It often feels like deciding what profession to go into morphs into some overbearing weight pressed upon your shoulders. It’s understandable to second-guess yourself. Multiple marathons of Law and Order or The Good Wife may have fueled your interest in becoming a paralegal, but now it’s time to learn a little more about the profession before making any snap decisions.
You’ll be happy to hear the paralegal profession is growing, boasting a faster-than-average job outlook at a 17 percent increase between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. It’s a good time to become a paralegal, but to quell any concerns you may have, we enlisted a couple of professionals who have experience working in the field. They shared with us some quality pieces of advice they wish they were given before becoming a paralegal.
But first, let’s cover the basics …
What does a paralegal do?
You’ve likely done some research on your own but it’s always beneficial to have all of your information in one place. Put simply, paralegals exist to make attorneys’ lives a little easier.
So what does a paralegal do? Basically whatever the supervising attorney assigns. This can include assisting attorneys during trials, organizing case files, preparing trial notes, performing legal research, preparing legal briefs and sometimes conducting client and witness interviews.
Paralegals are generally detail-oriented, organized and efficient. Because duties can vary greatly based on the size of the firm or the supervising attorneys, they must also be very adaptable and must either enjoy the organizational aspect of the job, or be willing to dedicate themselves enough to excel at it.
Starting out as a paralegal
Becoming a paralegal can look very different from one person to the next. Take our two experts, for example. Haley Myers, legal assistant at Lift Brands, Inc., always knew she wanted to go into a legal profession but she tried out multiple majors at two different colleges before officially earning her degree.
“I ended up finishing in four years with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, a minor in psychology and a paralegal certificate,” Myers says. Prior to that, she tried her hand at majoring in athletic training, accounting and mathematics.
Greg Schuster, a paralegal at Morelli Alters Ratner, took a slightly different route to becoming a paralegal. He was very interested in a law career in college and considered becoming a lawyer, but he wasn’t convinced he’d enjoy it. That uncertainty made him hesitant to make the significant commitment to attend law school at the time.
“A paralegal’s daily tasks are not that exciting,” Schuster admits. “The reason the job is valuable is because it exposes you to the more exciting work in the office that’s often handled by attorneys.”
Schuster browsed his school’s career website and learned that many law firms hire recent graduates as paralegals for a few years. “Those one to two years are a great opportunity to learn about law and decide whether or not you want to attend law school,” he says.
The education needed to become a paralegal can take anywhere from one to four years, depending on your chosen path. Some decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree while others pursue an associate degree in the field. And if you’ve already earned either degree in a different field, a paralegal certification program is designed to provide you with the precise knowledge base you’ll need on the job without requiring multiple more years of schooling.
One of the purposes of higher education is to prepare students for what life will be like working in their chosen professions. Paralegal students will learn there are many perks to becoming a paralegal. Being able to help others is rewarding and the increasing salary and job outlook is tough to ignore. Not to mention you’ll have the opportunity to dip your toes in the pool of legal professions, getting a taste of what it’s really like.
What to expect as a paralegal
A paralegal degree will provide you with the skills needed to succeed in the field, but there will always be a host of things you won’t learn until you’re on the job. We asked our two professionals to share with us those things they wish they had known before becoming a paralegal.
Schuster urges future paralegals to either have tremendous organizational skills or to be prepared to develop some. He explains there is an overwhelming amount of documents and filing that paralegals are responsible for and being exceptionally organized will make this a lot easier.
“A paralegal’s daily tasks are not that exciting,” Schuster admits. “The reason the job is valuable is because it exposes you to the more exciting work in the office that’s often handled by attorneys.” He says he’s enjoyed being assigned some of those more exciting and substantive projects on occasion.
Myers’ work as a paralegal has been expansive. Her professional experience has run the gamut from law firms both big and small, large companies and the government. She agrees with Schuster in saying she was surprised by the amount of administrative work and filing that goes into the job.
“I would definitely recommend a job-shadow to be sure becoming a paralegal is what you want to do. I would also recommend looking into different types of law,” Myers says. The wide array of courses she took in school prepared her to venture out into different sectors of the paralegal field.
Professional paralegal potential
Both Myers and Schuster found full-time positions straight out of college. Today, Myers works with general and senior counsel on various projects, drafts real estate documents, works with franchise compliance and works directly with the real estate team to make sure all legal obligations are met.
“I never thought I would want to work in-house at a big company, but, as it turns out, this has been my favorite job,” Myers says.
Schuster says working as a paralegal at a midsize plaintiff’s firm has reaffirmed his desire to become a lawyer. He plans to spend two more years as a paralegal at a different firm to build a broader foundation of experience before going back to law school.
Paralegals play an integral role in a firm’s success—every document filed, every interview conducted and every ounce of research collected matters. You might find that the profession is just the right fit for you. On the other hand, you may discover that working as a paralegal holds the potential to propel you to achieve further career dreams.
The paralegal profession was dubbed the most underrated job in 2011, but it may be a first-rate career for you. Not only will it help you support your family, but it will challenge you intellectually and provide you with valuable personal and professional experience to reach your long-term career goals.
The insight from these two industry pros should answer many of your lingering questions about becoming a paralegal. But there’s always more to learn!
Find out more about what you need to succeed in this field and in others like it by downloading Rasmussen’s Criminal Justice Career Guide.