Paralegal Career Paths: What You Should Know
You’re interested in a legal career and have a decent idea of what being a paralegal could look like. You can picture yourself working in a law firm, going through documents, communicating with clients and assisting attorneys. But when you try to imagine the career as five, ten, fifteen years go by, you might feel less certain. What does a typical paralegal career path look like? Do paralegals need to go to law school if they want to advance?
Like so many careers, the journey is easy to see in some places, and in others, it gets hard to track, buried in the forest of possible opportunities. If you are wondering how to become a paralegal and where paralegals go when they want to advance from their entry-level position, read on! We relied on expert advice as well as research from paralegal associations to give you a better map of the paralegal career path.
Paralegal career path: Common starting points
Every person makes their own path in a given career. But one way to think of how paralegals start their career path is the education requirements. These tend to sort aspiring paralegals into one of two possible tracks.
This is the first fork in the road for anyone researching how to become a paralegal—and the signpost says “Do you already have a college degree?”
If the answer is yes, no matter what field of study the degree was in, your path will most likely involve a certification program.
If the answer is no, your path will most likely involve an associate’s degree.
Skip ahead to the breakdown that most applies to you.
Paralegal career starting point: I already have a college degree
Many people decide to get into a legal career after they’ve studied and worked in another industry. And most associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs push students to develop skills like writing, critical thinking and professionalism—all essential foundational skills for paralegals.
If you have that degree on your resume already, your track to becoming a paralegal can be a little quicker. Some firms may be willing to hire you with no additional training, while others may prefer candidates who’ve completed a training or education program specific to paralegal skills.
The Rasmussen University paralegal certificate program provides a concentrated educational path that can be completed in as few as eight months, preparing graduates with the necessary knowledge to take the National Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Exam.1 Completing a relatively short program like this and earning the Certified Paralegal (CP)® credential can be a great way to stand out as you start your initial paralegal job search.
Paralegal career starting point: I graduated high school or have my GED
If you have graduated high school or have your GED, you are qualified to seek a focused education in paralegal studies. These programs are available at both the associate’s and bachelor’s degree levels. The Rasmussen University paralegal associate’s degree program can be completed in as few as 18 months, while most bachelor’s degree programs typically take four years of full-time study to complete.1
It’s important to note that there are no national requirements for paralegal education.2 The standards for what kind of degree or certificate you need are based more on what employers want to see. And that will vary too depending on the type of law you find work in, the size of the employer and the state requirements for where your employer’s practice is located.
“Paralegals can enter the industry through formal schooling, on-the-job training or a combination of both, in my opinion,” says Brady McAninch, founder of Hipskind & McAninch. McAninch explains that the Florida Bar Association doesn’t require paralegals to have college degrees or certifications, but that many employers do seek out paralegals with formal credentials and pay them better wages.
To get the very best information for your own plans, consult the state requirements where you plan to work and look at the job postings for paralegals in your area. Researching local employers will give you the best idea of what education or training program you should pursue.
Where does the paralegal career path lead after you get started?
One of the most important parts of a career choice is the advancement opportunities you can find. The role and salary you begin at is one thing—but if you know the roles and salaries available as you gain experience will be even better, you can be confident that your career is taking you where you want to be.
“There is plenty of opportunity for advancement under the paralegal career umbrella,” says Trinae Hall, director of business development at SGW Law Firm. Hall emphasizes that paralegals hone lots of valuable, transferable skills like writing, research, computer proficiency, organization and communication.
This gives paralegals choices to advance within the legal world and move into other industries if they prefer. “An experienced paralegal can find opportunities inside and outside the traditional avenues of law firms and government agencies, such as in the insurance industry or in real estate,” says Hall.
Paralegal careers often involve typical advancement paths (such as managing or taking on more ownership with client relations), but they can also involve opportunities to specialize in certain areas. The legal field is terrifically complex and expansive, and paralegals with expertise in niche areas can be a valuable asset for employers.
For an illustration of what a paralegal career path could look like, let’s take Hall’s story into account. When Hall earned her paralegal certificate, she started working as a real estate paralegal for a law firm.
“From there, I was a managing paralegal and then promoted to chief of operations & relationship manager at another firm.” Now, Hall works at a law firm as the director of business development. “As someone who has grown so much in my career since paralegal school in 2018, I can attest that your growth potential is endless.”
Where will your path take you?
So, what sounds better? Working your way up the ranks in a law firm or becoming a specialist in an area of law that really captures your passion? Would you prefer to build a relationship with one employer that grows into different roles over time—or maybe start as a paralegal and work your way into a new industry altogether?
So many possible paths can unfold from here. If you are considering the first step in becoming a paralegal, check out “What I Wish I Knew BEFORE Becoming a Paralegal” to better prepare and make sure this career has what you are looking for.
1Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
2Overview of Paralegal Certification: Paralegal Certification, Credentialing, Licensing and Having a Paralegal Certificate, NALA the Paralegal Association, https://nala.org/.
Certified Paralegal (CP) is a registered trademark of National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc.