1. Career Guides

The Paralegal’s Career Path

Published on: Sep 29, 2023
paralegal and lawyers in discussion

Paralegals play an important role in the legal world and there are several paths that can lead them to a successful career in the paralegal profession.

In this article, we’ll discuss the common paralegal career paths, including education and experience requirements, as well as the paralegal job outlook and the earnings a paralegal can expect depending on their chosen field. 

An introduction to the paralegal and general outlook

Paralegals provide support to attorneys, law firms, and legal departments. Although some resources might conflate the position of paralegal with other similar jobs like legal assistant or legal secretary, the role of the paralegal is different and unique. 

While the typical legal secretary primarily offers clerical services such as typing and transcribing, paralegals offer more legal services that require an independent mind and knowledge of the law. Paralegals are often responsible for conducting legal research, which may include reviewing and interpreting statutes, regulations and case law. Paralegals also frequently prepare and draft legal memos and legal paperwork that is reviewed and approved by an attorney for submission to the court. Their efforts are an important resource that allows attorneys to make informed decisions and to manage their caseload effectively.

A paralegal job description may state that their responsibilities include drafting legal documents, such as briefs, agreements, motions, and pleadings. They also organize and manage files, including electronic databases, and ensure that their organization meets required deadlines. Paralegals also may assist with witness interviews and prepare witnesses for court. 

Law firms and legal organizations would find it hard to manage their day-to-day responsibilities without paralegals, who also handle the administrative work of managing client correspondence, scheduling appointments, and billing clients. With time and experience in a particular area of law, paralegals can specialize in areas such as corporate law, litigation, real estate, immigration or healthcare law, among others.  They may work as a corporate paralegal, intellectual property paralegal, or a bankruptcy paralegal, for example.

In 2023, a paralegal can expect to earn a median salary of $66,091 per year. While salaries can vary depending on whether they decide to work for a law firm, a corporation, in public interest or another field, the salary for a paralegal is expected to grow in the coming years. 

While it is important to note that paralegals are not authorized to practice law, there is a growing need for professionals with specialized skills to assist with complex legal work.  

Paralegal educational pathways

People who are interested in a paralegal career should know that there are several educational pathways to achieve their goal.  They may be surprised that these options may not take as long or be as expensive as they might think. 

Many colleges and universities offer paralegal courses, certificates, and degrees. The length of time it takes to complete these programs can depend on the student’s other responsibilities, like work and family commitments, and whether they decide to attend full or part time. 

A paralegal certificate program usually requires students to have a high school diploma or general education development (GED) certificate first before enrolling. Then, students complete a specific set of courses. The certificate may be completed in as little as a few months and many accredited paralegal certificate programs are now offered online.  This may be a good option for individuals who would like to join a law firm or legal organization in an entry-level paralegal role. 

There are also two degree options in paralegal studies, an associates degree and a bachelor's degree. 

An associates degree in paralegal studies usually takes about two years if the student studies full time. This degree is offered at community colleges and vocational schools. A bachelor's degree in paralegal studies or general legal studies is also an option and this degree usually takes four years of full-time study to complete. This degree is offered at universities. Both degrees offer more in-depth education and may increase job prospects. 

It’s also possible to join the profession without formal paralegal education and instead, learn through on-the-job training. However, this may take longer, may not meet some employers’ requirements for training and may limit advancement opportunities. 

Choosing the right paralegal program

Once you have decided to pursue some level of education through a paralegal education program, the next decision to make is whether or not to enroll in an accredited educational program. An accredited program is one that has met the instructional standards of a particular accrediting body, whether that body is the American Bar Association (ABA), the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), or the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)

Paralegals may choose to attend an American Bar Association (ABA) approved legal program. This approval indicates that the program meets specific education standards, lends credibility and recognition to the program, and employers may prefer or require candidates who have graduated from an ABA-approved program. 

These programs also often provide valuable networking opportunities within paralegal associations and internship placements. Also, some professional associations require applicants to have completed an ABA approved program before they can join.

There are benefits to completing an accredited program

Attending an accredited paralegal education program may allow you to access federal and state financial aid. Additionally, obtaining credits from an accredited education program may also allow you to apply your credits to other educational programs, such as might happen if you obtain an accredited associate-level degree and then want to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Some employers view accredited paralegal education programs more favorably than those that lack accreditation. This preference for accredited programs is especially prevalent when employers consider the value of an online certificate or degree.

Considering the experience of others

Next, consider reading online reviews of paralegal education programs you are considering and speaking with current students and past graduates. Doing so can also help you decide whether a particular program is right for you and your aspirations. There is no equivalent to the U.S. News and World Report’s Law School Rankings for paralegal programs; however, sites like Niche.com offer their own nonscientific ranking of some paralegal programs. 

Schools and universities with a paralegal program should also be able to provide you, upon request, with statistics on job placement of its graduates. This information can help you form an opinion as to the value of that particular program in the market you want to work. For example, a paralegal education program should be able to tell you what percentage of its graduates are employed several months after graduation and where those graduates are located geographically.

Curriculum, learning environment, and experiential opportunities

Consider the educational program’s curriculum and whether it will serve your needs. If you intend to work in a specific area of the law like family law or immigration law, a program that offers coursework in these topics may be of more value to you than a program that does not have these offerings. If a paralegal student plans to learn a specific area of law, it’s important to know whether the school offers those courses as a track or specializations.  

Students should also consider their learning style. If there is a local college offering the paralegal program that is close to home and the student prefers to learn in person, that may be the best option. Similarly, if you prefer the flexibility that an online program offers, you should consider those institutions and universities that offer online courses or hybrid options over those that only offer in-person classes.

Finally, the school should also be able to provide information about its internship and job placement opportunities. Local law firms, legal organizations and corporate legal departments can provide students with the practical experience they will need to start their career.

Certification and licensing options

Beyond obtaining a certificate or university degree in paralegal studies, you may decide to pursue certification through an organization such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Both organizations offer a paralegal certification program which requires the candidate to meet specific education and experience criteria. Upon meeting the requirements of either program, you are able to hold yourself out to employers and the public as a certified paralegal.

According to the NALA and NFPA, by completing either group’s certification program, you are demonstrating a commitment to bettering yourself and your work product. Although certification through either group is voluntary, obtaining certification communicates that you take your work seriously and are committed to the principles for which each group stands.

To obtain certification, the individual must complete an ABA approved paralegal program, a nationally accredited paralegal program or a program approved by the NALA Certifying Board or must hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.  

They must also have at least one year of paralegal experience within the last three years, equivalent to 2,000 hours. Their work also must have been supervised by an attorney or an employer. There is an entry-level paralegal pathway for candidates who have graduated recently from a paralegal program but do not have one year of paralegal experience yet. 

There may also be options to become a licensed paralegal in certain states. The only state that requires a paralegal to meet certain experience or educational requirements before identifying themselves as a “paralegal” is California. Other states like Washington and Utah have both created positions similar to paralegals that require licensure through the state.

Costs of paralegal education

Tuition costs can vary depending on the type of paralegal program the student chooses. Certificate programs and associates degrees at community colleges and vocational schools tend to have lower tuition and fees than bachelor’s degree programs

The cost of a paralegal certificate can range from $1,600 to several thousands of dollars, but generally students can expect to pay between $1,600 and $5,000. The tuition for an associates degree can vary depending on whether the student chooses to attend a public or private college or university and whether they are an in or out of state student. Generally, the costs for an associate's degree range between $10,000 and $40,000. 

A bachelor's degree can cost between $40,000 to $200,000. Again, this depends on the type of program the student chooses, where it is located and whether it is public or private.  It’s important to keep in mind, however, that paralegal students may qualify for scholarships and financial aid, which can help offset the cost of their chosen program. 

In addition to tuition, paralegal students can expect to pay for books and supplies. Also, because paralegals need to learn specialized technology for legal research, they may have to pay additional costs for those programs. 

Also, not all employers require paralegals to obtain a professional certification and become a certified paralegal on top of any paralegal education program certificate or degree they might already have. These certifications may require an exam fee, costs for study materials and in some cases, yearly renewal fees.

Landing your first job as a paralegal

The next step in your paralegal career after completing the education you have decided to pursue is to secure a role and begin using your new skills in the workplace. Obtaining your first job as a paralegal is a significant accomplishment and can provide you with an opportunity to demonstrate your soft “people” skills as well as your competency as a paralegal. A good first job experience can open doors to you with larger employers or with greater challenges and opportunities.

Before you receive any job offer, you will interview at one or more firms or local, state, or federal government agencies. Each potential employer conducts interviews differently, however you can expect to be asked what drove you to become a paralegal and what you have enjoyed most about your education, if applicable. 

Do not let a lack of experience as a paralegal cause you undue anxiety

Familiarize yourself with the skills needed to be a successful paralegal and tell the potential employer how other education or work you have done shows that you possess these necessary skills.

Throughout the interview process, be professional and courteous with your potential employer. Return calls and emails promptly and be upfront and honest when asked questions. If you are no longer interested in one firm’s or agency’s position opening, communicate that to them as soon as possible. By doing this, you will develop a network of potential future employers as well as a reputation for being a professional.

As you start your first paralegal job, you and your employer should expect there will be a learning curve as you adjust to your new position. Ask questions if you do not understand your responsibilities or how to perform a certain task. You should expect that you will make mistakes and commit to learning from those errors.

Paralegal career advancement

After working and gaining experience, there are several potential career advancement opportunities available. 

As paralegals take on more responsibilities, they may choose to move into senior roles such as a Senior Paralegal, Managing Paralegal, or Director of Paralegals. These and other similar positions may assist attorneys with complex cases, train and supervise junior paralegals, and work in leadership positions at the firm or organization. 

If a paralegal works for a law firm, corporate legal department or in government, they may be able to move into management roles which can include overseeing projects and acting as a subject matter expert on their team. Legal administration roles are also an option, which involve managing operations, budgets and personnel. 

Over time, individuals who become experts in legal technology, including litigation support and electronic discovery may choose to manage electronic discovery teams and train other legal professionals on these products. 

Compliance and risk management are both growing fields that may also interest paralegals. These positions include investigation work, developing risk assessments and mitigation strategies and ensuring an organization’s compliance with regulatory requirements.  

Paralegals may also consider a legislative career. A government agency may hire experienced paralegals to prepare legislative drafts and conduct research. 

Colleges and universities also need experienced paralegals to share their knowledge and teach the next generation of professionals. There are opportunities for experienced paralegals to work as instructors in paralegal training programs in traditional classroom settings, professional organizations and in continuing education. They may contribute to developing student curriculum, teach courses, provide consulting services or may choose to join the school’s administrative group. 

Paralegals who have an interest in criminal justice may also decide that a career in law enforcement is the right path for them. There are several options within law enforcement, including working as a police officer, as an investigator, or for a federal agency. Law enforcement careers often require physical fitness and test those standards during the hiring process. 

Finally, some paralegals choose to pursue a career as an attorney. Paralegal programs are intended to provide students with legal foundations and practical skills to assist lawyers. They may cover similar subject matter as law school courses, but the focus is different because their work is completed under the supervision of an attorney and is not the practice of law.

The knowledge of legal terminology and concepts that a student can gain by completing a paralegal certificate or other program give the student an advantage in law school. Because these terms and concepts will be familiar to the paralegal student, law school will reinforce knowledge already acquired instead of introducing completely foreign ideas.

Choosing to transition from a paralegal to an attorney

Paralegals who choose to go to law school as a next step along their career path will already have some of the fundamental skills that they’ll need to join the legal profession as an attorney, like legal research, legal terminology, writing and critical thinking abilities. 

Lawyers have the option to work in several different professional capacities. Litigation lawyers represent clients in court. They conduct legal research, draft legal documents, present arguments in court and negotiate settlements, among other responsibilities. 

Corporate lawyers work with and on behalf of businesses. They provide legal guidance to the organization and may work with compliance, finance, and executive teams.  

Family lawyers assist clients with family issues such as divorce, child custody and support, adoption, and sometimes domestic violence cases. They may also choose to work in alternative dispute resolution roles, like mediation and arbitration. 

Some lawyers are drawn to public interest positions, like providing legal services for people who are unable to afford legal representation or representing a certain cause. These areas of practice may include civil rights and public policy. Similarly, government agencies hire lawyers to draft legislation, prosecute and defend criminal cases, or to perform specialized research. 

Others work in non-traditional legal positions like academics, legal consulting, and writing jobs.

Applying for law school

In order to apply for law school, the paralegal will need to take the law school admissions test (LSAT) first. The LSAT consists of several sections including logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, reading comprehension which are multiple choice and a writing sample which is not scored, but is sent to law schools with the applicant’s LSAT score.   

The logical reasoning section determines how the test taker analyzes and evaluates arguments, including their structure, reasoning and assumptions. The analytical section, also called logic games, assesses the test taker’s ability to come to a conclusion based on a set of rules.

The reading comprehension section evaluates the test taker’s understanding of a passage’s ideas, details, and structure. The applicant will also provide a writing sample during the exam based on a provided set of facts which is separate from the multiple-choice section. 

Usually, the test taker will receive their LSAT score in a few weeks. Then, they submit this score with their law school application. Many law schools have a minimum LSAT score that they will accept and this information may be located on their website’s admission page.

What curriculum to take at law school

Law school courses may vary slightly depending on the specific law school, but all law students take several foundational courses that provide them with an overall understanding of legal principles and skills that they’ll need to practice law. 

First year courses may include criminal law, torts, property law, contracts and civil procedure. Some paralegals may already have a background in these concepts from their previous training, which can make it easier to complete these required classes.

Criminal law focuses on the elements of crimes, criminal defenses and the criminal justice legal system. Torts addresses civil actions, like negligence, intentional torts and strict liability. This course includes information about personal injury actions, property damage or other harm. 

Property law courses explain the ownership, transfer, purchase and other interests in property, both real and personal. In contracts law, students learn about formation, interpretation and enforcement of contracts. 

The civil procedure class helps students understand the rules and processes of jurisdiction, discovery, motions and trial procedures, among other concepts. 

In the second year, law students may take classes to learn about evidence, administrative law, professional responsibility and ethics and legal research and writing. The evidence class may build on the paralegal’s prior knowledge because it addresses the admissibility of certain information in court, hearsay, witnesses and expert testimony. 

Administrative law covers rulemaking and judicial review of agency decisions. While these are some of the core classes students are required to take, many law schools also offer electives. These may include family law, intellectual property, health law and consumer law, for example. 

Students often also have an opportunity to work in the legal field in clinics and externships, where they learn the day-to-day work of attorneys under supervision.

Bar exam and law license

After completing law school, if a student intends to practice law, they must take the bar exam. This is a licensing exam administered by the board of bar examiners in the state they intend to practice. 

If you intend to practice in California, Vermont, Virginia, or Washington, you can sit for the bar exam without attending law school. Moreover, in New York, Wyoming, and Maine, you may be able to practice law without passing the bar exam so long as you have completed some law school coursework. 

Every state sets its own requirements for whether the bar exam is necessary to practice law in that state and who is eligible to take the bar. Check with your state’s Board of Bar Examiners or equivalent board for specific details about your state.

The exam tests the applicant’s overall knowledge and understanding of rules, procedures, and legal principles required to practice law effectively and ethically. The exam has two parts. 

The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is a multiple-choice exam that tests knowledge of constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, property, torts and civil procedure. 

Each state also has a state-specific portion that tests specific laws and rules of the jurisdiction where the candidate intends to practice. This may include essay questions and short answer questions that apply the law to hypothetical situations. 

Students can spend months preparing for the bar exam. While it is not required, many students choose to enroll in a bar review course to prepare them for the exam. The courses provide study materials, lectures, and practice exams to help students prepare. 

After passing the bar exam, the applicant will be licensed to practice law and, in most jurisdictions, are required to complete continuing legal education to maintain their license.

Next steps

Whether an individual chooses to become a paralegal or pursue law school, there are many opportunities available to them in this career path. Get matched to a legal studies degree today and start on the path to a bright future! 

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.

Contributing Author

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