Your Path To a Bright New Future As A Paralegal
Paralegals are professionals who assist attorneys or others in the field of law. While there are no legal requirements for certification or licensure in the paralegal profession, you still must possess the right background, skills, and training to be successful.
Because there are not stringent regulations on becoming a paralegal, there are several ways you can go about it. You could complete a one-year professional certificate program, get a degree at the associate, bachelor’s, or even master’s level, or simply enter the field without an education in paralegal studies and learn on the job.
In an effort to establish guidelines for paralegal training, some national paralegal organizations have developed core competencies for paralegal preparation. These recommendations often include completing some type of formal paralegal program, gaining experience, and voluntarily earning a national credential, like certification. To become a paralegal based on these established core competencies, you will need to:
Complete a Formal Paralegal Education Program
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the paralegal field is open to people with varying work experience and educational backgrounds. Like the field itself, paralegal education programs vary in a number of ways, including
- Admission requirements
- Length of program
- Program design/characteristics
The ABA has approved paralegal education programs across a variety of institutions, including two-year community and junior college programs, four-year college or university programs, and business and proprietary school programs.
Similarly, the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) highly recommends that all paralegals should complete some form of paralegal education that is offered through a program specifically designed to provide paralegal education.
To be consider sufficient, the program you choose should include no fewer than 18 semester credit hours of paralegal classes. In addition, the program must be from an institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education or approved by the American Bar Association (ABA), or be a post-secondary program that requires the completion of at least 60 semester credit hours.
You are considered “qualified” as a paralegal by the AAfPE if you possess the following:
- An associate or baccalaureate degree or equivalent coursework
- A credential in paralegal education completed through one of the following:
- Associate degree
- Baccalaureate degree (major, minor, or concentration)
- Master’s degree
In addition, the AAfPE expects that your paralegal education will consist of both substantive legal knowledge and professional skills that incorporate legal theory and an understanding of practical applications. To ensure students are prepared for work as a paralegal in the real world, the AAfPE notes that paralegal education programs should incorporate the responsibilities and competences that are expected by employers. These programs should offer well-designed curriculum that emphasizes peer-to-peer and student-to-faculty interactions. A successful program will also include assignments that teach practical paralegal skills.
Here is a list of some of the paralegal topics that should be covered during your paralegal education:
- Delivery of legal services
- Law offices and related environments
- Law-related computer skills
- Legal interviewing and investigation
- Legal research and writing
- Substantive and procedural law
- The American legal system
- The paralegal profession
In addition to education through classes, a good paralegal program will offer experiential learning components, like an internship, practicum, or clinical experience.
In addition to formal training through a paralegal program, the AAfPE suggests that students possess a basic understanding of American history, business, and political science. Other important knowledge and skills paralegals should possess include:
- Critical thinking skills (judgment, analysis, research, and problem-solving)
- Communication skills (oral, written, interpersonal, and nonverbal)
- Computer skills
- Computational skills
- An understanding of ethics
- Organizational skills
Like the AAfPE and the ABA, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) also recommends a formal educational program for paralegals. NALA recommends that, at a minimum, the paralegal program be ABA-approved or otherwise offered through an accredited institution, and consist of at least 60 semester hours. However, NALA also recognizes the importance of experience. Therefore, NALA recognizes the following as adequate preparation to become a paralegal:
- A bachelor’s degree in any field, plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
- At least 3 years of experience, supervised by an attorney, including at least 6 months of training as a paralegal (in-house)
If you do not go the degree route, the experts recommend at least two years of training as a paralegal while working in that capacity.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many employers prefer candidates with at least some experience in a law firm or other office setting. If you have experience already, it will be easier for you to learn about any specific specialty area of law that the attorneys at the law firm your work at practice.
Before you enter the work world, experience can be gained through a formal internship offered as part of your paralegal program. An internship allows students to begin building a resume for their paralegal job hunt. It also allows students to learn more about specialized areas of law, such as corporate, real estate, and environmental law, to see if it is a field he or she wants to specialize in.
Earn a Paralegal Professional Certification
Currently, no state has implemented any regulatory requirements for paralegal professional certification. This has led to a number of voluntary credentials, all of which require completing a formal paralegal program, gaining experience, or a combination of the two to earn eligibility to take the associated certification examination,
Here is a list of some of the most popular paralegal professional certifications:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)’s CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP) and PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)’ s Certified Paralegal (CP) credential
- NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals’ Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
- American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)’ American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential
Some states also offer state-specific competency examinations through cooperative efforts with state bar associations and/or paralegal associations.
Because law is a large field, there are a number of areas of specialty practice including, but not limited to:
- Business/Corporate Law
- Real Estate
- Intellectual Property
- Contract Administration