What I Wish I Knew BEFORE Becoming a Paralegal
Choosing your profession can feel like one of the most crucial decisions you will make. It’s understandable to second-guess yourself. Shows like Law and Order, How to Get Away with Murder or Better Call Saul may have piqued your interest in the legal realm, but is that interest enough to fuel a career?
Of all the potential courtroom jobs out there, a paralegal career is one of the fastest tracks you can take to your first day on the job. But the time it takes to gain the proper knowledge and training is still an investment. You want to be sure that it’s worth your time.
Take a moment to learn some of the gritty details of working as a paralegal—from the mouths of paralegals and the lawyers who hire them. Use this expert insight to help you make an informed decision.
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. What does a paralegal do? Basically, they help their attorneys keep things organized and running smoothly by doing important legal legwork.
Those duties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 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.1
“Most paralegal jobs require paralegals to work on contracts, real estate, civil lawsuits and other legal needs,” says Kirk Olson, a lawyer and instructor at Rasmussen University. “One case may require multiple areas of law. For instance, a divorce often requires a paralegal to obtain and review real estate, pension, insurance, business and estate planning documents, not just child custody studies.”
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 adaptable.
How to become a paralegal
One of the most common concerns for anyone looking into starting in this field is the amount of education needed—as well as how long it takes to become a paralegal. The path to becoming a paralegal can look very different from one person to the next.
But the BLS states that the most common educational path that leads to work as a paralegal is an Associate’s degree, which can be completed in as a few as 18 months.1,2 That said, if you’ve already earned a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree in a different field, a Paralegal Certificate program can provide you with the specialized knowledge base you’ll need on the job without requiring more years of schooling—in fact, this Certificate program can be completed in as few as 8 months.2
What to expect from the Paralegal Certificate program
This program is designed to supplement education from a different field. If you already have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in any area, a Paralegal Certificate program can give you the legal basics a paralegal needs to know while building upon the foundation of general education courses you’ve already completed.
In this kind of paralegal program, you’ll take courses like Introduction to Legal Research, Legal Writing and Law Office Management. Ethical communication, interdisciplinary awareness and emerging technology are important objectives of this program.
What to expect from a Paralegal Associate’s degree program
A Paralegal Associate’s degree program will give you an essential basis for work as a paralegal (as well as other careers) with foundational classes in English composition, math and the humanities. But the bulk of your studies will focus on skill and knowledge areas specific to the legal world and the paralegal duties within it.
Courses like Torts, Contracts and Family Law zoom in on complex subjects in the legal realm, while other courses such as Computer Applications and Business Systems Concepts, Legal Writing and Legal Research help you build the critical skill sets paralegals need.
A Paralegal degree will provide you with the skills needed to succeed in the field, but there will be a host of things you won’t learn until you’re on the job. For some additional insights, we asked paralegal professionals to share the things they wish they’d known before starting their careers.
What is a paralegal career like?
“You will work hard and long hours, but it's worth it,” says paralegal and Rasmussen University Justice Studies instructor Julia Gordon. Gordon explains that paralegals carry a lot of weight on their shoulders and every detail matters.
“There is no room for error in tracking deadlines and working with court scheduling,” says Kevin Queenan of The Queenan Law Firm, P.C. “Mentoring legal assistants, I hear the same issue every time: I did not know you meant that detail oriented!” Queenan emphasizes that miniscule mistakes can have big consequences in the legal world. Having a bad day won’t cut it as an excuse if your mistake costs the firm a case, or worse, accusations of malpractice.
Yet, Queenan points out, people with the right personality can flourish in this position. Paralegals can take jobs with varied daily tasks and experiences if that is what they are looking for. “In a general civil practice ... the legal assistant may be answering discovery [requests] one day and driving out to meet a new client the next day.”
“For those who like more structure or repetition, there are law practices involving cookie-cutter lawsuits and issues. I talked to a legal assistant yesterday, and her last position involved filing 1,000 credit card lawsuits per month,” Queenan explains.
“Don't go into the job with rose-colored glasses,” Gordon says. You might picture working in an office full of driven individuals who want to help their clients fix injustices. But unfortunately, it isn’t always like that.
“Not all attorneys are nice, and not all attorneys are ethical,” Gordon says. “Be aware of your ethical rules and guidelines and never compromise your integrity. Nothing is worth losing your self-respect over. You have your clients’ lives in your hands. Treat the position with the highest reverence.”
What is the average paralegal salary?
While not every aspect of a paralegal’s work is considered glamorous, that’s really no different from most jobs. After all, there’s a reason you get paid to work. But is that pay enough to support you and your responsibilities? That’s up to you to decide.
The median annual paralegal salary in 2018 was $50,940, according to the BLS.2 That’s $12,300 more than the national average of $38,640 for all occupations.2 This is pretty encouraging for a job that doesn’t require a Bachelor’s degree or hazardous working conditions.
Which paralegal skills matter most?
In this legal career, certain personalities and particular skill sets are better poised for success than others. If you are considering work as a paralegal, make sure you fit the bill by the time you apply.
“An effective [paralegal] must be computer savvy,” Queenan says. She adds that good legal assistants don’t overreact under pressure, are highly organized and care about the small details.
“Being kind and helpful is a good start,” Olson says. But Olson emphasizes that helpfulness won’t land you the job. “Lawyers hire paralegals because a good paralegal will find flaws in documents and assist with billing and other detailed functions that keep a law office working. A good paralegal is a ‘deadline cop’ who keeps the law firm on track.”
Olson says paralegals are expected to catch errors made by others and remind everyone of important dates. “Finding and warning of a deadline that others missed may prevent a loss of a client’s case and may save a $10,000 deductible in a lawyer’s malpractice claim,” Olson adds.
All that detail checking includes spelling and grammar. Olson says paralegals correct citation mistakes, grammar errors and other inaccuracies. Fine-tuning your writing and editing abilities is vital for success as a paralegal—that, as well as technical proficiency.
“A person considering becoming a legal assistant should take the highest level of available training on Word, WordPerfect and Westlaw,” Queenan says. “A technologically proficient [paralegal] will wow their lawyers more often and command a higher salary and raises.”
How to stand out as a paralegal
If you are mentally checking off some of those skill boxes—that’s a great sign. While detail-oriented professionals with strong writing and computer skills are important in this profession, there are ways to stand out even more.
Queenan recommends seeking training in client interactions, etiquette and communication skills since presenting a professional image to clients is incredibly important. Pay close attention to verbal slip-ups—no one wants to hear their legal help sounding careless. You want to make sure you are representing yourself, your clients and, ultimately, your practice as best as you can. This includes being able to communicate in a professional manner.
Additionally, Queenan suggests learning more about research materials on the internet. “We are suing a major manufacturer, and my legal assistant found several articles that were helpful to our lack of warning claims. The information was free!”
Olson suggests asking for examples of finished case files when you take work as a paralegal to see samples of what completed and professional work looks like for that firm. “And be assertive. If something does not look right, insist that it be explained or fixed.”
Are you cut out to become a paralegal?
Paralegals play an integral role in a firm’s success. Every document filed, every interview conducted and every ounce of collected research matters.
If you’re looking for an opportunity to work in the exciting legal world you’re used to seeing on TV, the paralegal profession may be the perfect career choice for you. Not only can it help you pay the bills, but it will challenge you intellectually and provide you with valuable professional experience to reach your long-term career goals.
These expert insights should answer many of your lingering questions about becoming a paralegal. If you're thinking this is the career for you, take a closer look at the paralegal programs that can help you get there. The Rasmussen University Paralegal Certificate and Associate’s Degree page can explain more of how to get your legal career underway!
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed March, 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.
2Time to completion is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each quarter.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020. Expert insight remains from original version.