approved school that provides a minimum of 60 semester hours dedicated to legal instruction; an undergraduate degree in paralegal studies; a post-baccalaureate course in paralegal study. The CP Exam tests candidates on analytical ability, communications, ethics, judgment, legal research, and substantive law.

Paralegal Jobs & Job Description

Paralegal jobs consist of tasks that are supportive to the law case in question and can be performed by someone not fully qualified as a lawyer.  The type of work performed will often vary depending on the specialty of the employing law firm, however most paralegals will find that these tasks fall within the regular scope of their duties:

  • Curate client file lists and report to lawyers
  • Maintain client damage lists
  • Meet with clients to obtain status updates and complete documentation
  • Request documentation from various stakeholders
  • Prepare affidavits of documents
  • Prepare discovery plans
  • Request and produce Schedule ‘A’ documentation
  • Review and summarize medical records
  • Request and review transcripts
  • Draft pleadings and correspondence
  • Prepare for trial
  • Maintain and operate bring forward system
  • File motions
  • Interview clients
  • Prepare retainers
  • Research upcoming court cases
  • Complete purchase contracts and disclosures

With several years’ experience, an individual may be promoted to senior paralegal status; a role that has an increased scope of duty that mostly centers on management of personnel and complex cases.  While jobs do vary from practice to practice, the role is often as follows:

  • Understand Supreme Court and Small Claims rules
  • Understand Court registry procedures
  • Familiar with the Motor Vehicle Act, and claims procedures
  • Read, write and speak professional English
  • Prioritize and adapt to changing client and partner demands
  • Superior interpersonal and judgment skills
  • Draft responses and documents
  • Handle routine business calls
  • Meet statutory deadlines
  • Assist lawyers
  • Prepare affidavits of records
  • Format and circulate bylaws, council reports and agreements

Paralegal Salary Information

Paralegal Salary Information by State

United States$25,310$31,400$39,270$50,010$61,420
District of Columbia$32,150$36,290$47,690$60,770$73,940
New Hampshire$32,990$36,020$41,930$51,870$82,570
New Jersey$32,270$39,480$47,420$58,140$70,540
New Mexico$26,970$31,930$39,620$47,170$56,810
New York$28,170$34,700$44,550$56,100$66,270
North Carolina$31,840$35,690$42,410$51,240$62,230
North Dakota$39,580$42,970$48,430$55,790$61,760
Rhode Island$26,680$30,130$34,760$39,870$53,420
South Carolina$25,320$30,220$35,960$43,490$52,290
South Dakota$26,880$31,180$35,480$40,500$46,380
West Virginia$22,090$25,370$28,780$33,840$40,760
Puerto Rico$16,560$18,160$26,130$33,430$44,440

Table data taken from 2014 BLS (