How to Become a Paralegal: 4 Steps to Start Your Legal Career
You’ve watched enough episodes of Suits to understand that paralegals are far more than just assistants to lawyers. These professionals are well educated in the law and are an integral part of the legal team. Attorneys couldn’t do their jobs without hard-working paralegals on their side!
The world of laws and courtrooms has always fascinated you. Becoming a lawyer would take too much time and money. But how long does it take to become a paralegal? This legal career is just as appealing to you—and it requires less training than becoming an attorney.
We’re here to answer all your questions about a paralegal career, from “What does a paralegal do all day?” to “How to become a paralegal?” Read on to discover if this legal career is right for you!
What is it like to be a paralegal?
First, let’s explore more about what it’s like to have a paralegal career. Paralegals are jacks-of-all-trades in the legal field. They’re responsible for administrative duties like setting up meetings with clients and witnesses, research-based tasks like investigating relevant laws, and writing projects like drafting legal correspondence or reports.
The daily work of a paralegal largely depends on the type of employer they work for. The majority of paralegals work for law firms—but there are many types of law a firm can specialize in. You could find yourself researching contract law, preparing to go to trial for a criminal case or working with families going through divorce and child custody proceedings.
Some corporate paralegals may work for an in-house legal team at one company rather than serving many clients at a law firm. State and local governments also employ paralegals to work on their legal teams. Regardless of the type of employer they work for, most paralegals can expect to carry out their job duties in an office or occasionally at court, all while meeting deadlines and staying in touch with clients and attorneys.
How to become a paralegal in 4 steps
There are several steps you can take to give yourself a strong start to a paralegal career. We spoke with attorney Jason Savarese of Savarese & Associates, PLLC to find out more about the path to becoming a successful paralegal.
1. Brush up on the necessary skills
Succeeding as a paralegal takes more than technical legal knowledge and research skills. They also need certain soft skills to do their jobs well. These are qualities and characteristics you may already have in your arsenal!
These are some of the soft skills Savarese has found essential for paralegals:
- Attention to detail: Small details matter greatly in the legal field. Paralegals should have a sharp eye for detail as they spell clients’ names, fact-check and proofread documents and research relevant laws and past cases.
- Highly organized: There’s lots of paperwork (both physical and digital) in the legal field. “[Lawyers] really value a paralegal who is able to lend a sense of structure to their cases and offices/procedures,” Savarese says. Paralegals must stay organized so they can prepare and plan ahead for the documents that will be needed in any given situation.
- Research abilities: Research factors heavily into a paralegal career. According to Savarese, attorneys value working with paralegals who can dive into the research and find answers independently. “While my door is always open for questions, a paralegal who first makes a serious effort to exhaust every resource they can think of often finds that they need not ask for help.”
Even if these characteristics don’t describe you to a T, there’s no reason you can’t start working toward improving them even before you officially enter the field. If you’re dreaming of becoming a paralegal, brushing up on these skills now can give you a head start in the field later.
2. Pursue a paralegal education
Paralegals have the option of pursuing two different education paths at Rasmussen College: an Associate’s degree or a Certificate program. Which one you choose will depend on the level of education you already have under your belt. Although neither of these education paths is technically required to work as a paralegal, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shares that most paralegals hold at least an Associate’s degree.1
The Paralegal Associate’s degree program at Rasmussen College will prepare students to work in the legal field, as well as round out their education with improved writing, research and critical-thinking skills. It’s designed for students who don’t already hold a degree in another field, and it can be completed in as few as 18 months.2
The Rasmussen College Paralegal Certificate program, on the other hand, is intended for students who already hold an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. Even if your existing education is unrelated to the legal field, this program will get you up to speed on the specific paralegal skills you need in as few as eight months.2
3. Gain experience working in the legal field
There’s a lot of experiential knowledge to be had in the legal field. While an education is important to fully prepare you for this career path, there are some things that must be learned on the job. “Get a job in a law office as a part-time secretary, runner, or any other role,” even before you’ve graduated, advises Savarese. This will give you firsthand experience working in a law firm and learning about the workflow of a paralegal.
If you can’t find an entry-level legal position, you could also try volunteering in a law firm or asking to shadow a paralegal for a few days. Savarese adds that shadowing at different law firms can also give you perspective on the various ways firms are run, which can be helpful when you apply for your first paralegal job.
4. Boost your resume with paralegal certification
Earning a paralegal professional certification—not to be confused with the Paralegal Certificate program—is an optional step that shows employers at a glance that you’ve achieved a high level of competency in the field. It’s not a requirement, but you might choose to take a certification exam after you’ve graduated so you can say you’re a “certified” paralegal and make your resume stand out to employers.
The Certified Paralegal exam is administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and consists of two parts: a knowledge exam and a skills exam. The Rasmussen College Paralegal studies curriculum is designed to academically prepare students to sit for this exam, so you’ll be able to approach it with confidence.3
Ready to pursue a paralegal career?
Now you have some answers to your burning questions about how to become a paralegal. You’ll need to put forth some effort to earn a career as a paralegal, but you can see that this legal career isn’t as intimidating as you once thought.
What are you waiting for? The sooner you get started on your degree, the sooner you can begin your work as a paralegal. Learn more about your options through Rasmussen College’s Online Paralegal Certificate or Online Paralegal Associate’s Degree programs.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed August, 2020] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
3Rasmussen College will reimburse the application fee for each first attempt of all of the industry certification exams for which you qualify to take. Should you need to take an exam more than once to receive a passing score, you will be responsible for all subsequent exam application fees.