What Do You Need to Be a Paralegal?

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Paralegals work as assistants to lawyers. They perform a wide variety of tasks, ranging from investigating the facts of a case and drafting contracts to doing general clerical work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals earned about $46,120 a year on average in May 2008, though earnings vary greatly according to employer. Since job positions are fairly competitive, it is important for individuals to become qualified to work as paralegals.

Education

  • An associate degree in paralegal studies prepares individuals to work in this field. This is how most paralegals enter their careers. Individuals with bachelor’s degrees can choose to pursue this career by earning a paralegal studies certificate or undergoing on-the-job training. Bachelor’s degrees in business, English, political science and pre-law help prepare individuals to become paralegals. While it is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in paralegal studies, it is not necessary.

Course Requirements

  • Courses required for an associate degree in paralegal studies vary according to school. Some of the courses that students can expect to take include legal research, law ethics, legal procedures and computer research in law. Students may also take courses in various areas of law, such as tax law, real estate law, contract law and criminal law. Students who choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in another area of study may want to consider taking law courses.

Certification

  • Becoming certified as a paralegal can increase an individual’s chances of employment, but is generally not required. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. and the National Association of Legal Assistants all offer certification for paralegals. It is important to note that each certifying agency has its own requirements for eligibility, but they generally require individuals to have years of paralegal experience.

Skills and Knowledge

  • Paralegals must have exceptional research and investigative skills. They must be able to use a computer and learn which programs are used for the legal process. Having an understanding of legal procedures and terminology is also important. Since paralegals also generally act as secretaries, it is important for them to have good people skills. They should also have an understanding of ethical practices that should be followed in a legal work setting.

Training

  • Most employers require paralegals to have some form of training or experience. Students who earn an associate degree in paralegal studies generally have to complete an internship prior to graduation. An internship can lead to job opportunities. Individuals who have bachelor’s degrees must generally undergo on-the-job training in order to become a paralegal.

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