How Do You Become a Paralegal?

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If you are interested in working in the legal process but don’t want to invest the time or money in becoming a lawyer, you might wonder about becoming a paralegal. Forbes Magazine lists paralegal as the number one most under-rated profession. The field isn’t well known, and it doesn’t typically involve six-figure salaries, but for the right person, being a paralegal could be very fulfilling. How does someone become a paralegal?

What is a Paralegal?

According to the American Bar Association, a paralegal is someone “qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity, and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” These professionals prepare paperwork for an attorney, interview clients, review legal papers, assist clients with the naturalization process, or work with clients to assess whether there is a basis for a legal action. They conduct research and investigations and help the attorney prepare for court. They cannot represent clients in court proceedings. They are not allowed to give legal advice or accept pay for representing a party to establish legal rights or to get redress for wrongs. Paralegals must work under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

Is there a Difference Between a Legal Assistant and a Paralegal?

At one time, the two were synonymous. In some court rulings and legal guidelines they still are. There are significant differences in their jobs, however. Legal assistants are secretaries. They may help prepare files for mailing, but they are not involved in researching them or in preparing the documents contained in the files. Legal assistants answer the phone, take messages and do billing among other duties. Paralegals work with legal issues. The word the American Bar Association uses for the work paralegals do is “substantive.” That means they are important and meaningful, and are things for which the attorney is usually responsible.

What Does the Job Pay?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists median pay for paralegals as $49,500. That amount is an average and some paralegals make much less, while a few make as much as $80,000. You will make more if you live in a large city, if you work for a large firm or if you work in a law specialty area. Your experience may also affect your salary, as will your education level.

How Do You Become a Paralegal?

The first step in becoming a paralegal is to find an accredited training program. Many paralegals begin with an associate’s degree, but nearly every employer requires at least a certificate of training. Some paralegals earn bachelor’s or even master’s degrees, and even earn a law degree. Once you get your education, you should find employment with an attorney or a law firm that offers on-the-job-training as well, so that you can get work experience in several areas. After gaining experience, you should seek to become a certified paralegal. One organization that provides certification is the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. They offer certification at two levels. The Paralegal Core Competency Exam is for paralegals with associate or bachelor’s degrees and work experience. The candidate must have at least six years of experience if he has an associate degree, or three years of experience if he has a bachelor’s degree. The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam is for those individuals with an advanced degree and several years of work experience. While certification is not required by every employer, it certainly is an asset.

If you have an interest in legal proceedings and an aptitude for detailed work, this might be a great profession for you. While it isn’t glamorous or high-paid, it can be rewarding. Becoming a paralegal takes less time and costs less than becoming a lawyer, but lets you work in the legal environment.

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