One of the most common misconceptions surrounding the paralegal profession is that entry requires a law degree, but this rumor is quite false. Paralegals come from an enormous breadth of different backgrounds, and legal professionals of all kinds appreciate-and scout-for individuals with skill sets that aren’t just limited to law. Environmental paralegals, for instance, work to ensure that businesses follow sustainability regulations by assessing and creating unique reports that rely on knowledge of environmental science. Paralegals operating in the relatively new field of cyber-law need to be in tune with technology and the Internet enough to appropriately examine and bring insight to cases involving things like piracy and identity theft.
As you can see, having a background in something other than law can be a powerful gateway to unique careers in the law profession. Becoming a paralegal is an affordable venture compared to traditional four-year degrees, and despite the currently weak economy the profession continues to experience healthy growth. There are thousands of lawyers around the world working in specialized niches like patent law, media law, and medical malpractice, to name a few. Lawyers rely on paralegals to function holistically. If you’ve got an interest in law but have other passions with which you’d like to couple this interest, there are lots of opportunities for creativity and innovation.
- Criminal Law encompasses the rules and statutes dealing with any criminal activity that violates the rules of society, such as theft, drunk driving, and assault. Paralegals in criminal law interview witnesses, investigate facts, draft pleadings and briefs, and help prepare for trial. While they might not necessarily be involved in physical litigation, they are majorly responsible for helping a lawyer develop a solid case for his or her client.
- Defenses In International Criminal Law is a comprehensive case study written by lecturer Elies van Sliedregt. It is a broad analysis of various types of defenses used in niches like war crime.
- The Guilty Plea, a brief case study by the Law Society of Upper Canada, gives valuable insight into how plea bargains are interpreted and processed.
- This criminal law green paper written by the Commission of the European Communities serves as an educational document on many fronts. In addition to being an example of how governments consult and respond to needs surrounding large-scale fraud, it shows how legal professionals apply their knowledge in unexpected ways.
- Criminal Law, Public Health and HIV Transmission is a document written by Richard Elliott. It addresses issues at the intersection of health, law, and sociology, and is an excellent example of how medical knowledge and anthropological sensitivity can be leveraged in the legal arena.
- Business Law on the broad scale includes the laws that apply to corporate entities. Paralegals in business law monitor government regulations to ensure legal business operations, preparing for board meetings as well as drafting shareholder agreements and stock-option plans.
- The Business Law Journal, run by UC Davis law students “…committed to providing current and valuable legal and business analysis” is a great resource to stay current on this dynamic field.
- The UC Berkley Business Law Journal has rapidly gained acclaim since its inception in 2003, and even invites submissions of unsolicited manuscripts.
- The Harvard Business Law Review is a relatively new journal dedicated to opinions and insights on topics in the field. Despite its youth, it is a comprehensive and unique source of business law information.
- Family Law includes marriage, adoption, and divorce law. Paralegals in family law help draft prenuptial agreements, work with cases involving common law marriages, same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships, and prepare documents concerning spousal support/alimony and custody rights.
- Aftermath of a Revolution: A Case Study of Turkish Family Law, written by Seval Yildirim, is a fine example of the complexities surrounding family law.
- Framing the Family Law: A Case Study of Bahrain’s Identity Politics, by Jane Kinninmont, touches on subtle sociological nuances that affect family law practice.
- This Family Case Study gives insight into the types of familial circumstances that develop into complicated legal cases.
- Media Law, also called entertainment law, involves drafting agreements for music clients, motion picture and television clients, and media and cable clients. Media law also includes litigation matters such as publicity rights, technology, distribution, first amendment rights, defamation, and privacy rights. It is an attractive field often involving famous clients.
- How Copyright, Contract, and Technology Shape the Business of Digital Media is a case study by the Harvard Law School that highlights legal issues surrounding iTunes.
- The Bibliography of Recent Books in Communications Law by Patrick J. Petit describes and recommends many new publications in media law that are worthwhile references for further research.
- Media, Elections and Political Violence in Eastern Africa is a substantial paper that attempts to connect post-political violence with media distortion and law policies. This is a great way to see how media law connects to seemingly unrelated domains.
- Computer and Internet fraud involves the laws that govern the Internet on the local, federal and international levels. Internet and cyber law encompasses cyberspace, Internet business, e-commerce transactions, cyber-crime, pay per click fraud, electronic communications, online censorship, intellectual property rights, privacy rights, and terms and conditions of use policies that affect electronic consumers.
- Domains Reregistered for Distribution of Unrelated Content, a case study by Harvard, discusses interesting results of pornographic content marketing and online fraud. The case focuses on “Tina’s Free Live Webcam.”
- These three case studies on e-voting in Switzerland, by Jane Gerlach and Urs Gasser, touch on important topics relevant to the Internet and democracy. What kinds of consequences arise from allowing citizens to vote through the Internet? Is it a good idea?
- Information Systems Ethics by David Vance points to useful resources related to cyber ethics, a rapidly evolving field of ethics that continuously sees new dilemmas every day.
- Tax Law paralegals can expect to gather financial documents from clients and perform data entry, explain tax strategies and review updated tax codes, write reports to help lawyers prepare for their cases, and keep track of other documents as necessary. Backgrounds in finance and banking couple well with this field.
- Development and Tax Policy is a case study of China, written by Jinyan Li that address unique taxation issues relevant to the rapid industrial growth experienced by the country.
- This US BTU Tax case study by TED addresses issues stemming from tax legislation put forth by the Clinton Administration.
- “Reasonable Compensation,” Deductability for Income Tax Purposes is a series of three case studies written by Frank W. Rogers that delve into personalized tax concerns and policies.
There are limitless opportunities in other fields, too, for students and professionals interested in working across disciplines.
|Intellectual Property||Communications Law||Torts|
|Security Law||Real Estate Law||Commercial Law|
|Environmental Law||Federal Civil Procedure||Civil Litigation|
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
The National Association of Legal Assistants has detailed the process for becoming a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP). Certification from the NALA is by no means required to become a paralegal, but without a four-year degree or legal experience, it is a prudent path to take to become a legal profession in this capacity. To qualify for the two-day CLA/CP exam, a legal assistant must meet one of the following requirements:
- Graduation from a legal assistant program that is:
- Approved by the American Bar Association; or
- An associate degree program; or
- A post-baccalaureate certificate program in legal assistant studies; or
- A bachelor’s degree program in legal assistant studies; or
- A legal assistant program that consists of a minimum of 60 semester hours, of which at least 15 semester hours come from substantive legal courses.
- A bachelor’s degree in any field plus one year’s experience as a legal assistant. Successful completion of at least 15 semester hours of substantive legal assistant courses is considered equivalent to one year’s experience as a legal assistant.
- A high school diploma or equivalent plus seven years’ experience as a legal assistant under the supervision of a member of the Bar, plus evidence of a minimum of twenty hours of continuing legal education credit to have been completed within a two year period prior to the examination date.
If you have a high school diploma…
There are 1-2 year degrees in paralegal studies at many schools that have been approved by the American Bar Association. Becoming a paralegal, either with a college degree or not, is affordable, fairly quick, and an option for anyone with an interest in law. While some lawyers require their paralegals to have four-year degrees, there are many firms that accept paralegals with a two-year Associate’s degree. Anyone can get the latter at a community college or trade school.
Associate paralegal programs provide a thorough examination of law. These programs educate students about legal processes and administration, the writing and drafting of legal documents, and about the technology used at law firms. Communication skills are key to the paralegal profession and many programs require the completion of interpersonal communication or public speaking classes. While online classes are a fantastic way to complete a paralegal program while holding down a job or taking care of family, the best paralegal programs are typically offered in-person in the daytime and evenings.
Regardless of the school you choose, be sure to check that it has been approved by the American Bar Association by referencing their list of approved schools. Interning with a law office while attending school is the type of experience that will greatly improve your marketability as a paralegal and boost your eventual salary. Experienced paralegals can make upwards of $60,000 a year.
Online Paralegal Programs
If you have a Bachelor’s Degree…
With a four-year degree it is not necessarily required to obtain additional education in order to become a paralegal; it is largely an unregulated profession. To become a paralegal, you must simply get a job as a paralegal. In fact, if you have a bachelor’s degree, you already have enough education to satisfy many national firms’ requirements. Paralegal training is extremely accessible, which is why the profession is open to just about anyone with the desire and passion to excel.
Oftentimes, paralegal is not listed as a career option for undergraduate students that are not enrolled in pre-law or political science. It is incorrectly assumed that political science majors, pre-law, criminal justice, communication, and paralegal studies graduates are the only students who tend towards the paralegal profession. While it is true that those with legal qualifications tend to have better chances, you can enhance your skill set with hundreds of specialized courses that are affordable.
Paralegals tend to specialize in a specific area of law. General courses covering a range of different fields of law are not helpful unless you have no basic understanding of the legal system. Ideally, there is a particular field that you are especially interested in or knowledgeable about. For instance, let’s say you majored in drama in college. Taking paralegal classes on Media and Broadcast Law might be a logical next step towards becoming an effective professional in this realm.
While certification from NALA is not required to become a paralegal, it is official documentation that signals to lawyers that you have been trained by an approved organization. With a Bachelor’s degree and an interest in law, it is very possible to become a certified paralegal in three months. In the end, your success hinges on your ability to be creative and passionate about what you do, and about the connections you make between your interests and your strengths.
National Association of Legal Assistants
Law School Rankings
American Bar Association
Searchable Legal Dictionary and Encyclopedia, by the Cornell University Law School
Institute of Paralegals
CLA and CP Exam Information
Frequently Asked Questions