Have you ever wondered what would happen if you practiced law without a license? Well, in one case, a former law partner and president of the local bar association in Pennsylvania was sentenced to 5 years in prison for doing just that, incredibly, for ten years. If this ambitious individual chose to pursue a paralegal career instead of deceiving her peers, clients, and state bar, her life could have turned out much better.
Working in conjunction with attorneys, paralegals play a vital role in the legal field and can perform many attorney-related tasks without a law license. Because they gain considerable legal experience, it's not unusual to find senior paralegals earning comparable salaries to junior attorneys. In addition to the salary potential, there are always those great stories where a paralegal defeats an entire staff of high-powered attorneys.
The path to a legal career doesn't have to lead through the gates of an expensive law school. Instead, you might find that a paralegal program is the better fit for your future.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
There's no clear answer to this question because every attorney has their own preferences when it comes to how they run their office. However, under the Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services published by the American Bar Association (ABA), attorneys can technically delegate to a paralegal "any task normally performed by the lawyer" except those specifically prohibited by law.
The prohibited tasks would include the singular attorney roles like establishing attorney-client relationships and fee arrangements and providing legal advice.
So, while lawyers are ultimately responsible for supervising the work of their paralegals and ensuring that they're not mistaken for attorneys, the scope of a paralegal's legal services is broad and can include:
- Communicating with clients, witnesses, courts, or opposing counsel
- Preparing and filing legal documents
- Gathering and evaluating evidence
- Conducting legal research and drafting memos
- Preparing for depositions and trials
Paralegals often work with legal assistants and other support staff in a law office or legal department.
What to Look For in Paralegal Programs
To perform such a wide range of attorney duties, a paralegal needs the proper training. After all, attorneys spend three years and tens of thousands of dollars to be able to perform similar work. Some states, like California, allow paralegals with a high school diploma to be certified through law-related work experience under an attorney, but the more common path is through a paralegal program.
Depending on the program, students can either receive a paralegal certificate or certification. While a certificate indicates successful completion of a paralegal program, certification means that a paralegal has been formally recognized by a certifying organization based on his or her education, work experience, or completion of a paralegal examination.
Paralegal programs are available at community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and many business schools. With the variety of paralegal programs that exist, it's important to keep the following criteria in mind when deciding on the program for you.
This may be the most important factor when searching for a paralegal studies program. Choosing one that has been approved by the ABA not only ensures that you receive a quality education for your money but also improves your chances of getting hired once you graduate. Also, completing an ABA-approved program is often required to obtain formal certification.
The number of credit hours required by a paralegal program depends on the certificate or degree involved. For example, some certificate programs may only take a few months, but obtaining one resulting in an associate's degree may require a year or more. You could also obtain one through a bachelor's degree program, which would take four years. There are even master's degrees in paralegal studies which can take up to two years to complete.
Some states also require paralegals to complete continuing education classes to maintain their certification. For example, in Illinois, paralegals must complete 12 continuing education credit hours every two years.
Practice Area Specialization
Some programs allow you to receive specialized paralegal training in specific legal areas, such as intellectual property, real estate, or estate planning. If you know the area of law you want to work in, specialized paralegal training can help you get the job you want.
Depending on the program, you may be able to complete your paralegal education online, a more convenient option, especially for those working full-time. In addition, some schools have law libraries and other resources to help train you for the career ahead. Like many other industries, the legal profession is quickly increasing its use of technology, so technological competence goes a long way in a law firm.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
Like most professional development, paralegal programs don't come free. But, financial aid is available for most paralegal certificate, associate's degree, and bachelor's degree programs. Universities and colleges with paralegal programs often also have scholarships available. Check with your prospective school to learn more.
Taking the Next Steps
Enrollment in a paralegal program is one way to get your foot into the legal field. It might be the first step on the road to law school or the beginning of a respected paralegal career. Whatever your future goals, FindLaw for Law Students has information and resources to help you along the way.