Paralegals are the legal assistants of lawyers. They are employed full time at private law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal offices. As a legal assistant their duties include delivering and retrieving legal documents to and from the courthouse, preparing clients for trial, drafting documents, researching legal cases, and maintaining and organizing legal documents. They even attend court with the lawyers they serve.
There are many ways of becoming a paralegal, some more preferable than others. One such path begins with an associate’s degree, earned through completing a paralegal program. This two-year program is offered by community colleges, universities, and through online classes. Though it is possible to be hired by a firm with just an associate’s degree, an increasing number of employers require candidates to have a four-year bachelor’s degree in paralegal or legal studies. But only a few colleges offer a degree program in legal studies, as a result, some people instead choose to earn a degree in another field followed by a paralegal certificate, which can take months to complete. But whatever the case, prospective paralegals will find that it is in their best interest to choose a specialty as early as possible because a specialty or lack thereof will define the path their careers can take.
Aspiring paralegals, in addition to earning a degree, can complete a certification program. Organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants award the CLA and CP certifications after individuals take and pass an exam. Certification, however, is not a requirement for the profession but may make a good impression on future employers. Some employers look at the ownership of certification as a show of an applicant’s abilities and skills. That’s not to say that some employers won’t require potential hires to have certification because some actually do. So any way you take it earning certification is beneficial for anyone pursuing a paralegal career.
Sometimes employers prefer to hire candidates who have experience at a law firm or office setting. Internships are offered through some paralegal training programs. They allow applicants to gain hands-on experience and improve their technical skills while working in a legal setting. During this internship, paralegal interns will work for several months in a private law firm, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, or a government agency. Sometimes employers will hire college graduates with no legal experience or legal education and train them on the job. That’s possible because the graduate may have experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms such as tax preparation.
The time it takes to become a paralegal depends on the path a person takes. It takes 2 years to complete an associate’s degree, four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, and several months to complete certification. Thus it can take anywhere between 2 and 6 years to become a paralegal.