Also known as legal assistants, paralegals are para-professionals working under the supervision and guidance of attorneys performing a multitude of tasks supporting the attorneys. This includes clerical tasks such as maintaining and organizing files, conducting legal research, assisting in drafting and finalizing documents (including correspondence, case reports and memos, and pleadings). Paralegals also assist on trial preparation such as interviewing witnesses, preparing exhibits and putting together a trial notebook.
Paralegals work in all types of businesses and organizations including law firms (sole proprietorships to large, multicity, multinational law firms), corporate legal departments, government agencies, and courts.
The requirements and certification necessary to be employed as a paralegal vary from state to state. Some states have very specific requirements combining education and some form of certification, for example, California and North Carolina, while most states have no specific requirements for working as a paralegal. To review the requirements for your state, please visit this page and open the Regulations Chart by State October 2014. Be sure you understand what is required to be employed as a paralegal in your state before planning your path to become a paralegal as the type of education you receive may a factor in your state.
The vast majority of paralegals get into the industry by attending a paralegal program which typically includes courses in subjects such as law history, legal research, court organization, specialty fields, and legal procedures for both civil and criminal law. Paralegals can choose to specialize in a specific field, i.e. family law, criminal law, bankruptcy law, or they may choose to work for a firm that provides services in multiple law disciplines. Upon completion of a paralegal program, you can expect to receive your paralegal certificate (not to be confused with certification).
Many paralegal programs can be completed via online study. In these types of programs, the entirety of the program is completed via computer using the internet. The education provider will supply all materials necessary to successfully complete the program via an online learning management system which is accessed on a computer. If supplemental materials including texts are required, they are provided by the school sponsoring the program. At the end of the program, students are typically given a certificate stating they successfully attended and completed an online study program in the field of paralegal studies.
Paralegal certification can be obtained from different sources. Three of the most nationally recognized certifications are offered by NALA (The Association of Legal Assistants-Paralegals – nala.org), NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations – paralegals.org), and NALS (the Associations for Legal Professionals – nals.org). Each provides a national examination that must be passed in order to obtain certification.
The materials covered on these exams includes all the basics covered in paralegal education such as legal history, office procedures, legal research, English and grammar, and questions regarding specific rules and practices in general and specific law practices.
These exams are usually offered once or twice a year, and a study program or classes are generally available preceding the exam. Once the exam is passed, a paralegal will be provided with a certificate stating they passed the national exam and are not a “certified” paralegal, demonstrating a mastery of the skills, knowledge, and experience in the paralegal field. Typically, these certifications require some form of actual paralegal experience.
Once certification is obtained, certified paralegals are required to continue their education and obtain a specific number of continuing education credits in a specific period (i.e. 30 credits in 3 years) in order to maintain certification. If the continuing education credits are not obtained in a timely fashion, the certification is no longer valid. Recertification requirements vary by organization.