How to Start Your Career as a Paralegal

Paralegals work as legal assistants to lawyers, helping with research and client interaction. Discover how to start your paralegal career.

While there are many overlaps between being a paralegal and a lawyer, both are completely different professions, with their own education requirements. It is much easier to become a paralegal versus a lawyer. Paralegals do not require as much education and training as a lawyer. The biggest difference between the two is a lawyer must complete law school and pass the bar. Because of this, lawyers are allowed to directly represent clients in court.

Paralegals are sometimes referred to as legal assistants. The exact responsibilities vary depending on the firm, but typically paralegals are expected to perform research for trials and hearing, collect court documents, draft legal reports and meet with clients. Many lawyers also include paralegals in courtroom proceedings. Paralegals can also be hired by clients who are representing themselves to provide advice, but they cannot speak on behalf of the client during the actual proceedings.

Career Differences Between Paralegals and Lawyers

While the main difference between paralegals and lawyers is the ability to represent clients in court, there are several other small differences. Paralegals focus much more on administrative services, such as filing court papers and requesting documents. In comparison, lawyers specialize in understanding the letter of the law and arguing for their clients. As a result, paralegals are much more knowledgeable about how the court operates, but less familiar with individual laws.

Paralegals have much more flexible schedules compared to lawyers. Lawyers typically dedicate their entire day working on one or two cases, with minimal interaction between the client. Paralegals spend much more time meeting with clients. In many cases, the paralegal acts as an intermediatory between the lawyer and client, taking all the information presented by the client and providing the relevant details to the attorney.

Requirements for Becoming a Paralegal

The requirements to become a paralegal greatly vary depending on the firm. Because it is an important position, many firms have strict requirements on who can be a paralegal. At a minimum, paralegals must have an associate degree, but it is common for law firms to only accept applicants with a bachelor’s. While there is a specific degree for paralegal studies, this is not a requirement to be a paralegal. Many firms accept applicants who have any criminal justice degree.

Some states allow paralegals to complete a certification program instead of getting a degree. Certification programs are shorter than degree programs. Unlike with other professions, paralegal certification is not as respected by law firms. You have a much greater chance of being accepted if you are certified but attending school for a criminal justice program.

Some law firms do not have educational requirements, but instead require all applicants to complete a skill test. Depending on the firm, you may be able to bypass some of these tests if you have a degree or completed your certification, but this varies based on the firm. There are also firms that accept students as entry-level paralegals. You do not have as many responsibilities as a traditional paralegal, but this is an excellent opportunity to get real world experience, which helps with future applications. The firm may also pay for a portion of your schooling, if you agree to work with them for a set number of years after graduation. In most cases, entry-level paralegals are paid a small salary, but some firms treat these positions as an internship.

Paralegal Salary and Job Growth

Your salary as a paralegal is largely determined by your overall experience and the firm you work for. On average, paralegals receive $45,000 to $55,000 each year, with more experienced paralegals making closer to $60,000 or $65,000 each year. Paralegals typically receive higher ways in urban areas, since these firms have significantly more cases compared to rural firms.

Previously, there were fewer paralegal jobs available. During this period, paralegals were treated as a luxury. In recent years, paralegals became a necessity for the majority of law firms. Most clients prefer to work for a firm employing paralegals because it is more affordable. In the past, lawyers charged much more because they were performing all of the research and filing now performed by a paralegal. Many paralegals eventually go on to get a law degree and become lawyers, while others get jobs within the court system.

  • Keiser University

Keiser is one of the top schools for paralegals. The university offers a Bachelor’s of Arts in Legal Studies, which covers numerous skills useful for both lawyers and paralegals. Some of the main skills include alternative dispute resolution, advanced litigation and law office technology. The program also promotes critical and analytical thinking. In addition to paralegal jobs, the program prepares you to work as a legal consultant for businesses and government services.

  • Duke University

Duke is a highly respected college, with options for a criminal justice degree as well as paralegal certification. Whether you get a full degree or complete the online certification program, you must also pass the Essential Skills for Paralegal course. This course provides everything you need to know about legal research, ethics and the differences between state and federal courts. Because it is such a prestigious school, you have a much greater chance of getting hired as a paralegal even if you only complete the certification course from Duke.

  • Liberty University

Liberty University has an extensive law program, with available for an associate, bachelor’s or even doctorate in criminal justice. It is also one of the first schools to develop an online curriculum to complete your Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies. In addition to teaching students how to research previous cases and legal issues, the course covers family, constitutional and criminal law procedure.