Paralegals are playing a more prominent role in the nation’s law firms, corporate legal departments, and courts, as they take over many duties traditionally performed by attorneys. As a result, demand for trained paralegals is soaring. A paralegal training program sets you up to take advantage of rising opportunities in this high-profile legal support career.
Today’s paralegals function more as de facto attorneys than as administrative assistants. As attorneys delegate more and more responsibilities to their paralegals, the job description is beginning to resemble the attorney’s own. Paralegal training qualifies graduates to fulfill high-level legal functions such as:
Researching and investigating cases
Identifying legal precedents, judicial decisions, laws, articles, and other materials relevant to a case
Analyzing and organizing information
Preparing written reports
Developing legal arguments
Establishing trust funds and planning estates
At the same time, training programs prepare paralegals to lend a hand in essential administrative tasks, such as drafting legal documents, organizing files, and filing motions with the court.
Although their responsibilities and duties are growing, paralegals cannot give legal advices, argue cases in court, or set legal fees.
Overview of Paralegal Training
As a paralegal, you have the option to train for a particular type of legal work. Paralegal specializations include:
Your paralegal training program may offer specialized instruction to prepare you for paralegal work in these contexts. Corporate paralegals, for example, gain familiarity working with employee contracts, shareholder agreements, and stock-option plans. Litigation specialists collect and analyze evidence for hearings.
Paralegal Training: Degrees and Coursework
Paralegal training comes in several different varieties to accommodate different career goals and educational backgrounds. The basic prerequisite for any paralegal training program is a high school diploma or GED. A degree in paralegal studies includes:
Associate’s degree: The most common stepping stone into a paralegal career is the associate’s degree, a two-year program available at junior colleges and vocational training schools. The curriculum includes some general education courses, but the emphasis is on applied paralegal training.
Bachelor’s degree: The four-year bachelor’s degree offers expanded education in critical thinking, communication, research, and analytical skills. These abilities qualify you for higher-level paralegal duties.
Master’s degree: The two-year graduate degree follows the bachelor’s, and features opportunities for specialized coursework, research, and writing. This is a relatively uncommon degree.
Certificate: Aspiring paralegals who already have a college degree can qualify for a paralegal career with a certificate program which is typically several months in length.
There are over 1,000 paralegal training programs at colleges, universities, law schools, and vocational schools nationwide. Of these, an estimated 260 paralegal programs are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Graduation from an ABA-approved paralegal training program is not a requirement, but it can give you an edge in the job market.
Paralegal Career Outlook
Paralegals can look forward to an expanding yet competitive job market, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment growth should continue at a rate much faster than average, with an estimated 28 percent increase in new jobs between 2008 and 2018. The well-publicized demand has stoked an influx of trained legal professionals into the job market, increasing competition. The best employment opportunities should go to applicants with the highest-level of formal training, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The demand for paralegals reflects a growing market for legal services. Areas of strongest growth are intellectual property, health care, international law, elder issues, criminal law, and environmental law. At the same time, law firms are attempting to lower the cost of legal services to competitive rates by relying more on paralegals. Together, these two forces should support continued demand for paralegals in coming decades. Paralegals earn salaries commensurate with their training and experience; the median annual wage was $46,980 in 2009, but the highest 10 percent earned salaries of $75,700 and above.
Although attorneys face narrowing job opportunities, paralegals, on the other hand, remain one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. A paralegal training program can set you up to take advantage of a favorable job market and secure a job in the intellectually challenging field of paralegal support.