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How to Become a Paralegal & Legal Assistant

Student learns how to become a paralegal.

The legal profession holds many different career opportunities. For those who do not want to pursue the formal training to become an attorney, the roles of a paralegal or legal assistant might appeal. This article will explore how to become a paralegal and legal assistant alongside each profession’s skills, salaries, and work environment.

Paralegals Explained

A paralegal is a highly trained and educated person who works under the guidance and supervision of an attorney. A paralegal helps an attorney draft legal documents, research, arrange files of cases for use in court, state terms of reference, and record proceedings. Paralegals carry out different kinds of duties depending on the legal firm. Some other responsibilities include:

  • Investigation of cases
  • Conducting research for trials
  • Organizing documents
  • Gathering evidence
  • Summarizing reports
  • Drafting correspondence
  • Obtaining affidavits
  • Filing legal documents
  • Communicating with people involved with the cases

Steps to Becoming A Paralegal

1. Get a Paralegal Education

One of the first steps to becoming a paralegal is to get a proper education. A paralegal education can be a six-month certificate program or a one-year or two-year program in paralegal studies. In addition, one can apply for a bachelor’s program and earn a degree to become a paralegal.

2. Get trained in a legal firm or establishment

One needs a wide range of training or some basic training in the paralegal field. Enrolling in a legal firm or legal establishment helps you acquire experiences that will help you in the legal area.

3. Choose a Specialty

Choose a field to specialize in and become an expert in that field. Specializing would help you gain much experience and create a niche of expertise. There are several fields such as litigation, government paralegals, estate planning, labor law paralegals, etc. Each of these fields of specialization has the exciting and promising experience and requirements to make you a specialist in your area of choice.

4. Get a Paralegal Certification

Certification gives you more recognition and acknowledgment. Many of these certification courses involve some form of examination that evaluates your expertise, skill sets, and knowledge in legal assistant work. Therefore, you must obtain a paralegal certification for easy endorsement, acceptance, and reception.

5. Gain Experience

Volunteering has been one proven and veritable way of gaining experience in any field of work. The knowledge you acquire as a volunteer would help to prove you are valuable with exceptional skills birthed through experience. Volunteer experience would also help you in job evaluation, interview, and panel sessions.

A legal assistant performs administrative tasks for an attorney. Legal assistants work with attorneys to complete essential and outstanding tasks. Their jobs often include some elements of the administration of duties, customer service, and coordination.

Legal assistants help attorneys with different tasks, including:

  • Conducting legal research
  • Drafting and reviewing documents
  • Keeping good communications with prospective clients
  • Preparing for hearings, trials, and meetings
  • Organizing and maintaining files.

Some states require a high school diploma to become legal assistants. Some legal assistants may have an associate’s degree or a certificate in legal studies. Legal assistants must be highly organized and detail-oriented and have strong communication skills.

Steps to Becoming A Legal Assistant

1. Gain Required Education

The very first step to becoming a legal assistant involves gaining an education. Legal assistants can get a legal-related associate degree or a baccalaureate degree. After finishing these programs, graduates must be able to perform the primary duties of legal assistants. Apart from gaining education, the time spent in school provides students with opportunities to build a network.

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2. Gain Experience

Most employers ask for working experience, so this step improves the chances of getting a job. To gain experience, graduates can apply for internship roles in legal organizations.

3. Develop Skill Set

Legal assistants are required to carry out a variety of duties. To carry out these duties, they need specific skills. These skills develop while pursuing an education. These skills include writing skills, research skills, and computer skills.

Many people use the terms ‘paralegal’ and ‘legal assistant’ interchangeably. Using the terms interchangeably creates confusion between the two. Both paralegals and legal assistants serve as assistants to attorneys. Still, the difference between these roles lies in their job duties. While paralegals perform tasks directly related to litigation, legal assistants perform administrative support. In law firms, paralegals are focused on legal documentation while legal assistants do more scheduling. Paralegals take on drafting pleadings, contracts, leases, and other legal documents. They also assist attorneys with trial preparation. On the other hand, legal assistants perform tasks like drafting correspondence, organizing files, transcribing audio files, answering phone calls, and billing clients.

There are no particular educational requirements for legal assistants, and most times, it depends on the employer’s standards. Graduates with associate degrees can become legal assistants. However, some employers prefer to employ graduates with relevant college degrees. Based on the duties legal assistants perform, it is required that they are competent with computer applications like Microsoft Office Suite (Word Excel, and PowerPoint).

To become a paralegal, aspirants must have either an associate degree in paralegal studies or a BSc degree. Some community colleges offer two-year programs in paralegal studies, and universities have four-year paralegal programs. It is vital to ensure that they are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) when choosing a program.

Communication

One of the fundamental skills needed by a paralegal or legal assistant is communication. Communication effectively and efficiently can help professionals stand out in their careers. Everything boils down to communication, including:

  • Scheduling meetings with clients
  • Drafting documents for cases
  • Recording cases
  • Sorting out files
  • Sending reminders
  • Researching and documenting cases

Writing

Excellent writing ability is a highly required skill in legal work. A paralegal must possess excellent writing skills to help draft resolutions, agreements, contract documents, proceedings, and judgments. Persuasive written and compelling communication help set them apart from other people in the same field.

Research and Investigative Skills

Excellent research skill is an added advantage to paralegal work. Internet proficiency also helps in research and legal research databases. Paralegals must know how to document and cite cases properly.

Technology Skills

Technology skills have become one of the most highly demanded skills due to virtual court sessions. Paralegals and legal assistants need technology skills to document cases and hearings using different software and host and maintain virtual meetings.

Duties of a Paralegal

File Organization

In legal environments, paralegals organize files and legal documents. They make use of manual or electronic file organization skills.

Maintenance of Correspondence

Paralegals are responsible for answering calls and messages from clients. They respond to these messages and ensure that everything is well organized and maintained. Of course, they communicate these messages with the attorney.

Preparation of Legal Documents

Sometimes, the duties of paralegals and legal assistants overlap. Paralegals can prepare legal documents like briefs, contracts, and appeals, depending on the organizational setup.

Managing Client Communications and Customer Service

A legal assistant manages and controls all forms of communication with clients. They ensure good customer service through communicating with proposed clients and making follow-up calls for meetings for consultations. The legal assistant is also responsible for answering calls and emails and responding to a live chat session. An excellent legal assistant can help make a law firm’s communications more responsive. With legal assistants, firms can deliver a better client-centered experience.

Calendar Coordination

Legal assistants schedule meetings and interviews and make appointments for lawyers and clients. They choose dates for the clients and efficiently plan for such a meeting.

Legal Research and Writing

The legal assistant helps to conduct legal research and draft and proofread legal documents and correspondences.

Where Paralegals Work

Paralegals can work within and outside the legal environment. Many if not all sectors have legal aspects. Due to this, legal practitioners like paralegals have various job opportunities.

  • Government Agencies

While working in a government agency, paralegals primarily serve as a support system to the attorney. Their specific work duties will vary depending on the government department. In government agencies, paralegals review office correspondence, keep track of legal documents and prepare presentations for work events such as seminars.

  • Law Firms

Most legal professionals, including paralegals, work in law firms. Paralegals in this setting mainly report to the attorney. In law firms, they are responsible for communicating with clients. However, they cannot give legal advice. They also review documents, take statements from witnesses, and maintain the attorney’s schedule.

  • Real Estate Company

Paralegals who work in this area are sometimes known as real estate and title insurance paralegals. They support real estate lawyers and realtors in this setting. They organize closing checklists for property sales, provide clients with updates on property leases, and assess title documents.

Where Legal Assistants Work

Most legal assistants work in a law office. A handful of opportunities exist in unique fields of law to healthcare, from real estate to technology and non-governmental agencies/organizations. All these organizations need skilled legal assistants.

  • Law Firms

Most legal assistants work in private law firms. They work under attorneys, playing such roles as investigating facts and laws relating to cases, writing reports, compiling legal documents, and interviewing witnesses to gather evidence. The work usually requires much speed to keep up with deadlines.

  • Legal Corporations

A legal assistant in a corporation usually works with virtually all the sectors of the corporation. Here, legal assistants must know the laws and regulations of the corporation, the directors of boards, contracts, product licensing, taxes, and human resources. This position is usually very demanding. The outstanding advantage is that it allows for a variety of work. Those in a corporation often find more upward ascension on the professional ladder than in a private law firm.

  • Courts

For a legal assistant, courts are a great place to start. They offer firsthand experience and give ample time to learn from the attorney and judges. It is possible to find a position working for a judge to help with legal research and even assisting with drafting decisions. You could also work for a public attorney’s office to help put together cases for clients labeled with crime tags or terms of accusations for breaking the law. Excellent communication skills are in high demand to work effectively with judges, lawyers, clerks, clients, and law enforcement daily.

  • NGOs

Suppose you have interests in bettering the environment, education, social issues, or other causes. In that case, you can work for non-governmental organizations. Legal assistants who work in NGOs help advance the organization’s specific goals. These goals can include helping the poor with housing documentation, consultancy services, or even legal assistance to the oppressed. Most non-governmental organizations are usually non-profit and rely on public support, donations, and special grants for funding. A legal assistant who works here stands a chance of gaining so much experience as the work involves interacting with so many people of different backgrounds and affiliations.

  • Government

Government departments, establishments, and agencies across all levels offer rewarding employment to legal assistants. Your work may not be the same in every department or agency. However, a solid working intimacy exists for legal assistants, which helps bolster your skills and give you the needed exposure. The work in different government establishments ranges from housing law to healthcare to insurance regulations and public policies. A legal assistant who works here gains optimal experience and subsisting exposure in the public legal services.

Certifications Available to Paralegals

A certification will go a long way for legal assistants. For one, certificates help validate your knowledge and enhance your confidence. Certifications also look good on your resume and can help increase your earning power. Here are some of the top certifications a legal assistant can get:

Certified Paralegal (CP)

To get the Certified Paralegal certification, you need to meet some prerequisites, including two years of education or training after high school. Having about two years of work experience is also helpful for this certification. The examination for this certification falls into five different sections. It tests your writing and analytical skills. To pass the examination, candidates have a minimum score of 70%. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the certificate with a five-year renewal interval.

Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP)

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP). Candidates seeking this certification must have experience in the field, so it isn’t for beginners. The ACP examination tests candidates on different subjects, including legal research, legal analysis, ethics, written communication, etc. Like the Certified Paralegal certification, this certificate has a five-year renewal interval.

Professional Paralegal (PP)

The National Association for Legal Support (NALS) established the Professional Paralegal (PP) certification in 2004. It covers most areas of law. To be eligible for the PP certification, candidates must have two years of education after high school. Candidates should also have at least two years of work experience. The National Association for Legal Support (NALS) provides legal professionals with skills, tools, and resources.

Certification Legal Secretary Specialist: Intellectual Property (CLS)

If you’re interested in Intellectual property as a legal niche, you should probably take this certification examination. The tests for the CLS certification are rigorous, but it’s worth it. The tests cover most concepts in Intellectual Property Law. You’ll need to know about copyright, trademarks, patents, and ethics. To scale through this examination, you’ll need general secretarial knowledge. If you need resources, you can check the Code of Federal Regulations, United States Code Annotated, and information furnished by the United States Office. Unlike the first certifications on our list, the Legal Secretaries International Inc offers the CLS.

Professional Legal Secretary (PLS)

The National Association for Legal Support (NALS) offers this certification. The exam tests your knowledge of general law and office skills. Like most certifications, you need at least two years of post-high school education and work experience. The examination is divided into four parts and takes only one day to complete. Candidates must know how to communicate with legal staff and have general knowledge of legal procedures in the United States. The NALS has detailed information and resources for this certification on its website.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, legal assistants and paralegals earned an estimated $56,230 in May 2021. Professionals in the top 10% earned above $88,640, while those in the bottom 10% made a figure below $36,410.

Paralegals and legal assistants working for the federal government topped the list of the highest earners in the profession with $69,680. Professionals working in finance and insurance come next with an estimated $64,740. The lowest-paying employers for paralegals and legal assistants are at the state government level, with an estimated salary of $49,350.

The excellent news for those who desire to become paralegals and legal assistants is that employment prospects for both occupations look bright. According to the BLS, there should be a 12% growth in legal assistants and paralegals from 2020 to 2030. This increase is higher than the national average for all occupations. In that period, the BLS predicts that there’ll be around 43,00 job openings annually. Most of the openings will stem from the need to replace retirees or workers who switch jobs.

Additionally, more and more law firms will hire legal assistants and paralegals as they seek to reduce costs while delivering efficient legal services. In the bid to reduce costs, paralegals might merge some of their traditional duties with the responsibilities of a legal secretary. Hiring paralegals are also a cheaper alternative to lawyers. They can take on some roles performed by entry-level lawyers—all of these points to an increased demand for paralegals and legal assistants.

While law firms remain the biggest paralegals and legal assistants employers, more large corporations such as insurance firms, healthcare providers, and consulting firms will need their services.

Next Step

With a high demand for paralegals and legal assistants, anyone willing to pursue this career path is sure of gainful employment. The benefits and experience are boundless, and professionals can also advance their careers for higher pay. Visit our education resource center to learn more about the best online paralegal programs and other career paths in the legal field.

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