How to Become a Paralegal and Enter a Growing Employment Market
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, projects employment to grow 15 percent, much faster than average, between 2016 and 2026 in the paralegal field. This growth rate makes the paralegal field an excellent choice for a recent college graduate or mid-life career changer.
Experts predict steady demand for paralegals, largely because paralegals help attorneys serve their clients with great economic efficiency.
Paralegals, like attorneys, bill for time spent working on a project or what the profession refers to as “billable hours.” Paralegals can afford to bill at a far lower hourly rate than attorneys do because their education takes less time and costs far less money than does earning a Juris Doctor degree. Paralegals work under the supervision of an attorney, but commonly perform work that attorneys were responsible for prior to the emergence of the paralegal profession in the 1960s. Clients are billed at a lower hourly rate when paralegals do this work, which pleases the client by reducing their overall bill and still enables the law firm to earn income on the paralegal’s billable hours. It is a win not only for the client and the law firm, but also for the paralegal.
Experts expect legal firms to hire more paralegals to both increase efficiency and reduce costs.
How to Become a Paralegal – Three Basic Paths
The three basic paths to becoming a paralegal are:
An intensive paralegal certificate program is most appropriate for individuals with either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree. A paralegal certificate program presents a perfect opportunity to develop the essential, nuts-and-bolts, hands-on skills that employers seek. These certificate programs often can be completed in just a few months, providing a simple, accessible path for aspiring paralegals. A paralegal certificate demonstrates that someone has formal training and opens the door to numerous and varied job opportunities.
If you are considering the paralegal field and have not yet earned an associate’s degree, consider majoring in paralegal studies for a comprehensive overview of the skills needed to succeed. If, however, you already have an undergraduate degree in another discipline, returning to school for a full degree program may not make sense or be feasible because of the cost and time-commitment. Moreover, a degree is not required in the paralegal field.
It is rare, however, for a paralegal to be hired without a paralegal certificate. Individuals with work experience in the legal field as, for instance, a legal secretary or assistant, sometimes transition into a paralegal role with approval from a supervising attorney. They use skills that they have developed on the job, but completing a paralegal certificate program typically is the best process for becoming an effective paralegal.
The Job Duties of a Paralegal: Dynamic and Specialized
Paralegals are valued professionals with varied responsibilities who can work as generalists or specialists. Specialized training can better prepare aspiring paralegals for the position’s main accountabilities and assignments, most notably:
Research is a primary responsibility of paralegals. Every legal dispute involves both questions of fact and questions of law, so paralegals research both. Answers to questions of fact often can be obtained through client interviews and Google searches. The ability to answer questions of law requires a more specialized skill set that includes researching statutory, regulatory, and case law. In the past, paralegals did this work through traditional law library searches. Today, the majority of this research is performed using specialized legal search engines including Westlaw Next and Lexis.
Supervising attorneys need paralegals to provide them with the most accurate and recent legal guidelines, and good paralegals are able to summarize this legal research succinctly and completely. Rhode Island Office of Child Support paralegal, Johanna Quattrucci, says, “One of the challenging parts of my job is to find absent parents who are actively trying to avoid legal service and Westlaw Next is one of the tools that provides me an edge in locating parents who have neglected their legal obligation to financially care for their children.”
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 and ensuring that these materials are well-organized and easily accessible. Attention to detail is mandatory for paralegals. Jaclyn Baker, senior paralegal at Rawson, Merrigan & Litner, is the liaison between multiple insurance companies and the attorneys at her firm. She says, “My understanding of legal technologies and case management software like Clio, are a huge advantage when I manage my firm’s billable hours. I think my understanding of this software was a major factor in my employment.”
Preparation of Legal Documents
Paralegal employment can be broken down into two basic categories: litigation and transactional support. On the litigation side, paralegals draft legal documents including Complaints, Interrogatories, and various dispositive motions. Paralegal Johanna Quattrucci says, “My ability to research law online through the Westlaw Next software on issues from Body Attachment Warrants to child support, makes me an indispensable part of Rhode Island’s Family Court.”
On the transactional side of the law, paralegals might draft various forms, including Offers to Purchase, Purchase and Sales, and Closing Disclosure statements in real estate closings. In business law, they may be responsible for creating a variety of forms including due diligence forms. For family and probate law firms, they might oversee the establishment of power of attorney and health care proxies.
Paralegals often are called upon to write a detailed report or memorandum for their supervising attorney. This report can inform many of their supervising attorney’s professional decisions. Aspiring paralegals should understand how to synthesize the various facts of a case with the related laws. The most common methodology for accomplishing this fact-law synthesis is found in the IRAC style of legal writing. IRAC is an acronym for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. It serves as the standard form of writing employed by both paralegals and attorneys.
What are the Job Prospects for Those Seeking to Become a Paralegal?
An aspiring paralegal with a certificate from a well-known and respected university will have the greatest chance of finding employment. This employment can be in different settings including law firms, corporate legal departments, and governmental offices.
As long as there are legal disputes, paralegals will be needed to help resolve them. For those interested in pursuing a paralegal career, the employment prospects are diverse, engaging, and rising in demand.
Learn more about how Boston University’s online Paralegal Studies Program can help you along the path to becoming a sought after, well-educated, effective paralegal.
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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