The American Bar Association in 1997 amended its earlier definition of “legal assistant”, stating “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Featured Programs and Schools
What do Paralegals do?
As the abovementioned shows, legal assistants and paralegals are identical terms. Paralegals, simply put, assist lawyers in carrying out their daily professional tasks.
A paralegal’s duties will be determined by the size of the law firm he/she works for and the specialty of his/her employer. However, some of the more typical duties of a paralegal are:
- Schedule depositions, interviews and meetings
- File legal documents with the court
- Review trial transcripts, take notes and handle exhibits
- Take down witness statements and get affidavits
- Draft mortgages and contracts
- Write reports
- Gather and arrange all legal documents
- Maintain and organize legal documents on computer systems
- Conduct legal research
- Investigate the facts of a case
Just like lawyers, paralegals, too, can specialize in certain areas. These include:
- Real estate
- Family law
- Intellectual property
- Labor laws
- Criminal law
- Corporate law
- Personal injury
Types of Paralegals
Broadly speaking, there are two types of paralegals:
How to Become a Paralegal
The path to become a paralegal is comparatively easier than becoming a lawyer. Every state might have its own requirements but there are some general rules that apply almost to all US states.
- Get at least an Associate’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institute.
- Obtain a Bachelor’s degree (Recommended).
- Get an approved paralegal certification from an approved paralegal program.
- Meet state specific requirements, if any.
- Apply for the job.
Typically, there are two ways to become a paralegal:
- Completing an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or
- Bachelor’s degree (non-paralegal studies) and a certificate in paralegal studies
Paralegals, unlike lawyers, do not need to be licensed, in order to practice.
Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
This is a 2-year undergraduate degree, which is widely offered in a traditional mode at various community colleges and online. The learning objectives are:
- Paralegal ethics and professional responsibility
- Legal writing and research
- How to conduct interviews and legal investigations
- Legal terminology and the U.S. court system
The main admission requirement is a high school diploma or its equivalent. Once accepted into the program, students will be expected to maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher to graduate, along with clearing all courses.
Divided into 4-semesters, the associate’s degree in paralegal studies offers courses in:
- Introduction to Paralegal Studies
- Legal Terminology and Critical Thinking
- English Composition
- Real Estate Law
- Business and Technical Writing
- Civil Litigation
- Economics 1
- Business Law 1&2
- Computer Applications
Certificate in Paralegal Studies
As mentioned earlier, those individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a non-legal field looking to switch career and become a paralegal, may find this a suitable option. The certificate can be earned with 1-year of part-time enrollment or by completing a summer intensive program. While its curriculum will vary between institutes, students can typically earn this certificate after successful completion of 13-14 courses. In addition, students may also be required to successfully complete an unpaid 4-5 weeks internship.
The courses offered are similar to the courses offered in the associate’s degree in paralegal studies. Both the degree and the certificate program are designed to produce qualified paralegals, ready to take on the challenging responsibilities of assisting lawyers.
Requirements to Work as a Paralegal in the US
Working as a paralegal in the U.S. involves a variety of tasks, including drafting legal documents, conducting legal research, and organizing and maintaining files. Paralegals work under the supervision of an attorney and play a vital role in the legal process. The typical requirements to work as a paralegal in the U.S. include:
Education: Most paralegals have at least an associate’s degree in paralegal studies. Many employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field. Some paralegals have a degree in another field and earn a certificate in paralegal studies.
Certification: Although not a requirement, certification can improve job prospects. The National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and a few other organizations offer certification programs.
Skills: Paralegals must have excellent communication skills (both written and verbal), be highly organized, and have good research and investigative skills. They also need to be proficient in using legal research software and other computer applications.
Experience: Some employers prefer candidates with experience working in a legal setting, although this is not always necessary. Internships during schooling can provide valuable experience.
Ethics: Paralegals must understand and adhere to ethical standards, as they are dealing with sensitive and confidential information.
Continuing Education: To maintain certification and stay up-to-date with changes in the law, paralegals often engage in continuing education.
Background Check: Because of the nature of the work, employers often require a background check.
However, requirements can vary significantly depending on the law firm, corporation, or government agency, and the specific area of law (like family law, corporate law, criminal law, etc.) the paralegal will be working in.
Please note that regulations and requirements can change and it would be best to check for the most current requirements from reliable sources such as American Bar Association (ABA), National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), or National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).
Best Paralegal Certifications in the US
There are several respected paralegal certification programs in the United States. These certifications demonstrate a high level of professionalism and expertise in the field. They are offered by various organizations, and each has its own set of eligibility requirements and testing procedures. Here are some of the most well-recognized paralegal certifications:
Certified Paralegal (CP) or Certified Legal Assistant (CLA): These certifications are offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). The CP and CLA designations are interchangeable and represent the same certification. The certification process involves passing a comprehensive exam that covers various areas of law.
Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP): Also offered by NALA, the ACP certification is available to paralegals who have already earned the CP/CLA certification and wish to delve deeper into a specific area of law.
Professional Paralegal (PP): This certification is provided by the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS). The PP certification requires passing an exam, and candidates must meet specific work experience requirements.
Registered Paralegal (RP): This certification is offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). To earn the RP certification, candidates must pass the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE).
Certified Paralegal Specialist: Several states, including California, Texas, and North Carolina, offer state-specific certifications that allow paralegals to specialize in certain areas of law.
Remember to review the eligibility requirements before applying for a certification, as they typically require a certain level of education and work experience. Also, regulations and availability of certifications might have changed after my last training data in September 2021, so make sure to verify this information from the official websites of these organizations or from relevant and up-to-date resources.
Courses for Paralegals
Paralegal studies encompass a broad range of courses that cover foundational legal concepts, specific areas of law, practical skills, and more. Whether you’re pursuing a degree or certificate in paralegal studies, or seeking continuing education or advanced certification, the courses you take will equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in this profession. Here are some common courses you might encounter:
Introduction to Law: This foundational course provides an overview of the legal system, including the structure of the court system, sources of law, and basic legal terminology.
Legal Research and Writing: These courses teach you how to use legal research tools, find and analyze case law and statutes, and prepare legal documents. Strong writing skills are essential for paralegals.
Ethics for Paralegals: This course explores the ethical obligations of paralegals and attorneys. Topics may include confidentiality, conflict of interest, unauthorized practice of law, and more.
Civil Litigation: This course covers the process of civil litigation, including the preparation of pleadings, discovery methods, trial preparation, and more.
Contracts: You’ll learn about the formation, performance, and enforcement of contracts, as well as remedies for breach of contract.
Criminal Law and Procedure: This course provides an overview of criminal law and the criminal justice system, including criminal offenses, defenses, and the steps in the criminal trial process.
Torts: This course covers civil wrongs and the resulting liability. You’ll learn about intentional torts, negligence, and strict liability.
Family Law: This course focuses on legal issues related to family relationships, such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and adoption.
Business Organizations: This course covers the law of business entities, including corporations, partnerships, and limited liability companies.
Property Law: This course focuses on the law relating to real and personal property, including ownership, leases, and more.
Computer Applications for Paralegals: This course introduces software and technology used in the legal field, such as case management software, e-discovery tools, and legal research platforms.
Specialty Courses: Depending on the program, you may have the opportunity to take courses in a specific area of law, such as intellectual property law, immigration law, environmental law, health law, etc.
Remember, the specific courses you take will depend on the paralegal program and any specializations you choose. The above list provides a general idea of the type of coursework you can expect in a paralegal program. Make sure to review the course offerings of any program you’re considering to ensure they align with your career goals.
Major Differences Between Lawyers and Paralegals
Lawyers and paralegals both play crucial roles in the practice of law, but they have different levels of responsibility and are subject to different requirements. Here are some of the major differences:
Education and Licensing: To become a lawyer, one must complete an undergraduate degree, attend law school to earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, and pass the state bar exam to be licensed to practice law. On the other hand, paralegals usually hold an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or certificate in paralegal studies, and while certification can be beneficial, they are not required to pass a bar exam or be licensed.
Roles and Responsibilities: Lawyers provide legal advice to clients, represent them in court, negotiate settlements, and have the authority to provide legal services directly to the public. Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, support lawyers by conducting legal research, drafting legal documents, managing case files, and carrying out other administrative tasks. They work under the supervision of a lawyer and cannot practice law or give legal advice to clients.
Client Interaction: While both lawyers and paralegals can interact with clients, only lawyers can give legal advice, represent clients in court, and set legal fees. Paralegals may gather information from clients, but they are generally more involved in behind-the-scenes work.
Income: Lawyers typically earn more than paralegals due to their higher level of education and responsibility.
Regulation: Lawyers are regulated by state bar associations and must adhere to the rules of professional conduct set forth by these bodies. Paralegals are not regulated by a state or national licensing body, but they must adhere to ethical guidelines established by organizations like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).
These distinctions are general and may not apply in all settings or jurisdictions. Always check specific rules and regulations in your area for the most accurate information.
How long does it take to Become a Paralegal:
A major portion of the Bachelor’s degree program will be about educational requirements in general. The Master’s degree program in Paralegal work will take 2 years to complete. It will comprise of 4 semesters just like the Associate degree program. The certificate program can take anywhere between 10 weeks to 2 years to complete depending on the number of courses you pick at a time.
Salary and Career Prospects
A pertinent question to ask here would be: why become a paralegal and not a lawyer, when they ALMOST do the same thing? The answer is rather simple – it is quicker, easier, and cheaper to become a paralegal than lawyer.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth in the field is expected to be 14% from 2021 to 20301, which is faster than the average job growth for all other fields. The mean annual income for paralegal and legal assistants in 2022 was $62,840.
Following is a list of US states with the highest salary for paralegal and legal assistance in 2022: