Paralegals are legal professionals whose work supports the efforts of lawyers. Paralegals perform duties including organizing evidence, writing reports, and preparing legal documents. To enter the profession, paralegals usually earn at least an associate's degree in paralegal studies.
|Required Education||Associate's degree or higher|
|Other Requirements||Certification available but not required in most states|
|Median Salary (2018)||$50,940 (for 'paralegals and legal assistants')*|
|Job Outlook (2018-2028)||12% growth (for 'paralegals and legal assistants')*|
Source: *U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Become a Paralegal
A career path as a paralegal begins with an appropriate educational background. Often, aspiring paralegals earn associate's degrees in paralegal studies. These programs are offered at community colleges and business schools and typically require 60 to 70 semester hours. The curriculum usually includes both general education classes and courses in legal studies including:
- Civil law
- Family law
- Criminal law
- Legal writing
Depending on the school, some classes may be available on evenings or weekends or online. Through their degree programs, students may have the opportunity to complete an internship to gain practical experience in the legal field. Some institutions offer free classes on legal subjects to introduce aspiring paralegals to topics they will encounter in their education programs.
Some four-year institutions also offer degrees in paralegal studies. Alternatively, students can earn a bachelor's degree in a different field and then complete a paralegal certificate program approved by the American Bar Association. The required semester hours for certificate programs ranges from 18 to 60 hours, depending on the breath of the coursework. Prospective students will want to seek out approved paralegal programs that fit their needs in terms of flexibility, format, and degrees offered.
Although it is not required for paralegals, employers may prefer candidates who have obtained certification. Several professional organizations offer credentialing programs for paralegals. Applicants who meet prerequisites like graduating from an approved paralegal education program or having prior paralegal work experience are eligible to take paralegal certification exams. These tests measure concepts and skills relevant in the profession, and they can include multiple choice and essay questions.
Additional Paralegal Requirements
Although employers usually prefer applicants with relevant educational backgrounds, some firms hire individuals with bachelor's degrees in unrelated fields and provide paralegal training on the job. No matter what type of prior education an applicant has, certain qualities are particularly important to be successful as a paralegal. For example, paralegals need to have strong research and analytical skills to investigate cases and good communication skills to work effectively with lawyers. In addition, they may handle multiple cases at once, so organizational abilities are important.
In May 2018, the median salary for paralegals and legal assistants was $50,940, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those earning in the top 10% had salaries of $82,050 or higher, and those with salaries in the lowest 10% earned $31,400 or less. Most paralegals were employed by legal service providers, but those who worked in the grantmaking or software industries earned the highest salaries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that job opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants are expected to grow by 12% between 2018 and 2028. This rate is much faster than the average for all professions, and it may be because law firms are shifting more responsibilities from beginning lawyers to paralegals. This growth is expected to occur both in law firms and in a variety of other industries.