How to Become a Paralegal

A paralegal is now considered more than just an assistant to an attorney. Paralegals now play a vital role in the success of a law firm or corporation. This profession involves intensive research for the case they are preparing for the attorney. Paralegals also interview clients and help in preparing them for court.

Where Paralegals Work

There are many other opportunities open to paralegals besides working in a law firm. They can work and manage a legal department in a corporation or even open their own business and assist with divorces, wills and bankruptcy. Paralegals help prepare the paperwork for their client and let them know how to properly file the paperwork. However, they cannot give legal advice, nor represent their client in court. Paralegals may work in courthouses, legal clinics or government agencies as well. There are also many areas a paralegal can specialize in. Some areas of specialization may include Medical Malpractice Law, Real estate Law or Personal Injury.

How to Become a Paralegal

Law requires a ton of work. Research needs to be done, similar cases found, and arguments formed. While some of those tasks fall under the lawyer’s domain, behind every great lawyer is a team of great paralegals. Technically, a paralegal (or legal assistant) is defined as anyone with relevant education or training who is retained by an entity to perform substantial legal work. With a definition that vague, it isn’t always easy to determine what a paralegal does, and what courses you should take if you want to become one.

Paralegal Educational Requirements

The education requirements for becoming a paralegal can vary depending on the state or the type of place you want to work. Some law firms may require a Bachelor’s Degree, Associate Degree or some employers may accept a certificate in Paralegal Studies. The certificate would focus only on the study of law, legal research and legal writing. In addition to campus programs, there are also many online schools where you can obtain a certificate or a degree. When researching a paralegal school, be sure to find one that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Many employers require potential candidates to attend a school that is ABA approved.

Paralegal Degrees

Both colleges and universities may offer paralegal degrees. There will be a specific program that you’ll need to complete, most commonly done through a community college. While a bachelor’s degree will never hurt your chances at being hired, an associates degree is all that’s usually required. Note that students who attend a program certified by the American Bar Association will have a substantial advantage on those that take an uncertified course load. The reason for that is that law offices tend to prefer students with knowledge of ABA standards.

Typical Paralegal Courses

Students will find a large overlap between paralegal courses and pre-law courses. Both include courses in ethics, legal research, copyright, and a variety of general classes. Paralegals can choose to specialize in a few particular areas, such as administrative law or family law, or they can take a more varied approach. While specialization will help you when applying to particular firms, it also may lower the variety of law firms willing to hire you as a paralegal. As for optional courses, any course that relates to the criminal field can be used to your advantage.

Responsibilities & Skills for Paralegals

This is an excellent profession for someone who enjoys research and problem solving, which can be complex at times, but also very rewarding and interesting. Right now is a great time to enter a career path as a paralegal. The future is bright for paralegals with an estimated growth of 28% over the next decade, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most paralegals will need to be able to research and prepare a wide variety of legal documents, interview witnesses, and deal with busywork that the lawyers have no time for. One of the major differences between a lawyer and a paralegal is that a paralegal may not provide any legal advice and they are also unable to charge a fee to the client – the paralegal’s pay comes through their office.

Other Types of Paralegal Occupations

Law Librarian

Law librarians are vital members of the legal profession. As legal information professionals, law librarians might do any of the following in a typical workday:

  • conduct research for law firm employees, professors, and the public (for legal cases and publications)
  • select new library books, shelve books, and catalog materials
  • plan budgets
  • teach classes
  • supervise employees
  • Employers of law librarians range widely, in size, type of institution, and environment. This should make it easier for you to find your ideal setting as a law librarian. Law librarians work in the following institutions:

    • businesses (including legal publishers, insurance companies, and sports franchises)
    • law firms
    • government institutions (including county, state, and federal courts and libraries)
    • law schools

    What Education Do You Need To Become a Law Librarian?

    According to the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), to become a law librarian, you will need to complete a master’s in library science (MLS) from an American Library Association-accredited library school. In addition, some law libraries and firm libraries require Juris Doctor (JD) degrees for public services and administrative positions. Completing an MLS degree usually takes 2-3 years. A JD degree usually requires 3 years of study.

    In addition to earning your MLS or JD, the AALL notes that the best law librarians are effective communicators, good collaborators, persuasive negotiators, multi-taskers, strong teachers/trainers, and have excellent technology skills. Many of these skills can be polished through MLS or JD degree programs. If you’re ready to learn more about becoming a law librarian, read more here.

    Law Clerk

    Law clerks must have a college degree and a legal background, and a criminal justice degree can be valuable credential for those pursuing this profession.

    Law Clerks Provide Vital Assistance to Lawyers and Judges

    Law clerks perform a number of duties to help attorneys and judges, including research and creation of legal documents as well as assistance during court cases. Researching and writing are core duties for a law clerk. A law clerk can assist in court room proceedings, brief and educate judges on particular issues, and interact with all players involved in court case.

    There are many different types of law clerks, including: State appellate clerks, Federal appellate clerks, and Federal district clerks.

    Career as a Law Clerk

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for legal professionals of all kinds is expected to grow about as fast or faster than average for most professions. This projected growth is related to an expanding population and society’s increased legal needs for issues such as criminal and environmental law, health care, intellectual property, privacy concerns and senior issues.

    People pursue a career as a law clerk for different reasons. Some are recent law school grads who pursue jobs as law clerks to gain valuable court room and legal experience that they can use to advance their careers as attorneys. Others make a career as a law clerk, often becoming permanent fixtures of a judge’s courtroom staff.

    A legal background and a bachelor’s degree are prerequisite to pursue a career as a law clerk, and a criminal justice degree can prepare you for this growing profession.

    Nurse Paralegal

    The law is complex, with lots of moving parts. As such, each area of the law has its own experts. Lawyers may specialize in family law, criminal law, or contract law, among a myriad of other possibilities. However, when it comes to legal matters that involve health or medical issues, a nurse paralegal is the expert. A nurse paralegal may work as an independent contractor, or may be employed full-time by a company.

    Responsibilities of a Paralegal Nurse

    The medical field requires a vast array of knowledge – knowledge the typical lawyer may not have. Traditionally, some firms would get around this by using a registered nurse as a legal expert, but in modern times, nurse paralegals are the norm. Nurse paralegals must be able to read complex medical documents, explain them in general terms, and determine how the document applies to the medical claim or issue. As such, a nurse paralegal must be proficient in both medicine and law.

    Medical journals, insurance companies, and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) may all require a nurse paralegal at different times. Insurance companies will require the nurse paralegal when investigating malpractice claims, and HMOs require the paralegal to oversee contracts and any disputes rising from those contracts. If a case involving medical malpractice goes to trial, workers’ compensation will usually ask for a nurse paralegal to testify as an expert witness.

    A nurse paralegal is expected to maintain neutrality, particularly when it comes to court cases and helping companies with negotiations. The paralegal’s objectivity and ability to deal with complex medial issues are assets.

    Nurse Paralegal Training

    Nurse paralegals are usually expected to have a registered nurse degree, and experience working in a hospital or in the medical field is almost universally required. A two-year associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree may be required, depending on the organization hiring. Any type of training or professional certifications as a paralegal nurse will be a major asset. As a nurse paralegal is expected to be well-versed in both medicine and law, any experience in either category will help their career prospects.