The utilization of paralegals improves the efficiency, economy and availability of legal services. As a result, increased emphasis is being placed on the hiring of paralegals in a variety of legal and law-related settings. Although private law firms continue to be the single largest employer of paralegals, good job opportunities also exist in several other markets in both the private and public sectors.
In addition to private law firms, other organizations in the private sector employ paralegals. Some examples include corporate legal departments, insurance companies, estate and trust departments of large banks, hospitals and health care organizations, real estate and title insurance companies, and professional trade associations. Job opportunities in the public sector are available in community legal services programs, consumer organizations, offices of public defenders, prosecutors and attorneys general, city attorneys, a wide array of state and federal government agencies, and the judicial system.
If you enroll in a paralegal education program, you should avail yourself of the assistance of the school's program director and placement officer for help in securing appropriate employment. These individuals are in contact with members of the surrounding legal and business communities and should be able to furnish information about current job openings within the community. They should also be able to assist you in preparing resumes and application forms and arranging for interviews. Most programs also offer seminars on job search, interviewing and resume preparation.
Another source of information on current job openings is your local or state paralegal association. Many paralegal associations maintain job data banks or referral services and can provide you with a listing of firms and agencies in which legal assistant positions are available. Finally, employment agencies that charge a fee to the employer and websites that list jobs are sometimes good sources of employment information and job leads.
For more information on the growth of the paralegal profession and the job opportunities for legal assistants, go to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Earnings vary considerably depending upon such factors as size of the community, geographical location, size of firm, nature of the legal practice, and the paralegal's educational background and work experience. Some paralegals work on a part-time or freelance basis, handling overflow from firms and legal departments and are normally paid on an hourly or project basis.
The American Bar Association has no information currently available on the starting salaries of paralegals in different geographical areas of the United States. However, many legal assistant associations survey their members to gather this and other statistical data of importance to paralegals. This survey data is generally published in pamphlet form and is available for purchase by association members and non-members alike. In addition, the International Practice Management Association (IPMA), an organization of professionals who manage and supervise practice support professionals, conducts and publishes an annual U.S. Survey. For more information, please visit IPMA's web site at http://www.theipma.org/compensation-survey.
Utilization of Paralegals
For detailed information on how paralegals are utilized, see the American Bar Association survey "Utilization of Legal Assistants Among Private Practitioners" which is available for purchase through our Publications page. Or you can find out ways to participate in pro bono activities by reading the Standing Committee's brochure "How to Utilize Legal Assistants in Pro Bono Publico Programs."
Since paralegals are trained as both generalists and specialists, the duties delegated vary greatly and depend, to a large extent, upon the size of the law firm and the nature of the employer's practice. Responsibilities most often assigned to paralegals include maintaining client files, drafting correspondence, performing factual research, monitoring deadlines, drafting, investigation and analyzing documents, and acting as liaison with clients and others. Some paralegals have extensive client contact, and some do not. The most common area of practice for paralegals is litigation although paralegal services are utilized in virtually all areas of practice, including corporate, probate, real estate, family law, bankruptcy, and intellectual property.
The only state that currently regulates paralegals directly is California, which adopted regulation in 2000 that requires persons using the titles "paralegal," "legal assistant," and the like to meet certain educational/experiential qualifications and to meet continuing education requirements. For details, see the law at California Business and Professions Code, Sections 6450 through 6456.
Certification is a process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition to an individual who has met certain predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association. It usually involves passing an examination drawn up by the sponsoring organization and meeting specified educational and/or experiential requirements. The American Bar Association does not certify Paralegals. Paralegals may not represent themselves as "ABA-certified paralegals," because the ABA's approval applies to the paralegal education program rather than to the individual paralegal.
Presently, there is no mandatory certification examination for legal assistants anywhere in the United States. However, the certification issue has been a subject of considerable interest and debate for the past several years among paralegal associations, bar associations and some legislatures. For a variety of reasons, some of these organizations are opposed to certification while others support it.
The National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (NALA), headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began sponsoring a certification examination (Certified Legal Assistant) in 1976. NALA also offers advanced specialty exams. For information on the exam, test dates, eligibility requirements, etc., please visit NALA's web site at www.nala.org.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA) offers the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE). For more information, please visit NFPA's web site at www.paralegals.org.
NALS. . .the association for legal professionals, has been sponsoring voluntary certification for over four decades. The Professional Paralegal (PP) certification designation reflects a proficiency in procedural law, substantive law and an overall commitment to a higher standard of conduct and professionalism. NALS' Professional Paralegals may distinguish themselves further by earning Specialty Certifications in various substantive law areas. For information on the exams, test dates, eligibility requirements, etc., please visit NALS' website at www.nals.org.
The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. offers the AACP. For information on eligibility, etc. please visit AAPI's website at: http://aapipara.org/content.php?page=Certification_Program.
Financial Aid and Placement
The American Bar Association does not provide financial assistance to individuals interested in enrolling in paralegal education programs. Inquiries pertaining to financial aid, such as scholarships, loans, and grants, should be directed to the program director or financial aid office of the institution you plan to attend. The American Bar Association does not provide placement assistance to paralegals, nor does it maintain lists of law firms or other agencies that employ paralegals.
Download "Paralegal/Legal Assistant-Join the challenging and rewarding career" Informational Brochure in PDF format (17K).
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The views expressed in this brochure are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the policies of the American Bar Association. The content of this brochure is provided for informational purposes only and has not been approved by the ABA House of Delegates and does not constitute ABA policy.
Order information for current publications by the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals can be obtained by browsing the Publications page. You may also obtain and complete a membership application for associate membership in the American Bar Association. Please contact the offices of the Standing Committee on Paralegals for further information. You may also call (800) 285-2221 to enroll by phone or visit ABA Member Center to enroll online. Please use code RLD2MPAR.
At the present time the American Bar Association has identified more than 1000 institutions across the United States which offer formal paralegal education programs leading to either a degree or certificate. However, the listing in our web site directory includes only the paralegal education programs that are ABA approved.
Programs are offered by two-year community and junior colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and business and proprietary schools, some of which are freestanding institutions devoted solely to providing this type of training. Since entry into the paralegal field is open to a wide range of individuals with diverse educational backgrounds and previous work experiences, the length of programs and their admission requirements vary considerably from one institution to another.
A candidate's personal qualifications for admission into a paralegal education program are very important. Applicants must be able to write clearly and communicate effectively and must possess a high degree of motivation and analytical reasoning capability. Candidates should also be responsible, mature individuals who are sincerely interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal.
Prospective students should be informed that paralegal education is not the equivalent of a law school education. Graduates of paralegal programs are not qualified or eligible to take the bar examination. Academic credit for paralegal courses is not transferable for advanced standing in law school.
Additional information on paralegal education is available from the American Association for Paralegal Education. Please visit AAfPE's web site at www.aafpe.org.
Brief descriptions of the most common types of paralegal education programs available follow:
Associate Degree Programs
Two-year associate degree programs are offered by comprehensive community colleges and some four-year degree-granting institutions. Although a substantial majority of community and junior colleges have an open-door admissions policy, many of the paralegal education programs offered have adopted more selective admission criteria for entry into paralegal studies. Paralegal programs require a considerable amount of study and outside class assignments, and are necessarily taught at a sophisticated level. Additional screening methods which may be utilized include test scores on college-level entrance examinations, special verbal aptitude tests, writing samples, letters of recommendation and personal interviews. The curriculum in an associate degree program consists of a combination of general education, electives and legal specialty courses. The legal specialty courses are selected by educational administrators and faculty members in consultation with members of the legal community. Trends, needs, and changes in the local legal community therefore affect course requirements in legal specialty areas. Ordinarily, an associate degree program provides students with the requisite skills to perform in the legal environment as generalists. Students receive instruction in several different legal specialty areas. Legal specialty courses commonly offered in such programs are legal research and writing, introduction to paralegalism and law, torts and insurance, business law, estate planning and probate, corporate law, litigation, criminal law, family law, and real estate. Paralegal programs in community colleges may lead to an Associate in Arts, Associate in Science, or Associate in Applied Science Degree. A growing number of community colleges offer a certificate option for four-year college graduates.
Baccalaureate Degree Programs
A number of colleges and universities have developed four-year baccalaureate degree programs with a major or minor in paralegal studies. Curriculum requirements include general education, electives, and legal specialty courses. The four-year program normally encompasses both generalist and specialist courses. The generalist courses are similar to the offerings in an associate degree program. Usually the courses taken during the last two years of the program are more in-depth and advanced and allow a student to concentrate in one or more areas of legal specialization, thereby developing special expertise in those selected areas. Some of the four-year programs offer or require courses on the management and administration of a law office. In general, a four-year program provides students with a sound liberal arts education and legal specialty training in several areas, thereby enabling them to choose from a wide number of employment opportunities in various legal settings as well as private law firms. Paralegal programs in four-year colleges may lead to a B.S. or B.A. degree. They are found in many different disciplines, including Political Science, Criminal Justice, Human Services and Business and are sometimes in separate Paralegal or Legal Studies Departments.
Non-degree certificate programs are offered by universities, colleges, business and proprietary schools. Some certificate programs are offered for academic college credit and some are not. Many are operated through the Continuing Education or Extension Division of a college. A certificate program usually offers only legal specialty training. If the general education component is not offered as a part of the program, such programs require applicants for admission to have completed one and one-half years of college or more. Some certificate programs are restricted to only college graduates whose academic record displays a high level of achievement. Classes may be offered full-time during the day or on a part-time evening basis. The length of the program may range from four or five months to two years. Some programs offer legal specialty training and some have a general practice curriculum that includes specialty training. Legal specialty concentrations most often offered are litigation, estate planning and administration, real estate, and corporations.
Many legal assistant education programs include an internship as a part of the curriculum. The internship enables a student to utilize skills acquired in the program and to gain practical on-the-job experience. Internships are available in a variety of settings, including private law firms, offices of a public defender or attorney general, banks, corporate legal departments, legal aid organizations, and many government agencies.
Home Study and Web-Based Programs
The American Bar Association does not approve correspondence or home study programs and does not provide information on home study programs. The American Bar Association Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs do allow approved programs to offer some paralegal coursework through web-based electronic delivery and other means of distance delivery.
ABA Approval of Paralegal Education Programs
In 1974 the American Bar Association established the first Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs and in 1975 approved the first group of paralegal education programs. The ABA Guidelines were developed to promote high standards of quality for the education of paralegals. The Guidelines have been revised several times since their initial adoption to keep pace with changes in the utilization of paralegals and in higher education.
To become eligible for ABA approval, a program must have been in operation for at least two academic years and have graduated students and must fully satisfy all requirements of the ABA Guidelines. Directory of ABA approved paralegal education programs. New programs are approved semi-annually, at the ABA midyear and annual meetings.
Programs seeking ABA approval are required to submit a self-evaluation report which is intended to provide a comprehensive description of all program components with emphasis on the following areas: organization and administration, financial and other resources, advisory committee, educational program, faculty and program leadership, admissions and student services, placement, library and physical plant. As part of the ABA evaluation process, an initial on-site visit is conducted by a three-member team comprised of a representative of the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals, an experienced paralegal and an educator from another paralegal program. The inspection provides an opportunity to verify information provided in the self-evaluation report and to acquire supplementary information essential to making an evaluation. Each inspection includes the following activities: meetings with the program director, administrative officials of the school, members of the advisory committee, faculty members, students and graduates, and staff of the placement, admissions and counseling offices, review of various documents such as course outlines, faculty evaluations, placement records, student files, observation of classes in session, and an inspection of the library, off-campus sites, and facilities. Once approved, programs go through the full evaluation process every seven years, and submit regular interim reports between visits that are monitored by the ABA Standing Committee and its Approval Commission.
Seeking approval from the American Bar Association is a voluntary process initiated by the institution offering the program. Therefore, the lack of approval does not necessarily mean a paralegal program is not of good quality and reputable.