Paralegal Education Requirements and Career Info
A paralegal is a lawyer's assistant who helps a lawyer prepare for a meeting or a trial. This preparation may include researching facts or laws and writing reports used during the case. Paralegals are often given responsibilities previously held by lawyers. However, they are not allowed to present a case in court, offer legal advice or set legal fees.
Education Requirements for the Paralegal
There are no universal requirements for a paralegal, but there are several possible educational paths a potential paralegal might take. Educational options include certificate programs and degree programs. The American Bar Association (ABA) approves educational programs for paralegals. However, only a little over a quarter of the available associate and bachelor's degree programs are ABA-approved. Any programs that offer a degree entirely online are not ABA-approved, because the ABA requires that at least ten semester hours of courses related to the law be taken in a traditional classroom.
The path requiring the least amount of time is a certificate, which can take as little as seven months to complete. Most certificate programs are for people who have an associate or bachelor's degree in another area. A few require applicants to have a specified number of college credit hours plus experience in the area of law. Certificate programs only include courses pertinent to paralegal work and do not include general education courses. Courses cover law and ethics, legal research, legal writing, business law, family law, intellectual property and personal injury.
Students in associate and bachelor's degree programs take a basic core of general education courses in English, math, science and social studies as well as the required courses for paralegal work. There are some master's degree programs available, but this level of education is not required by most employers.
In 2010 there was no mandatory certification for paralegals, although some states were considering it. However, the National Association of Legal Assistants has offered voluntary general certification since the early 1980s. In 2010, the association added an advanced paralegal certification in personal injury. The American Alliance of Paralegals also offers voluntary certification.
Paralegals may find employment with law firms, banks, insurance and real estate companies, corporations and court offices. Contract freelance work is also an option.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) expected a 28% growth in paralegal jobs from 2008-2018, with a corresponding growth in competition. The BLS expected the most growth for paralegals who specialize in areas such as bankruptcy, product liability or medical malpractice. More demand from community legal service programs was also expected.
In 2008, average annual salaries were almost $49,000, or more than $23 per hour, according to the BLS. States with the highest percentage of paralegals in the state's employment numbers were the District of Columbia, New York, West Virginia and Connecticut.
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