Paralegals, sometimes called legal assistants, possess specialized training obtained through on-the-job training, formal education or both, according to NALA -- the National Association of Legal Assistants. Working under the direction of attorneys, paralegals assist in case preparation by interviewing clients and witnesses, performing research, writing reports, drafting motions, securing affidavits and filing court papers. Most paralegals have education in, and experience with, the legal system and legal methods and techniques.
Post-secondary training programs, be they certificate or formal degree programs, require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. If you know that you’re going to pursue a career as a paralegal, taking appropriate classes in high school can give you a leg up on the competition when you enter a paralegal program. Course work in computers, library science, shorthand or dictation, typing, civics and government, business, and any legal classes will lay a good foundation for paralegal training.
Although the American Bar Association, or ABA, has identified more than 1,000 U.S. schools and institutions that offer post-secondary paralegal programs, the organization recognizes only about 260 as “approved” according to ABA guidelines. This includes non-degree certificate programs offered through universities, community colleges, business schools and vocational schools. Paralegal programs normally have slightly higher standards for admission than those required, for example, by a community college for a general curriculum or liberal arts student. Paralegal certificate programs focus strictly on legal training and normally don’t provide a general liberal arts curriculum. The ABA provides a website listing all of its approved paralegal programs. You can pursue a paralegal certificate directly out of high school or as an adjunct to your current career experience as a legal assistant.
Associate’s degrees are offered through junior colleges, community colleges and some four-year schools. Unlike paralegal certificate programs, an associate’s degree program provides a more balanced liberal arts education, including course work in economics, psychology and history. The core emphasis is on written and spoken communication skills, English, computer use and applications, research, legal ethics, general law and introductory paralegal courses. Specific areas of paralegal studies also may be provided, such as criminal, corporate and real estate law; divorce and family law; estate planning, probate and wills; medical law; and torts and insurance law. Although most paralegals are employed by law firms, many work for legal departments within firms that specialize in certain business like real estate.
A bachelor’s degree may include a major in paralegal law or, more likely, a major in an area such as real estate or business with a minor in paralegal studies. Bachelor of art or bachelor of science degrees also are awarded in subjects like criminal justice or political science, also accompanied by a paralegal minor.
Most states don’t have formal licensing or certification requirements for paralegals, although some do have requirements for practicing as a paralegal. Oklahoma, for instance, requires legal assistants and paralegals to meet one of seven established criteria in order to work and be identified as a paralegal. Qualifications include completing the NALA Certified Legal Assistant Exam or the PACE exam administered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations; successful completion of an ABA-approved training program or a non-ABA-approved, accredited program; or a two-year or four-year degree from an accredited program. Although certification by one or more national certification bodies isn’t mandatory, most employers look for it. Aside from NALA and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, other certifying organizations include NALS, the association for legal professionals, and the American Alliance of Paralegals.
A job-growth rate much higher than the national average for all occupations -- 28 percent -- is projected for paralegals through 2018. Paralegals and legal assistants make a median salary of $46,980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.