Paralegal and legal assistant are individuals employed by attorneys or law firms to assist in the delivery of legal services. Unlike lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants are not allowed to accept legal cases, give legal advice, or represent clients in court. However, many of their regular duties are things also done by lawyers, including conducting client interviews, doing legal research, locating and interviewing witnesses, and drafting legal documents.
In general, paralegals are responsible for helping lawyers prepare for trials, hearings, closings, and corporate meetings. They often prepare written reports that attorneys use in determining how cases should be handled. For cases which go to trial, paralegals help prepare the legal arguments, obtain the affidavits, draft the motions, and assist the attorney during the conduct of the trial.
Although some paralegals are trained on the job, most of them pursue some type of formal educational program leading to a certificate and/or an associate or bachelor's degree. There are several such programs available today offered in a wide variety of formats and lengths by various public and private institutions including:
- Community colleges
- Four-year colleges and universities
- Business colleges
- Proprietary institutions
Certificate programs, which usually provide intensive paralegal training for individuals who already hold college degrees, vary significantly in length but often only take a few months to complete. Hundreds of paralegal training programs are currently approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) and graduation from an ABA-approved program can enhance employment opportunities.
Most paralegal training programs include courses in legal research and the applications of computers to legal work. Some programs include job placement services. Many of them also offer an internship where students gain several months of practical working experience in a private law firm, a government agency, a corporate legal department, or some other institution. Experience as an intern can be an invaluable asset in the job market after graduation.
Paralegal Education Requirements and Courses
Most entrants in the field have either an associate degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in a general field of study combined with a certificate in paralegal studies. Some hold master's degrees. Degree programs typically combine paralegal training with courses in other academic subjects.
Paralegal requirements consist of classes and coursework designed to prepare you for the rigors of the legal environment. Course titles include:
- Civil litigation
- Criminal court structure
- Matrimonial law
- Corporate law
- Estate distribution
- Record-keeping and documentation
- Legal technology
- Accounting procedures
Paralegal education focuses on researching legal precedent, investigating facts and preparing legal documents. As a paralegal, you'll work at the right hand of an established lawyer to ready him or her for the next court performance. After completing your paralegal education, you'll become a master researcher--mining for valuable evidence that supports a legal proceeding, formulates a defense or initiates legal action.
Most states do not regulate the paralegal profession, although some states require paralegals to complete a certain amount of accredited coursework. Certification from a professional society, although not required by most employers, may give an aspiring legal assistant a significant advantage in the labor market.
You have several different options for certification and compliance, each with a different set of paralegal requirements. These include:
- The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers a two-day examination leading to a designation as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP), or an Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC) for experienced paralegals who want to specialize
- The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. offers the voluntary American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential for professionals with at least five years of paralegal experience and meet one of three specified educational requirements
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) provides the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation through their PACE program, which requires at least two years of professional experience in addition to certain NFPA educational requirements
Resources for Paralegals
- Standing Committee on Paralegals, American Bar Association
- American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.
- American Association for Paralegal Education
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)