Paralegals or legal assistants have become increasingly popular in recent decades. But what is a paralegal, and what do they do? What type of education do you need to become one? We’ll be taking an in-depth look at this in-demand career to give you all the information you need to decide if becoming a legal assistant is for you.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
According to the American Bar Association, a legal assistant or paralegal is a person, “qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, government agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Think of a paralegal as an attorney’s right-hand-man. A paralegal doesn’t have a licensure given by the state to practice law, like lawyers do. They may not represent clients or give legal advice. Instead they are expected to handle all aspects of the case that the lawyer is expected to do. Paralegals are expected to research and draft legal documents, assist with day-to-day operations within a firm, schedule hearings, interact with clients, and keep important case files and evidence organized and in order.
Legal assistants may specialize in certain areas just like a lawyer would, like corporate, immigration, criminal, and family. They assist the lawyer in investigating and gathering facts, conducting legal research, and preparing for trials.
What Education Do You Need to Become One?
Since becoming a paralegal doesn’t require a person to be licensed, there are many routes to entering this career. Students can take a certification course at a tech school, go to community college for an associate’s degree, or even earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in legal studies or criminal justice. Since most four-year colleges don’t offer an undergraduate or graduate degree in paralegal studies specifically, many people get their degree in a related major and then a certificate in paralegal studies.
No matter where you take your paralegal studies course, you should expect to take courses like legal writing, legal applications of computers, legal research, and corporate and international law. There are many certifications that can be given all around the country that require students to pass a paralegal certification exam, although no state requires you to be certified.
Many employers like paralegals to have some sort of degree when they are hired. Sometimes they even choose paralegals with degrees in areas that could be beneficial to them, like criminal justice, nursing, and tax preparation. Those who have experience in law firms or something similar may be able to find a paralegal job without having a degree in the subject.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many paralegal training programs offer an internship, in which students gain practical experience by working for a public defender or attorney general, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, or a government agency to improve their technical skills and can enhance their employment prospects.
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If you’re looking to get into the field of law but don’t want to go through the hassle of becoming a lawyer, becoming a paralegal or legal assistant could be perfect for you. Paralegals see the day-to-day aspects of the legal industry without any of the requirements of licensure. The information we provided here can help you make the right decision about your future.