How to Become a Paralegal: Steps to Take from High School
Curious about the legal system? Do you enjoy writing and research? Are you detail-oriented? Then a job as a paralegal could be for you.
These professionals work with lawyers, assisting them on cases. The tasks vary significantly from position to position.
Some paralegals work in their roles to gain job experience as preparation for becoming a lawyer, either taking a gap year or working in the role while attending law school. Others find it a fulfilling career in its own right.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegal’s roles depend largely on the attorneys they assist. Common responsibilities include:
- Conducting legal research
- Organizing important documents and files
- Writing correspondence for the lawyer
- Performing interviews with clients
- Preparing briefs
- Scheduling and keeping track of deadlines and dates
- Summarizing records
- Helping lawyers with trial preparation
- Filing documents with courts
It’s important to note that by law, paralegals are not able to handle many of the responsibilities of lawyers, such as representing clients in court, accepting cases, and giving legal advice. Whenever they communicate with clients, these individuals must be made aware that they are not licensed attorneys and their limitations to that end.
Paralegals often work in law firms, but they can also find positions at businesses like banks, insurance companies, and healthcare corporations; nonprofits; and government agencies.
How Much Do Paralegals Make?
Paralegals earn an average of $48,783 per year, according to PayScale. Salaries vary widely based on factors like where you work, experience, education, and more.
How to Become a Paralegal
There are no specific prerequisites for most paralegal programs. Still, it’s a good idea to hone your reading, writing, and general communication skills while you’re in high school. You should also work on further developing your research skills, which will prove invaluable in your paralegal career.
Some relevant courses to pursue are AP Lang, AP Lit, and AP Research. Philosophy and math courses can also help with your logical reasoning, especially those that involve proofs. If your school offers law classes, they can certainly give you a head start on your legal career. You may also consider extracurriculars like debate, mock trial, and Model UN.
There are several routes to becoming a paralegal, including earning an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or legal studies.
Typical coursework includes:
- Legal research
- Legal writing
- American law
- Legal investigation
While an associate’s degree will suffice for many positions, to increase your chances of landing a competitive paralegal job, you’ll find it worthwhile to earn a bachelor’s. You can even earn a master’s degree in legal studies, which will likely give you a substantial edge in the hiring process.
No matter what type of program you choose, make sure it’s approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). There are some ABA-approved paralegal certificate programs (different from the post-degree certificate described below), but replacing a degree with a certificate will almost certainly limit your career options.
If you’re planning to go to law school to become a full-fledged lawyer, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in any subject. You major can be totally unrelated to law; law schools like to admit students with a liberal arts education. Just be sure that you’re taking the steps necessary to be eligible for paralegal positions.
While in college, it can also be helpful to take courses that strengthen your logical reasoning, like philosophy and math. This will give you a strong foundation for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test), a 3.5 hour exam that tests reading comprehension, logic, and verbal reasoning.
Post-baccalaureate and post-associate certificates are available to people who have earned a college degree. These, too, can help paralegals advance in their career or improve their candidacy and earning potential.
Paralegals can also specialize by earning a certificate, as well as gaining experience in a particular type of practice, such as litigation, or in a certain sector like insurance or real estate.
Many paralegals are aspiring lawyers themselves, and if law school is on your radar, you’ll need to be ready for a rigorous three more years of schooling. Keep in mind that you don’t need to apply for law school right after your associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Some people work for several years before going back to school, and that can be a smart move, considering the hefty price of law school.
Are you interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal? Whether this or another career is in your future, CollegeVine can help you get there. It all starts with finding the right college for you and your passion. With our Chancing Engine, we’ll estimate your chances of admission to hundreds of colleges in the United States, taking into account both qualitative and quantitative factors. Sign up for free!