Attorneys handle reams of data, information and evidence on a daily basis. As a paralegal you’ll become a lawyer’s right hand man or woman to sort, organize, read and respond to all that legal documentation. A paralegal or legal assistant has an critical function in the legal world.
The terms legal assistant and paralegal are often used interchangeably, similarly to the way we use attorney and lawyer, according to the National Association of Legal Assistants. Both paralegals, or legal assistants, can help attorneys prepare for closings, hearings, trials and corporate meetings but they cannot give legal advice, represent a client in court, set a fee, or accept a case – all of which are generally considered the practice of law.
Part I. The Industry
The field of law is regulated by state, so the industry specifics may be different depending on where you work — keep that in mind as you start your research. Use this guide to help understand the regulations that apply where you want to work.
An Overview of the Field
Paralegals work in a variety of environments including organizations, state and local government or finance and insurance. However, most work in in law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.
Legal assistants and paralegals perform a wide range of functions:
- Investigate the facts of a case
- Conduct research on relevant laws, regulations, and legal articles
- Organize and present the information
- Keep information related to cases or transactions in computer databases
- Write reports to help lawyers prepare for trials
- Draft correspondence, contracts and mortgages
- Get affidavits and other formal statements to be used as evidence in court
- Help during trials
Duties are often determined by the size of the organization or firm. In a small legal firm, the paralegal may be relied upon to prepare written reports or assist with a case from the beginning all the way through to trial.
In a larger organization, paralegals are often hired to specialize in a specific phase of the case. For example, paralegals who specialize in litigation might review legal material, conduct research and collect and organize evidence for any number of cases — but it is unlikely they will attend or assist the attorney once the case goes to trial. Especially for those who want to work for larger organizations, paralegals will specialize in an area such as corporate law, personal injury, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate.
Some paralegals or legal assistants become a Certified Legal Assistant by passing the CLA exam. Administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) the exam requires at least 45 verifiable college semesters of hours in any field of study and completion of an educational program like the UTSA Paralegal Certificate Program. NALA sets its own eligibility requirements and fees, sponsors exam preparation review courses and administers the exam.
It is a voluntary certification process that can improve a resume, but it’s not an entry-level requirement to enter the field. It is best to check job descriptions and employer preferences to see if this could be an option for you.
The average paralegal earned $46,680 per year or $22.44 per hour in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). Where you live also matters — the highest-paid paralegal positions are typically in the big law firms in high-cost locations like urban cities including New York and San Francisco.
The recession forced many law firms to make staff cutbacks, and many are starting to rebuild their offices by hiring paralegals as oppose to lawyers to save costs and build a support staff. As a result, large companies are also starting to build their own legal departments rather than retaining outside counsel. The BLS estimates the demand for paralegals and legal assistants will grow by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, and job prospects are best for paralegals with experience and specialization in high-demand practice areas.
Part II. Top U.S. Programs
Paralegal and legal assistants typically enroll in a community college paralegal program and earn an associate’s degree in order to become a candidate for a position. Students enrolled in a bachelor’s or a master’s program may also find opportunities to earn a paralegal studies certificate — but only a small number of schools offer such programs. A few paralegals are also hired into entry-level positions without any experience and receive on-the-job training, but these opportunities usually require a bachelor’s degree. A degree in a background or foundation relevant to the law firm, such as criminal justice or environmental studies may also make for a more competitive application.
According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) 2008 Survey, the average compensation for certificate program graduates exceeded compensation for paralegal graduates from degree programs. So a bachelor’s degree in this field doesn’t necessarily equate to higher pay. A lot of paralegals come to the profession from other careers, which makes paralegals a dynamic population with many different life experiences.
Duke University (online)
“Duke’s rigorous paralegal program prepared me well for my job. The teachers really cared that we learned the material thoroughly and held us to high standards. I’m proud to say I’m a Duke Paralegal Program graduate. The Duke name led to interviews but it was the solid classwork that landed me the job.” – Karen, Spring 2011 Graduate
- Specialized degrees: Duke University’s Online Paralegal Certificate Program is based on the United States legal system and includes traditional texts, online lecture notes, mock exams, writing labs, and reference materials for each of the 50 states
- Industry perception: With an experienced U.S. attorney assigned as an instructor to each student for the duration of their studies, this program prepares its graduates well for the legal world.
- Tuition: The 300-hour course of study program has a tuition cost of $6,995, plus an additional $500 – $625 for books, which are not included. It can be completed in as little as five or six months, but the pace is determined by the student.
- Financial aid: Since the program credits are not applicable to a degree they aren’t eligible for federal education loans. There are several other options including loans such as the Sallie Mae Smart Options Loan or the Wells Fargo Collegiate Loan and Education Connection Loan or if you are eligible for funding through The Workforce Investment Act, which provides professional and basic skills training services to those who have been unable to find employment.
University of Texas at San Antonio (San Antonio and online)
“The UTSA Paralegal Program was wonderful; it taught me the skills I needed to be successful in this field, and most of all it gave me the opportunity to obtain the job I have.” – Blossem Tenneyson
- Specialized degrees: The 11-month program provides students with the UTSA Online Paralegal Certificate upon graduation and qualifies students to sit for the NALA National Certified Legal Assistant Exam. Students will need to clear about 10 hours a week to complete course requirements.
- Industry perception: The course includes a valuable career development portion dedicated to introducing students to the practical information they need to know to land a job, and sustain a career.
- Tuition: Tuition for the online program is $1,600 per semester, and a total of three semesters at a cost of $4,800.
- Financial aid: Since this program is a non-degree credit program it isn’t available for federal financial aid. Students who need help covering the tuition costs are advised to seek career training loans. USTA program participants are encouraged to apply for the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants (AAPA) merit scholarships if interested in practicing in Texas, or research similar AAPA scholarships for their geographic location. Some employers also offer tuition reimbursement, which is something students should consider.
George Washington University (Washington D.C. and online)
“The Paralegal graduate program provides an amazing education to anyone with any background, whether you are new to the field or have been a paralegal for 30 years. As The George Washington University has a well-respected name, I am proud to say I attended such an institution.” – Meredith Bruce
- Specialized degrees: The College Of Professional Studies in association with The George Washington University Law School offers students a number of options including an 8-month graduate certificate, 15-month master’s degree with specialization options including a concentration in Health Care Corporate Compliance.
- Industry perception: The graduate certificate can apply to a master’s program if a student adds the certificate coursework to a bachelor’s degree or completes the certificate independently. The master’s degree program provides students with advanced promotion and occupation opportunities within the field.
- Tuition: The 18-credit graduate certificate tuition is around $13,500 and the master’s degree requires an additional $10,500.
- Financial aid: Students are eligible for federal financial aid including loans, grants, work-study and scholarships through the FAFSA.
University of California, Berkeley (online & hybrid)
“This is a program designed by paralegals for paralegals. It’s a program that we plan out very carefully and its approved through the UC Berkeley Academic Policy Committee as well as the BOLT School of Law” – Tom McGuire program director
- Specialized degrees: The Certificate Program in Paralegal Studies requires a high school diploma or equivalent, access to a computer and basic word-processing skills — it is perfect for career changers or those with limited legal experience or a basic interest in the field.
- Industry perception: Quality instruction is a guarantee since instructors are lawyers and members of the State Bar of California, and have earned the approval of UC Berkeley faculty with their teaching ability and expertise. You can test-drive the online system to see if the format works for you here.
- Tuition: The certificate has an estimated tuition cost of $7,000 (not including course materials) and can be completed at the rate determined by the student, but no less than six months.
- Financial aid: You will need to find private sources of funding to cover the cost of the program – either through the loan programs listed above, outside scholarships or through a tuition reimbursement program through your employer.
Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana and online)
“My experience at Ivy tech has been phenomenal. If I would have known 10 years ago how easy it would be I would have started 10 years ago. It has been a wonderful experience.” — Jeanna Dunne, student
- Specialized degrees: Ivy Tech offers two options: an Associate of Science degree prepares students to transfer to a university and pursue a baccalaureate degree; and the Associate of Applied Science in Paralegal Studies prepares students for career entry or advancement in a current job. These programs are offered on a number of campuses, as well as through Ivy Tech Online.
- Industry perception: Starting at acommunity college is a great way to get experience in the field at a lower cost. Ivy Tech offers many of the same courses and programs as other community colleges across the country so it may be best to check-out your local community college first.
- Tuition: $111.15 per credit hour for Indiana residents and out-of-state tuition is $239.40 per credit hour. Both programs require approximately 60-65 credit hours for graduation.
- Financial aid: Students are eligible for a range of financial aid options including anything offered through FAFSA. Students are advised to contact the Office of Financial Aid for assistance.
Part III. Launching a Career
Since there are so many different entry points to the paralegal field you should do the research to consider your needs and interests before you begin your search.
Organizing the Job Search
Since there are credential, certificate and degree programs at two and four year schools you might need some tools to narrow down your list. Consider the following:
- The American Bar Association (ABA) offers a directory of approved programs across the 50 states. There are more than 1,000 formal paralegal training programs in the U.S., but less than 300 are approved by the ABA. The ABA approves programs if they meet certain standards and pay a fee — some institutions determine that ABA approval doesn’t doing anything to enhance the quality of the certificate, and may have other negative influences (like increased student tuition). Since some employers require training from an ABA-approved program it is wise to research job listings and determine employer requirements.
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers a suggested curriculum that you can use to compare with a program you are considering.
- NFPA and the American Association for Paralegal Education also offer a guide to obtaining quality paralegal training that may help you grasp the components and format of a program that will best prepare you for the field.
- Though major bodies such as NFPA endorse distance education and online courses as a viable training for the paralegal field, it may be wise to seek some practical training and experience through internships or volunteer opportunities in areas such as drafting legal documents and research. Consider looking at career center options at your institution or online such as the NFPA center.
As a paralegal you’ll have to learn how to vet through large amounts of data and information to find what’s most important — so don’t let the wide array of education and career options bog you down. Find what works best for you and get started!