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How to Become a Paralegal: Tips and Guidance from an Experienced Attorney

Published on: Sep 29, 2023
3 paralegals in a small group setting

With a median salary above that for the general U.S. workforce and a projected growth in demand of 14 percent between 2023 and 2031, now is the perfect time to pursue a career as a paralegal. As a paralegal, you will collaborate closely with lawyers to assist with legal proceedings, research, and documentation.

In this article, we will walk you through the steps you need to take to become a certified paralegal and answer some commonly asked questions about the profession.

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal, also referred to as a legal assistant in some jurisdictions, is an individual who works with lawyers to assist in their tasks. Paralegals perform various functions, including legal research, drafting legal documents, staying current on legal procedures, and assisting with trial preparation. They may work in law firms, corporate legal departments, government agencies, or non-profit organizations.

What is the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant?

The terms "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two. Generally, a paralegal has more education and training than a legal assistant. Paralegals often hold a certificate or degree in paralegal studies, while legal assistants may have a high school diploma or some college education. Paralegals often command a higher income, with a yearly income averaging between $53,340 - $108,350, whereas, legal assistants average between $47,760 and $62,598. However, both professions involve providing support to lawyers and performing similar tasks.

Can You Become a Paralegal Through Self-Study Without a Degree?

While someone can become a paralegal through self-study without a degree, obtaining employment in this field may be more challenging without a formal education. Many employers prefer to hire paralegals who have completed a paralegal education program or have a degree in a related field, such as legal studies, criminal justice, or political science. Employers such as big law firms and government agencies are starting to recognize the benefit of hiring paralegals with education and those with less education may have fewer job opportunities unless this lack of education is offset by real-world experience. This is because a formal education provides a foundation of knowledge and skills necessary to be an effective paralegal.

A paralegal education program can provide training in legal research, drafting legal documents, and understanding legal terminology. It can also provide exposure to various areas of law, such as civil litigation, criminal law, and family law, which can be beneficial in finding employment in a specific area of law. Additionally, obtaining a paralegal certification can demonstrate to potential employers that you possess competency in the field, which makes you a more attractive candidate and opens up high-level paralegal jobs

Moreover, having a proper education can open up more job prospects as a paralegal. While some law firms or legal departments may be willing to hire a paralegal without a degree, many larger firms or government agencies may prefer to hire paralegals to have a degree or certification. Additionally, having a degree or certification can lead to higher salaries and more opportunities for advancement in the field. For example, a paralegal with a degree will routinely earn thousands of dollars more per year than those without a degree.

Should You Go to School in Preparation for a Paralegal Career?

If you're interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal, one of the decisions you may face is whether to attend school to obtain the necessary education and training. While some paralegals have gained skills through on-the-job training or short-term certification programs, completing a paralegal education program can offer many benefits.

Attending a paralegal program at an accredited university can provide you with a solid foundation of legal knowledge, including an understanding of the legal system, legal terminology, and legal research skills. Additionally, you'll gain experience working with legal documents and learn how to conduct legal interviews and investigations. These skills will not only make you a more competent paralegal, but they'll also make you a more attractive candidate to potential employers.

Beyond the technical skills, obtaining a paralegal education can help you develop critical thinking, problem-solving, legal ethics, and communication skills that are valuable in any career. In a paralegal program, you'll be exposed to various legal issues and cases, which will help you develop your analytical and problem-solving abilities. You'll also have opportunities to practice written and oral communication skills, which are essential in the legal profession.

Ultimately, the decision to attend school to prepare for a paralegal career will depend on your circumstances and goals. However, if you're looking for a comprehensive education and the opportunity to develop valuable skills, attending a paralegal program can be a worthwhile investment in your future due to the increase in lifetime earnings. 

paralegal at his desk in front of the laptop with coffee

How to Find the Right Paralegal Program for You

Finding the right paralegal program is an important first step for anyone interested in becoming a paralegal. Paralegals have a number of career paths they can pursue both in government and the private sector. With so many options available, navigating the various programs and choosing the one that is right for you can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for finding the right paralegal program to meet your needs:

First, consider your goals and career aspirations. Are you looking for a program that will provide a general overview of the legal field, or are you interested in specializing in a particular area of law? Some programs may offer more in-depth coursework in corporate law, real estate law, criminal justice, criminal law, or other legal specialty courses, so choosing a program that aligns with your career goals is important. 

Next, consider the format and schedule of the program. Do you prefer a traditional classroom setting, or would you prefer to complete coursework online? Are you looking for a full-time or part-time program, and what scheduling options are available? Many schools have an online paralegal studies program to fit your schedule. Consider your personal commitments and lifestyle when choosing a program that will fit your needs.

The financial aspect of paralegal education may also be a deciding factor. Paralegal certificate programs have substantially lower tuition costs than an associate or bachelor’s degree and are shorter in duration, meaning you can start your career faster to earn a paycheck. Associate and bachelor’s degree programs have much higher tuition costs and will take years but may offer higher salaries. Many universities offer scholarships and other financial aid options to students.

Those wishing to pursue a paralegal degree from a university will have to decide which degree they want to work towards and must take into consideration the time commitment as well as their potential lifetime earnings. It typically takes two years to complete a paralegal associate’s degree and can lead to an average yearly salary ranging from $53,332 to $57,195. On the other hand, a paralegal bachelor's degree usually takes four years to finish and can result in an average yearly salary ranging from $54,422 to $58,167. While a bachelor's degree may lead to a slightly higher income, it also requires more time and financial investment. Ultimately, deciding to pursue a bachelor's degree as a paralegal depends on whether the potential additional income is worth it throughout one's career.

Many paralegal programs offer career services to assist graduates with job placement. They help students with job searches, resume drafting, interview preparation, and networking opportunities. Some paralegal programs have established partnerships with local law firms and legal organizations that can assist with job placement opportunities.

Finally, research the reputation and accreditation of the program. Look for accredited programs accredited by recognized organizations like the American Bar Association or the National Association of Legal Assistants. Additionally, read reviews and talk to current or former students to get a sense of the quality of the program and the experience of attending it.

By taking these factors into consideration, you can find the right paralegal program to meet your needs and help you achieve your career goals in the legal field.

Steps to Becoming a Paralegal

Becoming a paralegal can be an excellent career choice for those interested in the legal field  that do not want to attend law school. A paralegal is a highly skilled professional responsible for assisting lawyers with various tasks, such as legal research, drafting legal documents, and communicating with clients. If you are interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal, there are several paths you can take to achieve your goals.

Understand the Difference Between Paralegal and Legal Assistant

First, it is crucial to understand the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant. While the terms are often used interchangeably, the two have some key differences. A legal assistant typically provides administrative support to lawyers, such as answering phones, scheduling appointments, and managing files. Conversely, a paralegal is responsible for substantive legal work, such as legal research, drafting legal documents, and assisting with trial preparation.

Complete a Paralegal Education Program

One of the most common paths to becoming a paralegal is to complete a paralegal education program. Community colleges, vocational schools, and universities typically offer these programs, and you can often obtain financial aid. Depending on the program, you may be able to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.

There is no right answer to whether you should pursue an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Pursuing an associate’s degree gets you into the workforce faster since the program is shorter. However, the coursework does not go as in-depth or cover as much ground as a bachelor’s program. Conversely, a bachelor’s program takes longer to complete but you can expect to gain more understanding about the legal field over the course of your studies.

In any program, you will learn about legal research, writing, analysis, and substantive areas of law, such as family law, criminal law, and corporate law. You will also learn how to provide a much-needed legal service to clients throughout the United States. While paralegals cannot provide legal advice to clients, they can still utilize their skills in the paralegal profession to assist attorneys in their law firms or work in a corporate legal department.

Obtain a Paralegal Certificate

You may choose to obtain a paralegal certificate instead of getting a paralegal degree. Paralegal certificates are offered through non-degree programs that provide specialized training in paralegal studies that allow you to start working as a paralegal quicker. You can start your career and begin earning faster with a certificate. These programs are typically shorter in duration than degree programs and may be available online or in person. Professional organizations like paralegal associations or national federations may also offer them. 

Consider Continuing Education

Completing a degree or certificate program is not the end of your educational journey as a paralegal. Laws and best practices that apply to your work as a paralegal can change, and continuing education courses will help you remain abreast of these changes in the field.

While continuing education is not mandatory in all situations, it can help you remain competitive and knowledgeable throughout your career. If you are a paralegal in California, completing continuing education each year is a requirement to remain a paralegal in that state. In addition, if you become a certified paralegal, completing continuing education courses annually is a requirement to maintain your credential.

Become a Certified Paralegal

The paralegal profession is largely unregulated in most states, so many job seekers choose to get their professional paralegal certification to set themselves apart from others in the profession. While paralegal certification is not required to work as a paralegal, it can be a valuable credential. 

Although some use the terms “certificate,” “certification,” and “certified” as they apply to paralegals interchangeably, there is a difference between obtaining a paralegal certification and being a certified paralegal.. You obtain your paralegal certificate when you complete a paralegal certification educational program. 

A paralegal certificate can be obtained upon completing a paralegal education program, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that certificate holders are “certified” paralegals. There may still be other specific requirements that must be met. Several organizations offer certification programs for paralegals, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). To become certified, you must typically pass an exam evaluating your legal concepts and procedures knowledge.

Gain Experience

Finally, it is essential to gain practical experience in the field. Many paralegal programs offer internships or externships that allow you to gain firsthand experience working in a law firm or legal department. Consider volunteering with a legal aid organization or nonprofit to gain experience and build your network.

What Does a Lawyer Look for When Hiring a Paralegal?

Every law firm, government agency, or other employer who hires paralegals is different and will look for different characteristics in the paralegals they hire. The qualities that may make you an attractive candidate for a government agency may not be as highly valued by a law firm. You can get an idea for what a particular employer values in a prospective paralegal by carefully reviewing that employer’s job postings, website, and other promotional material.

In general, when looking for paralegals to hire, employers want to find a candidate who has a demonstrated ability to multitask and a strong attention to details. A willingness to learn is also desirable, as every employer’s processes and culture is different and even experienced paralegals will need to be open to learning new things when starting with a new employer. Finally, a successful job candidate will be able to show they are highly organized and that they can fit in with the office’s culture and existing team members.

What is the Job Description for a Paralegal?

The job description for a paralegal typically includes a range of responsibilities to support lawyers and other legal professionals. These duties may include conducting legal research, drafting legal documents such as pleadings and contracts, organizing and maintaining case files, and assisting with client communication.

Paralegals may also be involved in preparing for trial, including coordinating witnesses and preparing exhibits, and attending trials and hearings to aid attorneys. In some cases, paralegals may be responsible for managing administrative tasks such as scheduling meetings, answering phone calls, and organizing office supplies.

Overall, a paralegal's job is to support lawyers and other legal professionals, helping ensure that legal proceedings run smoothly and efficiently. The duties of a paralegal may vary depending on the size and type of law office or organization they work for, as well as the particular needs of their clients.

What are the Job Prospects for Paralegals?

The job prospects for those seeking to become a paralegal are positive, and you do not have to attend law school. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 14 percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is expected to be driven by increased demand for legal services and a desire by law firms and other employers, such as government agencies, to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

In addition, the BLS reports that the median annual wage for paralegals was $56,230 or $27.03 per hour as of May 2021. However, this can vary depending on location, industry, and experience level. For example, paralegals working in the federal government tend to earn higher salaries than those working in other types of employers.

It is also worth noting that some employers may pay paralegals higher salaries  than other employers due to demand or job requirements.  For example, paralegals working in the federal government tend to earn higher salaries than those in private law firms or those that choose to work for a government agency.

Overall, the job outlook for paralegals is positive, with a growing demand for legal services and opportunities for career advancement. However, as with any profession, it is essential to stay informed of industry trends and to continually update your skills to remain competitive in the job market.

paralegal working at her desk in front of the computer

Steps to Becoming a Paralegal in High School

If you are still in high school and interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal, there are several steps you can take to get started. First, it is essential to focus on your academic performance, particularly in English, history, government, and any law-related courses your school may offer. Participating in debate or mock trial teams can also provide valuable experience and help develop your communication and critical thinking skills.

To gain additional experience and knowledge, consider volunteering or interning at a local law firm or courthouse. This can provide firsthand exposure to the legal field and help you build connections with professionals in the industry. Additionally, attending legal workshops or seminars can provide insight into the paralegal profession and current legal issues.

When it comes time to apply for college or a paralegal education program, research and choose a program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or other reputable organizations. This can ensure that you receive a quality education and that employers will recognize your degree or certificate in the legal field.

Once you have completed your education and obtained certification, gaining experience through internships or entry-level positions can help you build your skills and advance your career. Networking with legal professionals and joining a paralegal association can also provide valuable opportunities for professional development and career advancement.

What are the Top Colleges for Paralegal Studies?

Some colleges and universities offer paralegal studies programs, but some of the top-ranked institutions include:

  1. Tulane University

  2. George Washington University

  3. Duke University

  4. Boston University

  5. Louisiana State University

  6. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

  7. Emory University

  8. University of Texas at Austin

  9. University of San Diego

  10. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill[2] 

These schools are known for their strong paralegal studies programs, which typically provide students with a solid foundation in legal concepts and procedures and direct experience through internships and other practical learning opportunities. However, it is essential to note that many other colleges and universities offer high-quality paralegal studies programs, and students should consider factors such as cost, location, and reputation when choosing a school.

Continuing Paralegal Education and Professional Development

Continuing education and professional development are crucial for paralegals who want to advance in their careers and stay current with the latest trends and developments in the legal industry. Fortunately, many paralegal associations offer a variety of resources to help you continue your education and develop your professional skills.

Continuing education courses are an excellent way to learn new skills and stay current with changes in the legal field. Many paralegal associations offer these courses online, making it easy to access them from anywhere. These courses cover various topics, from legal research and writing to litigation support and e-discovery.

In addition to continuing education courses, paralegal associations also offer networking opportunities to help you build relationships with other professionals in the industry. These events can be a terrific way to learn about new job opportunities, stay current on industry trends, and connect with other paralegals and legal professionals.

Professional development opportunities, such as workshops and seminars, can also be valuable for paralegals looking to advance in their careers. These events provide opportunities to gain experience and new skills, develop your leadership abilities, and gain a deeper understanding of the legal industry.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a paralegal requires education, certification, and skills development. By obtaining a degree or certificate in paralegal studies and developing persuasive communication, research, and organization skills, you can pursue a successful career in the legal field and do great public service.

When job searching, consider the type of law firm or organization you want to work for and what areas of law you are interested in specializing in. These steps allow you to become a competitive candidate and advance your paralegal career.


  1. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm

  2. https://www.firstrepublic.com/insights-education/how-much-does-the-average-american-make

  3. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm

  4. https://www.salary.com/research/salary/listing/legal-assistant-salary

  5. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/experience-vs-education

  6. https://www.ziprecruiter.com/g/Highest-Paying-Paralegal-Jobs

  7. https://abovethelaw.com/2011/06/the-value-of-a-paralegal-degree-experts-weigh-in/

  8. https://www1.salary.com/Salaries-for-Paralegal-I-with-a-Associates-Degree

  9. https://www1.salary.com/Salaries-for-Paralegal-I-with-a-Bachelors-Degree

  10. https://www1.salary.com/Salaries-for-Paralegal-I-with-a-Bachelors-Degree

  11. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/the-100-best-jobs

  12. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=BPC&division=3.&title=&part=&chapter=5.6.&article=

  13. https://nala.org/certification/eligibility-requirements/

  14. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals/blog/Certificate-Certified/

  15. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/solo-small-firm/practice/2021/top-five-skills-to-look-for-when-hiring-a-paralegal/

  16. https://tulane.edu/academics/graduate-programs/paralegal-studies

  17. https://online.gwu.edu/paralegal-studies-graduate-certificate

  18. https://learnmore.duke.edu/certificates/paralegal_online

  19. https://paralegalonline.bu.edu/online-certificate/

  20. https://ce.lsu.edu/paralegal-studies/

  21. https://www.uclaextension.edu/legal-programs/paralegal-studies/certificate/paralegal-studies

  22. https://ece.emory.edu/areas-of-study/paralegal/paralegal-certificate.php

  23. https://professionaled.utexas.edu/paralegal-certificate-program?

  24. https://www.sandiego.edu/law/academics/paralegal/

  25. https://paralegal.web.unc.edu/

About the Authors

Written by:

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

Kevin Salzman is the elected county prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas. Prior to taking office in 2017, he worked for six years as an assistant county attorney across southwest Kansas, prosecuting crimes ranging from traffic offenses to first-degree murder cases. Kevin got started in legal content writing in 2014 and enjoys the opportunities it affords to explore new and changing areas of the law. He believes solid content writing helps people understand the law and how it can help them overcome the challenges they face. He is a 2010 graduate of St. Louis University School of Law.

Kevin Salzman portrait

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

County Prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas

Education: St. Louis University School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Criminal Prosecution

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning