Whether you’re seeking employment as a paralegal in a law firm, the legal department of a business or a government entity, you’re going to work under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Since you will be a crucial part of the lawyer’s team, he or she will look for some important qualities and characteristics during the hiring process. While an education in paralegal studies is valuable, many lawyers are more interested in the skills – such as communication and research skills – a candidate possesses than in a specific educational background.
The Most Important Skills for Paralegals
For paralegals, your precise level of education or discipline of study matters less than the skills you bring to the table. Both the American Bar Association and the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) rank organizational skills and communication skills as two of the most crucial abilities for success as a paralegal. Like attorneys, paralegals work on more than one case at a time, often managing large inventories of legal matters, each in different stages of the legal process. Paralegals must handle the different tasks needed to advance each case, maintain case files and client contact as needed and be cognizant of deadlines, such as statutes of limitations. The communication skills required of paralegals are diverse, including skills in both speaking and writing. A paralegal must be able to understand the legalese commonly used in complex legal documents but also to explain situations in terms clients can understand.
Research is a crucial component of a paralegal’s job duties. No matter what field of law you end up working in, you should expect to perform research tasks such as finding and summarizing legal articles and identifying case law and court decisions that support the argument being made on behalf of your client. Often, investigating a legal matter falls at least partly on a paralegal. Your investigative responsibilities may range from merely requesting information, like medical records or financial statements, from an outside party to interviewing the client, witnesses and others involved in the legal matter. Because much of this research now includes accessing data in electronic formats, computer skills are important for paralegals – so much so that having strong computer skills can boost your career prospects, the BLS reported.
Legal matters can be emotionally difficult for everyone involved. Having strong interpersonal skills can help you wade through the challenges inherent in the field. The best paralegals are able to build relationships with the clients, who are often going through a challenging time. Having plenty of empathy for clients is important for developing that level of trust and for reassuring clients that their problems are understood and will be addressed. Paralegals also rely on their interpersonal skills to help them have professional and efficient interactions with others involved in the legal process – even those on the opposing side.
A paralegal should work well both independently and as part of a team. Striking a balance between completing tasks independently and working in concert with attorneys to achieve the goal of representing and protecting the rights of their clients is key.
Preferred Backgrounds for Paralegal Positions
The BLS identifies numerous pathways into the paralegal occupation. You can start with an associate’s degree or with a bachelor’s degree. You may major in paralegal studies or legal assisting, but you don’t always have to. While it’s reassuring that you have options, aspiring paralegals can become confused about which career preparation path is the best.
Generally, lawyers are looking for paralegals who have some degree of formal training in legal assisting. These programs teach students the basics of performing tasks like legal research and legal writing, and they often include some coursework in a variety of different types of legal matters. Although some attorneys will choose a candidate with an outstanding personality and a convincing expression of interest in the legal field – especially if the candidate has connections within the firm – many law firms and legal departments will give preference to candidates with formal training from a program approved by the American Bar Association.
Half of paralegals report having an associate’s degree as their highest level of education, while 34 percent have a bachelor’s degree and 7 percent pursue a post-secondary paralegal certificate.