Preparing to Become a Paralegal
If you are already employed in the legal profession or in a closely allied field, you may be able to enter the paralegal profession without any further education. Persons in these fields often make a successful transition to the paralegal profession because they already have knowledge of the legal system and of legal principles. These persons also possess strong skills in analytical thinking and communication from their current jobs. Legal employers are more willing to fill any gaps in knowledge with on-the-job training for these individuals.
The local chapter of the state paralegal association is a terrific place to get information about the paralegal field. Working paralegals are very knowledgeable about and interested in the development of the paralegal profession. Many are happy to share their experience and expertise with students and new paralegals.
If you are not employed in one of these fields, the move to becoming a paralegal usually necessitates additional education in the paralegal field. Fortunately, the growing popularity of the paralegal profession has led to an explosion in the number of institutions offering paralegal education. Because the paralegal field is largely unregulated, however, the education offered by these institutions is not standardized. A paralegal student can choose between paralegal programs offering paralegal certificates, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, and advanced degrees. In addition, an increasing number of programs offer students the opportunity to complete their paralegal education through online classes — classes offered over the Internet where a student logs on from a home computer for class lectures, discussions, and assignments.
Chapter 2 offers a comprehensive survey of your options in securing an education for success as a paralegal. Whatever paralegal education program you choose, you can expect to make a significant investment in time and money. On the other hand, a formal paralegal education is increasingly essential for persons hoping to break into the paralegal profession. The sheer number of available paralegal programs can make choosing the right program seem overwhelming. Making a wise choice involves answering four questions:
What are the education requirements in your specific job market? Some employers consider a certificate sufficient and expect that on-the-job training will fill any gaps in the applicant's education. Other legal employers insist on a higher level of formal education. You can obtain this information from working paralegals, the local chapter of the state paralegal association, or the placement office of the educational institution.
What is the educational focus of the program? The day-to-day work of paralegals is practical; the objective is to get the job done. Because of this, the American Bar Association (ABA) strongly recommends that paralegal programs focus on the skills necessary to complete practical, real-life tasks. Nevertheless, many paralegal programs focus on the theoretical aspects of the law.
Who teaches the core legal courses in the program? Ask whether the legal courses are taught by lawyers, paralegals, or other instructors. The specific instructors can tell you a great deal about the quality of education offered by the institution.
Does the program offer internships or some other means of gaining practical experience in a real work environment? Employers are more comfortable hiring paralegals who have some work experience. This often causes an employer to “promote from within,” preferring a current employee as a paralegal candidate to an inexperienced graduate of a paralegal program. Internships, legal clinics, and other established opportunities for practical experience allow the newly minted paralegal graduate to overcome the “promote from within” mindset.