The demand for paralegals is very high, with about 40,000 paralegal jobs being added over the next ten years in the United States.
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Paralegals can earn a good salary, building a rewarding and fulfilling career, doing intellectually stimulating work. If you’re reading this now, you’re probably wondering exactly what you can do with a paralegal degree, and what paralegals are allowed to do within the legal system.
Let’s look at what you can do with a Paralegal Studies degree, where paralegals fit in the legal system, and what kind of career opportunities exist for paralegals in the foreseeable future.
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 private law firms, local, state, and federal government agencies, corporate in-house legal departments, insurance firms, or litigation support service providers that assist private firms.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for paralegals nationally in 2020 was $52,920 per year and $25.44 hourly. In California, as of May 2020, 33,490 paralegals and legal assistants were employed, earning a mean salary of $66,250 annually and an hourly mean wage of $31.85 hourly.
The job outlook is very bright for paralegals. Between 2020 and 2030, there is projected to be a 12% increase in paralegal jobs, faster than the average for all jobs. About 41,400 jobs are expected to be added over this decade.
Note: The data provided above are from a source unaffiliated with MTI College, are for informational purposes only and represent the employment field as a whole. They are not solely specific to MTI graduates and, by providing the above information, MTI makes no representation, direct or implied, or opinion regarding employability.
Many people wonder if it is difficult to become a paralegal. Every state may have slightly different regulations, but these are the steps to becoming a paralegal in California.
1. Complete a paralegal studies program.
In California, you must meet one of these three 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).
2. Gain paralegal work experience in a law office.
It is recommended that you seek employment in a legal-related environment while enrolled in your paralegal studies program.
3. Become certified as a paralegal. (Optional)
Becoming certified is optional in California, but it allows you to specialize in specific areas of the law.
4. Start your career as a paralegal in California.
Many paralegals work in private 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.
Paralegals assist attorneys with cases by researching and preparing documents, organizing evidence, and doing discovery (traditional and electronic discovery). Most paralegals work in private law firms, though a substantial number also work in government, corporate legal departments, insurance firms, or at financial institutions.
Some of the duties and responsibilities a paralegal might have include:
- Researching regulations and laws for cases
- Drafting research memorandums for attorneys
- Working on legal contracts
- Maintaining case files on paper and digitally
- Drafting and preparing documents for filing with the court
- Preparing discovery request and responses – physical or electronic
- Summarizing depositions and preparing case assessment reports for attorneys in preparation for a trial
- Assisting attorneys prepare for trial
- Taking notes during a trial
- Assisting attorneys with visual aid presentations during trial
- Reviewing deposition and trial transcripts
- Gathering, organizing, and arranging evidence and legal documents for review by an attorney
- Scheduling meetings and calls with clients and witnesses
- Performing initial client and witness interview
There are many places and different areas of law you can work with a degree or certification in paralegal studies. Here are a few.
Private Law Firms
Private law firms are where most paralegals work. The paralegals are essential to the success of the law firm, doing research, organizing documentation, and preparing information for cases. Whether you choose to work at a law firm specializing in general practice, or specializing in a specific area of law such as real estate law, , family law, or business law, you have many career options available.
Paralegals who work in corporate law work in-house on the legal team. Corporate law focuses on business transactions like intellectual property, merger and acquisitions, stock offerings, patents, copyrights, and trademarks as well as litigation risk management, and corporate compliance with federal, state, and local regulations,. The paralegals on the corporate team may prepare documents, keep meeting minutes, conduct trademark searches, prepare financial statement, ensure securities or shareholders reporting requirements are met, or make sure government regulations are followed.
Paralegals also work in the public sector for federal, state, or local government agencies such as the Department of Justice, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Labor, or the Department of the Treasury. Some state and local governments also hire paralegals to assist in legal departments, court systems, private government agencies, and other internal legal teams.
Litigation law is centered around civil or criminal proceedings that require Court intervention to resolve disputes. Paralegals who work in a litigation law office may have duties like helping attorneys during trial preparation, interviewing witnesses, maintaining documents, organizing evidence, doing research for litigation cases, and drafting legal documents such as briefs, research memoranda, pleadings, and settlement agreements. Litigation paralegals may also keep accurate records of all court dates and deadlines or coordinating the logistics of a trial – reserving office space, moving documents, or setting up temporary operations.
In bankruptcy law, paralegals can help appraise assets and real and personal property, attend bankruptcy meetings, prepare for evidentiary hearings, and prepare the debtor’s monthly operating costs and petitions.
Attorneys in estate planning often hire paralegals to help support them by drafting wills, trusts, and other documents, preparing federal and state tax returns, valuating assets for transfer, and preparing paperwork for probate hearings.
Non-profit organizations provide legal services to the disenfranchised, victims of domestic violence and assault victims, and tenants facing evictions. These organizations may use paralegals to keep costs low and help as many people as possible. If you are motivated by helping marginalized or disempowered people in society, working at a non-profit as a paralegal can be a fulfilling career path.
Some paralegals teach other paralegals, particularly in Associate’s degree programs. If you have a certificate or degree in paralegal studies, you are eligible to be a professor in a paralegal studies program. This is a viable option for those who do not want to be a traditional paralegal.
Other Legal Office Jobs
If you have a paralegal studies certificate or degree, you can also be hired for jobs that are adjacent to paralegal – such as legal assistant, legal secretary, or law office administrative assistant.
There are ways that you can continue to advance your career after gaining experience as a paralegal. One way is continue training in specific fields, and specializing in categories such as real estate, administrative, or business law. In larger law firms, you may become a manager of the paralegal team. You may also choose to continue your career outside of a law office, working in government, estate planning, law libraries, insurance, or healthcare. Some paralegals pursue becoming a lawyer by taking the LSAT, and enrolling in law school on their way to becoming a fully-fledged lawyer.
Paralegals have extensive training in being detail-oriented, well-organized, diligent, and performing research. People looking to switch jobs from working as a paralegal are accustomed to paying attention to detail, particularly in written communication, documenting facts, and being unbiased. Some other jobs that certified paralegals also excel at include:
- Law clerk
- Claims adjusters or investigator
- Financial services
- Educators or Corporate Training
- Human Resources
- Contract Administrator
- Financial Services and Banking
- Compliance and Quality Assurance
- Software Training and Support
- Project Manager
- Real Estate Professional
Though there are some overlapping duties, paralegals work more directly with the lawyer and legal matters than a legal assistant or legal secretary. While a legal secretary does more administrative tasks, a paralegal does research for a case, prepares some legal documents for filing with the Court and service on the opposing legal team, and writes legal reports. Paralegals can also specialize in different areas of law and are able to bill for their time.
Legal assistants may schedule appointments, prepare subpoenas, answer phones, and do data entry. Paralegals must earn a certificate or degree in their state; legal assistants do not need to graduate with a degree or certificate program to work in a legal office.
A lawyer can give legal advice to clients and represent clients in court or quasi-court proceedings, a paralegal cannot. Paralegals are trained to work in the legal profession assisting lawyers, while lawyers are licensed to practice law and represent clients in court. Paralegals can do work that has been assigned to them by a lawyer. Paralegals work on case preparation; lawyers represent clients in court and quasi-court proceedings before a judge and/or jury.
Should You Become a Lawyer or a Paralegal?
The answer to this question depends on your long-term and short-term goals. Lawyers can earn more money, and have a higher profile position in the legal system, but must go to law school for many years and pass the bar exam. Paralegals can earn a certificate or degree in one to two years (depending on the state). Paralegals can also go to an ABA accredited law school and become a lawyer if they have a bachelor’s degree.
If you’ve earned an Associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies, some of those credits may transfer to your baccalaureate program, but you will still have to take additional classes to earn a Bachelor’s degree.
To go to law school, you will still need to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and apply to law schools. While non-ABA accredited law schools in California will accepted only an Associate’s degree, an ABA accredited law school requires applicants to have a Bachelor’s degree. If you are accepted, your working experience in the legal profession can be an advantage.
How Long Does it Take to Complete a Paralegal Program?
Most paralegal programs are ten months to two years in length, depending on the curriculum, the accreditation, whether they are ABA-approved, and whether they are certificate programs or degree programs.
The A.A. Paralegal Studies Degree program at MTI College in the OnlinePlus format takes about 108 weeks to complete. Any eligible student can enroll in this program.
The Online Paralegal Associate Degree program at MTI College takes about 48 weeks to complete. You must have previously completed an associate or baccalaureate degree or have completed 54 quarter units (36 semester units) in general studies and business from an accredited institution to be eligible for this program.
What Should You Expect to Learn in a Paralegal Program?
Most paralegal studies programs will teach legal terminology, legal writing and analysis, legal ethics, client interviewing and investigation, civil litigation, legal research, torts in personal injury law, technology in the legal field, contract law, advanced litigation, administrative law, and other essential legal procedures and policies.
Can You Complete a Paralegal Program Online?
This will vary from state to state. Some states may require a minimum classroom attendance. In California, students may take a fully online, approved paralegal program if they have a) previously completed an associate or baccalaureate degree or have completed 54 quarter units (36 semester units) in general studies and business from an accredited institution, and if b) the school has an accredited and approved online paralegal program.
How is a Paralegal Program Different From Law School?
There are a few key differences between paralegal studies and law school. Paralegal studies programs are taught using lecture style, and law school is taught using the Socratic method of questioning. Law school is known as being more stringent than paralegal programs, and much harder to get into and to graduate. The educational requirements are higher for enrollment in law school versus paralegal studies programs.
In a paralegal program, you learn the substantive skills of how the legal system works: crafting legal documents, working on a legal team, gathering evidence for a case. Law school focuses more on law theory: using critical thinking and questioning to find the answer to a legal problem.
How Should You Choose a Paralegal Program?
The key things you should evaluate in any paralegal studies program are: curriculum, quality of education, job placement rate, and overall reputation. A reputable paralegal studies program should prepare you to work competently in a legal office, and have a good track record of training paralegals who find and retain jobs in law offices. If the paralegal program is ABA-approved, you will also know it has passed the scrutiny of the American Bar Association, and is a high-quality program.
Are Paralegal Programs Required to be ABA-Approved?
There are only about 300 paralegal programs approved by the American Bar Association in the United States. If you graduate from one of these programs, it means you have taken a program that meets the meticulous standards of the ABA, and this may help you have an advantage over other paralegal candidates.
Not every person lives near an educational institution that has an ABA-approved paralegal program. This will not hurt your chances of employment in such locations.
Under California law, paralegals must meet one of these three education requirements:
- Complete a minimum of 24 credits in paralegal studies at an accredited college or university.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in any field, and have one year of experience working under the direct supervisions of a California lawyer who has been licensed for at least three years, or a California lawyer working in the federal court system.
- Finish a paralegal certificate program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
The A.A. Online Paralegal Studies program at MTI College is open to students residing in California who have already completed 54 quarter units (36 semester units) in general studies and business from an accredited institution and have an Associate’s degree or higher. This fully online program will let you fast track your education to becoming a paralegal in California. For more details, or to talk directly to our friendly Admissions department, call (916) 339-1500 or fill our contact form today. A representative from MTI College will be in contact with you shortly afterwards.
If you live in the Sacramento area, you can also attend our Paralegal Studies Associates Degree program, in our OnlinePlus format. This format allows student to complete the majority of coursework online, with minimal in-classroom required days. Our Admissions team can give you details on both of these paralegal programs.