Becoming a paralegal requires a mix of skill development, formal education and work experience. Often, aspiring paralegals meet these requirements in tandem, cultivating skills through internships and practical experience they acquire during a college program in paralegal studies. Once you gain the required education and experience, it is often a good idea to pursue some form of professional certification that will make you a more appealing candidate for paralegal jobs in your area of interest.
Develop Your Paralegal Skill Set
Having some level of formal education is common among paralegals, but ultimately, it is the skills you develop, rather than the degree you hold, that matters most. At every stage of your career preparation, from being a high school student looking at paralegal education options to being a currently enrolled student starting an internship, you should seek to develop these skills.
The core competencies required of paralegals include interviewing and investigation, legal research, critical thinking, general communication, legal writing, computer competency, organizational skills and law office management. Each of these competencies is emphasized in specialized paralegal training programs, according to the American Association for Paralegal Education – but you can and should make an effort to develop these skills through your other work and extracurricular activities, as well.
Paralegals spend much of their time working with others, such as their supervising lawyer, other law firm staff, opposing attorneys and legal teams and clients. Interpersonal skills are crucial to this role, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.
Pursue Your Education
When it comes to getting an education, paralegals have plenty of options. The BLS recognizes three different formal educational paths you can take to get started in this occupation: an associate’s degree, a nondegree postsecondary program and a bachelor’s degree. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) recognizes an even greater number of combinations of education and work experience as meeting eligibility requirements for professional certification.
Whether you start out your paralegal career with an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree or a post-baccalaureate program in paralegal studies, you’re taking steps in the right direction. Choosing a program specific to paralegal studies is often your best option, because it provides you with general and specialized coursework that is highly relevant to your future career as a legal paraprofessional. However, some students choose other majors, like criminal justice or business, as the focus of their degree and then complete certificate programs or on-the-job training to learn more about the field of legal assisting.
If you choose a program in paralegal studies, you should look for a school that has attained approval from the American Bar Association.
Gain Work Experience
As valuable as a formal education is to aspiring paralegals, there is a big difference between working in a law firm – or in the courtroom – and learning in a classroom. The experience you gain as a worker is crucial to strengthening your legal assisting skills and developing new skills. Although different law firms may have different processes and procedures in place, the more work experience you cultivate, the better your base of knowledge, especially in specialized areas of law. Although paralegals may work in a general practice law firm or switch employers to firms handling different areas of law over the course of their careers, many paralegals build their expertise in one area of practice, such as criminal defense, personal injury or corporate law.
As an aspiring paralegal, you may worry that you don’t have any work experience in this occupation to help you land your first job in the field. Many paralegals begin acquiring work experience during their education as part of an internship program. Over the course of one term or semester, at minimum, interns work in a real law firm setting and gain experience in areas like legal document drafting, client contact and legal research under the supervision of experienced paralegals and attorneys.
Besides gaining work experience to include on your resume, internships are valuable for networking and finding a mentor – which can help you acquire a full-time paralegal position upon graduating.
Pursue Your Certification
Unlike lawyers, paralegals aren’t legally required to hold a professional license or certification, according to the BLS. However, pursuing an optional certification can give you a competitive advantage in the job market by attesting to your legal assisting skills and your knowledge of the field.
NALA offers a Certified Paralegal (CP) credential that speaks to both of these aspects of paralegal qualification through a two-part examination. The Certified Paralegal Knowledge Exam portion of the test consists of multiple-choice questions that test your knowledge of numerous aspects of the United States legal system. Topics in civil litigation, contracts, corporate law, criminal law, estate planning, real estate law, torts and professional practice are all part of this exam content. In the Skills Exam portion of the test, taken separately, you complete a written assignment that demonstrates your writing and critical thinking abilities.
Not all paralegals have the CP credential. NALA puts the number of Certified Paralegals at around 19,000, just a fraction of the 325,700 paralegals working in the U.S., according to the BLS. However, this credential boosts salaries by $4,880 on average, NALA reported.