I Want to be a Paralegal ... Now What?
The idea of working in the legal field has long been at least a little intriguing to you. You’ve always been drawn in by the captivating courtroom dramas and legal documentaries found across our media landscape, but until now, actually taking the steps to becoming a legal professional hasn’t been on your to-do list. After learning more about the work of a paralegal and how it compares with becoming a lawyer, you’re starting to feel the itch to make it happen. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of paralegals to grow by 12 percent from 2020 through 2030 and reports that the 2020 median annual salary for this role was $52,920.1
While these factors may have provided you some additional clarity in the direction you’d like to take your potential legal career, you still need to learn more about the path ahead of you. So, what comes next for those who’ve decided they want to become a paralegal? In this article we’ll provide the information you need to move forward with becoming a paralegal.
What does a paralegal do?
Before we get too far along, let’s make sure you understand the role of a paralegal. Unlike attorneys, these legal professionals are not front-and-center in courtroom proceedings. But don’t let the lack of spotlight fool you—they still play a critically important role as they assist attorneys with key legal prep work that extends beyond the courtroom. According to the BLS, paralegals are typically responsible for the following:1
- Investigating the facts of a case
- Conducting legal research
- Organizing and maintaining documentation
- Gathering and arranging evidence and legal documents for attorney review and case preparation
- Report writing and summarization
- Drafting correspondence and legal documents
- Obtaining affidavits and other formal statements that may be used as evidence
- Filing exhibits, briefs, appeals and other legal documents
- Scheduling interviews, meetings and depositions with key case participants
While the specific daily duties of a paralegal will vary depending on the employer and the type of work they focus on, you can see from the list above that the work of a paralegal often involves setting attorneys up for success.
What skills do you need to become a paralegal?
Now that you know more about the typical duties of a paralegal, a good next step is to identify the skills you’ll need to be successful. While you can probably make some educated guesses based on the list above, it can also help to see which skills employers are specifically seeking. To do this, we’ve used analysis software from Burning-Glass.com to evaluate more than 87,000 paralegal job postings.
Here are some of the top skills employers are looking for from paralegal candidates:2
- Legal documentation
- Microsoft Office®
- Legal document composition
- Legal research
- Case management
- Customer service
- Document management
- Customer billing
- Administrative support
- Trial preparation
This is a role that draws on several key foundational skills as well. Paralegals need to be strong communicators, well-organized, attentive to detail and comfortable navigating online legal research systems.
What education is needed to become a paralegal?
As you review the paralegal skills above, chances are you were able to mentally check off a few boxes—and that’s a great start! Next you’ll want to determine how to best get up to speed with the rest of the skillset employers are seeking.
If you’re wondering if you’ll need a college education—you’re most likely correct. Most states have no legally mandated minimum education requirements to meet in order to work as a paralegal and employers are free to hire whomever they please. That said, they often seek out candidates with college experience. According to the BLS, most paralegals have an Associate’s degree in paralegal studies or a Bachelor’s degree in another field paired with a paralegal certificate.1
This means you have options depending on your educational background. If you’re starting at square one, the online Paralegal Associate’s degree program at Rasmussen University can have you prepped for paralegal success in as few as 18 months.3 If you already have an unrelated Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, the online Paralegal Certificate program at Rasmussen University will provide you with a highly focused option for rounding out your legal skills that can be completed in as few as eight months!3
These programs include coursework covering topics like Legal Writing, Family Law, Legal Ethics, Civil Litigation and more. These courses are designed to provide you with a well-rounded foundation of legal skills employers love to see.
Does paralegal experience matter?
Like with nearly any job, employers are going to prefer candidates with quality, relevant work experience to their name. But that doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck as a would-be paralegal looking to get their start in this field—after all, those experienced candidates had to start somewhere, too!
Aspiring paralegals may want to pursue internship opportunities or part-time work in an administrative role at a law office to help get themselves established. This provides an opportunity to interact with attorneys, get a feel for the pace of work at a law office and just develop a general comfort level within this workplace. Combine that experience with knowledge, a positive attitude and a professional demeanor and you’ll have a strong recipe for success.
You now have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of this career and what it takes to get started. This knowledge should help you go from saying, “I want to be a paralegal” to saying, “I’m on my way to becoming a paralegal!”
If you want to make that statement a reality, it’s time to take the next step! Visit the Rasmussen University Paralegal program page to learn more about how our flexible, fully-online offerings can help position you for a new career in the legal field.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed August, 2021] 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.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 87,361 paralegal job postings, Aug. 1, 2020 – Jul. 31, 2021).
3Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
Microsoft Office is a registered trademark of Microsoft, Inc.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in July 2015. It has since been updated to reflect information relevant to 2021.