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Getting Started as a Paralegal

A look at the various education and career opportunities.

By Oliver M. Gierke

January 2009

 

The paralegal profession has been one of the fastest growing professions in the United States for years. It traditionally offers stable income and good benefits, as well as job satisfaction and professional recognition to individuals who are unable or uninterested in investing the time and financial resources needed to attend law school or pursue other professional careers.

Those interested in paralegal work in law firms and corporate legal departments all face the same challenge in their search for employment: How to get started and obtain the initial legal background and skill set necessary to secure a position in a job market which, despite its comparative abundance of openings and opportunities, is highly competitive. In this context, assessing the value and necessity of a paralegal degree or certificate is important. These degrees and certificates, whether associate, bachelorís or even masterís degrees in paralegal studies, are offered by a number of educational institutions around the country, ranging from 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities to vocational training schools and online service providers. However, not all educational programs are of the same caliber, and not all are suitable options for everyone.

Types of Paralegals and Degrees

There are three types of paralegals, and the distinctions between them are important because a paralegal degree or certificate impacts each type differently.

Career paralegals. These individuals intend to stay in the profession and often specialize in a particular area or field, or work across a variety of practice areas, particularly in smaller or sole practitioner law offices.

Transitional paralegals. These individuals often are law school bound and work as a paralegal for a year or two to gain experience and possibly save money before continuing their education. Many also are making this limited-time commitment to be able to work in the field and determine if attending law school is right for them. Also counted as part of this category are those who work in a paralegal position during the day and attend law school at night.

Temporary and/or part-time paralegals. These individuals work in the legal field to earn a living by using their skills while deciding on other options or pursuing careers in areas such as the creative or performing arts, which usually are more personally, rather than financially, rewarding. The main difference between these paralegals and transitional paralegals is that these paralegals, many of whom have job titles such as paralegal clerk or case clerk, are not planning to use their employment as a step towards law school.

Based on the type of paralegal career you are planning, there are a variety of choices for paralegal education. Associate degrees commonly are awarded by community, junior or business colleges after a 2-year course of study, but also can be obtained through online or long-distance programs. This is a good choice for those who seriously are interested in a paralegal career but canít make the financial or time commitment of a 4-year degree.

While bachelorís degrees in paralegal studies are awarded by an increasing number of colleges and universities, they still are not widely available when compared to short-term degree and certificate programs. However, this is a good option for those who are planning on obtaining a 4-year degree and are interested in a career in the legal field, whether as paralegals or in preparation for a future law degree.

Finally, a large number of education providers, ranging from universities, 4-year institutions, community and business colleges, to online providers and vocational training schools, offer paralegal certificates aimed at a variety of candidates. These certificate programs vary widely as to length, cost, and quality, and are more often than not tailored towards two particular groups: graduates holding bachelorís or associate degrees in other subjects who want to obtain specific training to combine with their underlying degree; and those who, for reasons such as time, location or financial constraints, have to choose this route to meet their educational goals.

Is a Degree or Certificate Needed?

One of the primary considerations when deciding on a degree is whether a future paralegal intends to stay in the legal field and pursue a long-term career as a paralegal, or whether the position is a stepping stone on the way to law school or another goal.

If you intend to work as a paralegal for a few years before attending law school, it might not make sense to obtain a degree or certificate. This particularly is applicable if you plan to work in a large city where large law firms might forego the requirement of a formal paralegal education, as they tend to hire more transitory and temporary paralegals. These firms usually require only a 4-year degree from an accredited college or university and good grades. Larger firms also are more likely to have their own in-house training and mentoring programs, which offer their paralegals substantive training and guidance beyond basic computer and database sessions. These educational opportunities are offered to all paralegals, regardless of whether they are career paralegals or are transitional paralegals.

Many smaller and mid-size law firms, as well as many of the larger national firms outside the major centers like New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, often require some kind of formal paralegal training, whether by itself or in addition to a 4-year college degree. Depending on regional job markets, entry level salaries and offered benefits, it might, however, also be possible to find an entry-level position without an educational background in paralegal studies, perhaps accepting a position as a file clerk, legal secretary or receptionist to get a foot in the door and obtain on-the-job training. While ó considering regional differences and variations ó many smaller and mid-size firms will allow paralegals to gain experience this way, many others lack the time and financial resources to train new employees on more than firm-specific policies and computer systems, and prefer candidates with at least some basic educational background in the field. Itís in these regional job markets, in the smaller and mid-size firms located outside the major cities, where career paralegals find the vast majority of their employment opportunities.

Large firms and many corporate legal departments tend to hire more experienced, mid-level to senior paralegal candidates to fill specialist positions, such as real estate paralegals who handle commercial and residential closings; immigration paralegals with experience in various types of work visas; intellectual property paralegals responsible for the prosecution and docketing of patents and trademarks; corporate paralegals who handle Securities and Exchange Commission filings and assist with closings; and experienced litigation paralegals to work on legal briefs and other court filings and attend trials. For these positions, an applicantís years of experience in the field, in the respective specialties and with the particular databases used, often are given more weight than a paralegal degree, although many large firms still might prefer an applicant with a degree in addition to experience.

However, for those paralegals who want to switch into a highly technical and specialized area such as patent or trademark prosecution, trusts and estates, or securities filings, obtaining additional educational credentials might be of greater importance. Employers will be hesitant to hire them or to pay them the salaries these more specialized positions can command, or experienced paralegals might expect, without both knowledge of the specialty (even though it might only be theoretical in nature) and a proven track record in the legal field at large.

Finally, for paralegals who want upward mobility into managerial roles where they often are responsible for the supervision of paralegals with degrees or certificates, it might be advantageous to obtain a paralegal degree or certificate, or at least pursue a certification in their desired legal specialty.

Evaluating a Paralegal Program

The decision to attend a paralegal program and the choice of a suitable program depends on many factors, but before elaborating on some of these factors, one major distinction requires explanation: the difference between a program approved by the American Bar Association and a program that isnít ABA approved.

In an effort to provide paralegal students with quality educational opportunities, the ABA has established a set of guidelines for the approval of paralegal programs that meet many stringent and high quality standards, including:

  • operating for a minimum of two years and having graduated students to show a proven track record;
  • having an advisory committee in place that consists of practicing lawyers and paralegals, as well as faculty and educational administrators;
  • providing adequate resources in regard to staffing, facilities, technical and other supplies, library access and placement assistance;
  • offering a curriculum that mandates general education classes (such as English or science) and legal specialty training (such as legal research and writing, and classes in topics such as contracts, torts and probate);
  • requiring practical assignments;
  • offering direct interaction between students and faculty (meaning that all-online programs canít be ABA approved); and,
  • encouraging and helping to facilitate internships and other practical experience.

Given these requirements and standards, paralegal applicants graduating from ABA-approved programs often are sought after in the job market, and more and more employers who require their paralegals to have a degree prefer, or even mandate, that the degree be from an ABA-approved institution. However, not everyone will have the opportunity to attend an ABA-approved program, and there are many other factors to consider prior to deciding which program is the right fit for you.

Time. How long will it take to complete the program?

Schedule. Are the classes taught during the day, in the evening or on weekends, or is the class schedule a combination? Does the program require the completion of internships, which might make it harder to attend class while working or fulfilling other noneducational obligations? Or are the classes offered by an online or distance learning provider, where some or all courses can be taken without a preset schedule as long as certain milestones and deadlines are met?

Cost. How expensive is the program? Is financial aid available? Are there extra costs, such as for books and study guides or fees for writing centers or computer labs, or are these expenses included in the tuition?

Location. Where are classes held and how easy is the commute from work or home? Are all or some of the classes Web-based or offered by a distance learning institution requiring a specific computer and telephone set up for successful attendance and participation?

Reputation. How reputable are the school and the paralegal program? Is the paralegal course ABA approved? How long has the program been in existence, and how many students have successfully graduated and found employment?

Quality. Is there just one track of classes or can students choose electives in various specialties and subspecialties once core requirements have been fulfilled? What is the quality of the instructors? Are they lawyers or paralegals teaching these classes on the side, or are they full-time teachers who are not in daily contact with the legal environment?

Resources. Does the educational institution offer additional resources, such as a library, a writing center, or free access to computerized research such as Westlaw or Lexis as part of the tuition? Does the school offer or require internships, and provide placement assistance for graduates to make the launch of their legal careers and working life easier?

Particularly for those who might not have the choice to select a classroom-taught program and need to rely on online programs, a careful evaluation of the above factors, keeping in mind your local legal community and its employment requirements and preferences, is advisable as many prospective employers tend to frown on online degrees. If that is the case in your community, it might be more advantageous to look into the possibility of obtaining an entry-level position that doesnít require a degree or attempt to intern at a local law firm to find a way directly into the profession and the field, rather than spending time and money on pursuing an education not valued by local employers.

Consider Your Situation and Goals

Considering all of these factors, any newcomer to the paralegal field should take a good look at his or her situation and goals, both short-term and long-term, and plan on conducting a thorough investigation of the educational and employment opportunities in the local legal community to determine whether pursuing a paralegal position is the right decision.

Regardless of which path of education and employment eventually is decided upon, it will prove to be a rewarding one and lead to an interesting and fulfilling career in an ever-changing, cutting-edge field with continuing growth and opportunities for all those willing to find them and make them their own.

 

 

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