“Experience required.” Those two words can put a dent into the confidence and optimism of anyone starting their first job search, especially when they’re hoping for a job in the hot paralegal job market. But how many firms ask you to send in a paralegal resume with no experience required?
Take heart. Every paralegal hopeful starts with zero experience as a paralegal. That’s what starting a career is all about. The key to finding employment in the field is to get the training you need, then pull together an application package that spells out your ability to tackle the tasks involved. Here’s how.
How to Draft a Paralegal Resume Without Experience?
The first thing to do is to stop thinking about your project as a “paralegal resume no experience” or a “paralegal CV no experience.” Focusing on what you don’t have is a sure way to get your resume tossed aside. What should a paralegal resume contain? Or, the other side of the story: What could you bring to the position?
Paralegals are often tasked with compiling evidence and summarizing arguments. To write a winning job application, you need to do the same: Put together evidence of your education, previous jobs and personal qualities that will help you succeed in the job.
So, what to include? First, let’s go over the legal requirements to become a paralegal and the basic job responsibilities. That will help you mine your own experiences to build a powerful application package.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
If you’ve focused your job search on paralegal positions, you’ve probably researched the duties of a paralegal, which means you’ve probably discovered that no simple answer to this question exists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a paralegal’s job description is to perform a variety of tasks to support lawyers. But since lawyers don’t all do the same type of work, paralegals assisting them won’t either.
Paralegals can work for sole practitioners, specialized corporate firms or government agencies. Their duties can range from the mundane to the out-on-a-limb exceptional, from filing paperwork to gathering key evidence or tracking down witnesses for trial. Typical tasks include:
- Filing paper documents or organizing electronic files relevant to a case
- Arranging legal documents for review by an attorney
- Gathering evidence and facts in a case
- Arranging case evidence for trial
- Taking statements from witnesses
- Preparing affidavits and getting them signed
- Performing legal research
- Drafting summaries of law or evidence for trial attorneys
- Writing letters to clients
- Drafting legal documents: wills, contracts or discovery documents
- Assisting attorneys at trial
- Taking notes at trial
- Summarizing depositions
- Reviewing trial transcripts
- Filing documents or exhibits with the court
- Delivering documents to opposing counsel
- Scheduling meetings, setting up interviews and depositions
- Cataloging documents in an electronic database
What Are the Prerequisites to Become a Paralegal?
All states require you to pass the bar exam before you can work as an attorney, but paralegal requirements are much less consistent and can vary from state to state. You don’t need a license to work as a paralegal, but each state has its own rules about the required educational background. Some require certification, others don’t, and some offer various paths into the career that include certification.
California law, for example, sets up four different ways to qualify as a paralegal, including:
- You can attend an accredited college and complete at least 24 credits in paralegal studies; or
- You can earn a bachelor’s degree in any field of study, then work with an experienced California attorney for one year; or
- You can sign up for and complete a paralegal certificate program approved by the American Bar Association.
Is Getting a Paralegal Certificate Worth It?
If you need a paralegal certificate to work as a paralegal in your state, obviously, it’s worth the effort. And it may be worth the effort even if you don’t. A certificate gives your application a real boost even if you don’t significant job experience.
It used to be that kids fresh out of high school could get a job helping out in a lawyer’s office. They might start out filing or making coffee, then work themselves up to performing more complex tasks, all under the umbrella title of “paralegal.” While this still may be possible in some areas of the country, in most states, times have definitely changed.
In this day and age, working as a paralegal is a career that offers a good salary and lots of responsibility. Lawyers often have many qualified candidates to choose from, so few are likely to agree to train an applicant with absolutely no legal education.
For a paralegal to become an asset to a law firm, the candidate must have a basic knowledge of the legal field. One of the best ways to gain this knowledge is through a certificate or degree program in paralegal studies. Another plus: It will look good on your CV.
What Are the Educational Options for Paralegal Training?
Having a certificate or degree in paralegal studies makes your resume stronger when you apply for a job. If you’re still deciding which program would work best for you, consider three different options: a two-year AA degree in paralegal studies, a four-year degree in paralegal studies, and/or a paralegal certificate with or without a degree. Typically, the more time you put into your paralegal education, the wider the range of paralegal jobs that will be open to you.
If you’re on a budget, you can get a two-year associate’s degree in paralegal studies from a community college, but note that many employers prefer candidates with bachelor’s degrees. Since not all universities offer a four-year degree in paralegal studies, you also can consider getting a bachelor’s degree in another subject, followed with a certificate in paralegal studies. The certificate training provides intense training in the law.
Can you get a paralegal job simply by completing a certificate program without attending college? The answer: maybe, maybe not. Acquiring certification demonstrates to potential employers your commitment to the profession as well as your acquired mastery of the required skills and knowledge. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most employers hiring paralegals seek someone with a degree.
How Do You Get Paralegal Experience?
As you know, it’s hard to get experience without getting hired, but it’s harder to get hired without experience. When you’re preparing your paralegal resume, that’s why you should revisit your definition of the term “paralegal experience.”
What does paralegal experience mean? Sure, holding a paying job as a paralegal would qualify. But that’s not all that could go in the “experience” section of your CV.
Internships for College Credit
While you’re studying to be a paralegal in a degree program, you may get the chance to do intern work in a law firm in exchange for college credit. Often, the programs partner with local firms and require 120 to 180 hours of work experience. This is an opportunity you should grab. Internships not only give you a chance to work in the field, but they also allow you to network and develop important professional relationships. And they look good on your resume.
Internships You Develop Yourself
If your degree program doesn’t offer an internship, you can find or develop your own internship opportunity. Ask local law firms, government agencies or non-profits about a summer internship, paid or unpaid. And if you love working at the firm, you already have a leg up when it comes to applying for a full time job there.
Even if you don’t line up an internship, you probably have some experience you can list on your paralegal resume. Have you ever worked as an office assistant? Volunteered in a campaign? Helped out in a family business? You can list any activity as “experience” if it demonstrates the skills and qualities a paralegal needs, such as the ability to be detail-oriented or work a computer whiz, communicate well, and function as a team player.
What types of jobs could you list? Accounting or work in a billing department is great experience for a paralegal position since paralegals are often charged with dealing with billing or compiling costs or damages for a trial. Proofreading jobs are definitely on point as well. Having an eye for details and catching mistakes are important skills for a paralegal. Paralegals are often asked to find citation mistakes, grammar errors and other flaws in copy.
Do you know your way around a computer? If so, highlight it. Legal work is increasingly digitized in the areas of document preparation, legal filing and file storage, so work experience or special training on computers is necessary.
Paralegal work can be fast-paced and require you to juggle multiple tasks. Have you had any jobs that required you to manage myriad duties with tight deadlines? Add this experience to your CV as well.
Do Paralegals Make Good Money?
Paralegals make a good salary, and that’s likely one of the reasons you chose this career. Exactly how good depends on where you live and who you’re working for. Even official stats are all over the map.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for paralegals in May, 2018, was $50,940, which means that half of the paralegals earned more, half less. The lowest 10 percent of paralegals in the survey earned less than $31,400, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,050. Federal agencies paid the highest wages.
However, the numbers were higher in a 2018 study on paralegal salaries by the National Association of Legal Assistants & Paralegals (NALA), which lists the average annual paralegal salary as $67,578.
Do Paralegals Work Long Hours?
In exchange for that salary, most paralegals work full time, 40 hours a week, but some are called upon to work longer hours. In part, it depends on the type of law involved. Trial work tends to intensify before and during the trial, but every type of paralegal work might require the occasional late hours to meet a deadline.
How Should You Prepare that Paralegal Resume?
If you’ve completed the preparation and education you need to prepare for a paralegal career, it’s time to actually draft that CV. You’ll want it to paint a picture of you as someone with the training, skills and enthusiasm to become an asset to the office.
As you craft the document, concentrate on your strengths. If your paralegal training is more impressive than your experience, position education first on the CV. If you’re proud of the internships you developed, maybe that deserves a top slot. Summarize your accomplishments in a way that makes you look ready to jump immediately into a paralegal position.
Take the time to review your draft CV; then get a friend to look it over. You want that document to be free of errors: no grammatical mistakes, no words spelled incorrectly. It’s hard for an employer to believe you’re detail oriented if your resume contains mistakes.