When it comes to winning in the courtroom, paralegals have always taken a backseat to lawyers, even if their work is just as paramount to the success of any legal case.
In fact, there are many legal assistants whose steadfast dedication to their work has impacted and changed the course of history.
So, if you want to follow in the footsteps of Erin Brockovich, Merrell Williams Jr and Abraham Lincoln (yes, that Abraham Lincoln), then read on to find out the essential steps you should take to become – and to excel as – a paralegal.
1. Research the Profession
It’s important to gather as much information as you can before committing to any career path. Below is an overview of what exactly the profession entails, what skills you need and how much you can potentially earn.
A paralegal’s primary function is to assist lawyers with their cases. They do this through the following tasks:
- drafting and filing court documents, including pleads and motions
- summarising and organising reports
- researching current and past legal cases
- gathering information from sources
- preparing civil documents such as wills and separation agreements
- communicating with clients when instructed
- setting meetings and organising schedules
- proofreading and fact-checking reports
- creating legal briefs
- assisting during trials.
Paralegals can also work for a variety of agencies like the government, private law firms and non-profit organisations. Depending on the area of law you’re interested in and the kind of company you wish to work for, you can pursue any of these paralegal careers:
- bankruptcy paralegal – they support lawyers who work with creditors, debtors and creditor companies
- corporate paralegal – they help corporate lawyers carry out business transactions, including acquisitions and investments
- criminal law paralegal – they assist criminal defence lawyers and prosecutors
- immigration paralegal – they help gather paperwork that is integral to immigration lawyers
- litigation paralegal – they assist in collecting and gathering information in an ongoing case or investigation
- personal injury paralegal – they do the necessary legwork to either establish or abolish a case.
Essential Skills and Qualities
Becoming a paralegal has its own set of challenges. To excel in this craft, you must possess the following traits and characteristics:
- diplomacy – you’ll be handling sensitive cases and information that will require discretion
- a calm and collected nature – you should be able to work under pressure and to tight deadlines
- flexibility – your schedule will be unpredictable; you should be able to adjust with ease and grace
- organisational skills – you’ll be handling a lot of important documents that must be handled with care
- patience and persistence – you’ll have to go through a lot of red tape during your research, but you must remain focused and, more importantly, determined
- an attentiveness to detail – every detail in your report must be accurate as it will be used in court
- writing skills – you’ll be expected to prepare numerous legal documents and reports
- communication skills – you’ll assist in setting up meetings with clients and other lawyers
- multitasking skills – you must balance and do a lot of errands during the entire course of your workweek
- investigative skills – you should be able to piece information together to build a strong case.
Working Hours and Conditions
Paralegals don’t have regular hours as each working day can be different from the one before it. They will adjust depending on the most pressing needs of the case they’re working on and are usually always on call. They also typically work overtime or on weekends to accommodate clients and other people involved in the case they’re assisting on.
Due to the demanding nature of their work, paralegals are compensated fairly well. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, they earn a median annual wage of $50,410. In the UK, salaries range between £14,000 and £40,000, according to the National Careers Service.
As with any job, your salary will change depending on your level of experience and the company you for. For example, private law firms usually provide higher hourly rates than most government institutions. You also tend to earn more if you specialise in a specific area of law.
The demand for paralegals is high, with a projection rate of 15% for the next eight years. Law firms are also keen on hiring more paralegals to save on costs, as not all clients require the services of lawyers. In addition to that, large industries, including healthcare and insurance companies, are also expanding their own in-house legal teams which typically include a group of paralegals.
2. Get the Qualifications
To work as a paralegal in the US, you must have an associate degree in paralegal studies or any related field. It’s worth noting, however, that more and more institutions prefer to hire those who have a bachelor’s degree, so, going to university may be your best bet. You should also obtain certification from any paralegal accreditation programme that’s approved by the American Bar Association (ABA), as most companies will require this, anyway.
Meanwhile, if you live in the UK, you can become a paralegal through an apprenticeship. For instance, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) offers several different tracks for those who want to pursue different careers in the legal sector.
However, it’s generally recommended that you get an associate or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies to increase your chances of landing a job.
If you’re pursuing this profession as part of a career change, meanwhile, and have a limited budget or little time, you may also want to consider taking classes online.
3. Land Your First Job
The most effective way to land a job is to become an intern. You can do that by checking for openings and applying at any local law firm. Having internship experience on your CV will definitely give you an extra edge. And, if you’re lucky, the firm that you’re working for might even hire you on a full-time basis.
Being part of a professional organisation can also improve your chances and help you stand out from the crowd. Not only does it bolster your credibility, but it’s also a great opportunity to meet more people and expand your network.
There are over 140 professional organisations that you can join in the US alone, including:
- American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- NALS (formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries)
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).
If you live in the UK, meanwhile, the two most popular professional organisations are the Institute of Paralegals (IOP) and the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP).
You can also opt to work as a freelancer, although we recommend getting work experience first before considering this option.
4. Develop Your Career
Working as a paralegal opens you to many opportunities. You can take extra studies and specialise in an area of law which will make you indispensable to specific work sectors. You may also want to explore other paths like that of a bailiff or even a lawyer. Wherever you decide to take your career, there are many avenues you can pursue, which will undoubtedly bring you fulfilment and success.
They might not be the biggest stars of the courtroom, but paralegals are just as crucial in ensuring that truth and justice always win.
What kind of paralegal would you be if you had a choice? Let us know in the comments section below.