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Lawyers can’t do all the work them­selves. Behind prac­ti­cal­ly every legal pro­fes­sion­al­ism is one or more peo­ple who have the title of a para­le­gal or legal assis­tant. Becom­ing a para­le­gal can rep­re­sent a fruit­ful and reward­ing career path for those indi­vid­u­als who want to pur­sue a legal stud­ies degree and begin a jour­ney towards becom­ing a legal pro­fes­sion­al. Get­ting a bach­e­lor’s in legal stud­ies means increas­ing your earn­ing poten­tial, accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics (BLS), even more.

The lit­er­al def­i­n­i­tion of para­le­gal is right there in the name. In this case, the pre­fix, ‑para, means next to or along­side of. And, legal sim­ply means relat­ed to the law. Of course, as a pro­fes­sion, the def­i­n­i­tion of para­le­gal can vary depend­ing on which group is the one defin­ing it.

How­ev­er, every def­i­n­i­tion of para­le­gal has sim­i­lar word­ing. Becom­ing a para­le­gal means becom­ing some­one with the edu­ca­tion, train­ing, and expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary to assist with legal work, legal con­cepts, and legal duties that come with pro­ce­dur­al law.

In many cas­es, peo­ple who won­der how to become a para­le­gal already under­stand some of what the posi­tion entails. How­ev­er, when won­der­ing how to become a para­le­gal, it’s impor­tant to under­stand that the para­le­gal pro­fes­sion offers oppor­tu­ni­ties that aren’t lim­it­ed to assist­ing attorneys.

What Paralegals Do

The duties of a para­le­gal or legal assis­tant can vary. In some cas­es, a para­le­gal can offer a type of legal ser­vice all on their own with­out work­ing direct­ly for a legal office. For exam­ple, a para­le­gal or legal work­er can often pre­pare legal paper­work for clients, draft agree­ments, explain legal pro­ce­dures, and give gen­er­al legal advice.

Note that legal work­ers who are not attor­neys or lawyers can­not give direct legal advice or per­son­al­ized legal advice. How­ev­er, they can give gen­er­al knowl­edge and facts. Para­le­gals can­not act as advo­cates or prac­tice law in any way.

Gen­er­al­ly, a para­le­gal will spend most of their time deal­ing with case man­age­ment, fil­ing legal doc­u­ments, speak­ing with clients, draft­ing legal doc­u­ments, assist­ing attor­neys, locat­ing wit­ness­es, draft­ing sum­maries, attend­ing legal pro­ceed­ings, and per­form­ing gen­er­al office duties. Para­le­gals can also be their own boss­es or run their own firms where they car­ry out all these duties for their own clients.

Para­le­gals com­mu­ni­cate, pay atten­tion to detail, show ver­sa­til­i­ty, and often spe­cial­ize in a spe­cif­ic type of law. While a para­le­gal can­not rep­re­sent some­one like a lawyer or attor­ney, they’re often sought out by those who need help with fin­er legal aspects such as fill­ing out forms, find­ing the right infor­ma­tion, or fig­ur­ing out what steps they need to take for cer­tain legal processes.

How to Become a Paralegal in Brief

The path to become a para­le­gal or legal assis­tant is a straight­for­ward one. Appli­cants who wish to pur­sue this par­tic­u­lar career path can do so by attend­ing para­le­gal or legal assis­tant cours­es or pro­grams. In some cas­es, the only require­ment to become a para­le­gal with a law office is cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. How­ev­er, with­out edu­ca­tion, the odds of land­ing a posi­tion in any office are dras­ti­cal­ly low.

Para­le­gals do not have licens­ing require­ments, so it’s usu­al­ly the indi­vid­ual offices that set their own require­ments for legal assis­tants. In the mod­ern-day, as more edu­cat­ed peo­ple enter the field, the require­ments set by lawyers, attor­neys, and oth­er legal pro­fes­sion­als have grown. This leaves appli­cants with a few choic­es to con­sid­er when they’re won­der­ing how to become a para­le­gal. There are

  • Cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in para­le­gal studies
  • Associate’s degrees in para­le­gal studies
  • Bachelor’s degrees in para­le­gal studies

This means appli­cants can take an associate’s approach, then tie the associate’s degree with cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Appli­cants can also pur­sue a bachelor’s degree, which puts them a step beyond, and they can still obtain cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as well. In the major­i­ty of cas­es, a bachelor’s degree will allow for more job oppor­tu­ni­ties as well as non-stan­dard legal work as well.

What Kind of Schools or Programs Should I Look for to Become a Paralegal?

Sev­er­al pro­grams exist to help some­one make the tran­si­tion into the para­le­gal field. In fact, peo­ple are spoiled for choic­es since there is no strict licens­ing for the pro­fes­sion. How­ev­er, for an appli­cant that wants the best chance to enter the field with a good salary and the abil­i­ty to advance, choos­ing an accred­it­ed school or legal stud­ies pro­gram is the best pos­si­ble path.

Accred­i­ta­tion means the school or pro­gram has gone through pro­fes­sion­al vet­ting from accred­i­ta­tion groups that set aca­d­e­m­ic stan­dards for either the facil­i­ty, the pro­gram itself, or both. For col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, it’s a good idea to make sure they have region­al accred­i­ta­tion from one of the sev­en accred­it­ing groups giv­en per­mis­sion to set school stan­dards by the US Dept. of Edu­ca­tion and the Coun­cil for High­er Edu­ca­tion Accred­i­ta­tion. These groups set stan­dards, typ­i­cal­ly for brick and mor­tar institutions.

Cred­its earned at region­al­ly accred­it­ed schools can eas­i­ly trans­fer to oth­er region­al­ly accred­it­ed schools and even to those that don’t have region­al accred­i­ta­tion. This is main­ly because every­one under­stands that the stan­dards set by the region­al accred­i­ta­tion groups are high and gen­er­al­ly accept­ed by every­one. How­ev­er, region­al accred­i­ta­tion typ­i­cal­ly applies to the insti­tu­tion as a whole, and not to the indi­vid­ual pro­grams of the school. For legal stud­ies, prospec­tive para­le­gals will want to look for an accred­it­ed para­le­gal pro­gram specifically.

Appli­cants will want to look for an accred­it­ed para­le­gal pro­gram that has accred­i­ta­tion from the Amer­i­can Bar Asso­ci­a­tion. The ABA pro­vides the high­est stan­dards per­tain­ing to lead­er­ship and gov­er­nance of the legal pro­fes­sion, so it makes per­fect sense why they’re the group to accred­it para­le­gal pro­grams. ABA approval of para­le­gal pro­grams allows appli­cants to attend class­es with the con­fi­dence of know­ing that their cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or degree will have the widest pos­si­ble accep­tance in the country.

In all cas­es, appli­cants should def­i­nite­ly look for ABA-approved para­le­gal degrees, even if the school or pro­gram does not have too many oth­er types of accred­i­ta­tion. It’s also pos­si­ble to seek an ABA-approved para­le­gal degree online.

A legal stud­ies degree is actu­al­ly a broad legal degree. Becom­ing a para­le­gal is only one thing some­one can do with a legal stud­ies degree. This is the main dif­fer­ence between pur­su­ing some type of para­le­gal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for a para­le­gal job, and receiv­ing a BA or BS legal stud­ies degree that can help appli­cants pur­sue a career in the legal field. This is the main dif­fer­ence in legal stud­ies vs para­le­gal considerations.

To put that in per­spec­tive, some­one with cer­ti­fi­ca­tion may find a place some­where to prac­tice being a para­le­gal. Some­one with a legal stud­ies degree can find a career that includes increased pos­si­bil­i­ties for more pay, upward mobil­i­ty, more respon­si­bil­i­ty, and a bet­ter chance to do more in the legal field. So, it is not specif­i­cal­ly right to think of the legal stud­ies bach­e­lor’s degree as a para­le­gal bach­e­lor’s degree. Although, the bach­e­lor degree in legal stud­ies offers the best pos­si­ble avenue toward becom­ing a paralegal.

The best para­le­gal pro­grams give appli­cants a foun­da­tion in law they can build on. How­ev­er, find­ing the best para­le­gal pro­grams requires appli­cants to do their due dili­gence to fig­ure out which school or pro­gram will work best for their spe­cif­ic needs and goals. One thing to note is that a legal stud­ies bach­e­lor degree is not the same as a crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­gram. When it comes to legal stud­ies vs crim­i­nal jus­tice, there is a lot of over­lap. The main dif­fer­ence between the two is that crim­i­nal jus­tice tends towards law enforce­ment and crime pre­ven­tion while legal stud­ies have more to do with how the law works in rela­tion to those things.

Online para­le­gal pro­grams exist in abun­dance. The only thing an appli­cant needs to wor­ry about with online para­le­gal pro­grams is the accred­i­ta­tion sta­tus of that pro­gram. The best online para­le­gal pro­grams will have a cur­rent accred­i­ta­tion sta­tus in good stand­ing from the Amer­i­can Bar Asso­ci­a­tion. With that in place, appli­cants can choose from the best online para­le­gal pro­grams with con­fi­dence, whether it is an accel­er­at­ed degree pro­gram, a low-tuition col­lege, or anoth­er great online pro­gram. Online bach­e­lor’s degrees are the new stan­dard.

The online para­le­gal pro­grams avail­able will allow an appli­cant to receive their legal stud­ies degree online and that degree will always remain a valid one. For any who may wor­ry that there’s some stig­ma or oth­er prob­lem attached to online legal degrees, they can rest assured their degree will hold just as much weight as a degree from any col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty. In fact, many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties do offer a bach­e­lor’s in legal stud­ies online through their own online offerings.

One thing appli­cants should show care with is free online para­le­gal cours­es, or any­thing mar­ket­ed as a cheap para­le­gal degree online. In the case of free online para­le­gal cours­es, appli­cants must do some research and make sure there’s val­ue in the cours­es. In some cas­es, free online para­le­gal cours­es can help with gain­ing a para­le­gal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. These cours­es can also help to sup­ple­ment knowl­edge gained from their offi­cial legal stud­ies degree online courses.

Aspir­ing para­le­gals and legal assis­tants may spe­cial­ize in an area of law like:

  • fam­i­ly law
  • legal research
  • cor­po­rate law
  • crim­i­nal law
  • estate plan­ning
  • intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty law
  • legal writ­ing
  • per­son­al injury

All of these areas see job growth and sim­i­lar para­le­gal duties. Your cre­den­tial and work expe­ri­ence, along with for­mal edu­ca­tion pro­grams, can pre­pare you for full-time work in legal depart­ments and gov­ern­ment agencies.

In the case of find­ing a cheap para­le­gal degree online or some­thing adver­tised as the best online para­le­gal degree, appli­cants should always make sure the degree pro­gram has ABA accred­i­ta­tion. Cheap doesn’t always mean bad, but appli­cants need to make sure before they go for­ward with pur­su­ing online legal degrees from that source.

Does a Paralegal Need Certifications or Licenses?

Para­le­gals don’t always need cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or licens­ing. How­ev­er, seek­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, even when it’s not specif­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary, can only help an appli­cant who wants to pur­sue a para­le­gal career. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion can also help appli­cants who want to pur­sue any job in the legal field. Appli­cants can also seek a legal stud­ies cer­tifi­cate, which is sim­i­lar to how to get a para­le­gal certificate.

In addi­tion, appli­cants should under­stand there’s a dif­fer­ence between hav­ing a para­le­gal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and being a cer­ti­fied para­le­gal. In most cas­es, those who com­plete an ABA-accred­it­ed course can claim the title of cer­tifi­cat­ed para­le­gal. Nev­er­the­less, the title comes from edu­ca­tion itself. The ABA accred­its some cer­tifi­cate pro­grams, but it does not cer­ti­fy paralegals.

Since adding spe­cif­ic cer­ti­fi­ca­tions are vol­un­tary, the employ­er will usu­al­ly dic­tate whether or not a spe­cif­ic type of para­le­gal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is a neces­si­ty for the posi­tion. This is an impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion because there are numer­ous cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams out there. It would make no sense for an appli­cant to pur­sue an unneed­ed or unus­able para­le­gal cer­tifi­cate. How­ev­er, there are cer­tain para­le­gal cer­ti­fi­ca­tions that have broad recog­ni­tion and will improve an applicant’s chances at a job with a law firm or with oth­er types of legal insti­tu­tions. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tions can help set an appli­cant apart from the com­pe­ti­tion and show the appli­cant has full com­mand of the profession.

Some states offer offi­cial cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. While they’re not manda­to­ry, they can allow an appli­cant to add an offi­cial title des­ig­na­tion after their names. This shows the appli­cant has exceed­ed the lev­el of train­ing pro­vid­ed just by their schools or pro­grams and may be worth it to those who are seri­ous about the para­le­gal pro­fes­sion. Many nation­al para­le­gal asso­ci­a­tions also offer certifications.

Cer­ti­fi­ca­tions can also show an appli­cant has advanced train­ing a spe­cif­ic or spe­cial­ty skill. For exam­ple, the Pro­fes­sion­al Legal Sec­re­tary (PLS) cer­ti­fi­ca­tion means an appli­cant has mas­tered the office aspects of the legal field, includ­ing things like using the prop­er soft­ware and know­ing the prop­er legal ter­mi­nol­o­gy for back-office legal operations.

Some cer­ti­fi­ca­tions are a neces­si­ty for work­ing in the pub­lic sec­tor as a para­le­gal. Appli­cants will have to look into cer­ti­fi­ca­tion require­ments in their own states or inquire what types of cer­ti­fi­ca­tions their local legal insti­tu­tions pre­fer. There is no mys­tery to how to get a para­le­gal certificate.

The cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process usu­al­ly requires some train­ing and pos­si­bly some test­ing. Many accred­it­ed online para­le­gal cer­tifi­cate pro­grams exist, so appli­cants won’t have to go too far out of their way to research a legal stud­ies cer­tifi­cate or to obtain one. When check­ing for accred­it­ed online para­le­gal cer­tifi­cate pro­grams, keep in mind the key­word is accred­it­ed. Don’t pur­sue cer­tifi­cates from places that have no reach or recognition.

While the main focus here is on the para­le­gal pro­fes­sion, it helps to under­stand there are dif­fer­ent types of para­le­gals who work in dif­fer­ent capac­i­ties. In addi­tion, legal stud­ies jobs are not lim­it­ed to just para­le­gal work. But, before going into the list of careers in legal stud­ies, appli­cants who want to pur­sue the para­le­gal field should know a few of the dif­fer­ent types of para­le­gal careers avail­able. These include, but are not lim­it­ed to:

  • Cor­po­rate paralegals
  • Gov­ern­ment paralegals
  • Lit­i­ga­tion Paralegals
  • Real estate paralegals

Gen­er­al­ly, if there’s a body of law attached to some­thing, then there’s a para­le­gal posi­tion avail­able for it. Con­sid­er that prac­ti­cal­ly every aspect of soci­ety has a body of law attached to it. This means there are many ways a para­le­gal can spe­cial­ize or find nich­es they can apply their edu­ca­tion to.

Legal stud­ies degree jobs range across var­i­ous fields and ver­ti­cals of those fields. This is because jobs in legal stud­ies field can include things that are only tan­gen­tial­ly relat­ed to the broad­er legal field. For exam­ple, legal stud­ies degree jobs can include things like cor­po­rate admin­is­tra­tive assis­tants, con­sul­tants, and human resources assis­tant positions.

Pulling up a list of careers in legal stud­ies will like­ly men­tion jobs and careers appli­cants were not even aware were obtain­able with their legal stud­ies bachelor’s degrees. Knowl­edge of the law in gen­er­al and knowl­edge of spe­cif­ic types of law can go a long way in var­i­ous indus­tries and careers.

Earn­ing the degree also opens up pos­si­bil­i­ties for fur­ther edu­ca­tion in legal pro­fes­sions and stud­ies, should an appli­cant want to con­tin­ue on to pur­sue a high­er degree while hav­ing their legal stud­ies edu­ca­tion to use towards work­ing in the field while they do it.

Appli­cants should keep in mind that a para­le­gal doesn’t have to work for any per­son or group direct­ly. Para­le­gals have the free­dom to oper­ate on a free­lance basis as con­trac­tors or to run their own busi­ness. A lot of peo­ple seek para­le­gals for gen­er­al infor­ma­tion and legal paper­work fil­ing with­out ever need­ing to speak to a lawyer or attor­ney. In this way, a legal stud­ies degree can become a path to entrepreneurship.

Accord­ing to the OOH, the medi­an pay for para­le­gals and legal sup­port work­ers sits around ~$50k. The indus­try can mat­ter a lot, as the same source shows that the medi­an for legal work­ers at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment lev­el is around $67k, $62k for those who work for a finan­cial insti­tu­tion. What is a para­le­gal salary for the high­est earn­ers? Para­le­gals at the far end of the spec­trum can earn more than $82k.

Many of these salary num­bers assume a para­le­gal at entry-lev­el knowl­edge with only an associate’s degree. Those with their bach­e­lor’s can earn more, and those with a bachelor’s as well as the right cer­ti­fi­ca­tion can earn even more by way of salary.

A legal stud­ies jobs salary, like any oth­er salary, can vary great­ly depend­ing on loca­tion, expe­ri­ence, and demand. Legal stud­ies degree salary can also depend on spe­cial­iza­tions. For fields with more obscure bod­ies of law, the need for a pro­fes­sion­al para­le­gal will be much greater and the job will like­ly pay much more.

Also, appli­cants must remem­ber a para­le­gal bach­e­lor degree salary is not the same as a legal stud­ies degree salary. A para­le­gal is only one career avenue avail­able to some­one with a legal stud­ies degree. Look­ing at para­le­gal bach­e­lor degree salary alone does not paint the broad­est pic­ture for those who want to know what is a para­le­gal salary.

It would behoove appli­cants to take a look at job list­ings in the legal assis­tant, para­le­gal, and legal admin­is­tra­tion fields. While these can all describe the same type of job or career, some places that post jobs make dis­tinc­tions between them and can offer more by way of salary for one des­ig­na­tion over another.

Many pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions exist for para­le­gals and legal pro­fes­sion­als. Some of these orga­ni­za­tions are actu­al­ly the ones that can help pro­vide offi­cial and rec­og­nized cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for appli­cants. Join­ing a pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tion for para­le­gals or legal pro­fes­sion­als comes with a lot of ben­e­fits that any appli­cant would do well to take note of and take advan­tage of.

Depend­ing on the orga­ni­za­tion, a pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­a­tion can offer intern­ships and edu­ca­tion­al resources. As these orga­ni­za­tions often sit at the fore­front of changes, advance­ments, and devel­op­ments in the field, they’re often good places to find new oppor­tu­ni­ties and oth­er infor­ma­tion relat­ed to the legal pro­fes­sion. Find­ing new career oppor­tu­ni­ties often starts with pro­fes­sion­al organizations.

One of the most impor­tant aspects of join­ing a pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tion is the abil­i­ty for appli­cants to grow their pro­fes­sion­al net­work. Like any oth­er field, tem­per­ing knowl­edge and edu­ca­tion with know­ing those in the same field can help any­body along their career path. Since pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions for legal pro­fes­sion­als exist at every lev­el, it is pos­si­ble for appli­cants to cre­ate and nur­ture rela­tion­ships with impor­tant as well as like-mind­ed people.

Pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions exist at the local, state, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al lev­el. Some orga­ni­za­tions even exist as part of the school a stu­dent may already have enrolled in. This means appli­cants can, and should, start forg­ing rela­tion­ships imme­di­ate­ly. Local groups can help some­one find the right jobs and ease the tran­si­tion into them. At the state lev­el, the ben­e­fits grow fur­ther. Some of the more impor­tant nation­al-lev­el groups include:

  • Amer­i­can Alliance of Para­le­gals, Inc.
  • Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for Para­le­gal Edu­ca­tion (AAf­PE)
  • Asso­ci­a­tion for Legal Professionals
  • Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Legal Assis­tants (NALA)
  • Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Legal Secretaries
  • Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Para­le­gal Asso­ci­a­tions (NFPA)
  • Nation­al Para­le­gal Asso­ci­a­tion (NPA)

The Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Para­le­gals is one of the most well-known orga­ni­za­tions. How­ev­er, many oth­er pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions for para­le­gals exist. The Amer­i­can Bar Asso­ci­a­tion itself is one of the largest and most rec­og­nized groups in the coun­try. How­ev­er, the ABA is an asso­ci­a­tion for all legal pro­fes­sion­als and not specif­i­cal­ly for para­le­gals or legal assis­tants. How­ev­er, the ABA does have the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Para­le­gals and offers an ABA mem­ber­ship for paralegals.

Grad­u­ates should make join­ing a pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tion a pri­or­i­ty. In some places, hav­ing a mem­ber­ship in a pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tion can make every­thing eas­i­er for job seek­ers and those try­ing to advance.

Relat­ed Rankings:

25 Best Bach­e­lor’s in Para­le­gal Degree Pro­grams
15 Best Online Para­le­gal Degree Bach­e­lor’s Pro­grams
10 Fastest Online Para­le­gal Degree Bach­e­lor’s Pro­grams
10 Most Afford­able Para­le­gal Degree Bach­e­lor Programs