How to Become a Paralegal

Education and Other Requirements

Paralegals assist attorneys in preparing for trials, hearings and closings. They do research, draft and file legal documents and write reports. Paralegals also schedule appointments with clients and arrange depositions.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Paralegal?

Office workers
Paralegals are part of a legal team. mediaphotos / E+

You may think that if you receive all the formal training required to be a paralegal, you are ready for this job. While you will be able to handle all the technicalities of it, you also need certain soft skills, or personal qualities, in order to succeed in this field. It is imperative that you assess whether you have these traits or can obtain them before you move forward.

Paralegals need strong listening, speaking and writing skills. They must be able to manage their time well and have good judgement. Strong critical thinking and problem solving skills are also required. 

Required Education

In most states in the United States there are no set educational requirements for paralegals and, in fact, some employers will hire job candidates who do not have any formal training. These employers train workers on the job. Other employers insist on only hiring those who have completed a paralegal education program.

If you want to increase your chances of getting hired, you should receive formal training. But what type of program should you attend? The answer depends on the level of education you have already attained. If you do not have a college degree, you can pursue either an associate or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. In addition to taking classes in your major, you will also take general education courses. It typically takes two years to earn an associate degree and four years to earn a bachelor's degree. College graduates can earn a certificate in paralegal studies instead. One can complete a certificate program in under a year. Whichever type of program you choose to attend, it is likely you will have to do an internship in order to get practical experience. The American Bar Association maintains a list of approved paralegal education programs on its website.

These are some of the classes you can expect to take regardless of whether you enroll in a certificate program or in an associate or bachelor's degree program:

  • Introduction to Law
  • Legal Research and Writing
  • Constitutional Law and Policy
  • Litigation
  • Criminal Law
  • Basic Contract Law
  • Real Estate Law
  • Corporate Law
  • Immigration Law
  • Wills, Probate and Estate Administration
  • Comparative Constitutional Law
  • Ethics for the Paralegal

Getting Into a Paralegal Training Program

Students who want to apply to an associate or bachelor's degree program must have a high school diploma. Applicants to certificate programs need an associate or bachelor's degree. All candidates must follow the admissions procedures for the school to which they are applying. Become familiar with all the requirements as they differ by program.

What to Do After Graduation

As mentioned previously, most states in the US do not regulate paralegals. The only exception, as of this writing, is California. This state, according to the ABA, began in 2000 to require "persons using the titles 'paralegal,' 'legal assistant,' and the like to meet certain educational/experiential qualifications and to meet continuing education requirements." It is important to check with the state in which you want to practice since regulations can change at any time.

Several organizations offer professional certification to paralegals which usually requires passing one or more exams. It is not mandatory, and the ABA, on its website, makes a point of stating that it does not certify paralegals. Consult with the training program you are attending to find out which, if any, certification it recommends.

Getting Your First Job

What are prospective employers looking for in a successful job candidate, in addition to technical expertise? Here are qualifications excerpted from real job announcements:

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Strong technical skills are required with demonstrated comprehensive proficiency with MSWord, Excel and PowerPoint software and the ability to learn and use the firm’s proprietary software.
  • Able to exhibit strong attention to detail, apply superior organization skills, work well under pressure and manage time to meet deadlines
  • Highly dependable and reliable, including punctual and regular attendance
  • Ability to foster and maintain effective working relationships with diverse populations
  • Ability to manage multiple projects with strict deadlines
  • Ability to consistently deliver highest quality work under extreme pressure will be very important.

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