Becoming a paralegal is a great way to earn a solid living with potential long-term job security. It is also a position providing valuable insight into the world of practicing law as an attorney. If you have an interest in law and are considering a career as a paralegal there are numerous steps to take and extensive information to consider.
While paralegal education and experience are qualifications required by law firms who are hiring, the extent of the education can vary. The amount of education required depends largely on the employer and type of law being practiced. One-year certificate programs are available as are degrees ranging from Associate’s to Master’s. How do you know which one to pursue? What are the benefits, costs and time involved for each? Learn more about the paralegal profession and how to earn the most beneficial paralegal degree for your career goals, below.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
A paralegal handles administrative tasks for lawyers and/or law firms. These tasks involve communication with clients, keeping files and notes organized, scheduling, knowledge of various types of contracts and more. There is some work for paralegals involving more hands-on essential legal activities. This is more likely to happen in smaller firms than in larger ones, where administrative duties and organization skills take precedence due to the sheer volume of cases being handled.
Case research is also involved when working as a paralegal. Preparing documents for court appearances and even interviewing witnesses are part of the job. Being a paralegal requires adaptability, reliability, and a highly detail-oriented work ethic. It also requires training, experience and education.
Available Paralegal Degrees
The more educated you are in your field, the more likely you are to impress prospective employers and receive a higher salary. Available degrees in paralegal studies include Associate’s, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Which you need largely depends on your career goals. Certificate programs are also available but are separate from degree programs and are not mandatory to become a paralegal in the United States. That being said, the successful completion of a certificate program, shows drive and dedication likely to bolster your value as an employee and increase salary opportunities. You can access the American Bar Association to search for preferred paralegal educational programs.
Deciding Which Degree Programs Are Best for You
Knowing which degree programs to pursue and whether or not to complete a certificate program is complex and fluid information to process. Knowing which field of law you prefer to work in is also a deciding factor. Different fields of law require varied types and amounts of education and experience. Selecting the geographic areas in which you are willing to live, and what the employment opportunities are in those areas are also deciding factors. Doing proper research before embarking in paralegal studies helps focus your education in the right direction while also potentially saving time and money.
The Associate’s degree is considered to be the most common degree pursued and leads to gainful employment as a paralegal. An associate degree can be completed in 18 months or more. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees take longer to complete and carry higher tuition costs, respectively. This means most paralegal positions do not require more than an associate degree to be obtained. Spending more time and money on higher degrees is a choice made based on the extent of your employment pursuits and salary expectations.
Receiving a certificate in paralegal studies is a viable choice if you already have an associate or bachelor degree in unrelated studies. The certificate allows you to take a more direct path to gainful, paralegal employment. Receiving a certificate, in addition to a degree, has the potential to help you stand out above competing applicants.
Paralegal Salary RangesSalary ranges for paralegals vary based on region, specific field of law, size of the employing law firm, amount of employee education and level of experience. Experience can be attained via previous employment as a paralegal and through real-life internships provided during the educational processes.
The median pay for paralegals in 2019 as obtained by the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey was $51,740 per year or $24.87 per hour.
In contrast, the median pay for all workers in the United States simultaneously in 2019 was $39,810, which was $11,930 less than that received by paralegals on average.
Can Becoming a Paralegal Help You Become a Lawyer?
The consensus of a 2013 Harvard law panel was becoming a paralegal neither helps you to become a lawyer nor does it make you a more appealing prospect to employers when being considered for a position as a lawyer in their firm. Paralegal work is most often not substantive and therefore does not provide much if any experience valuable to becoming an actual attorney. Opinions on this do vary and having real life experience while performing paralegal duties is of benefit if you do subsequently pursue an attorney position.
The legal field is an industry guaranteed to always need workers. With that in mind, becoming a paralegal means job security. The main benefit the paralegal position provides is firsthand knowledge of the hours, efforts, stress levels and general lifestyle attorneys need to be successful. If you are uncertain about committing to law school, becoming a paralegal first is one of best ways to decide. It also allows you to make your decision while also earning an above average living in a job with long-term security.