The road to becoming a paralegal has changed since its inception in the 1960s. At one time, it was common practice for anyone who wanted to work as an assistant to an attorney to simply apply for the job. They would do so without formal education or training; most gained experience while they worked. At that time the paralegal profession was largely learn-as-you-go. It wasn't until the mid seventies that things began to change. As legal secretaries grew in demand, so did the need for professional training and education.
Now most paralegals go through specific programs in order to work in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private law offices assisting lawyers. They often perform the work that would typically be handled by an attorney, however, they do not act independently; they must be under the direct supervision of a lawyer.
There are many paths to take to become a paralegal since it's a voluntary process. Most states do not have any requirements for one to become a paralegal so the choice of educational programs is left to the student's choosing.
One of the most common options is a paralegal certificated program from a local college or online school. These programs typically offer courses in both general education as well as focused legal specialty courses. If a paralegal knows what kind of attorney they intend to work for, choosing specific categories of law will train them in concentrated areas such as family law, real estate law, business law, or public law for instance.
Another option is a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. Having an undergraduate degree as a paralegal will likely make the student more attractive to potential employers seeking a highly skilled employee. Some of the courses in a bachelor's program will include basic functions of front and back office work as well as legal terminology, court procedures, legal documents, and technology. The bachelor's degree would be most beneficial for a student who may want to continue on to law school at some point in their career.
Once a student has completed their education plan, they may decide to add one of the several certification programs available. It is important to note that a certificated paralegal and a paralegal certification are two different things. The certificated paralegal is one who has completed a certified paralegal educational program.
A certification, on the other hand, is gained through an outside agency or state bar association that will confirm a paralegal's level of training and education (depending on which certification a student pursues) and often requires passing a written test. This option allows the paralegal to add a designation after their name. These certifications may improve a paralegal's chances for employment as they indicate the level of an applicants skills and abilities.
The paralegal profession continues to operate on a voluntary educational basis, as it remains relatively unregulated. Having formal training is still the best option for most, however. Most attorneys hiring paralegals want to know that they will employ a well-trained legal assistant. With the possibility of new regulations coming in the future, choosing a solid paralegal training program and adding a certification after the fact is one of the best options for future employment.
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