With no legal requirements for certification or licensure of any kind in the paralegal profession, law offices and other employers effectively set the standards for the paralegals they hire. Without rigid requirements in place, many are left to wonder exactly what steps they should be taking to impress prospective employers and become a paralegal.
Is completing a one-year professional certificate program sufficient, or is a paralegal program at the associate, bachelor’s, or even master’s level a better choice? … Or does it make more sense to enter the field without an education in paralegal studies and learn on the job?
The answer to these questions is not always clear-cut. In fact, depending on the type of law, the setting, and the employer– the answer may be distinctly different.
In an effort to establish guidelines for paralegal programs and bring some type of consistency and uniformity to the profession, a number of national paralegal organizations have developed core competencies for paralegal preparation, which often includes completing some type of formal paralegal program, gaining experience, and voluntarily earning a national credential.
Here’s the steps you’ll need to take to develop skills in accordance with the established core competencies and gain the credentials employers are looking for when hiring a paralegal:
|Complete a Formal Paralegal Education Program Consisting of At Least 18 Semester Hours of Paralegal-Specific Courses|
|Gain Professional Legal Experience|
|Earn Paralegal Professional Certification|
|Consider Different Areas of Law and Find a Job|
Step 1. Complete a Formal Paralegal Education Program Consisting of At Least 18 Semester Hours of Paralegal-Specific Courses
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the paralegal field is open to individuals with varying work experience and educational backgrounds. This also applies to paralegal education programs: admission requirements, length of program, and program design/characteristics vary considerably from one institution to the next.
ABA-approved paralegal programs may be:
- Two-year community and junior college programs
- Four-year college or university programs
- Business and proprietary school programs
According to the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), all paralegals should complete some form of paralegal education, offered through a program specifically designed to provide paralegal education. The program should include no fewer than 18 semester credit hours of paralegal classes and must be from an educational program that is:
- An institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education; OR
- Approved by the American Bar Association (ABA); OR
- A post-secondary program that requires the completion of at least 60 semester credit hours
The AAfPE recognizes paralegals as qualified if they possess the following:
- An associate or baccalaureate degree or equivalent coursework
- A credential in paralegal education completed through one of the following:
- Associate degree
- Baccalaureate degree (major, minor, or concentration)
- Master’s degree
According to the AAfPE a paralegal education should consist of both substantive legal knowledge and professional skills that incorporate legal theory and an understanding of practical applications.
The AAfPE recognizes that paralegal education programs should incorporate the responsibilities and competences expected of today’s employers into a well-designed curriculum that emphasizes peer to peer and student to faculty interactions, as well as assignments that teach practical paralegal skills.
Further, paralegal education programs should include classes that cover the following topics:
- Delivery of legal services
- Law offices and related environments
- Law-related computer skills
- Legal interviewing and investigation
- Legal research and writing
- Substantive and procedural law
- The American legal system
- The paralegal profession
All programs should also offer an experiential learning component, such as an internship, practicum, or clinical experience.
To become a paralegal, the AAfPE also recognizes that students should possess a basic understanding of American history, business, and political systems, as well as:
- Critical thinking skills (judgment, analysis, research, and problem-solving)
- Communication skills (oral, written, interpersonal, and nonverbal)
- Computer skills
- Computational skills
- An understanding of ethics
- Organizational skills
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) also recommends a formal educational program for paralegals that, at minimum, is ABA-approved or otherwise offered through an accredited institution and that consists of at least 60 semester hours.
However, NALA also recognizes the following as adequate preparation to become a paralegal:
- A bachelor’s degree in any field, plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
- At least 3 years of experience, supervised by an attorney, including at least 6 months of training as a paralegal (in-house)
- At least 2 years of training as a paralegal (in-house)
Step 2. Gain Professional Legal Experience
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many employers prefer candidates with at least some experience in a law firm or other office setting. Experience also allows new paralegals to learn about any specific specialty area of law the attorneys at the law firm practice.
Most paralegal students gain field experience through a formal internship offered as part of their paralegal program and are not typically expected to gain any more pre-employment experience than this.
Not only does an internship allow students to begin building a resume for their paralegal career, but it also allows them to learn more about specialized areas of law, such as corporate, real estate, and environmental law, among many others.
Step 3. Earn Paralegal Professional Certification
Although there’s been discussion in the legal community in recent years about some kind of formal registration, certification, or licensing for paralegals, to date no state has implemented any regulatory requirements. A lack of legislation in the profession has led to a number of voluntary credentials, all of which require completing a formal paralegal program, experience, or a combination of the two to earn eligibility to take the associated certification examination:
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP)
- Candidates must take and pass the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE)
- PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
- Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE)
- Certified Paralegal (CP) credential
- Candidates must take and pass the Certified Paralegal/Certified Legal Assistant (CP/CLA) exam
- Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
- Candidates must take and pass the Professional Paralegal (PP) exam
- American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential
Several states have also developed state-specific competency examinations through cooperative efforts with state bar associations and/or paralegal associations. Among these states are Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Step 4. Consider Different Areas of Law and Find a Job
According to international professional staffing firm Robert Half, paralegals are in demand in a number of areas of specialty practice:
Litigation: Paralegals with litigation expertise are always in demand, particularly those with backgrounds in insurance, defense, personal injury, medical malpractice, employment law, and commercial litigation.
Business/Corporate Law: Increasing business demands require paralegals with expertise in securities, mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures.
Healthcare: The Affordable Care Act has resulted in an expanding healthcare industry and an increasing demand for paralegals to work for government agencies and medical providers.
Real Estate: A surging commercial real estate market has spurred the need for paralegals who can assist attorneys with the sale and transfer of commercial properties.
Intellectual Property: Technology-focused businesses demand protection in the form of patents and trademarks. Paralegals with expertise in intellectual property command top salaries.
Compliance: Demand for paralegals with compliance-related expertise is steady in both the corporate setting and in law firms.
Contract Administration: Corporate legal departments demand paralegals who can work alongside attorneys to initiate and manage contracts with customers, partners, vendors, and employees.
Private law firms remain the largest employers of paralegals, according to NALA. Other large employers include businesses, corporations, and governmental agencies. Some of the largest private law firms in the country include:
- Baker & McKenzie LLP, Chicago
- DLA Piper LLP, New York
- Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, Houston
- Jones Day, New York
- Hogan Lovells, Washington
- Dentons, New York
- Latham & Watkins LLP, New York
- K&L Gates, Washington