A paralegal is a person trained in the law who works in a law office or as an independent contractor for lawyers and firms. While paralegals are not allowed to try cases, they can assist lawyers during trials and are involved in all aspects of law, including interviewing witnesses, doing research, writing legal documents for presentation in court, drafting and drawing up legal agreements, such as for separations and financial matters. Many paralegals choose to specialize in a particular area of the law, such as tax law, family law, real estate, litigation or criminal law. Paralegals are not required to hold a degree or have special training in the law prior to beginning work for a lawyer or firm; however, many law firms prefer to hire paralegals with a degree or certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants, which offers the Certified Legal Assistant standing to its members. As an independent paralegal, you can work for a variety of clients on a freelance basis, charge an hourly rate, and establish hours that for your schedule.
Decide what kind of program and certification you want to have as a paralegal. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) recommends that prospective paralegals attend a program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) that includes a minimum of 60 hours of coursework. The ABA offers a directory of approved programs on its website, listed below. You will need to complete at least an associate’s degree to be hired by most law firms. If you can get a bachelor’s degree, your chances of success as an independent paralegal are even higher.
Choose an area to specialize in. While specialization isn’t necessary, it’s helpful in finding employment later. Independent paralegals in areas such as real estate, tax law, and litigation are most likely to be able to set their own hours, as work for these kinds of law take place during normal business hours.
Practice your research and typing skills. Paralegals need to be able to do thorough research in law libraries as part of their jobs. Become familiar with the cataloging system for law libraries, using online databases and other resources. You’ll also need to be able to type well and create clearly worded documents and notes. Get into the habit of writing summaries from each class meeting while you are in school.
Get certified by NALA as soon as you complete your schooling. By passing NALA’s Certified Legal Assistant exam, you open up more job opportunities and the chance for a higher salary than those who don’t have the certification. Make sure to put your credentials and memberships on your resume, so that your potential clients know your qualifications.
Send out your resume. Most paralegals work in-house for law firms or public offices, but it is possible to work as an independent paralegal on limited-term contracts for lawyers and firms. Follow up by calling firms you are interested in working for, and make sure that real estate agents and offices, tax accountants, and lawyers in your area know that you are available as an independent paralegal. Ask clients to recommend you to their business associates to help you build up a network of individuals who may want to hire you as an independent paralegal.
Stay current. Keep up to date on changes in the law and issues in the business. Join organizations in your area, and read the publications they produce for members. Participate in organizational meetings and networking events, and always have business cards ready to give to prospective clients.