How to Become a Paralegal in California and Excel at Your Career

A job as a paralegal might have never crossed your mind, but if you are a person who enjoys researching, analyzing documents and facts, using the computer, and if you have great organizational skills, looking into a career as a paralegal is worth your time.

In just two years or less with a prior qualifying degree, you can earn your associate degree in paralegal studies and prepare to begin a career that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says is growing. In addition to the need for paralegals in law firms, California is expecting jobs to grow in the private sector in major cities as corporations expand and diversify their legal departments.

Paralegals work in the courtroom, or in a law firm, and use skills like communication, critical thinking, and organizational and analytical abilities.

If working in the legal field is interesting to you, becoming a paralegal is one of the fastest paths to a fruitful career. This article looks at what a paralegal does, and how to become a paralegal.

What Is A Paralegal?

According to the American Bar Association,

“A paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

The main role of a paralegal is providing support for lawyers. Paralegals usually work for law firms, government agencies, corporate legal departments, insurance firms, or in-house legal at financial institutions.

Some of the duties a paralegal may have include:

  • Researching case law
  • Working on legal contracts
  • Preparing documents for court filing
  • Organizing case files
  • Preparing trial notes
  • Discovery/e-Discovery

In many law offices, paralegals may have an expanded role and do some of the tasks that in the past, may have been assigned to entry-level lawyers.

What is a Paralegal Career Like?

Becoming a paralegal offers more benefits besides monetary ones, such as the opportunity to help others going through difficult situations. This can be a very rewarding experience. You will help lawyers prepare their winning arguments for court, gathering important information from witnesses and documents that can prove claims. You will also have to communicate with clients and handle their concerns about the case, with the attorney’s approval, which can often be a sensitive matter.

As a paralegal, you will be able to find jobs in multiple industries or even become self-employed, as an independent paralegal who contracts with attorneys. With wide job variety, the work environment will also be diverse. Common job settings for paralegals are law firms, non-profit agencies, corporations, and government agencies.

But there are also options in corporate and non-governmental organizations, which means that you can align your personal preferences with the job opportunities available. There are non-governmental organizations that work with many different causes, and these organizations can usually benefit from the work of skilled paralegals.

Working as a paralegal, you can expect a full-time commitment, or a workweek of 40 hours or more.

What Exactly Does a Paralegal Do?

Paralegals assist lawyers in their daily tasks. Because paralegals don’t have to pass the bar, as lawyers do, they have a shorter and quicker path to a job in the legal field. According to O*NET OnLine, common tasks for paralegals include preparing legal documents, including briefs, pleadings, appeals, wills, contracts, and real estate closing statements; meeting with clients and other professionals to discuss details of their cases; preparing for trial by performing tasks such as organizing exhibits; preparing affidavits or other documents, such as legal correspondence, and organizing and maintaining documents in a paper or electronic filing system; and investigating facts and law of cases and searching pertinent sources, such as public records, to determine causes of action; Discovery/e-Discovery;  Legal technology software; and to prepare cases.

Sounds interesting, right? You will be able to learn about and investigate cases, having an insider view of them. And you will also be responsible for gathering critical evidence to present in court, making you a vital asset for any lawyer when preparing for trials.

Paralegals need certain skills. People with the ability to multitask, who can communicate well with team members and clients, and who have strong writing skills usually can thrive in this role. If these talents match yours, and you want to start your career in the legal field, look into getting your degree to become a paralegal.

Salary and Employment Rates for Paralegals

The job outlook for paralegals is quite robust. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10% growth in paralegal jobs between 2019 and 2029. Over 35,000 paralegal jobs will be created in that time frame.

Another upside to becoming a paralegal is the salary. The median salary for all paralegals in the United States in 2019 was $51,740; and the average hourly wage was $24.87 per hour. The BLS shows that as of May of 2019, the mean average salary for paralegals in California was $61,810 and the average hourly wage was $29.72. According to Salary.com as of December 28th, 2020, the median paralegal salary in California was $64,826, with an annual salary range typically falling between $57,327 and $73,197.

Types of Paralegal Programs

The most common paths to becoming a paralegal are through certificate programs, two-year associate’s degrees, or four-year bachelor’s degrees. The two-year associate’s degree is the most common, because many schools do not offer a four-year program strictly in paralegal studies.

Certificate credentialing organizations: Earning a paralegal credential through examination by paralegal organizations isn’t required, but will absolutely help you get hired by potential employers. To become credentialed paralegals must pass a certification exam such as the RP, CLA, PCCE or PACE. Upon passage of the exam, paralegals are allowed to follow their names with their designation.

Associate’s or Undergraduate programs: Going through the process of earning an associate’s or undergraduate degree yields plenty of professional networking opportunities. Some schools, like MTI College, offer the opportunity to learn Relativity, ACEDS certification, become a Notary and job placement opportunities.

Steps to Becoming a Paralegal

Right now, the job growth for paralegals in California is especially good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more paralegal jobs are in California than any other state (2018-2019). Five of the top ten metropolitan areas in the United States for highest median paralegal salaries are in California (Silicon Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Rosa, San Diego, Vallejo-Fairfield).

Here are the steps one would take to become a professional paralegal.

1. Complete a paralegal program.

Becoming a paralegal in California has stricter regulation than in other states. According to the law in California, to become a paralegal in California, you must satisfy one of the following three educational and training requirements:

  • Complete a minimum of 24 credits in paralegal studies at an accredited college or university.
  • Complete a bachelor’s degree program in any field, and have one-year of experience working under the supervision of a California attorney who has been licensed for at least three years, or who works in the federal court system in California.
  • Complete a paralegal certificate program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Most employers are looking for a candidate with either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

2. Gain paralegal work experience in a law office.

We recommend for students to seek law-related employment while they are enrolled in a paralegal program. This additional experience will help earn a promotion to the title of paralegal after graduation.

3. Become certified as a paralegal. (Optional)

Becoming certified is completely optional in California, but it allows you to specialize in specific areas of the law. In California, paralegals who pass NALA’s Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) and California Advanced Specialty (CAS) examinations may call themselves California Advanced Specialists, which can increase their employment options. Paralegals may voluntarily choose to become California Advanced Specialists.

4. Launch your career as a paralegal in California.

Many paralegals work in law offices, but there are also many jobs in government and in corporations. About 76% of all paralegals work in law firms, with 11% working win federal, local, or state government, and 3% working in insurance and finance. The remaining 10% work in a variety of fields, including in-house business law, legal teams on corporations, and in the private sector.

What are the necessary traits a paralegal should possess?

Besides having an interest in working in the legal field, possessing the following traits would help you in the paralegal field:

  • Good organizational ability
  • Keyboarding and basic computer knowledge
  • Attention to detail
  • Attentive listening skills
  • Sound reasoning
  • Strong reading comprehension
  • Research skills
  • Good oral and written communication skills
  • Strong backbone
  • Sense of humor
  • Persistence

Differences Between a Paralegal, Law Clerk, and Lawyer

It can be confusing for people outside the legal industry to understand the differences in jobs, and what each position can do. Here is a rundown of what different people can do in a law firm.

Legal Secretary

There is some overlap in the duties that are typically performed by paralegals and legal secretaries, but legal secretaries generally specialize in addressing the clerical needs of the attorney or law firm. Legal secretaries set appointments, transcribe reports, file and organize documents, answer phones, and assist with day-to-day office duties, among other things.

Unlike paralegals, legal secretaries can be hired with a high school diploma, and are not required to have further education.

Paralegal

Paralegals in the past were referred to as “legal assistants”, though the titles are synonymous according to CA law [B & P 6450]. While paralegals can perform many of the duties that legal secretaries may, paralegals responsibilities also extend into the legal realm. Paralegals may interview clients and witnesses under the supervision of their superiors, perform case summaries and legal research, and assist attorneys in caseload management. Paralegals may also take on management roles, supervising the work of legal secretaries and other law firm employees.

Usually, paralegals have an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, though some may even have a Master’s degree.

Paralegals work under the supervision of an attorney, but cannot offer legal advice.

Law Clerk

There is a lot of overlap in the duties and responsibilities between a paralegal and law clerk, with a few notable differences. Paralegals usually work in a law firm, awhile law clerks usually work for judges supplying counsel and support. Law clerks generally have finished law school, while paralegals usually have a certification, associate’s or undergraduate degree.

Lawyer

A lawyer has finished law school, can offer legal advice, and can represent clients in a courtroom. A paralegal can prepare legal documents, but cannot represent a client in court, or give legal advice.

How is a Paralegal Program Different Than Law School?

Law school requires that you pass a grueling exam. Paralegal programs are often taught in a lecture style, focusing on the basics of different areas of the law. The main differences are law school is focused on legal theory and teaching the use of Socratic questioning to find the answers to a legal question. Paralegal programs train students  in substantive and procedural law.

Paralegal programs typically include core legal competencies: an overview of the law, legal research, legal writing, and litigation. The idea is to have paralegal graduates ready to thrive in a paralegal position in any firm. Most paralegal programs prepare candidates to apply legal knowledge to memos, legal correspondence, filings, documents, and pleadings.

Many paralegal programs also offer some training on tort law, bankruptcy law, family law, business law, Discovery/e-Discovery, Contract law, Administrative law, Computer Technology for Paralegals, as well as wills, trusts and probates.

A graduate of a paralegal degree program is well-prepared to undertake law school, though the latter is much more academically intense.

Paralegal FAQs

In California, what is the definition of a paralegal?

According to California Business and Professions Code sections 6450. (a):

“Paralegal” means a person who holds himself or herself out to be a paralegal, who is qualified by education, training, or work experience, who either contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity, and who performs substantial legal work under the direction and supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California, as defined in Section 6060, or an attorney practicing law in the federal courts of this state, that has been specifically delegated by the attorney to him or her.

How long does it take to become a paralegal in California?

The time it takes to become a paralegal depends on which requirements you pursue. To become a paralegal in California, you must have one of the following:

A paralegal certificate from a school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).

The completion of a minimum of 24 semester hours in paralegal studies from a state-accredited school, or

A bachelor’s degree or higher in any subject AND a minimum of one year of experience working under an attorney with a minimum of three years of experience in California law.

In most cases, completing an ABA approved paralegal program in California will take between 18 to 24 months.

Is becoming a paralegal a good career choice?

Yes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10% job growth between now and 2029. The median salary nationwide in 2019 was $51,740, and in California, the mean average salary was $61,810.

Choosing the Paralegal Program that is Right for You

There are two important signs of quality in a paralegal training program: approval from the American Bar Association, and a high job placement rate.

When most of the graduates from a program are receiving legal industry jobs, that’s an indication that the training program is producing qualified candidates. Across the United States, in larger cities, law firms may place emphasis on four-year programs, but most firms hire paralegals with an associate’s degree.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has a searchable index of approved programs across the US and in California on their website.

Graduates from the MTI College Paralegal A.A. degree program had a 100% adjusted placement rate and 95% unadjusted placement rate for the 2018-2019 award year.

How the MTI paralegal program prepares you for a paralegal career in California

In just two years, or less, you can earn your associate degree. Your second-year instructors are a faculty of paralegals, attorneys and other legal professionals who instruct you in a small-group setting. They will teach you how to apply analytical and critical thinking to legal principles in coursework that includes:

  • Legal Research
  • Introduction to legal terminology and procedures
  • Legal software and e-Discovery
  • Legal writing and analysis
  • Civil litigation principles
  • Areas of substantive and procedural law

You can complete your studies on campus with a traditional program, or participate via the OnlinePlus training course. The latter offers Internet-based instruction and is ideal for those who must balance family obligations with education or with work. You may only need to be on campus one night per week while completing other courses online.

Once you have successfully completed your first year of study, MTI encourages you to seek a legal internship or a part-time job as a file clerk, legal secretary or any type of legal administration work concurrent with the OnlinePlus or traditional second-year program. This will provide you with additional experience and a better chance of finding a paralegal position when you graduate.

What MTI students say about the paralegal program?

The best way to learn what to expect at MTI is to hear what other students and instructors are saying about the paralegal program:

It exceeded all my expectations.” – Curtis Missal, MTI Paralegal Student

MTI tries to use the same technology and software that are being used in many of today’s law firms, so you really teach a hands-on approach, and as technology changes, we try to implement those advances … into how we teach the students. A lot of students have different learning styles, so it’s really trying to connect with everybody while also teaching effectively to all the students.” – Allen Delgado, Law and Technology Instructor

Already being in the field and coming back to school was difficult, but it was a challenge that I was up for. MTI will help me get there because they’ve prepared me for it.” – Simone Robertson, MTI Paralegal Student

There were some neighboring colleges—some really reputable colleges and universities—that offered a paralegal program, but it was not ABA approved. It’s just the education you need for the career you want, and you’re getting some good education and training.” – Deborah Stoeckle, MTI Paralegal Student

What you will do as a paralegal

As a paralegal working under a supervising attorney, you will play a vital role in your company. You will be able to perform many duties the attorney does except practice law, negotiate payments and accept clients. Some of them include:

  • Searching research databases to find case law and legal precedents
  • Drafting legal documents using litigation software
  • Interviewing and communicating with clients
  • Assisting with trial preparation and depositions

Other things you can do to complement your MTI degree and enhance your career

Completing the MTI paralegal program is the first step. Then, once you’re out in the workforce, you may decide to study for national certification that enhances your legal knowledge and improves your value in the legal world. The Commission for Advanced California Paralegal Specialization, Inc. recommends that you take an exam for optional certification to become a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Registered Paralegal.

The reward is that attorneys recognize your additional level of knowledge and investment in your career.

In addition to certification, or in lieu of it, you could join a local California paralegal association. Many are members of a national association, such as NALA (National Association of Paralegal Assistants) and NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations). This is a great way to network with others and stay abreast of the latest news in your chosen career.

If you have the interest and the necessary personal traits to become a paralegal, enroll now in the MTI College Paralegal Studies program for the education you need to get that important first job.

Completing a Paralegal Program Online or Offline

MTI College has been an authority in vocational training for 50 years, and it offers efficient and convenient programs, knowledgeable and helpful instructors, and affordable tuition.

At MTI, class schedules are predetermined and guaranteed available, which means you can complete the paralegal program on time and launch your career fast. Class sizes are small, which improves the learning experience and encourages participation during classes.

Because modern life is full of activities and many students must balance work and home life with going to college, MTI College offers flexibility to students as an added convenience. The second-year coursework for the Paralegal Degree Program is available in two learning formats: the traditional on-campus classroom format and the alternative OnlinePlus partial online format. These two formats are explained in more detail below.

Traditional On-Campus

MTI College’s Paralegal Program is Sacramento’s most established paralegal program and has been reinforced by the American Bar Association’s approval for over 20 years. If previously earned credits from MTI College’s Legal Administrative Assistant program or other institutions are accepted, the two-year Paralegal Degree Program is typically completed in as little as one year.

For individuals bypassing the first year due to qualifying transfer credits, the second year of the program is broken into four quarters. Each quarter consists of three courses taken in a conventional classroom environment. This degree prepares students to work under the supervision of attorneys by honing their logical, analytical, and critical-thinking abilities, as well as their communication and problem-solving skills. Upon graduation, MTI’s staff of experienced legal professionals will make every effort to get you hired immediately.

OnlinePlus

To accommodate even more motivated learners, MTI College offers its Paralegal Associate Degree Program in an OnlinePlus alternative delivery format. This partial online format is offered for the second-year coursework and is administered through an online Course Management System. The OnlinePlus program is broken into four quarters consisting of three courses: two online and one conducted in the conventional classroom environment. This allows students completing the second year of the Paralegal Degree Program to attend only one course on campus, one night a week, while taking the other two courses via online learning.

The OnlinePlus format delivers the same course content as the traditional on-campus classroom format, featuring independent and team exercises designed to strengthen the same analytical and problem-solving skills. Whether you are on campus or on the computer, feedback and support are available to answer all of your questions.

A career as a paralegal offers endless prospects. Before you begin, however, it’s crucial to obtain the proper formal education to become a qualified paralegal who meets California legal requirements. If you want to find out more, click here and discover how to start your career in the legal profession.

If you’re fascinated by the legal world but don’t have the time to become an attorney, consider registering for the MTI paralegal program. It gives you the education you need to work in a law firm, government agency or corporate legal department, assisting lawyers and performing many of the same duties.

More Resources

SVPA.org – Sacramento Valley Paralegal Association members have access to educational and professional resources through their website. These resources include scholarships, information pertaining to state laws regarding the paralegal profession, educational programs, and a job bank.

CAPARALegal.org – The California Alliance of Paralegal Associations is a statewide alliance of paralegals and affiliated associations. The goal of the alliance is to promote the advancement of the paralegal profession through networking and sharing resources with other member organizations.

AAFPE.org – A national organization comprised of paralegal educators and institutions offering paralegal and legal assistant education programs.

NFPA – Founded in 1974, NFPA was the first national paralegal association. Created as a non-profit federation, NFPA is an issues-driven, policy-oriented professional association directed by its membership. It is comprised of more than 50 member associations and represents over 9,000 individual members reflecting a broad range of experience, education and diversity.

NALA.org – NALA provides current information about the paralegal profession, continuing education (publications, courses, and webinars), networking opportunities, professional certification programs, occupational survey reports, and other publications to help paralegals excel in the workplace.

Want to learn more about MTI’s programs?

Our admissions team will help you find the perfect program to meet your goals. Financial aid is available to those who qualify.

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