How To Become a Paralegal

How to Become a ParalegalThere’s no one set path to becoming a paralegal, but the right education will get you well on your way. Paralegals come from a variety of backgrounds: some fulfilled other administrative roles in legal offices, while others transitioned from separate careers entirely. Unlike lawyers, paralegals do not need a juris doctor, nor do they need to adhere to state licensing requirements or take the bar exam. In fact, only one state (California) has specifications determining who is eligible to refer to themselves as a “paralegal.” Because of the complexity of the law, it’s nearly impossible to enter this field without the appropriate education. An understanding of legal processes, logic, and ethics is required, and a paralegal education such as a paralegal certificate program at Boston University can prepare you to excel.

In this article, we’ll cover the steps to becoming a paralegal, provide a glimpse of employment demand, and offer tips for landing a job that suits your goals and talents.

Education Options for Paralegals

The first step to becoming a paralegal is acquiring the base knowledge needed to assist attorneys in their practice. A paralegal’s work involves researching laws and precedents, preparing and organizing documents, conducting investigations, interviewing clients and witnesses, creating reports, and much more.

Paralegal Certificate Programs vs. Baccalaureate/Associate Programs

The most popular options for paralegal education are certificate programs and degree (bachelor’s or associate’s) programs. The right choice for you depends on a number of factors, but you’ll want to choose one that teaches the core competencies set by the American Association for Paralegal Education. These competencies are:

  • Computer skills
  • Critical thinking, organizational, and communication skills
  • Industry knowledge and ethics
  • Interviewing and Investigation
  • Legal research and writing

Let’s take a look at the differences between paralegal certificates and degree programs.

Certificate Programs

Paralegal certificate programs are generally quicker and less expensive to complete than bachelor’s and associate degree programs. Courses focus strictly on paralegal education, so electives and concentrations generally aren’t included. That said, the curriculum will cover multiple aspects of the paralegal profession, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to find areas that pique your interest. Additionally, obtaining a paralegal certificate can ignite interest in attending law school due to exposure to legal issues, developing a passion for the field, aligning with career goals, enabling professional growth, and fulfilling personal aspirations. You can dive deeper into these areas through continuing education or internships.

Requirements in terms of prior education and experience differ across institutions. While it is beneficial to complete general education courses or have a few years of work experience, many programs accommodate students with varying levels of education and work history.

As such, paralegal certificate programs are suitable for people with an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or professional credential. Some may also accept students with a high school diploma or GED.

Bachelor’s and Associate Degree Programs

Paralegal bachelor’s and associate degree programs are longer and more expensive to complete. They incorporate general education courses such as English composition and mathematics into the required curriculum, providing a foundational education that can support you outside the paralegal field. Additionally, bachelor’s programs often offer concentrations or dual-degree opportunities, allowing for a wide-ranging education suitable for a number of different roles.

That said, if you’ve already completed a postsecondary program, or you know for certain that you want to be a paralegal, your time, energy, and money may be better invested in completing a paralegal certificate. Paralegal bachelor’s and associate programs are suitable for people who have not yet earned a degree and/or want to enter a master’s degree program in the field of law.

Paralegal Education Requirements

As noted earlier, paralegal programs are open to individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, so admission requirements vary. While many students wonder about GPAs, test scores, and/or required years of work experience, it’s also important to remember the value of interpersonal skills. Working as a paralegal requires collaboration and interaction with lawyers, clients, judges, witnesses, and law enforcement.

The American Bar Association recommends that aspiring paralegals have or develop their:

  • Analytical reasoning capabilities
  • Sense of motivation, maturity, and responsibility
  • Written and verbal communication skills

Entering the Paralegal Industry

U.S. News & World Report ranks paralegal as the #7 best social services job, with the greatest benefit of the role being its future growth. Recent shifts in the need for legal services have introduced the idea of expanding a paralegal’s capabilities, perhaps even allowing them to provide legal advice.

Spurning this change in thought is the cost of obtaining a lawyer. The constitutional right to an attorney, which grants a lawyer to individuals who cannot afford one, only applies in criminal proceedings. People dealing with divorces, evictions, adoptions, child custody cases, immigration, and other civil issues must either pay for a lawyer out of pocket or hope someone will take their case pro bono.

Many legal professionals and advocates see this situation as a civil rights issue, believing that the ability to pay should not prohibit people from receiving competent legal representation in any capacity. To make such representation more accessible, advocates are fighting to make it permissible for trained non-lawyers to perform specific tasks previously restricted to attorneys. In one example from North Carolina, paralegals and the Justice For All Project have sued the state’s attorney general over rules that prevent non-lawyers from giving legal advice, which the paralegals argue is a violation of their First Amendment rights. This challenge is part of a broader movement that aims to make legal services more accessible to everyone by closing the “access to justice gap” for those who earn too much to qualify for legal aid but cannot afford an attorney.

Given the current state of the economy and the cultural focus on social justice, it’s likely that more organizations will fight to allow more accessible legal services. Should non-lawyers soon be granted the capacity to expand their services, now would be the perfect time to start the process of transitioning into a paralegal career.

Job Outlook for Paralegals

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the job outlook for paralegals is projected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 4 percent from 2022 to 2032. It is estimated that there will be around 38,000 annual openings for paralegals and legal assistants from 2022 to 2032.

Skills for paralegals that are expected to increase in demand over the next two years include*:

  • Legal depositions
  • Legal discovery
  • Legal pleadings
  • Lawsuits
  • *Source:

Job Duties of a Paralegal

Paralegals have varied responsibilities and can work as generalists or specialists. Their main accountabilities and assignments include:

Document Indexing and Database Maintenance

Whether employed by a law firm, corporate office, or public service agency, paralegals are responsible for creating and maintaining numerous documents, files, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. They must also ensure these materials are well organized and easily accessible. In light of these duties, attention to detail is an essential skill for paralegals.

Legal Research

Every legal dispute involves questions of fact and questions of law, and paralegals must be adept at researching both. Answering questions of fact involves processes similar to journalistic research, such as combing through library archives, searching the internet, and interviewing relevant parties. Answering questions of law requires a more specialized skill set that incorporates knowledge of statutory, regulatory, and case law. Today, the majority of this research is performed using specialized legal search engines such as Westlaw Next and Lexis.

Legal Writing

Paralegals frequently write detailed reports or memorandums for their supervising attorneys, most commonly using the IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) style of legal writing. Aspiring paralegals should understand how to synthesize the various facts of a case with related laws.

Preparation of Legal Documents

Paralegal employment can be broken down into two basic categories: litigation and transactional support. On the litigation side of the law, paralegals assist in legal disputes. They draft documents that may include complaints, interrogatories, and various dispositive motions.

On the transactional side, paralegals prepare legal documents that support collaborative processes in business, such as real estate purchases or company mergers. In real estate, they might draft forms such as offers to purchase, purchase and sale agreements, and closing disclosures. In business law, they may contribute to the due diligence process or help prepare employment contracts. In family and probate law firms, they might oversee the establishment of powers of attorney and health care proxies or handle documents related to trusts.

Paralegal Specializations

Paralegals are beneficial in every field of law. From conducting interviews for child custody disputes to researching the history of a piece of intellectual property, their support is vital to attorneys and clients in any area. Five common settings for paralegals include:

  • Business and corporations
  • Family law practices
  • Immigration services
  • Intellectual property law
  • Real estate

Boost Your Paralegal Career Prospects

As you build the skills needed for a paralegal career, finding internships can give you an advantage over your professional competition. They’re a great way to get professional experience under the supervision of an established attorney, paralegal, or paralegal manager. You can find internships in private law firms, government agencies, nonprofits, and for-profit institutions alike. To find internship opportunities, consider reaching out directly to law firms or legal departments of organizations. You might also check online job boards specializing in legal positions or network with professionals in the legal field through events, conferences, or professional associations.

Take the Next Step in Your Law Career with Boston University’s Online Paralegal Studies Certificate Program

BU’s flexible online Paralegal Studies Certificate program gives students access to hands-on training from legal experts at a university renowned for academic excellence. Whether students have prior experience or are transitioning into the field, the program’s instructors and curriculum provide learners with distinct benefits and the professional know-how that today’s employers seek.

College Choice ranked our program as one of the Top 10 online paralegal certificate programs in the United States, and Value Colleges ranks it as a Top-5 program for its focus on professional development and academic excellence.

Request a Brochure

To learn more about the online Paralegal Studies Program, contact an Enrollment Advisor at (888) 700-3966 or fill out the form below to download a free brochure.


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