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How Long Does It Take To Become A Paralegal

How Long Does It Take To Become A Paralegal?

The legal profession is one of the most recognizable and exalted vocations anywhere in the world. The face and head of any legal team is of course the lawyer, who is customarily supported by a retinue of staff. They include legal assistants, paralegals, law clerks, and law secretaries. Paralegals have greater knowledge of the law and legal procedures than any other assistant. In fact, they at times perform tasks that are nearly indistinguishable from that of lawyers.

Paralegals now have better qualifications and expertise, which makes them indispensable assistants to lawyers, judges, and lawmakers. How long does it take to become a paralegal?

  • A master’s degree in the Paralegal field will take about 2 years
  • Paralegal certificate programs should be no more than one semester
  • Informal paralegal training will vary from many weeks to a few years depending on how fast you can learn and the skills you already posses

Over the years, the profession has evolved and differentiated itself from that of other legal assistants.  Here is an in depth look at the requirements, qualifications, salary and career prospects for paralegals today.

paralegal average salaries

What does a paralegal do?

A paralegal is markedly different from a simple legal assistant, whose primary duties involve filing and organizing legal documents, or drafting a lawyer’s correspondence. Paralegals do more substantive legal work under the direct supervision of a lawyer. This is due to their education and training. Their duties are only limited by their level of expertise and experience, and include:

  • Being the primary contact between lawyers and clients
  • Interviewing, advising, and updating clients
  • Performing legal research on cases, statutes, and rulings
  • Maintaining a lawyers schedule including court appearances
  • Drafting legal documents such as contracts, pleadings, and wills
  • Carrying out investigations to establish the facts of a case

Becoming a paralegal

There are several ways of becoming a paralegal, each with its own merits. However, it is important for any aspiring paralegal to have an interest in the law and its workings. For this reason, it is advisable to get any job in a law firm or practice. This will give you an inside look at what lawyers and other legal practitioners do.

Furthermore, an aspiring paralegal will require great writing and communication skills. This is because the work of a paralegal entails drafting documents, interviewing, and communicating with clients and other legal professionals.

Should you decide to pursue the profession, there are both formal and informal routes that you can take. Here is a look at both.

Informal paralegal training

Many paralegals begin their careers as assistants to lawyers, usually after completing a high school diploma. They do not have formal training, and are fortunate enough to receive training while working as legal secretaries. They start out by doing simple tasks, like organizing documents and taking calls.

A lawyer’s assistant can be then supervised and trained on the job to carry out more complex work. This includes drafting correspondence and legal documents, and filling paperwork. Working alongside a lawyer gives the assistant an inside look and understanding of paralegal work.

This is the most cost effective and preferable route for those who cannot afford formal training. However, landing such a position in today’s job market may not be easy without formal training or experience.

Formal paralegal training

One can also become a paralegal by pursuing paralegal studies at a college, just like any other profession. Before joining any paralegal education program, it is critical to assess its reputation and quality. This will ensure you obtain a recognized qualification that can boost your career prospects.

The best way to do this is by checking the school’s accreditation. This is a stamp of approval from recognized agencies. This may either be national, regional or even distance accreditation. One of the top accreditation agencies is the American Bar Association.

College degrees

You can opt for a bachelors or associate degree in paralegal studies. This is normally at 4 year community colleges, which have specialised programs for paralegals. The associate degree can be completed in a year and a half, while the bachelor’s degree takes about 4 years. Courses studied in such programs include:

  • General, probate, tax, tort, real estate, and business law
  • Legal research methods
  • Criminal and civil procedures
  • Business courses in accounting and finance

These degrees can be pursued full time at a college or part time via online programs. The latter option is suitable for working individuals, who may not have adequate time for full time study. Award of the degree will require an internship at a lawyer’s office or such relevant work experience.

Post baccalaureate certificate

Post baccalaureate certification in paralegal work is also offered by other schools. This is tailored for students who already posses a bachelor’s degree in any field, and wish to enter the profession. It is also suitable for those who want to make a career change after college. These certification programs take between six months to a year, and train the student in all aspects of paralegal work.

Professional Certification

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) are the two major paralegal associations in the country. These two bodies offer professional certification for those with paralegal education, including an associate degree or post baccalaureate certificates.

Although voluntary, these certifications are recognized as a mark of achievement by lawyers, law firms, and other corporations. They include:

  • Certified Paralegal (CP)
  • Registered Paralegal (RP)
  • Core Registered Paralegal (CRP)
  • Certified Legal Assistant (CLA)
  • Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP)

These certifications also entail certain work experience requirements, passage of a qualifying exam, and participation in Continuing Legal Education (CLE).

Career prospects and salary for paralegals

Median Pay$48,798
Entry-Level EducationAssociate’s degree
Job Outlook18% (faster than average)
Number of Jobs300,000 +

The legal profession cannot function without the important contribution of paralegals. As lawyers get more clients, the job prospects of paralegals will continue to improve. Job opportunities are expected to grow by almost 20% over the next 15 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although most paralegals find employment in law firms and lawyer’s offices, there are many other industries which have a demand for a paralegal’s training and experience. They include:

  • Legal departments of corporations
  • Academic institutions
  • State and federal governments
  • Insurance companies
  • Investment firms

Many paralegals improve their career prospects by having dual degrees in related fields. This makes them more attractive to specialised law firms. For example a personal injury law firm will prefer a paralegal with additional training in a health related field.

So to summarize how long does it take to become a paralegal? Up to two (2) years when going after a formal degree, a few months when obtaining a certificate through a program and an unknown time based on informal training.

Published in Paralegal Career