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If you have an interest in law but are not sure that a career as an attorney is right for you, becoming a paralegal might be the perfect fit. This occupation allows you to work in the legal industry without having to invest the time and money to earn a law school degree. In a much shorter period of academic study, you can prepare for a career as a paralegal.
Education Options for Paralegals
A college education is a requirement for aspiring paralegals, but you have options in how you prepare for this career. Some aspiring paralegals earn an associate’s degree in paralegal studies from a community college. Other students take their education further, earning a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. Still other aspiring paralegals approach the career path from a different educational background and learn the skills they will need through a certificate program. According to the United States Bureau of Statistics (BLS), some paralegals are hired with no formal paralegal training but a background in a field that is relevant to their employers, such as criminal justice, tax preparation or nursing. However, these candidates often require a great deal of on-the-job training, and their lack of a formal degree could limit their future advancement opportunities.
College programs that culminate in an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies typically cover similar material. Courses teach students how to perform legal research. Students also learn the computer skills they will need for their future jobs, including:
- how to research
- organize and update files
- write reports, legal documents and correspondence
Often, students can gain hands-on experience through an internship during their education. The amount of time it will take to prepare for a career as a paralegal varies. Students can complete certificate programs within months. Associate degree programs usually require two years and bachelor’s degree programs call for four years of full-time study.
Differences between Paralegals and Lawyers
Unlike attorneys, paralegals don’t practice law. They’re not considered qualified to give legal advice, and they don’t have to be admitted to the state bar association. Paralegals also don’t enjoy some of the benefits of being a lawyer, such as the opportunity to work for themselves or a median pay rate as high as $113,530 per year. However, paralegals play a crucial role in the legal process. Lawyers depend on them to accurately research the laws and facts relevant to their cases. Paralegals often compose the correspondence and legal documents necessary for resolving a case. They interact with clients and help prepare for trials.
Working as a paralegal is a rewarding job, and one that won’t require seven years of college and a massive amount of tuition money to get started. If law school doesn’t fit into your life plan, finding the professional resources to become a paralegal may be the best way for you to attain a job in the legal industry.