1. Choose a quality paralegal training program.
Figure 11.2 At Pierce and Pierce L.L.P., all paralegals are issued clones for scapegoating purposes.
There are a few things to look for in a program. Training programs approved by the American Bar Association are purportedly more in tune with the skills needed in the job market and will make you more attractive (enchanting even) to employers. Only around a quarter of the training programs around the country are approved by the ABA, and you can find them here. Programs that offer internships are also preferred. In the legal world, internships often lead directly to jobs after graduation. It's also a good idea to find out how recent graduates of a program are faring. If they're all receiving unemployment or gossiping around a burning trash can, you may want to shop around.
2. Earn a degree in paralegal studies.
Earn an associate's degree (two years). Going to a two-year community college is still the most common route to becoming a paralegal. You'll take a handful of electives, but mostly you'll be focusing on legal writing, researching, computer skills, business law, and learning about the world and language of law.
Or earn a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies (four years). Some four-year colleges offer both a major and a minor in paralegal studies. Going the four-year route, you'll receive a more well-rounded education and have the opportunity to specialize in an area of law (litigation, estate planning, corporate law, etc.), which are both boons to potential employers. It's risk versus reward—you'll spend more time and money in the hopes of gaining access to the better paying jobs.
3. Gain legal experience while in school.
Become a research assistant. Before doing the heavy lifting for lawyers, do it for professors. Lots of schools are in constant need of such slave labor. The work can be interesting, and you'll learn about the latest trends in research and organization. If you find the work unbearable, perhaps becoming a paralegal isn't your destiny.
Complete an internship. Learning on the job in law firms, corporate law offices, government institutions, or aid organizations will cause employers to salivate all over your resume. You'll also gain skills and confidence through these practice jobs.
4. Get certified . . . or don't.
Figure 11.3 Frank, a recent paralegal graduate, ensures that his son is legally obligated to stop being such a disappointment.
You don't need certification to become a paralegal, but it looks good on a resume. This is not your degree or certificate from a training program or school. This form of voluntary membership and certification is supposed to prove to employers that you're a quality, up-to-date paralegal. There are many organizations that offer formal certification, and The National Association of Legal Assistants is one of the more popular options. NALA certification requires that you've had a certain amount of paralegal education as well as work experience. You'll also need to pass a two-day exam. Also, once certified, you'll need to complete fifty hours of education (workshops, classes, online courses) over the following five years to maintain membership.
5. Get a job; become a paralegal.
Most paralegals (around seventy percent) work in law firms. "Big Law"—those large law firms that generally pay the best—are located in big cities, which is also where you'll find the large companies that have in-house legal departments. However, more and more institutions are hiring these dynamic professionals: hospitals and health care organizations, banks, insurance companies, city attorneys and public defenders, federal and state government agencies, and real estate firms.
Is There Another Way to Become a Paralegal?
If you already have a bachelor's degree, get a paralegal certificate. So you got your teaching licence and found out that you hate children. Well, not all was in vain. Potential employers may like your well-rounded background. Instead of piling on debt and going to school for another two to four years, get a paralegal certificate from a short-term paralegal training program. These programs vary in quality and duration, but they are generally very intense and last only a few months or even weeks. You may not even need a degree or certificate to become a paralegal. Some firms and businesses just hire smart people and do the training themselves. You don't NEED any kind of special degree to legally do this work. Of course, you'd better be connected, brilliant, or exceedingly beautiful if this is your plan.