When athletes want to perform at a higher level, some of them compromise their careers by turning to performance-enhancing substances. Lawyers use paralegals instead, which is not only ethical but a pretty smart choice. There's a lot of routine research, filing and writing in a legal office, and lawyers who delegate that work to paralegals can focus their time on more profitable work. Most paralegals start off with a degree or certificate in paralegal studies, and some later gain professional certifications.
Certificates and Degrees
You can become a paralegal in lots of ways. If you can talk a lawyer into hiring and training you, you could learn on the job. Many paralegals take an associate degree from their community college, and some schools offer higher degrees. If you already have a degree, or some other college-level education, you can learn your paralegal skills through a certificate program. These can be full- or part-time, and last anywhere from a month or two to a full year. They'll teach you legal terminology and research skills, the structure of standard legal documents, and the ethical basis of your profession.
Graduating from a certificate program isn't the same thing as being certified. Only about one in four paralegal programs are accredited by the American Bar Association, and the remaining 75 percent vary in content and quality. Getting certified by a professional organization tells potential employers that you've met an objective, nationally-recognized standard for competence. The National Association of Legal Assistants, National Association of Legal Secretaries and National Federation of Paralegal Associations administer the most broadly-recognized credentials, and your area might recognize other state or regional certifications.
Like lawyers, paralegals can choose to specialize in many dfferent areas of law. The National Association of Legal Assistants offers advanced paralegal certification in many of these specialties, including contracts management, criminal litigation and commercial bankruptcies. If you hold existing credentials in another field, that can also work in your favor. For example, if you're a trained nurse you might specialize in medically-oriented fields such as malpractice law or insurance settlements, while a bookkeeper or accountant would be able to provide expertise in business, tax or bankruptcy law.
If you're interested in the law but aren't necessarily up for law school, becoming a paralegal is a good option. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average paralegal salary of $49,960 in its 2011 figures, with the top 10 percent earning $75,400 or more. Job growth is expected to reach 18 percent by 2020, above the 14 percent average for all occupations. Most paralegals work in law offices, but you'd have lots of other options. Government offices, major corporations, health-care organizations and insurance companies, among others, often hire paralegals for their routine in-house work, reducing their need for trained lawyers.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Paralegals and Legal Assistants
- American Bar Association: Standing Committee on Paralegals -- Career Information
- National Association of Legal Assistants: Certification
- National Association of Legal Secretaries: Professional Paralegal
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations: Paralegal Credentialing - Overview
- National Association of Legal Assistants: Advanced Paralegal Certification
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