Paralegals function in a supportive capacity, performing important tasks that help the attorneys with whom they work better serve their clients. Whether they work in a private law firm or the private sector, paralegals are crucial to the success of an attorney, and make invaluable contributions to the legal profession.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals have a tremendous amount of responsibility. The work paralegals do is complex and can be quite extensive, requiring a thorough understanding of law and an unwavering commitment to justice. Attorneys rely on their paralegals, and the success of a case is most often a team effort between the attorney and their support staff. Key duties of a paralegal may include:
Preparing an attorney for a hearing or trial by investigating the facts of the case.
Conducting background research.
Collecting and organizing documents directly relevant to the case.
Researching prior legal cases to help establish precedent.
Drafting motions, plea agreements, and writing reports.
Conducting interviews with witnesses or clients.
Preparing contracts, mortgages, wills, and other civil documents.
Acting as a liaison between attorney and client, maintaining communication and helping to prepare the client.
The level of involvement a paralegal has with a client or case depends wholeheartedly on the attorney or organization for whom they work. However, extensive training and education are required to ensure that a paralegal is prepared to handle any one of the aforementioned duties. In this sense, paralegals should be ready for virtually anything that falls within the umbrella of these duties. Although paralegals are certified legal professionals, there are essential tasks that are beyond the scope of their duties. Generally speaking, paralegals are prohibited from “practicing law”—performing certain tasks that require a legal license. While client interaction may be extensive, paralegals cannot ethically act in ways that are reserved for a client’s attorney. Providing legal advice, deciding which cases are accepted or denied, and representing clients at a hearing or trial are all beyond a paralegal’s purview. One of the foundational tenets of a paralegal’s duties and relationships with attorneys and clients is that the attorney must maintain control of all client matters.
How to Become a Paralegal
Paralegals are not licensed at the state or national level. There are no federal or statewide regulations that dictate the standards to which paralegals should be held. However, several professional organizations do provide paralegal certification. In the absence of regulations, employers establish the hiring standards for paralegals, but a paralegal who has received an adequate education and professional certification is more qualified than one who has not. Certified paralegals are both more appealing to potential employers, and better equipped to serve clients. At the most basic level, a paralegal should have some formal education—an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree—to be hired. A degree in a directly relevant field, such as legal studies, is not always required, though its benefits are self-evident. According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), employers are placing increasing emphasis on the importance of at least a bachelor’s degree, and most professional organizations recommend that candidates who are serious about pursuing a career as a paralegal consider an American Bar Association (ABA) approved program. A degree program that includes at least 60 semester hours of classroom study is generally considered to be sufficient for a paralegal education. Beyond your education, NFPA recommends that you complete a certifying examination to receive your paralegal certification through any one of several professional organizations, including:
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
NALS-The Association for Legal Professionals
American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)
Certain states, including Texas and North Carolina, also have state-specific certification programs. Remember, these certifications are completely voluntary—there are no standardized regulations for becoming a paralegal. However, passing one of these certification exams indicates that you are knowledgeable in these matters and well prepared to become an impactful force in your employer’s organization. It is important to note that the NALA, while not a legal requisite, does put forth a series of minimum qualifications that many employers use as a rubric in assessing a paralegal’s preparedness. These qualifications are intended to demonstrate, both to the attorney and to the public, that you have a formal legal education and have received broad exposure to the principles and issues you may encounter on the job.
You can choose to opt into one (or several) of these certifications, but doing so may significantly improve your competitive advantage. Each of these certifications has its own criteria for continuing education and renewal, so it is important to choose one that best aligns with your goals. These requisite criteria can include:
Completing an ABA-approved bachelor program in legal or paralegal studies. It is recommended that this program contain at least 60 semester hours of relevant study.
Taking the NALA Certified Paralegal (CP) certifying examination, which is aligned with court and state bar standards.
At least six months of on-the-job paralegal work experience.
While the idea of six months of working experience may feel daunting to a new or recent graduate, most accredited degree programs provide internship experience to their students. This internship experience proves invaluable to applying theoretical knowledge to a practical setting, demonstrating your understanding of legal precepts and your ability to function as a real-world paralegal.
It is not uncommon for an internship to lead to full-time employment after graduation, making your paralegal internship an important networking opportunity. Upon graduating, paralegals have myriad options available to them; they may work for banks, insurance companies, trade organizations, private law firms, or in the legal departments of large corporations. Within the public sector, paralegals have numerous opportunities to work in state and federal government agencies, public defenders’ offices, district attorneys’ offices, and consumer organizations.
Once on the job, the hands-on experience paralegals receive provides for growth and training opportunities. Working paralegals are well positioned to continue their education or pursue new certifications, and the more experience they gain, the better their chances are of receiving promotions to management positions or being entrusted with richer and more exciting casework. Continue reading our career guides to learn more about the opportunities a career as a paralegal can offer in the private, public, or government sectors—particularly if you’ve received a relevant advanced degree, like a master’s of legal studies. Learn more about the different types of legal degree programs, and browse our wealth of online resources for paralegals to explore your options for certification and gain crucial insight into how to better serve your clients and stay abreast of the latest industry news in the legal profession.
The online Master of Legal Studies from American University equips students with fundamental legal training and industry-specific knowledge. Students attend online classes and an in-person immersion in Washington, D.C. Complete in as few as 15 months. No GRE or LSAT required.