How Do I Become a Paralegal?

If you’re interested in the law, you may be asking yourself the question, “How do I become a paralegal?” Paralegals are assistants in the legal profession. The term ‘legal assistant’ is sometimes used to refer to a paralegal. In the United States, a paralegal works under the supervision of lawyers and assists with preparation for legal matters, including performing research and writing tasks associated with a lawyer’s work. Unlike a legal secretary, a paralegal doesn’t perform clerical and administrative tasks so much as work behind-the-scenes to assist an attorney with a legal case, doing such tasks as researching and fact-checking information, writing and reviewing legal documents and communicating with clients. A paralegal also may attend and help attorneys during legal proceedings, such as trials, depositions and real estate sale closings.

Other job duties depend on the area of law in which a paralegal specializes. For example, a paralegal who works under a criminal defense lawyer might draft the questions that a witness may be asked during a trial. Paralegals work in virtually every legal specialty, including bankruptcy, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, environmental law, estate planning, family law, finance law, immigration, intellectual property, jail credit, litigation, personal injury, real estate and trademarks. Most paralegals work for law firms, but some are employed by the legal departments of corporations or by the government at the local, state or federal level.

Unlike lawyers, paralegals do not hold a license to practice law from the American Bar Association (ABA), so they are not legally allowed to perform certain tasks, like advising clients on legal matters. The paralegal profession also differs from that of the legal document assistant (LDA), because LDAs prepare legal documents without the supervision of an attorney, while paralegals must work under attorney supervision.

Paralegals must develop strong skills in researching, writing and presenting information. They should be well-organized and comfortable with computers and public speaking. In addition, they must learn the legal terminology and laws relevant to their area of specialty, and they must have a solid understanding of the legal system.

Some paralegals train for their positions through on-the-job experience only, but it is more common for aspiring paralegals to acquire some formal education for their career. The ABA, the same organization that provides accreditation for law schools, currently approves over 270 paralegal education programs offered by two- and four-year colleges and technical institutes across the United States. Many paralegals begin their careers with an associate or bachelor’s degree, though advanced programs culminating in master’s degrees also exist. Other paralegal programs grant certificates upon completion. Some certificate programs can be completed in as little as a few months, though they may require intense study and coursework. Paralegal education programs usually include law-related courses, such as legal research, and also may include an internship with a law firm, a corporate legal department or local, state or federal government agency.

The paralegal field currently is not regulated by the government, but paralegals may choose to seek certification from professional organizations, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants and National Federation of Paralegal Associations to improve their career prospects.

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