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How to Become a Paralegal and the Salary You Can Expect


Are you thinking about pursuing a career in the legal industry, but you're not really interested in becoming a full fledged lawyer? The job of paralegal offers some exciting opportunities within the profession and it doesn't take as long to become certified, nor does it cost as much in educational expenses or time you'll need to invest. If this is something that interests you, but you have a lot of questions, then you're in the right place. Here is everything that you need to know about becoming a paralegal along with the salary that you an expect to learn from this career path. Find out what it takes to make it in the legal industry as a professional certified paralegal.

Considerations to make before you begin

It's always recommended that you know what you're getting into before you make a commitment of time and money. In order to become a paralegal, you'll need to have at least a minimum of a high school diploma or a GED certificate. This is a requirement for gaining admission into an accredited program for paralegal studies. There are nine core skills that every successful paralegal should either possess or develop in the course of their training programs. Paralegals will often work in a fast paced environment and there may be multiple things going on at the same time, which all bear a high level of importance. The first skill is the ability to multitask and prioritize. These two go hand in hand because when you're in a chaotic environment you need to decide which task must be dealt with first, and prioritize a sometimes heavy workload in the appropriate order.

The second skill is to anticipate or think ahead. After you've been on the job a while, you'll gain a sense of how the work environment operates, the work load, average number of tasks to complete and you'll gain an overall sense of the work flow. You'll be more successful if you are able to anticipate some events in advance. The third important skill is communication. You must have excellent communication skills both in writing and orally on the phone or face to face. you'll need to both give and receive information with precision and clarity. The fourth skill goes with the third and it is writing. You will be charged with drafting legal documents and briefs and while some will be simple, others will be complicated. The fifth and sixth skills will be the ability to conduct legal research through mastered internet skills and understanding how to track down records, conduct online investigations and use technology to do so expertly. The use of certain software systems will come in handy for drafting, researching, writing, documentation and more.

The last three skills are vital to your success and the success of the firm. You must be flexible yet organized, even when the office is hectic and chaotic. There is such a thing as organized chaos and you'll be the one responsible for making it happen for your firm. Sometimes priorities must change abruptly and this is a part of being flexible. The eighth important skill is being able to function in a team setting as an integral part of the team whether its working with an attorney, a legal secretary, experts, clients or others as well as working independently. The final skill is professionalism. You represent the firm and you must at all times show a professional demeanor with a grasp of the legalese involved in the job, yet the understanding of the meanings of legal terms that allows you to present them in lay terms. If these are skills you're comfortable with developing then becoming a paralegal may be the perfect career choice. Although paralegal work is not rocket science, it demands sharpness of thinking, a good memory and the ability to remember case details and complex legal terminology. It's a job that most paralegals improve at over time because there is a lot to learn in preparation and a lot to know when you're actually practicing.

What kind of degree is required?

Most paralegals work with an associate's degree in paralegal studies, or at a minimum, a certificate in this field of study. This will help you to become eligible for entry level jobs in the profession. However; if yo want to earn a higher salary, then it's a good idea to consider going further with your education and pursuing a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree. The higher your education level, combined with experience on the job, the more valuable your time will be to top legal firms. These are just a few more things to consider before you decide which programs are the best fit for you, and the ones that will lead you to your ultimate goal. A good plan is to obtain your certificate or AA degree and work as a paralegal to try it out and see if this is really the right career choice for you.

What does a paralegal do?

Paralegals are hired by legal firms to conduct investigations to uncover the facts surrounding a case and confirm them. They are also charged with the collection of a variety of different documents from multiple sources, as well as researching legal cases, writing legal documents and reports, drafting motions and pleadings and filing them with the courts, and accompanying attorneys to the courts to act as their assistant during the sessions. There are some things that a paralegal can do and some actions which are prohibited and it is vital that a paralegal learns where to draw the line because it is illegal to give out legal advice which is considered practicing law, without being an attorney. There are several items which cross the line and this is one reason why it's important to enroll in a quality educational program. These are the basic tasks and duties, however, the job descriptions for a paralegal can vary widely, depending on the needs of the employer.

What kinds of degree options are available?

The first thing that you need to keep in mind before you choose a paralegal studies program is to choose an educational institution that is fully accredited. A program that is not nationally recognized as being fully accredited prior to your enrollment date will be a waste of your time and money. Although you may gain the knowledge that you need to possess, you will not have the proper credentialing to move forward with your career, so make sure that you enroll in a reputable school.

Paralegal certificate

An accredited paralegal certificate program is the minimum requirement for securing work as a paralegal. This is something that law firms require candidates to possess before they're even considered for hiring. Competition is a bit stiff because there are many paralegals out there who have their certificates plus varying levels of education beyond that. The paralegal certificate is different than a specialization certificate.

Associates degree in Legal Studies

This particular kind of associates degree is designed to provide students with knowledge and skills which are necessary to become a legal assistant and work for a corporation, government agency or a law office. This degree program is similar yet different than the paralegal studies associates degree.

Associates degree in Paralegal Studies

This is also a two year degree that provides students with the fundamentals of law and it is also designed to provide students with the practical skills which are necessary within a two year period of time, or for some programs less.

Bachelor's degree in Paralegal Studies

This is a four year degree that prepares students wishing to become a paralegal with knowledge and skills needed to work within environments with a focus on litigation procedures. Also included in the core coursework is a focus on computer applications which are designed for use in law offices, along with selected specialties within the law, ethics and a general college core set of courses. This degree provides a higher level of knowledge along with the development of advanced skills.

Bachelor's degree in Legal Studies

Similar to the bachelor's in paralegal studies, this is a four year degree that allows students to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the law and the tasks/duties performed by a paralegal or legal assistant with information about what is legal or not legal conduct for paralegals/legal assistants. There is also a general college core component for this degree.

Master's Degree in Legal Studies

This is a graduate level program that offers students the training, knowledge and skills that will help them to stand out among their peers in the career field of paralegal/legal assistant. It can help students in advancing into higher paid positions.

The differences between an attorney and paralegal

An attorney must graduate from a law school that is fully accredited by the American Bar Association and he or she must attain a degree in law, many going on to obtain a doctor of juris prudence, or JD degree. In addition, background screening is required by the state of practice an in order to become a lawyer, one must pass the Bar Exam to prove competency in the practice of the law. Paralegals, even those who earn a master's degree are not lawyers nor are they able to practice law. A paralegal can earn a certificate and become legally employable while it can take an attorney up to seven years of education to be prepared to take the Bar Exam, and some must re-take the test several times before passing it, because of the difficulty level It's a lot more time consuming and expensive to become a lawyer, but the pay is also, in most cases, a lot higher.

Are there specializations within this career?

There are several types of environments where a paralegal might be hired. These include corporate legal offices, government agencies or private law firms. Some employers may be looking for paralegals who have specific skills, qualifications or experience, or specialization. Just as attorneys may specialize in one of the many types of law which are practiced, paralegals may also choose a specialization. Although a broad knowledge of the law is required for all specializations, there are situations when an extensive knowledge with experience in a certain area can be extremely beneficial.

Types of specialization for paralegals

There are several specialty certificate programs that paralegals an enroll in for becoming a specialist n these areas. They allow you to show a demonstration of expertise is a certain area of the law. The specialty areas available include: Administrative law, appellate law, bankruptcy, business, civil litigation, contract law, corporate, criminal, E-Discovery, Estate planning/probate, family law, immigration, insurance, intellectual property, juvenile, law office management, personal injury, real estate, and trial management specialties. The requirements for earning a certificate in a particular specialization include earning 50 credit hours of continuing legal education in a five year period of time, and making sure that you renew your certification within the five year period prior to the expiration of the initial certificate.

Does a degree take the place of a certificate?

The answer to this question is NO! An academic certificate may not be used as a substitution for a professional certification as a paralegal. A special examination is required for becoming certified and it is a stand along process that has nothing to do with other legal programs of study. The paralegal exam shows the level of competency that you have achieved and you really need to have a working knowledge of the law and the requirements of a paralegal in order to pass the test and become certified for work . Here are the National Federation of Paralegal Associations certificates Core Registered Paralegal (CRP). Certified Paralegal (CP). Professional Paralegal (PP). Specialty Certification (SC). Registered Paralegal (RP).

What are the benefits of becoming a paralegal?

Working as a paralegal can be a rewarding career for the right kind of person. If you're passionate about the law and enjoy multitasking, prioritizing, research, documentation, and you pay attention to small details then this could be the perfect career for you. The paralegal industry has gone through an evolution since the occupation first emerged during the 1970s. Changes in the laws as well as advances in technology have made the position completely different with regard to the methods used to do the same basic work. New specializations within the law have arisen, hence the need for paralegals to be more skilled than ever, and the top performers can earn a decent annual salary as reward for excellent performance and high skills. There are some major benefits to being a paralegal including a broader range of career task or specialization options with higher pay, overtime compensation for past paced firm employees, a high demand for paralegals in the job market, less time and expense for becoming certified, ease of entry into the career, ample employment opportunities, varied job responsibilities to avoid boredom, rising prestige within the profession, and a work environment that is challenging, changing and viewed with a greater level of respect for the work that is accomplished by skilled and talented professional paralegals.

What kind of salary does a paralegal make?

As with any profession there is a broad range for the salaries paid for paralegals within the United States. There are several factors that come into play which influence the pay, including the level of education that the paralegal achieves, the amount of work experience or years on the job, certifications in specialized areas of the law, the state or region in which you work, which is influenced by the local economy, and the firm or organization for which you work and their pay scale. According to the United States Bureau of labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook handbook for the 2018-2019 year, the median annual salary for a certified paralegal is $49,00. In California some paralegals make as much as $56,950, with some who work in the state of Arkansas earning the low end of the pay scale $36,530. These are averages and they certainly are not the amount that every paralegal makes or will make. Some paralegals may earn up to $80,000 a year or even more. Those who work for large corporations or those who are involved with software employers make upwards of $77,000 to $80,000 per year.

Disadvantages associated with being a paralegal

Under some circumstances, there can be some disadvantages associated with being a paralegal. Much of this depends on which company you work for. In some environments, paralegals may not get the respect that they really deserve. There is no getting around the fact that it is a busy job and paralegals do a lot of leg work. There may be some co-workers including attorneys, legal secretaries and others who look down on the profession and consider them to be inferior. There may be a lack of respect paid to paralegals in certain firms, but those who understand the value of a skilled paralegal will know better.

Job stress and a hectic work environment

Paralegals who work in a busy or fast paced office may encounter more than their fair share of job and unpleasant encounters. When there is a ton of work, clients are cranky and there is unpleasantness taking place among associates such as jealousy, differences of opinion, exhaustion from long hours and a few nearly impossible deadlines to meet, the stress and anxiety can build up. Not every environment is like this and for some, it only happens occasionally, but there is always the potential for tensions to build in a tense environment so it pays to be selective about where you apply to work. In some firms, the hours are long and the workloads are high and when you combine this with a high turnover rate, the workload can become even worse. No job is perfect and paralegal work is not the best choice for everyone, but for some, it's ideal.

Becoming a paralegal can give you a fast entry into an amazing profession within the legal system. If you're the kind of person who doesn't mind moving from routine and repetitious work to a heavy and stressful period of work, this might be a job that you'll excel in. We've discussed the advantages and the disadvantages which may be associated with the job of a paralegal. These pros and cons are just examples of what the job might be like, and they're not certainly set in stone. Each workplace is different from another and there are more benefits to the job than drawbacks.


For anyone who enjoys the law and working within the legal system, becoming a paralegal can be an extremely rewarding experience. You will have several options for fulfilling the educational requirements. Some paralegals work at law firms with the minimum requirement of a certificate, while the majority earn their associate degrees. Some continue forward to earn bachelor's degrees and even masters, and they specialize in certain areas of the law, making them more valuable to some law firms or agencies. One of the nice things about this profession is that there are a lot of options and it doesn't need to take long to prepare for a career. There are pros and cons associated with this career path, as with most professions, and you must possess a set of specific skills, including excellent communication both in writing and in speaking, interviewing and researching skills, the ability to cope with rapid changes from boredom to being overwhelmed with tasks that need to be prioritized, and a range of unexpected situations that can bring about the need to drop what you're doing and start on a new project.

Dana Hanson

Written by Dana Hanson

Dana has extensive professional writing experience including technical and report writing, informational articles, persuasive articles, contrast and comparison, grant applications, and advertisement. She also enjoys creative writing, content writing on nearly any topic (particularly business and lifestyle), because as a lifelong learner, she loves to do research and possess a high skill level in this area. Her academic degrees include AA social Sci/BA English/MEd Adult Ed & Community & Human Resource Development and ABD in PhD studies in Indust & Org Psychology.

Read more posts by Dana Hanson

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