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You’re interested in law. You’re analytical and have a keen eye for detail. You have excellent research skills and can comb through mountains of information to extract the information you need. You thrive in high-pressure environments and can rise to the occasion when the situation calls for it.

If these attributes describe you perfectly, then a paralegal career sounds like just the thing for you. Do you want to know what the best part is? You don’t have to spend a small fortune paying your way through law school or spend a massive amount of time studying to pass the bar exam. This is a much faster and cost-effective way to get into the criminal justice world.

So, how do you become a paralegal anyway? This guide explores everything you need to know about the process.

How Do You Become a Paralegal?

If you’re ready to embark on the journey towards becoming one, the American Bar Association (ABA) sets out some guidelines to standardize the process. The profession is open to people with varying educational backgrounds and work experience.

These are the steps you need to take to point you in the right direction.

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Step 1: Choose a Path

Although the vast majority of paralegals across the country work as generalists in law firms, some choose to specialize in a particular sector of the law. While you certainly have the option to enroll in a program that focuses on generalist paralegal studies, choosing a specialty from the get-go allows you to pick courses that are relevant to your career goals.

Some of the specialty areas worth looking into include:

  • Corporate paralegal
  • Debt and bankruptcy paralegal
  • Estate planning and probate paralegal
  • Family law paralegal
  • Freelance paralegal
  • Immigration paralegal
  • Intellectual property paralegal
  • Litigation paralegal
  • Real estate paralegal

If you’re not sure about which area you want to focus on, jump to Step 2. You can specialize in a particular field once you get to Step 4.

Step 2: Enroll in and Complete a Formal Paralegal Education Program

To become a professional in this field, you have to complete some formal education before you can find employment. Paralegal programs vary in their admission requirements, duration, and how the course is designed.

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Choose your preferred program wisely and stay away from “I know a guy…”-type recommendations. With so many programs out there, how do you pick the right one?

Here’s how to tell if a particular program is legit:

  • It should have a minimum of 18 semester credit hours of purely paralegal classes
  • Post-secondary programs should have no less than 60 semester credit hours
  • It needs to be an ABA-approved program
  • It should be offered by an institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE)

The AAfPE considers you a qualified paralegal if you have:

  • An associate or baccalaureate degree in any field
  • A certificate, an associate, a baccalaureate, or master’s degree in paralegal education

It needs to offer the right combination of substantive and professional skills that integrate legal theory in addition to an in-depth understanding of its practical applications in the real world.

Step 3: Get Hands-On Experience

Most paralegal programs will require students to gain professional legal experience before they can graduate. So, you’ll have to complete an internship in a legal setting before you can qualify as a paralegal. If you make a good impression while you’re there, it increases the chances of getting an employment offer after graduation.

Some of the sectors where you can intern or find employment include:

  • Banking
  • Community legal programs
  • Consumer organizations
  • Insurance
  • Legal departments of corporations
  • Private law firms
  • Professional trade organizations
  • Public prosecutors’ office
  • Real estate companies
  • State and federal government agencies

It’s a great way to start building your resume to kick-start your paralegal career.

Step 4: Gain Professional Certification

Once you complete a formal program in paralegal studies and are working in the field to build up your professional experience and beef-up your resume, the next step involves earning a paralegal professional certification. Most of the available ones require that you complete a formal paralegal education program and have a requisite amount of professional experience under your belt.

You’ll then be eligible to take the associated certification examination. Some of the national-level professional certifications you can get include credentials offered by:

Educational Prerequisites

There are many academic options available for people looking to pursue a paralegal career. Here’s an overview of the different education prerequisites you need to get into the field.

Certificate in Paralegal Studies

If time matters a great deal to you and are looking for the fastest way to become a paralegal, then enrolling in a certificate program is your best bet. All you need is a high school diploma or minimal higher education. Certificate programs typically take anywhere between a few months to two years to complete.

Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies

Associate degrees in paralegal studies are more rigorous than certificate programs but take half the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s program. The educational prerequisite to join a paralegal associate program is a high school diploma or its equivalent with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher.

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Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies

Bachelor’s degrees in the field typically take four years to complete and involve roughly 120 credit hours’ worth of coursework. These give graduates intimate knowledge of the skills and expertise required to assist lawyers in their cases.

The education requisite for joining a bachelor’s degree program in paralegal studies depends on how it is designed. Some are developed for students who have some prior experience, while others are designed for those without. You’ll need to have a high school diploma, a specific minimum GPA, which is often higher than that of associate degrees and quite possibly SAT and ACT scores.

Master’s in Paralegal Studies

If you missed out on the chance to pursue paralegal studies but have a bachelor’s degree in another field or simply want to learn more about the law and legal systems in general, a master’s degree is the way to do it.

To enroll, you’ll need to have a 2.5 to 3.0 GPA or higher. You may also have to provide undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement before you can join the program.

Paralegal Schools

Different types of paralegal schools structure their curriculum differently to suit every type of learner there is. If you prefer a distance-learning approach instead of having to attend on-campus programs physically, there are plenty of online paralegal schools that you can join.

If you thrive in the camaraderie that on-campus programs bring with them, then that’s an option too. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from each mode of learning.

TypesCoursesLengthAverage Tuition Cost
Online Paralegal SchoolsCertificate1-2 yearsAll Students: $3,100
Associate2 yearsAll Students: $5,400
Bachelor’s4 yearsAll Students: $7,500
Master’s1-2 yearsAll Students: $9,800
On-Campus Public Paralegal SchoolsCertificate1-2 yearsIn-State: $3,800
Out-of-State: $9,500
Associate2 yearsIn-State: $5,800
Out-of-State: $16,400
Bachelor’s4 yearsIn-State: $10,500
Out-of-State: $26,200
Master’s1-2 yearsIn-State: $18,800
Out-of-State: $28,600
On-Campus Private Paralegal SchoolsCertificate1-2 yearsAll Students: $19,700
Associate2 yearsAll Students: $24,400
Bachelor’s4 yearsAll Students: $32,300
Master’s1-2 yearsAll Students: $30,700

Typical Courses

Typical courses for paralegal studies at certificate and associate level will earn you credentials to work as a paralegal generalist. However, as you advance in your education, you can specialize in a specific field to qualify as a:

  • Corporate paralegal
  • Debt and bankruptcy paralegal
  • Estate planning and probate paralegal
  • Family law paralegal
  • Freelance paralegal
  • Immigration paralegal
  • Intellectual property paralegal
  • Litigation paralegal
  • Real estate paralegal

Typical Starting Salaries for Paralegals

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Entry-level paralegals can expect to earn an average of $38,800/year. However, once you get at least four years’ worth of experience working in a legal environment, you can expect to make an average of $42,100 per year.

Experienced paralegals with more than ten years’ experience earn anywhere between $54,000 and $58,500 per year. Wages also vary by organization and location. Paralegals that work in the financial sector, the federal government, insurance companies, and state governments are the highest paid compared to their counterparts in other fields.

Here’s a breakdown of earnings in ascending order:

  • State government – $46,000
  • General legal services – $48,000
  • Local government – $50,000
  • Finance and insurance – $62,000
  • The federal government – $67,000

The top states with the highest annual mean wages for paralegals are:

  • District of Columbia – $74,900
  • Alaska – $64,900
  • California – $60,900
  • New Jersey – $57,600
  • Washington – $56,500

If you do the math, the education investment you’ll make to kick-start your career in the paralegal world is nothing compared to the earning potential it offers, even at entry-level. More often than not, you’ll be able to recover your fees or pay off your student loan in about two years, depending on the school you pick.

Sound appealing? Check it out and see if it might be a good career option for you.

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