How To Become a Paralegal

LearnHowToBecome Team
Erin Gobler
September 16, 2021

The paralegal profession is competitive and exciting with a wide range of careers and specific fields from which to choose. Education and training requirements vary by region, field, and between companies, but usually involve a minimum of two years of post-secondary study, sometimes culminating in an associate degree, as well as experience. Students can also earn certifications, a bachelor’s degree and even a master’s degree in paralegal studies. This comprehensive guide includes information and data on education and training as well as key facts about salaries, job prospects and more.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

Paralegal Career Basics

Many paralegals work full-time in private firms, government agencies or corporate legal offices. They handle a broad range of administrative and research duties under the supervision of attorneys. For example, during the course of a day, they may organize and maintain legal files or draft documents, deliver or retrieve documents from the courthouse and conduct intensive legal research in preparation for court. Paralegals also investigate the background facts of cases, organize evidence and documents for attorneys to review, accompany lawyers to court, and manage schedules with witnesses and experts. Specific responsibilities can vary greatly, depending on the department, office or firm in which a paralegal works. Those who work for large firms might handle only one phase of a case, while those in smaller firms could work a case from beginning to end.

Paralegal Salaries

Paralegals work full-time and earned a median wage of $52,920 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10 percent of paralegal jobs pay $85,160 or more per year. Those who work for larger firms or in larger cities tend to earn more than paralegals who work for small firms. The highest annual wages were found in the federal government, followed by finance and insurance, then local governments.

Top 5 Highest Earning States/Areas for Paralegals

State Annual Mean Wage, BLS 2020
District of Columbia $83,330
California $66,250
Washington $63,050
Colorado $62,950
New York $62,530

The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners for each state.

State
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Steps to Becoming a Paralegal

Step 1
Select a Specialty

Though most paralegals work as generalists in a legal firm, some choose to specialize for a particular employer or sector of law. For instance, corporate paralegals work with attorneys to handle contractual issues such as shareholder agreements, stock option plans and employee contracts. Litigation paralegals work with attorneys that take on cases through the civil or criminal trial system. Choosing a specialty as early as possible allows students to take courses that are relevant to career goals.

Paralegal specialties include:

Corporate paralegal Litigation paralegal Estate planning and probate paralegal Family law paralegal Immigration paralegal Intellectual property paralegal Real estate paralegal Debt and bankruptcy paralegal Freelance paralegal
Step 2
Complete the Necessary Level of Education

Associate’s Degree: The most-common educational path to becoming a paralegal includes an associate's degree. These two-year programs are offered through community colleges, universities, or online, and teach the basic skills and knowledge required of an entry-level paralegal or legal assistant.

Bachelor’s Degree: A four-year bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies may be a requirement for paralegal positions with major law firms, government legal departments or in corporate law. Those who already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field can consider earning a paralegal certificate, which can take several months to complete.

Master’s Degree: If you want to take your studies further, some colleges offer master’s programs in paralegal studies. Master’s degree holders can find success in highly targeted fields, such as intellectual property law and certain specialties in corporate practice. Master’s graduates can also become teachers of paralegal studies.

Step 3
Pass the Certification Exam

Though certification for paralegals is voluntary, earning one can distinguish individuals from other job applicants. Some employer may require certification. Regardless, national surveys consistently show that certifications such as Certified Paralegals (CP) and Certified Legal Assistants (CLA) are used to determine and measure applicants’ abilities and skills.

Paralegal organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants offer the CLA and CP certifications, which require passing a test and then pursuing continuing education. The credentials have been recognized by the American Bar Association as a designation that marks a high level of professional achievement. The CLA or CP credential has also been recognized by over 47 legal assistant organizations and numerous bar associations.

Step 4
Intern with a Law Firm, Corporation, Nonprofit, or Government Agency
Individuals could also opt for an internship while pursuing a degree program to gain experience and have more opportunities for applying what they’ve learned. Many employers look favorably upon job applicants who take internships during their college years.
Step 5
Begin an Entry-Level Job
Students who apply for a range of positions and use their school’s career placement services have an increased chance of finding work as a paralegal. Entry-level positions will give students an opportunity to begin practicing the techniques learned in school and allows for increased responsibilities down the road.

Educational Paths for Paralegals

Students pursuing a degree in paralegal studies have many academic options. From certifications and associate degrees to bachelor’s and even master’s degrees, students are able to earn a basic or in-depth education based on their interests and career goals. Each subsequent level of schooling brings additional qualifications and skills, so it is important for students to consider what will be required of them in their chosen field. Paralegal degrees can be earned on campus, as well as online.

Below are some scenarios that show which educational options might be best for the student in that scenario. If more than one box is checked, it means either option would be beneficial or possible.

Career Goal and/or Educational Needs Associate Bachelor’s Master's Online
I want to gain a solid understanding of the paralegal field and establish a foundation for further education if I choose to continue in the future.
I work a full-time job and/or have other responsibilities that would prevent me from being a full-time student, but want still want to pursue a degree in paralegal studies in order to advance in my career.
I work as a legal secretary or paralegal but want to further my skill set and knowledge so I have more opportunities in the future.
I want to take an accelerated program and earn a quality degree as fast as possible.
I know I am interested in a career as a paralegal and I want to earn a quality degree that will give me a competitive edge.

An Overview of Paralegal Degree Levels

Different levels of degrees are available in paralegal studies. As the degrees advance, so do the curricula, skills, knowledge, and potential career opportunities. Below is a breakdown of each level to help prospective students decide which degree is right for them and their career goals.

Certificates and Associate Degrees

Earning an associate degree in paralegal studies gives students a strong understanding of the basic principles of the field as well as general education in math, science, social science, and English. Because an associate degree typically takes two years, about half the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree, AS or AAS degrees tend to be a more affordable and quick way to get a foot in the door for a legal career. Paralegal topics that are covered in most associate degree programs include introduction to law, legal research and writing, civil litigation, and legal ethics. Elective courses allow students to gear their education in the direction of their personal interests, ranging from criminal, environmental, and employment law to tax law and domestic relations.

Certificates are earned through the study of paralegal core and elective courses without the required general education courses, and can be earned anywhere between one semester to two years, depending on the program and the student’s pace.

Detailed below are descriptions for some of the courses required for associate degrees and certificates in paralegal studies, as well as industry skills earned in the classes.

Introduction to the Law

Provides a basic understanding of the law and the American justice system, and introduces the student to legal terminology and areas of law which will be studied in greater depth later in the curriculum.

Paralegal Skills and Knowledge Gained

Understanding of the role of the paralegal in a legal office Understand basic aspects of American law Begin practicing legal research and writing

Legal Research, Writing, and Civil Litigation

Teaches students the processes and techniques necessary for handling cases from beginning to end. Arguably the most important course in paralegal education.

Paralegal Skills and Knowledge Gained

Determine jurisdiction and venue Initiating and commencing a lawsuit Client counseling Investigation techniques and the discovery process Drafting summons, complaints, motions, briefs, and pleadings Settlement techniques Understanding of the trial process

Professional Responsibility and Legal Ethics

Covers the basic principles of practicing ethical law for paralegals and lawyers.

Paralegal Skills and Knowledge Gained

Understanding of the regulations of attorney and paralegal conduct Understanding of conflicts of interest, unauthorized practice of law, malpractice, and confidentiality, plus disciplinary measures Handling law office finances, including client funds, advertising, billing, and fee splitting

A Four-Year Degree

A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies (offered as a Bachelor of Science from most schools) is earned upon completion of 120 credit hours, generally taking students about four years. Coursework includes required general education classes, core paralegal courses, and upper division legal courses.

After achieving a bachelor’s degree, graduates will have an intimate knowledge of the responsibilities of a paralegal, and know the techniques and processes necessary to assist lawyers in cases. Graduates are qualified to begin careers as paralegals in law offices, corporate legal departments, government agencies, and non-profits, or to pursue further education. Specific skills acquired include drafting and editing legal memoranda, motions, and other basic legal and court documents; ability to apply a wide variety of legal concepts to given tasks; and ability to perform advanced legal research and discovery tasks.

Below are some example classes students will encounter during their bachelor’s education.

Criminal Law

Outlines the definitions and elements of crimes against persons, property, and various legal defenses available to defendants.

Paralegal Skills and Knowledge Gained

Understanding of the basic constitutional safeguards and procedures involved from arrest through trial Understand the prosecution process for any type of crime Understanding of the application of state and federal sentencing guidelines

Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

Overview of the various types of intellectual property, how to protect against infringement, and what defenses are available for infringement both in the U.S. and abroad.

Paralegal Skills and Knowledge Gained

Recognize the different types of IP Recognize the various types of infringement Ability to apply defenses and remedies for infringement

Legal Document Preparation

Teaches the practical skill of drafting, editing, and otherwise preparing legal documents through hands-on practice.

Paralegal Skills and Knowledge Gained

Draft sales and service contracts, real property contracts and deeds, wills, limited partnership or LLC operating agreements, prenuptial agreements, and other legal documents

Advanced Education

The educational options available to students after they achieve a bachelor’s degree include earning a post-baccalaureate certificate, a graduate certificate, or a master’s degree in paralegal studies. While it is not always necessary that paralegal professionals complete education beyond a bachelor’s, each advanced program offers different credentials and skills and prepares graduates for increased opportunities and responsibility.

Type of Certifications

Post-Baccalaureate Certificate A post-baccalaureate program and certificate will prepare students for transition into a graduate program for paralegal studies. This option will provide students with foundational coursework and help them meet some of the prerequisites necessary for a master’s degree. Students must have earned either a BA or a BS from an accredited institution, but it is not necessary to have a background or any experience with paralegal studies.
Graduate Certificate Graduate certificate programs offer master’s level courses to students who wish to tailor their education and skill set to a certain aspect of the paralegal trade, for example, criminal law, tax law, or real estate law. Unlike a master’s program, which requires between 30 and 60 credit hours, graduate certificate programs only require between 12 and 18 credit hours and focuses on a very specific area of paralegal studies.
Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies A master’s degree in paralegal studies is the highest level of education paralegal majors can pursue. Paralegal studies masters programs generally take about two years to complete and many programs require that the student complete an independent project. Graduates will gain an in-depth understanding of the various areas of law and master skills necessary for work in a competitive legal setting. Most schools offer master’s programs that can be earned with 36 credit hours, between one year (accelerated programs) and three years or more (flexible programs). Upon degree completion, graduates will be able to effectively conduct legal research and analysis in multiple areas of law; produce memoranda, legal essays, and other legal documents; and substantially contribute to the legal work performed at a law office, corporate legal department, government agency, or nonprofit organization.

Skills Gained at the Graduate Level

Complex Research Skills Students will learn to conduct complex legal research and analysis to help develop cases.
Proficiency in Document Preparation Advanced study and practice of legal documentation, preparation, editing, and drafting gives students the knowledge needed to perform in a professional legal setting.
A Magnified Understanding of Law As students study law at the graduate level and delve into their chosen concentrations, they gain detailed knowledge of the various aspects of the legal system and their role and responsibilities as a paralegal.
Team Contribution As students study law at the graduate level and delve into their chosen concentrations, they gain detailed knowledge of the various aspects of the legal system and their role and responsibilities as a paralegal.
Strong Sense of Professionalism Students will learn appropriate conduct in legal settings as well as legal terminology that will serve as a behavioral base for legal meetings, office settings, court, and other professional situations.

Specialties in Paralegal Studies

Just as lawyers choose an area of law in which to practice, paralegals may choose a specialty or concentration during their schooling. Students who choose a concentration will take classes specifically geared to aspects of that concentration, and will focus largely on learning about that area of law and mastering skills relevant to the specialty.

Below are some of the most common specialties for paralegals.

Corporate In large corporations, paralegals often perform behind-the-scenes tasks such as contract and document review, research, and making sure the corporation complies with federal laws. Research and documentation skills are strongly emphasized in this concentration.
Estate Planning and Probate Paralegals in this specialty help clients write wills, plan estates, distribute property, and work with probate pleadings and deeds. Compassion is a useful skill for professionals in this area, as clients are often grieving or preparing for eventual departure.
Family Law This concentration focuses on custody disputes, divorces, adoption, and other family matters. Paralegal responsibilities include preparing pleadings, drafting documents such as spousal support agreements and prenuptials, sending correspondence to opposing counsel, attorneys, and the court, and communicating with the clients throughout the legal process.
Immigration Provides in-depth understanding of immigration law in the US. Students learn about the different categories of non-immigrants as well as the laws governing visits to the US and gaining permanent resident status. Emphasis is placed on legal terminology relevant to immigration cases and how to work with an immigrant client.
Intellectual Property This concentration focuses exclusively on trademarks, patents, and copyrights. Students learn about emerging intellectual property legislation and also learn how to correspond with clients and organize exhibits.
Litigation Litigation covers a wide variety of specific legal scenarios such as debt and bankruptcy, corporate, or personal injury law. Usually the attorney and paralegal will be representing someone who is suing or being sued by another party.
Real Estate This specialty looks at home sales, foreclosures, zoning disputes, boundary issues, and other real estate situations requiring legal assistance. Paralegals that also possess a real estate license are especially valuable in this area.

Online Paralegal Schools

Finding a school that offers a quality education with the flexibility needed to maintain a career and busy schedule can be difficult. Luckily, there are several online paralegal programs to choose from. As you sift through the options, keep the following criteria in mind.

Considerations for Paralegal School

Program Length If earning your paralegal studies degree or certificate is a time-sensitive accomplishment, look for a degree program that allows you to complete the courses at a pace that fits your busy life. Accelerated paralegal programs through universities or community colleges are an option for students looking to graduate quickly. Online programs also offer speed and flexibility as just some of their many perks. Keep in mind that program length and program quality are mutually exclusive.
Faculty with Extensive Paralegal Experience The best way to know if a school offers a high-quality paralegal studies program is to determine whether the faculty members are committed, established, and experienced in the field. The best way to learn about the faculty members is to review the bios shared on the school website. The best teachers will have real world legal experience, either as paralegals or lawyers from a variety of settings (such as large and small law firms, corporations, and government agencies), and will not only offer insight to the industry, but will be valuable networking contacts after graduation.
Accreditation Accreditation is an important factor when choosing a school--online or campus-based--for paralegal studies. The American Bar Association (ABA) has given accreditation to about 270 out of over 1000 schools that offer paralegal programs. Because it is such a widely recognized institution, many law firms and companies prefer to hire paralegals who graduated with an ABA-accredited degree. Because the ABA requires that at least a portion of the degree must be completed on campus in a traditional setting, many fully-online programs have relinquished their ABA accreditation in order to cater to non-traditional students. Exceptional but non-ABA accredited programs can still be found.
Career Placement and Internship Services Schools should offer student counseling and assistance with paralegal career and internship placement. Review the school’s career placement record and see where graduates have found employment and the types of positions they secured. There should be a variety of large and small law firms and companies, local and national.

Components of a Successful Paralegal Career

Certain skills and character traits make some individuals naturals for a career as a paralegal. In addition to solid legal knowledge and understanding, a successful paralegal will have the necessary credentials and be proficient in using the tools and technologies utilized by law firms and legal departments.

Being responsible for such a wide variety of tasks requires paralegals to be very organized and skilled at multitasking. Those who have an extreme attention to detail and who enjoy working as part of a team, often behind the scenes, are ideal candidates

Paralegal Skills

Excellent research skills
Professionals must be able to effectively conduct research as well as evaluate and analyze law sources in order to apply theories and principles to issues and cases. Research often also includes conducting interviews and investigations.
Communication skills
In addition to research and analysis, paralegals must also be able to draft correspondence and legal documents in a clear, concise and accurate manner. Additionally, paralegals interact efficiently and sometimes assertively with many different people, from lawyers to clients to witnesses to court personnel.

Paralegal Credentials

Paralegal positions don’t require a standard set of credentials. Instead, paralegals can pursue a handful of voluntary certification programs throughout the nation. Some of the most common certification programs for paralegals include (but are not limited to):

National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)

NALA offers the Certified Paralegal (CP) credential program, which signifies that a paralegal can provide high-quality services to firms and corporations.

National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)

The NFPA offers two paralegal certification programs:

The Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE): A certification for new and early-career paralegals with a bachelor’s degree in a related field.

The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE): A certification for paralegals further along in their careers who want to further advance their careers.

Association of Legal Professionals (NALS)

The NALS offers several different certifications for paralegals and aspiring paralegals:

Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) is for students and entry-level professionals

Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and Certified Legal Professional (CLP) are for paralegals with at least three years of legal work experience

Professional Paralegal (PP) is for students graduating from an ABA-approved legal studies program or those with five years of experience

Tools and Technology for Paralegals

Some paralegals also function as office managers, conducting various administrative tasks to ensure that everything in a law office or firm runs smoothly on a daily basis. In order to do this, paralegals should have knowledge of legal administrative systems, billing practices and accounting systems. Computer literacy is also important as law offices become increasingly reliant on electronic databases, legal forums, and legal software for administration and conducting legal research.

Below are just some of the technology systems paralegals may encounter in the workplace.

Accounting Integration MyCase, CosmoLex, Actionstep, PracticePanther Legal Software, HoudiniESQ, CasetrackerLaw
Billing and Invoicing RocketMatter, BillQuick Legal, AbacusLaw, Amicus Attorney, Advantage Law, Knowify, BigTime Software
Case and Client History CoCounselor, Clio, Gavel, Case Manager Pro, LegalXGen, Needles Case Management, CaseSync, EveryClient (Legal)
Client Database Acumin by Dexco, BHL Insight, CaseLode, LegalTrek, MyCase, AbacusLaw, BigTime Software, Clio
Document Management CosmoLex, CoCounselor, HoudiniESQ, Amicus Attorney, CasetrackerLaw, Best Client Practice Management

Paralegal Job Growth and Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, projects paralegal employment to rise by 10 percent by 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Over 35,000 jobs will be added to the profession by 2029. Many large corporations will hire paralegals, with a new focus on hiring in-house counsel rather than retaining outside law firms. Paralegals with very strong computer skills should see the greatest opportunities.

To see more on employment or job growth for paralegals, select a state below.

5 States with the Highest Employment for Paralegals

Related Public Service Careers

When you choose to become a paralegal, you will gain skills and education that could serve you well in related job opportunities. Related occupations such as claims adjusters, occupational health and safety technicians, secretaries and administrative assistants, or social workers performing as witness advocates could be a perfect fit for those who choose a career path similar to that of a paralegal. The average salaries and projected job growth for these related occupations according to the BLS are as follows:

Lawyer

  • Job Growth: 4%
  • Salary: $126,930
  • Education and Training: Doctoral or Professional Degree

Judge

  • Job Growth: 2%
  • Salary: $124,200
  • Education and Training: Doctoral or Professional Degree

Secretaries and Administrative Assistants

  • Job Growth: -9%
  • Salary: $40,990
  • Education and Training: H.S Diploma or Equivalent

Witness Advocates (Social Workers)

  • Job Growth: 13%
  • Salary: $51,760
  • Education and Training: Bachelor’s Degree and/or Master’s Degree, State Certification

Insurance Claim Adjusters

  • Job Growth: -6%
  • Salary: $68,130
  • Education and Training: H.S. Diploma, Vocational Training, or Bachelor’s Degree

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

  • Job Growth: 4%
  • Salary: $72,530
  • Education and Training: Bachelor’s Degree

Mediators

  • Job Growth: 8%
  • Salary: $66,130
  • Education and Training: Bachelor’s Degree

Post-Secondary Teachers

  • Job Growth: 9%
  • Salary: $80,790
  • Education and Training: Master’s or Doctoral Degree

What Do Related Occupations Make?

Understanding what related occupations earn can help current and potential students and graduates get a better idea of what they can expect to earn if they pursue a career as a paralegal or transition to another field. Related occupations will perform similar administrative duties as paralegals such as document preparation, filing, and organization in legal settings such as:

Below are the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile for wages of jobs related to and including paralegals.

Paralegal and Related Job Salaries

Related Careers at a Glance

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Erin Gobler
Contributing Writer

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