How To Become a Paralegal
If you are passionate about pursuing a career in law, but you are not sure you want to be an attorney, consider becoming a paralegal. Paralegals are legal professionals who provide behind-the-scenes support services to attorneys and their clients. However, they do not argue cases in court themselves. Becoming a paralegal can be a smart and rewarding career move.
Understand the Job Responsibilities of Paralegals
Before you decide about pursuing a paralegal degree, you should have a clear understanding of what the job entails. Paralegals work under the supervision of lawyers. Although they may work closely with clients, paralegals are prohibited from dispensing legal advice or performing any duty that must be performed by a licensed attorney.
The specific job responsibilities can vary from one office to the next. However, a paralegal may be expected to do the following tasks:
- Interview clients and witnesses, and keep clients informed of the case status and litigation process
- Investigate cases and perform legal research to identify relevant laws and judicial decisions
- Draft legal documents, pleadings and correspondence
- Facilitate case discovery and coordinate pretrial matters
In addition, paralegals help attorneys prepare for trials. During a trial, they may be responsible for taking notes and managing exhibits.
Earn Your Undergraduate Degree
The first step toward becoming a paralegal is to earn a paralegal degree. It is common for aspiring paralegals to earn an undergraduate degree in legal studies. This bachelor’s degree in law will enable you to acquire core legal knowledge and research skills. Programs will vary from one school to the next. However, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- Research methods in legal studies
- Constitutional law
- Civil law and procedures
- Criminal law and procedures
- Professional responsibilities in law professions
Your undergraduate courses will help you become familiar not only with laws themselves, but also with how they are applied and enforced. You will explore the inner workings of the court system and develop an understanding of how plaintiffs and victims can pursue justice.
Complete a Paralegal Training Course
Most employers prefer to hire paralegals with a four-year degree in law. However, it is rare to find a dedicated four-year paralegal program at a university. Instead, aspiring paralegals typically pursue a graduate certificate course in paralegal studies after earning their bachelor’s degree in a related area. These certificate courses may be offered online or on campus. Note that they are not the same as certification programs.
The curriculum can vary from one program to the next depending on the area of law. However, aspiring paralegals can generally expect to develop key skills in legal terminology, research, analysis and writing. Students will likely explore the structure of the court system, stages of litigation, preparation of depositions, rules of the court and process of discovery. Depending on the program, students may also receive practical training in working with clients and attorneys, exploring job opportunities in the legal field and interviewing for paralegal positions.
Develop the Important Characteristics of Effective Paralegals
After completing your undergraduate program and paralegal certificate course, you will have the knowledge and skills you need to effectively work as a paralegal in an area of law of your choosing. Along the way, you can work on cultivating the following characteristics of successful paralegals:
- Clear communication skills
- Meticulous attention to detail
- Rigorous research skills
- Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
- Exceptional organizational skills
- Critical thinking and analytical reasoning
How To Stand Out in the Field
To stand out in this competitive field, there are certain skills and competencies that successful paralegals demonstrate. First, you should have excellent computer skills because a large part of this job is done digitally. Second, having great people skills and a passion for helping others will allow you to soar in a paralegal career. Third, you should have a strong attention to detail because this skill could ultimately help save your clients tens of thousands of dollars.
Become a Certified Paralegal
It is not strictly mandatory to earn a professional certification, although some employers might require it. Even if it is not required, a certification will make you a more competitive job candidate who may qualify to command a higher salary. Certification is available through professional paralegal organizations.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers two credentialing options. Recent graduates may take the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam®. Passing this exam enables you to use the CRP® designation after your name. Once you have a few years of work experience as a paralegal, you may take the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam® (PACE®). Passing this exam will allow you to add the distinguished RP® designation after your name.
Aside from the NFPA, there are other options for earning a professional certification. One popular choice is the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) certification. A NALA Certified Paralegal® is recognized as someone with exceptional legal knowledge and skills.
What To Expect From a Paralegal Certificate
The paralegal certificate is a common paralegal program that can provide enhanced education and skills in a specific topic. For example, if you are interested in studying criminal behavior and the legal issues as they relate to criminality, you may want to pursue a forensic psychology certificate.
Obtaining a graduate certificate can happen after you receive your bachelor's degree. This certificate provides a solid foundation for those who plan to earn a master's or doctoral degree in law.
Start on the path toward a rewarding career in law by becoming a student at Grand Canyon University. Enroll in the Bachelor of Arts in Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies program or earn your Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Approved by an Instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Dec. 13, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.
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