October 24, 2022

Becoming a Paralegal: What You Need to Know

By B&SC Blog Team

Becoming a Paralegal: What You Need to Know

When you’re exploring careers in the legal field, consider becoming a paralegal. These legal professionals play an important role in legal proceedings without having to spend years and a significant amount of money going to law school. When you’re a paralegal, you’ll be able to assist lawyers in a law firm or legal department with a wide range of responsibilities and duties to help legal proceedings, including trials and litigation, go as smoothly as possible.

Learning more about the role of a paralegal and how to become one can help you determine if this might be a good career option for you. Keep the following information in mind while considering this career path.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

A paralegal performs several tasks to help lawyers prepare for trials, hearings, and other legal proceedings as well as meetings. These tasks can vary depending on the type of law firm or legal department a paralegal works at, among other factors, such as whether they specialize in a particular area. Some of the tasks that paralegals are responsible for might include researching laws and regulations, drafting and maintaining legal documents, gathering facts for legal cases, and contacting clients and witnesses.

Paralegals might also arrange evidence, gather formal statements and affidavits, and summarize reports to help attorneys prepare for trials. These legal professionals might assist lawyers during trials as well by taking notes, reviewing transcripts, and handling other relevant duties. The duties you can expect to perform as a paralegal can vary based on the size of the law firm or legal department you work for. You might have a wider range of job duties and responsibilities if you work at a smaller firm. At larger law firms, your work might focus on a specific part of legal proceedings, such as researching laws and regulations or gathering evidence.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal

Legal assistants and paralegals both provide assistance in law firms or legal departments. However, their job duties and responsibilities are notably different. While paralegals focus on performing tasks that directly help lawyers with legal proceedings, such as drafting legal documents or reviewing transcripts during cases, legal assistants mainly handle clerical and administrative tasks. They might answer phones and direct calls, schedule consultations or appointments, and file paperwork.

Legal assistant and paralegal careers also differ in terms of education. Legal assistants do not need to have any formal degrees for this type of work. However, they can earn a diploma to help them learn the skills needed for this career, such as a legal office assistant diploma. Paralegals do not have any formal education requirements either, but earning an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or advanced degree can be highly beneficial when competing for open positions. Many employers looking to hire paralegals prefer candidates who have a degree.

Paralegal vs. Lawyer

With paralegals responsible for performing a wide range of legal tasks, it’s helpful to know how they differ from lawyers. Paralegals can help attorneys and lawyers prepare for meetings, trials, and other legal proceedings. However, their duties are limited when it comes to their interactions with clients. Paralegals are not allowed to provide clients with legal advice or represent clients in court. Lawyers have the education and training needed to represent clients and offer legal advice.

The educational requirements for lawyers are also much more rigorous. Lawyers have to graduate from law school and pass the Bar exam. Bar exams and requirements for becoming an attorney are state specific in order to work as an attorney. Paralegals do not have to spend as much time earning a degree or need to pass the bar exam in order to work.

How to Become a Paralegal in 6 Steps

If you decide to become a paralegal, becoming familiar with the steps involved can help you understand what to expect. While the exact path to a career as a paralegal can differ, the following offers a general idea of how to become one.

1. Is Being a Paralegal Right for You?

Before getting started on the path to becoming a paralegal, first consider whether it’s the right career for you. Think about the kind of career you want to build and the skills you already have. Are you good at communicating with other people? Do you have strong interpersonal skills? Do you enjoy conducting research? Are you good at staying organized? Paralegals need to have solid communication, interpersonal, organizational, and research skills, along with other skills. Going through a degree program, such as a paralegal associate degree program, can help you develop or improve these skills.

Keep in mind that you’ll play a valuable role in legal proceedings, but you won’t have the authority to directly counsel clients or represent them. If you’re satisfied with this level of involvement, becoming a paralegal can be a good career path.

2. Find the Right Paralegal Education

If you decide to become a paralegal, having the right education is important. Although there aren’t any formal educational requirements to become a paralegal, earning a degree can help ensure that you develop the right skills. With many employers preferring to hire paralegals who hold a degree, this can also help you get your foot in the door when you need to find a job in this field.

When exploring education options, look for a degree program that provides you with the coursework needed to become a successful paralegal. An associate degree can help you learn the skills you’ll need and gain the right knowledge within a shorter timeframe compared to more advanced degrees. You might also have opportunities to do an internship, which gives you hands-on experience before you graduate.

3. Paralegal Certification

Do you need to be certified in order to work as a paralegal? There are no federal requirements for certification, and you won’t find certification offered at the national level. However, becoming certified at the state level can show employers that you have a strong commitment to this career, which can give you a competitive edge when you’re searching for jobs. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) also recommends certification for paralegals.

Professional organizations offer certifications for paralegals. Some certification options for paralegals include the Professional Paralegal certification from the National Association for Legal Support Professionals (NALS), the Certified Paralegal certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), and the Advanced Certified Paralegal certification from NALA.

4. Find a Job and Get Experience

When you graduate with a paralegal degree and earn certification, you’ll be ready to begin working in this profession. You can start looking for jobs before you graduate. If you’re able to do an internship at a law firm or legal department, you might be able to transition into a paid position afterward. Having a job as a paralegal helps you gain experience, which you can use to advance your career.

5. Specialize

Paralegals have the option to specialize in a certain area of law. While you don’t have to specialize, doing so might be a good option if you have a strong interest in a particular area of law. For example, you might choose to specialize in family law if you have a desire to play a role in helping families with legal matters, such as child custody. Other areas that you might choose to specialize in include corporate law, litigation, personal injury, immigration, real estate, intellectual property, or criminal law.

6. Advance Your Career

When you work as a paralegal, you’ll have opportunities to advance your career if desired. Doing so can open up new job opportunities and provide you with an even more fulfilling career, depending on your goals and interests. Advancing your paralegal career might involve learning new skills, going back to school for an advanced degree, or working toward earning a promotion. Some of the careers that you might consider pursuing include policy analyst, legal secretary, judge, law clerk, or attorney.

State-by-State Examples

Some states have local organizations that offer voluntary certification for paralegals. The requirements for these certifications vary by state, so it’s important to make sure you understand your state’s requirements. The following are a few examples of how these requirements might differ from state to state.

New York

The Empire State Alliance of Paralegal Associations (ESAPA) in New York offers the New York State Certified Paralegal Program for voluntary certification. A few of the requirements to become certified include being a legal New York resident, being employed as a paralegal, and meeting experience or educational requirements, such as passing the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) or having an associate degree in paralegal studies from an institutionally accredited school and six years of substantive paralegal experience. Keep in mind that you must meet at least one of the experience or educational requirements.


In Ohio, the Ohio State Bar Association for Legal Professionals (OSBA) offers the OSBA Paralegal Certification Program for voluntary certification. The requirements you’ll need to meet for this certification include meeting the OSBA definition of a paralegal, providing at least three professional references, passing a written exam, completing continuing legal and paralegal education, and meeting education or experience requirements. Education or experience requirements include having a high school diploma and associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies along with a certain amount of experience working as a paralegal. This can be one year of experience for those with a bachelor’s degree, five years for those with an associate degree, or seven years for those with a high school diploma.


The Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA) offers the Virginia Registered Paralegal Program (VARP) for voluntary certification. To qualify for this certification, VAPA requires a paralegal to be a voting member in any VAPA member association or area liaison. Other requirements include completing a minimum of 12 hours of continuing legal education credits, which includes two hours of ethics every two years. Paralegals must also provide proof to VAPA that they have completed the continuing education hours to maintain certification.


The State Bar of Wisconsin offers voluntary certification for paralegals. Becoming a certified paralegal involves meeting education or experience requirements; being employed or retained by a law firm, lawyer, agency, or corporation; being directly supervised by a lawyer licensed in Wisconsin; and passing a background check. Education requirements include having an associate or bachelor’s degree from a qualified paralegal studies program, meeting eligibility requirements if you haven’t graduated yet, or earning at least 21 continuing education credits. Work experience requirements include working at least five years as a paralegal, teaching paralegal studies for at least three years, having a high school diploma, and having three hours of approved continuing legal education.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?

The amount of time it takes to become a paralegal can vary considerably depending on different factors, such as the degree program you complete and whether you become certified. Remember, many employers in the legal field prefer to hire paralegals who have a college degree.

Going through an associate degree program to become a paralegal can take a couple of years, or possibly less if you are in an accelerated program. A bachelor’s degree can take about four years to earn. And a more advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in legal studies, can take an additional one to two years.

Paralegal Career Outlook

Knowing more about the job outlook for paralegals can factor into your decision about pursuing this career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for paralegals from 2020 to 2030 is 12 percent.* This is faster than the average job outlook for all occupations in the U.S. What is behind this demand for paralegals? Law firms are expected to hire more of these legal professionals in order to lower costs and improve efficiency in their legal services.

The demand for paralegals isn’t just within law firms. Large corporations, such as insurance companies, healthcare companies, and finance companies, have also been focusing on expanding their in-house legal staff to keep costs down instead of hiring outside law firms.

*Cited projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth.

Start Your Paralegal Journey Today

If you’re excited about getting started on your path toward becoming a paralegal, contact Bryant & Stratton College to request information. We offer a paralegal studies associate degree at our campuses in New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. This 60-credit degree program is also available online in any state. Our program includes courses that provide you with the knowledge you’ll need to be a successful paralegal, such as law office management and technology, criminal law and procedures, civil litigation, legal research and writing, and contract law.

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