What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Paralegal (2022)

What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Paralegal (1)

Choosing your profession can feel like one of the most crucial decisions you will make. It’s understandable to second-guess yourself. Shows like Law and Order, How to Get Away with Murder or Better Call Saul may have piqued your interest in the legal realm, but is that interest enough to fuel a career?

Of all the potential courtroom jobs out there, a paralegal career is one of the fastest tracks you can take to your first day on the job. But the time it takes to gain the proper knowledge and training is still an investment. You want to be sure that it’s worth your time.

Take a moment to learn some of the gritty details of working as a paralegal—from the mouths of paralegals and the lawyers who hire them. Use this expert insight to help you make an informed decision.

But first, let’s cover the basics…

What does a paralegal do?

You’ve likely done some research on your own, but it’s always beneficial to have all of your information in one place. What does a paralegal do? Basically, they help their attorneys keep things organized and running smoothly by doing important legal legwork.

Those duties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), can include assisting attorneys during trials, organizing case files, preparing trial notes, performing legal research, preparing legal briefs and sometimes conducting client and witness interviews.1

“Most paralegal jobs require paralegals to work on contracts, real estate, civil lawsuits and other legal needs,” says Kirk Olson, a lawyer and instructor at Rasmussen University. “One case may require multiple areas of law. For instance, a divorce often requires a paralegal to obtain and review real estate, pension, insurance, business and estate planning documents, not just child custody studies.”

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Paralegals are generally detail oriented, organized and efficient. Because duties can vary greatly based on the size of the firm or the supervising attorneys, they must also be adaptable.

How to become a paralegal

One of the most common concerns for anyone looking into starting in this field is the amount of education needed—as well as how long it takes to become a paralegal. The path to becoming a paralegal can look very different from one person to the next.

But the BLS states that the most common educational path that leads to work as a paralegal is an Associate’s degree, which can be completed in as a few as 18 months.1,2 That said, if you’ve already earned a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree in a different field, a Paralegal Certificate program can provide you with the specialized knowledge base you’ll need on the job without requiring more years of schooling—in fact, this Certificate program can be completed in as few as 8 months.2

What to expect from the Paralegal Certificate program

This program is designed to supplement education from a different field. If you already have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in any area, a Paralegal Certificate program can give you the legal basics a paralegal needs to know while building upon the foundation of general education courses you’ve already completed.

In this kind of paralegal program, you’ll take courses like Introduction to Legal Research, Legal Writing and Law Office Management. Ethical communication, interdisciplinary awareness and emerging technology are important objectives of this program.

What to expect from a Paralegal Associate’s degree program

A Paralegal Associate’s degree program will give you an essential basis for work as a paralegal (as well as other careers) with foundational classes in English composition, math and the humanities. But the bulk of your studies will focus on skill and knowledge areas specific to the legal world and the paralegal duties within it.

Courses like Torts, Contracts and Family Law zoom in on complex subjects in the legal realm, while other courses such as Computer Applications and Business Systems Concepts, Legal Writing and Legal Research help you build the critical skill sets paralegals need.

A Paralegal degree will provide you with the skills needed to succeed in the field, but there will be a host of things you won’t learn until you’re on the job. For some additional insights, we asked paralegal professionals to share the things they wish they’d known before starting their careers.

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What is a paralegal career like?

“You will work hard and long hours, but it's worth it,” says paralegal and Rasmussen University Justice Studies instructor Julia Gordon. Gordon explains that paralegals carry a lot of weight on their shoulders and every detail matters.

“There is no room for error in tracking deadlines and working with court scheduling,” says Kevin Queenan of The Queenan Law Firm, P.C. “Mentoring legal assistants, I hear the same issue every time: I did not know you meant that detail oriented!” Queenan emphasizes that miniscule mistakes can have big consequences in the legal world. Having a bad day won’t cut it as an excuse if your mistake costs the firm a case, or worse, accusations of malpractice.

Yet, Queenan points out, people with the right personality can flourish in this position. Paralegals can take jobs with varied daily tasks and experiences if that is what they are looking for. “In a general civil practice ... the legal assistant may be answering discovery [requests] one day and driving out to meet a new client the next day.”

“For those who like more structure or repetition, there are law practices involving cookie-cutter lawsuits and issues. I talked to a legal assistant yesterday, and her last position involved filing 1,000 credit card lawsuits per month,” Queenan explains.

“Don't go into the job with rose-colored glasses,” Gordon says. You might picture working in an office full of driven individuals who want to help their clients fix injustices. But unfortunately, it isn’t always like that.

“Not all attorneys are nice, and not all attorneys are ethical,” Gordon says. “Be aware of your ethical rules and guidelines and never compromise your integrity. Nothing is worth losing your self-respect over. You have your clients’ lives in your hands. Treat the position with the highest reverence.”

What is the average paralegal salary?

While not every aspect of a paralegal’s work is considered glamorous, that’s really no different from most jobs. After all, there’s a reason you get paid to work. But is that pay enough to support you and your responsibilities? That’s up to you to decide.

The median annual paralegal salary in 2021 was $56,230, according to the BLS.2 That’s $10,470 more than the national average of $45,760 for all occupations.2 This is pretty encouraging for a job that doesn’t require a Bachelor’s degree or hazardous working conditions.

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Which paralegal skills matter most?

In this legal career, certain personalities and particular skill sets are better poised for success than others. If you are considering work as a paralegal, make sure you fit the bill by the time you apply.

“An effective [paralegal] must be computer savvy,” Queenan says. She adds that good legal assistants don’t overreact under pressure, are highly organized and care about the small details.

“Being kind and helpful is a good start,” Olson says. But Olson emphasizes that helpfulness won’t land you the job. “Lawyers hire paralegals because a good paralegal will find flaws in documents and assist with billing and other detailed functions that keep a law office working. A good paralegal is a ‘deadline cop’ who keeps the law firm on track.”

Olson says paralegals are expected to catch errors made by others and remind everyone of important dates. “Finding and warning of a deadline that others missed may prevent a loss of a client’s case and may save a $10,000 deductible in a lawyer’s malpractice claim,” Olson adds.

All that detail checking includes spelling and grammar. Olson says paralegals correct citation mistakes, grammar errors and other inaccuracies. Fine-tuning your writing and editing abilities is vital for success as a paralegal—that, as well as technical proficiency.

“A person considering becoming a legal assistant should take the highest level of available training on Word, WordPerfect and Westlaw,” Queenan says. “A technologically proficient [paralegal] will wow their lawyers more often and command a higher salary and raises.”

How to stand out as a paralegal

If you are mentally checking off some of those skill boxes—that’s a great sign. While detail-oriented professionals with strong writing and computer skills are important in this profession, there are ways to stand out even more.

Queenan recommends seeking training in client interactions, etiquette and communication skills since presenting a professional image to clients is incredibly important. Pay close attention to verbal slip-ups—no one wants to hear their legal help sounding careless. You want to make sure you are representing yourself, your clients and, ultimately, your practice as best as you can. This includes being able to communicate in a professional manner.

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Additionally, Queenan suggests learning more about research materials on the internet. “We are suing a major manufacturer, and my legal assistant found several articles that were helpful to our lack of warning claims. The information was free!”

Olson suggests asking for examples of finished case files when you take work as a paralegal to see samples of what completed and professional work looks like for that firm. “And be assertive. If something does not look right, insist that it be explained or fixed.”

Are you cut out to become a paralegal?

Paralegals play an integral role in a firm’s success. Every document filed, every interview conducted and every ounce of collected research matters.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to work in the exciting legal world you’re used to seeing on TV, the paralegal profession may be the perfect career choice for you. Not only can it help you pay the bills, but it will challenge you intellectually and provide you with valuable professional experience to reach your long-term career goals.

These expert insights should answer many of your lingering questions about becoming a paralegal. If you're thinking this is the career for you, take a closer look at the paralegal programs that can help you get there. The Rasmussen UniversityParalegal Certificate and Associate’s Degree page can explain more of how to get your legal career underway!

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed June, 2022] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Time to completion is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each quarter.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2022. Expert insight remains from original version.

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FAQs

What kind of personality do you need to be a paralegal? ›

Personality Traits Of Successful Paralegals. Paralegals are a hardworking and dedicated bunch—they are organized, independent, fairly introverted, and creative in a way that most people never expect. They research, synthesize, document, and interpret facts to form coherent stories for their clients to use in court.

What do paralegals do on a daily basis? ›

What do Paralegals do on a daily basis? A paralegal's day-to-day responsibilities can be varied and changes from firm to firm and case to case. Daily tasks can include general preparing of cases, liaising with other legal professionals, close support with lawyers and researching in detail.

What are the three qualities a paralegal should have? ›

An indispensable paralegal has an ability to multitask, a strong attention to detail, a willingness to learn, an expertise in organization, and psychic abilities.
  • Ability to multitask. ...
  • Strong attention to detail. ...
  • Willingness to learn. ...
  • Expertise in organization. ...
  • Psychic abilities.
21 Jan 2021

What do you say in a paralegal interview? ›

7 Paralegal Interview Questions You Need to Know
  1. Why did you pursue a career as a paralegal? ...
  2. What work experience do you have? ...
  3. How are your legal research skills? ...
  4. How organized are you and how do you check the accuracy of your work? ...
  5. Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult situation.

Can I make 6 figures as a paralegal? ›

Can paralegals make six figures? Sure. If you're certified by either NALA, NFPA, or another certifying organization, have years of experience and have become a subject matter expert in your field. Many larger law firms have tiers for paralegals and they advance through the ranks as do attorneys.

What are the pros and cons of being a paralegal? ›

Pros and Cons of Being a Paralegal
  • Pro: Training. If the legal business calls to you, but years of law school and the bar exam don't, then being a paralegal may be a great alternative. ...
  • Con: Salary. ...
  • Pro: Less Debt. ...
  • Con: Job Stability. ...
  • Pro: More Job Opportunities. ...
  • Pro: Freedom. ...
  • Con: Juggling. ...
  • Con: Time.

Can a paralegal become a lawyer? ›

Paralegals can become lawyers by attending law school and passing the bar exam just like anyone else who aspires to become a lawyer. As paralegals, these types of professionals spend a lot of time assisting lawyers in their work.

Why do paralegals quit? ›

There are a number of answers, including toxic culture in law firms, career burnout, and a desire to move up. Burnout and other stresses may make paralegals feel like there is nowhere to go, but that's not at all true. The law firm isn't the only place for paralegal to work and thrive in their career.

What are the perks of being a paralegal? ›

While every career has its ups and downs, becoming a paralegal has certain advantages that make it a very attractive option.
  • Longevity. ...
  • Compensation. ...
  • Education. ...
  • Helping Clients. ...
  • Opportunity for Growth. ...
  • Jobs in Other Industries. ...
  • Ability to be Self-employed. ...
  • You Can Specialize.

Is paralegal work stressful? ›

Being a paralegal is stressful, and paralegal burnout is real. Paralegals work notoriously long hours, and their tasks include everything from office management to doing case research and preparing and editing legal contracts and documents. Paralegal's tasks have a direct impact on the outcomes of matters and cases.

What are the 5 typical duties of a paralegals? ›

Typical duties of a paralegal include, but are not limited to the following:
  • Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client.
  • Locate and interview witnesses.
  • Conduct investigations, statistical and documentary research.
  • Conduct legal research.
  • Draft legal documents, correspondence and pleadings.
8 Jun 2021

What is the most important role of a paralegal? ›

One of the most important roles of a paralegal is to assist their attorney in preparing for trials, hearings, and closings. A large part of this consists of conducting legal research and gathering relevant information to the case.

What is it really like being a paralegal? ›

Stressful and Challenging Work Environment

You may answer to several attorneys at once, each with different needs. Clients, too, can be demanding and difficult. The ability to switch gears quickly and to multitask under pressure is critical to your success as a paralegal.

How should I dress for a paralegal interview? ›

Regardless of the dress code for the law firm, I'm a firm believer that when you go to a paralegal interview, you should wear a suit. A suit is professional and demonstrates that you pay close attention to detail and you're committed to your career.

How do paralegals stay organized? ›

Top 5 Organization Tips to Be a Rock Star Paralegal
  1. Organize Predictably. One thing I cannot stress enough in litigation file management is – organize your file from the VERY beginning. ...
  2. Take Time. ...
  3. Make Lists. ...
  4. Now, Not Later. ...
  5. Take Breaks.

How can I improve my paralegal skills? ›

How to improve paralegal skills
  1. Work as a legal secretary. Many professionals enter the field by working as a legal secretary or legal assistant then work their way up to being a paralegal. ...
  2. Research legal topics. ...
  3. Attend a paralegal training program. ...
  4. Learn how to use popular software programs.
29 Apr 2022

Why are you a good fit for this job paralegal? ›

Tell me about yourself and why you want to be a Paralegal? SUGGESTED ANSWER: “Being naturally someone who has great attention to detail, an inquisitive mind and totally dedicated approach to my work, I believe the role of a Paralegal is one I would excel in.

How do you ace a paralegal interview? ›

Six Tips to Ace Your Paralegal Interview
  1. Show Positivity. First and foremost, hiring managers look at who will be a good fit for their team, and positive team players are often sought after.
  2. Dress in a way that commands respect. ...
  3. Use strong body positioning. ...
  4. Make eye contact. ...
  5. Speak slowly. ...
  6. Turn off your cell phone.
26 Jul 2021

What kind of questions are asked in a paralegal interview? ›

10 of the most common paralegal interview questions
  • Why do you want to be a paralegal? ...
  • Why did you apply at this firm? ...
  • What has your paralegal experience been so far? ...
  • Are you planning to eventually apply for law school? ...
  • What areas of law are you interested in the most? ...
  • What are your legal research skills?
21 Apr 2022

What qualities do you need to be a legal assistant? ›

10 Essential Skills for Legal Assistants
  • Organizational Skills. Attorneys are busy professionals. ...
  • Writing Skills. ...
  • Technical Skills. ...
  • Detail Oriented. ...
  • Interpersonal Skills. ...
  • Understanding of Legal Terminology and Documentation. ...
  • Multi-Tasking. ...
  • Adaptability.
26 Jul 2020

How should I dress for a paralegal interview? ›

Regardless of the dress code for the law firm, I'm a firm believer that when you go to a paralegal interview, you should wear a suit. A suit is professional and demonstrates that you pay close attention to detail and you're committed to your career.

What are the four aspects of paralegal competency? ›

The four aspects of a lawyer's competency apply to paralegals: legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation.

What does a good paralegal do? ›

They are the ones that prepare all the evidence to present in court, coordinate all the witnesses, search for information needed by the attorney to prepare for trial, prepare contracts, affidavits and many other documents, and a lot of the routine tasks attorneys used to do themselves in the past.

What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant? ›

A legal assistant, or litigation assistant, may perform administrative duties as well as legal tasks. A paralegal focuses more on legal duties and research to assist lawyers. Both positions require an understanding of legal terminology and procedures.

How do paralegals gain their knowledge and skills? ›

Unlike lawyers, who must complete years of formal education and pass the bar exam to practice law, you can become a paralegal in as little as a few months of study. Consider vocational legal training such as a Certificate in Paralegal Practice, or volunteer your time to legal cases and projects to gain experience.

How do legal assistants get organized? ›

Organization Tips for New Paralegals
  1. Learn your office's case management system. Your office likely already has a case management system in place. ...
  2. Develop your own system. ...
  3. Prioritize your record keeping tasks. ...
  4. File something as soon as it comes across your desk. ...
  5. Do not rely on your own memory.
22 Feb 2019

How do I prepare for a paralegal job? ›

When preparing for a Paralegal job interview, you should think about ways that you can demonstrate your research, organisation, prioritisation and interpersonal skills, as well as legal knowledge and a genuine interest in your practice area of choice.

Why do I want to be a paralegal? ›

Paralegal work can not only help confirm that law is the right career path for you; it also gives you a chance to hone those vital, sought-after skills for a successful career in law that are difficult to practise elsewhere – commercial awareness and client-relationship skills, for instance.

How do you nail a paralegal interview? ›

Six Tips to Ace Your Paralegal Interview
  1. Show Positivity. First and foremost, hiring managers look at who will be a good fit for their team, and positive team players are often sought after.
  2. Dress in a way that commands respect. ...
  3. Use strong body positioning. ...
  4. Make eye contact. ...
  5. Speak slowly. ...
  6. Turn off your cell phone.
26 Jul 2021

What are four things that a paralegal Cannot do? ›

Paralegals must avoid the unauthorized practice of law. Generally, paralegals may not represent clients in court, take depositions, or sign pleadings. Some federal and state administrative agencies, however, do permit nonlawyer practice.

What computer skills does a paralegal need? ›

8 Crucial Tech Skills for Paralegals
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) ...
  • Timekeeping Software.
  • Basic Computer.
  • Document Management. ...
  • Scheduling. ...
  • e-Filing. ...
  • Electronically Stored Information (ESI) ...
  • Trial Presentation Software.
28 Oct 2019

How can I improve my paralegal skills? ›

How to improve paralegal skills
  1. Work as a legal secretary. Many professionals enter the field by working as a legal secretary or legal assistant then work their way up to being a paralegal. ...
  2. Research legal topics. ...
  3. Attend a paralegal training program. ...
  4. Learn how to use popular software programs.
29 Apr 2022

What are the 5 typical duties of a paralegals? ›

Typical duties of a paralegal include, but are not limited to the following:
  • Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client.
  • Locate and interview witnesses.
  • Conduct investigations, statistical and documentary research.
  • Conduct legal research.
  • Draft legal documents, correspondence and pleadings.
8 Jun 2021

Do paralegals have letters after their name? ›

CP or CLA is the post-nominal credential in the United States earned by paralegals who have passed the Certified Paralegal Exam and have met up education and experience requirements for certification as a CP or CLA. The CP and CLA credential is recognized by the American Bar Association and State Bars.

Is being a paralegal hard? ›

Stressful and Challenging Work Environment

You may answer to several attorneys at once, each with different needs. Clients, too, can be demanding and difficult. The ability to switch gears quickly and to multitask under pressure is critical to your success as a paralegal.

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