How to Become a Paralegal – Certifications, Career & Salary


Elaina Prudente

Elaina is a Marketing and Sales Support Operations Coordinator who sits in Special Counsel’s Philadelphia Office. She worked as a paralegal before acquiring her love for marketing. Outside of work, Elaina loves spending time with her friends and large family. She is multilingual, speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese and German.

If you’d like to venture into the legal profession, you might consider becoming a paralegal. A paralegal position is a great starting point to get your foot in the door of the legal field, or an opportunity for a rewarding career on its own. As you dive into your research, it’s important to understand the nature of the profession and familiarize yourself with the process. You have a lot of options and becoming a paralegal may seem like a daunting task, however this post will shed light on the process and hopefully, assuage some of your trepidations.

Paralegal Certificate Programs

If you want to have the official title ‘paralegal,’ then earning your paralegal certificate is certainly the first place to start. In my experience, I did not take this route and I greatly regret my decision. I was working at the right place at the right time — a law firm that desperately needed to fill a paralegal position – and my learning curve was steep. If you can commit full-time to receiving your paralegal certificate, the process should take around three months.

However, like most individuals trying to work full-time and attain the certification, they can only commit part of their time. When a student works on a part-time basis, it will take them around one year to acquire the certificate. Additionally, students can receive degrees in paralegal studies from a four-year university. This option is less desirable, not only because it is more expensive and takes longer, but because most of the programs are not ABA accredited, leading to lower job prospects. 

ABA Accredited Paralegal Programs

If you choose to receive your paralegal certificate from a college or university, it is imperative that the program is ABA accredited. Although ABA accredited programs are pricier, they will set you apart from the crowd. Similarly, the accreditation is renowned for its rigor and most of the questions from the final exam are on the state bar exam. In short, the program truly teaches you to think, speak and act like an attorney and prepares you for a career as a paralegal. Once you pass the final exam from an ABA accredited program, you will have a significantly higher chance of becoming an employee at an AmLaw firm.

Things to consider when choosing a paralegal program:

  • Find an ABA accredited paralegal certificate program. There are financial benefits to choosing programs with ABA accreditation.
  • Find a program to complement your schedule. Most students receiving their certificates are working part-time or full-time, which can make it cumbersome when choosing the right programs but there is a myriad of options out there and one is bound to fit.
  • Do not worry about the steep price tag. ABA accredited programs have higher up-front costs than their alternatives however, in the long-run, they yield greater earnings.

List of Paralegal Duties

Once you pass the exam, you can finally start working as a paralegal. Wondering what that might look like? Paralegals have numerous job responsibilities including (but not limited to):

  • Supporting attorneys with closings, depositions, hearings and trials
  • Conducting in-depth legal research
  • Managing calendars, incoming calls, client records
  • Handling various document management systems

There are editorial and administrative requirements that paralegals tend to that are not on most attorney’s radars so working as a paralegal will teach (and require) skills that vary between attorneys.

Generally speaking, lawyers represent clients in criminal and civil litigation matters, construct legal documents, and advise clients on legal proceedings. What paralegals cannot do is represent clients, advise clients on legal matters and or prepare legal documents that have not been approved by an attorney.

How to Become an Attorney

Like myself, many choose to become paralegals to dip their toes into the legal profession without becoming a full-fledged attorney. However, some begin their journey with a paralegal certificate in preparation for a career as an attorney. There are stark differences between the two roles and how you get there.

Attorneys must graduate from an ABA accredited law school, undergo state background checks, pass the state Bar exams and pay annual fees to maintain their licenses. Conversely, paralegals can earn degrees in paralegal studies or work towards earning a certificate.

Jobs in Legal Field

If you have a desire to become an attorney or paralegal, there is good news. Based on the United States Department of Labor’s statistics, both roles have a promising outlook. By 2016, employment for paralegals is expected to grow by fifteen percent. Additionally, in 2018 the median salary for paralegals was $51,000. For attorneys, the job market is favorable but not growing as quickly. From 2016 to 2026, the job prospects for attorneys will rise by eight percent —  but the key differentiator is the variation in salaries. In 2018, the average salary for an attorney was $121,000. You’ll also want to consider the time and dedication required to complete the required education, the kind of work-life balance you’re seeking and job opportunities in your desired region.

In the end, the process of becoming a paralegal isn’t terribly arduous and can be undertaken in a relatively short period of time. What you decide to do with your paralegal certificate from there is up to you! Regardless of the route you take, you should choose the best fit for your life and career goals.

To learn more about positions, salaries and benefits in the legal field check out our 2019 Salary Guide for Legal Professionals. And when you’re ready to join the job hunt, start by reaching out to one of our expert talent recruiters to explore openings in the industry.

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