Do you find yourself riveted by the dozens of procedural detective and litigation dramas on television every night of the week? Are you fascinated by the legal process? Do you find yourself wondering what it would be like to work in a law office?
Real life is never as glamorous as what you see on television. However, a career in the law profession can be exciting, fulfilling, and challenging, and it doesn’t even require a law degree and the mountains of student loan debt that usually come along with a law school education. Becoming a paralegal requires much less time and money, and in less time than you think you can begin work in the legal profession.
Whether you have decided on a career as a paralegal, or you want to spend some time as a paralegal to decide whether you really want to commit to law school, you should consider enrolling in an associate’s degree in paralegal studies.
What does a paralegal do?
Paralegals perform numerous legal tasks. Any list may be comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive, as the paralegal’s basic job description is “whatever the supervising attorney asks them to do.” Paralegals handle the legwork that allows an attorney to focus on the high-level and hands-on tasks that require a licensed attorney to perform.
Some common tasks for a paralegal are:
- Assisting an attorney during the trial process – For attorneys, the trial process is chaotic and full of internal and external pressures. An effective paralegal will help devise a plan, coordinate schedules, preparing witnesses, organizing relevant documents, and serving as the point-of-contact for everyone involved in the trial process – all so the attorney can focus on preparing the case and performing in the courtroom.
- Preparing legal briefs – For most cases, the legal brief is straightforward enough that the paralegal will prepare the draft, to be approved by the lawyer.
- Organizing case files – This may seem like the most mundane of a paralegal’s tasks, but is arguably the most important. Lack of organization at any stage of the legal proceedings can cost time, money, or even the case. A paralegal must have meticulous organizational skills and a fanatical attention to detail.
- Preparing trial notebooks – Every trial attorney will extol the virtues of a paralegal that can create and manage an organized trial notebook. You would think your job is done at assembling all of the documents in a notebook and presenting it to your attorney, which is no small task in and of itself. However, throughout the course of the trial, that notebook will be used and abused. A good paralegal will keep things in neat order all the way through the trial.
- Draft legal documents and correspondence – Letters fly fast and furious in a law firm, and boilerplate legal documents shuffle across a lawyer’s desk dozens of times a day. Writing these documents and letters would eat up a lawyer’s entire day, leaving no other time for client meetings, litigation, or any other tasks that require a fully-barred lawyer. An efficient paralegal can keep these documents churning through the office and keep the cases moving along. All while keeping things organized, of course.
- Conduct client and witness interviews – for routine or follow-up interviews, a lawyer doesn’t always need to be asking the questions. In fact, it is quite likely that the client or witness being interviewed will feel more comfortable if they are “only” talking to a paralegal, rather than a big scary attorney. An experienced paralegal will know what questions to ask and what information to acquire, and will then be able to summarize and report all of that information for the attorney to review at a later date.
- Office administration – Once a lawyer trusts a paralegal, they often become the go-to staffer to get everything This means you will quickly find yourself managing other aspects of the practice outside of the active cases. Interpersonal skills and knowledge of how to run an office will come in handy here. Thankfully, most paralegal studies programs will include training on exactly this topic, so you’ll be prepared.
Clearly, a paralegal wears more than one hat. However, the skills required to manage all of these disparate tasks can be summed up with a pretty short list: organization, work ethic, attention to detail, and interpersonal skills. To be brief: a good paralegal might be expected to do just about everything.
What is the difference between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant?
As you research your career options, you may come across multiple terms: Paralegal, Legal Assistant, and less commonly, Legal Secretary. These terms are basically synonyms. The official terminology is just as fluid as the qualification process. The usage of this terminology varies by firm or agency. The National Association of Legal Assistants consider Legal Assistant and Paralegal to be interchangeable terms.
Obviously, no matter what your job title, the one privilege you won’t enjoy is the ability to give legal advice. That’s reserved for fully-licensed attorneys. However, as we mentioned above this definitely doesn’t banish you to coffee runs and filling. Whether your title is Paralegal or Legal Assistant, you will be an integral part of your team’s success.
What qualifications are necessary?
We don’t currently have a nationwide standard for paralegal qualifications, so you do not need a degree to be a paralegal. Some educational institutions offer certification programs with no educational prerequisites, while other institutions go so far as to offer an entire Bachelor’s program in paralegal studies. For individuals who are looking for a career change, a previously-earned bachelor’s or associate’s degree can satisfy the requirements for other post-baccalaureate certification programs.
Alternately, an associate’s degree program in paralegal studies strikes a balance between completing an academically rigorous program and getting you out into the workforce quickly.
If you are starting out and you are interested in pursuing a paralegal position as a first career, an associate’s degree program will give you a solid academic background, which will be more attractive to potential employees than a standalone certification program.
What qualifications you need to become a paralegal will vary by state, so be sure to do your research before you enroll.
What topics would a paralegal associate’s degree program cover?
The goal of a paralegal associate’s program is to give you a broad education to cover the most common aspects of the law, such as:
- Civil litigation
- Contract law
- Family law
- Probate administration and estate planning
Such a broad selection of topics will get you started on the right foot and provide an attractive foundation of basic law topics to help prepare you for as wide a variety of paralegal positions as possible.
Remember, all lawyers and legal departments need paralegals, so you could find yourself supporting an attorney with a relatively rare specialization. The best any degree program can do is give you a solid foundation and give you something to build on as you learn and grow in your position.
A paralegal’s value is not determined entirely by his or her knowledge of the law. Since a large portion of a paralegal’s responsibilities revolve around researching complex topics and providing concise, accurate information for an attorney to review as he or she prepares the case, research and writing skills are absolutely critical for a paralegal’s job performance. To help develop these skills, English and research classes are also a significant part of the curriculum.
Paralegal degree programs will also cover common legal office procedures and other organizational topics specific to the law profession, to help prepare you for the “other duties as assigned” portion of the job.
What is the difference between the certification and the degree?
A certification requires only a test. A degree requires courses, credits, and academic rigor. A hiring manager at a law firm will be looking for practical knowledge and proof of organizational skills, and a degree speaks to those qualities much more favorably than a certification.
Taking time for your education now can also put you in a better position to expand on your education and improve job prospects in the future. Either a certification or an associate’s degree will be sufficient for an entry-level position. How long it takes to become a paralegal depends which educational path you choose.
However, to climb the ladder to either a larger firm or to a higher-ranking position within your firm, a bachelor’s degree or even a post-graduate degree will be required. If you have your associate’s degree in hand, you are already halfway toward earning your bachelor’s degree down the road.
Furthermore, enrolling in an associate’s degree program gives you access to a priceless resource: the network of contacts your professors and advisors have spent their careers building. When you graduate and earn your certification, the relationship you have built with your professors will be a much more effective job searching tool than cold calls and the classified section of the local newspaper.
Not only will they be able to facilitate introductions and personal contacts, but they will hopefully be able to speak well of your professional readiness and work ethic – of course, showcasing that work ethic is entirely up to you.
Certified vs. Certificated
Whether you choose a certification course or a paralegal degree program, completion is only half the battle. At the end of whatever educational path you choose, you will receive a certificate which indicates nothing more than your successful completion of the course. At this point you will be certificated.
In order to demonstrate your qualification for a paralegal position, you will want to take a certification examination offered by a national paralegal organization such as the NALA. Passing this test will make you a certified paralegal. A certified paralegal is a much more attractive candidate to law offices and government legal departments, as it indicates your commitment and qualifications for the position.
Even if your state doesn’t require a certification, or if the job posting for which you plan to apply doesn’t specifically mention a certification, it will certainly help you stand out in the applicant pool to possess all of the possible certifications in your state.
What are the career prospects for a paralegal?
Because the job duties for a paralegal are so vaguely-defined, it is a great field for a self-motivated individual who would prefer to create their own career path. Lawyers generally find themselves hemmed in by specialization, and thus find it difficult to switch jobs or fields without taking a step back in terms of pay and seniority.
Paralegals, on the other hand, are valued for their skills, not their legal expertise. Skills are much more easily transferred to different firms, different legal categories, and even different departments within a law firm.
We have already discussed the most common job duties for a paralegal, but the business of law is so intricate that you could easily work yourself into a position where you drift away from the legal procedure side of the office and over to the business administration side. By some accounts, experienced paralegals can find themselves handling recruitment, client acquisition, marketing, and other aspects of a larger firm. Clearly the paralegal profession is more than just coffee and dry cleaning runs.
As such, a paralegal career can be a great option for someone who abhors the idea of the repetitive “punch clock” work that can be found in other professional and non-professional fields. Whatever your attorney asks of you, you can be reasonably confident that it won’t be the same thing day in and day out. After all, they probably don’t need to pay paralegal wages for a file clerk or receptionist.
The Job Outlook for Paralegals
The paralegal field is currently projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow at a rate of 8% by 2024, but industry experts paint a slightly different picture.
After the recession of 2008, law firms trimmed their rosters, and work that would normally be assigned to an associate on the bottom of the ladder instead fell into the laps of experienced paralegals. Since paralegals make a fraction of the salary of even the greenest associate, these firms and their clients appreciated the cost savings.
The winds of change are stirring, as influencers in all corners of the profession are beginning to question the current state of the law profession and the roles of lawyers and non-lawyers alike. It is hard to predict how things will change, and it’s hard to put a number on current trends to express them in concrete numbers, but experts agree that we are likely to experience a shift in what is considered “normal”. With a paralegal degree, you can hedge your bets on the changing reality, and still position yourself as an attractive candidate if things maintain the status quo.
What are you waiting for?
Paralegals are the Swiss Army Knives of the legal profession.
We’ve covered just about all the information you need to make a decision, so you should be asking yourself, “Is a paralegal associate’s degree the best next career step for me?” If the answer is yes, don’t waste any time. In as little as two years, you can be out of school and out into the workforce.