How to Become a Paralegal Specialist

Learn how to become a paralegal specialist. Explore the education requirements, training information and experience required to start a career as a paralegal specialist. View article »

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  • 0:01 Paralegals
  • 0:49 Career Skills & Info
  • 1:39 Step 1: Degree
  • 2:40 Step 2: Specialize
  • 3:40 Step 3: Certification
  • 4:04 Step 4: Advanced Certification

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Video Transcript


Paralegals, or paralegal specialists, assist lawyers with a variety of tasks. Although job duties can vary depending on the size of the law firm, they conduct legal research, organize and present information, draft documents and help lawyers prepare for trials or hearings. Some paralegal specialists have one area of focus, while others may have multiple specializations. Family, environmental or real estate law, bankruptcy and worker's compensation are a few possible areas of focus. Paralegals often spend many hours working in law offices or law libraries. Travel might be required to conduct research or meet with clients.

Career Skills & Info

Degree Level Associate degree or certificate; bachelor's degree recommended for advancement
Degree Field Paralegal studies
Certification Professional certification recommended
Experience Requirements vary by specialty; employers may prefer candidates with 2-5 years of experience
Key Skills Excellent interpersonal and communication, writing, organizational, and investigative and research skills; proficiency in Microsoft Office applications, WordPerfect Office Suite, and legal research programs like Westlaw and LexisNexis
Salary $52,390 (2015 average for all paralegals and legal assistants)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job postings in August 2012

Paralegal specialists need excellent communication, interpersonal and organizational skills. Investigative research and writing abilities are also essential to working in the field. They should also be computer literate and proficient in the use of Microsoft Office and legal research programs like Westlaw and LexisNexis. Requirements for employment vary by specialty. Employers may prefer candidates 2-5 years of experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2015 paralegal and legal assistants earned an average salary of $52,390 in a field where jobs are expected to grow by a fast-as-average rate between 2014 and 2024.

Step 1: Degree

Most law firms hire applicants who have completed an associate degree, a bachelor's or a post-baccalaureate certificate program in paralegal studies. Program length varies according to the award. Most paralegal specialists have associate degrees that typically take two years to complete. In addition to general education classes, paralegal studies programs include courses in legal ethics, research and writing, litigation and computer applications. Students can also choose from a variety of electives in legal specialties, and internships are often available.

Pursue Internships and Part-Time Jobs

Many employers prefer candidates with previous experience in law firms or office settings. While in school, students can pursue internships or part-time jobs in law firms and legal offices, often in their intended area of specialty.

Step 2: Specialize

While not necessarily required for employment, students may pursue a specialized certificate program in a particular area of law. A certificate or degree in paralegal studies is usually required to enroll. Students with a combination of education and relevant experience may be accepted. Areas of specialization may include business, criminal, employment or federal tax law, among others. Many of these programs are only available online.

Specialize in High-Demand Practice Areas

According to the BLS, paralegals and legal assistants will face strong competition for jobs between 2014 and 2024. Professionals with experience in high-demand areas of specialization and excellent computer skills may enjoy more favorable prospects. Current job postings can provide clues as to what specialties are the most sought after.

Step 3: Certification

Although voluntary for paralegals, a professional certification signifies competence and may make specialists more attractive to employers. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offer certification exams to candidates who meet certain education and experience requirements.

Step 4: Advanced Certification

Professionals who earn NALA's Certified Paralegal credential can pursue advanced certifications in alternative dispute resolution, personal injury, contracts administration and other areas.

Let's briefly summarize what we've just discussed: Aspiring paralegals or paralegal specialists typically need a certificate or degree in paralegal studies and can benefit from earning a professional certification. As of May 2015, the average annual salary of a paralegal or paralegal assistant was $52,390.

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