A paralegal is a law professional appointed by a lawyer, a law firm, a government agency, or a corporation to perform specific legal work such as writing documents, keeping track of case files and conducting client interviews. Unlike a lawyer or attorney, a paralegal doesn't need a license. However, possessing knowledge of local, state and federal laws make paralegals more employable. If you’ve chosen this career path, you need to learn how to create a competitive, high-quality resume. Alternatively, you can use our builder to easily guide you through the process of creating an optimal resume, including suggestions on specific skills and tasks that you should include in a paralegal resume.
Let’s start by taking a look at the three main resume types:
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Job duties of a paralegal
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations defines a paralegal as: “a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.” In other words, a paralegal helps lawyers by doing work that requires expertise, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts. Here are the most common job duties of a paralegal, as mentioned by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations in a comprehensive report that dives into responsibilities by specialty area:
Manage cases by organizing data and relevant information such as evidence.
Perform extensive legal research using databases for fact-checking and document writing purposes.
Interview witnesses, maintain confidentiality and communicate with clients to prepare for trial hearings.
Research legal statutes, precedents and relevant laws for ongoing litigation.
Paralegal median salaries
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2020, the median annual wage of paralegals was $52,920. They also projected the employment of paralegals to grow by 12% from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average.
Top skills for paralegal
A paralegal’s top skills are those which aid in practical analysis and timely communication. Their work involves contact with various parties and sources of information, and they must be adept at keeping track of case updates and new laws.
Here are the essential skills you’ll need to become a paralegal:
- Legal knowledge: Preparing for a trial or hearing requires verifying that all papers and files are correct and nonfraudulent. To do so, you must know how to fact check and ensure written documents are correct using in-depth legal research and knowledge. Moreover, keeping up with new laws, changes to existing regulations and case updates are skills lawyers and attorneys look for.
- Technical literacy: Organization of data and facts, preparation of reports, statistical analyses, memos, and legal documents are necessary for building, managing and presenting a case before a judge or jury. All of these duties require you to be tech-savvy. Therefore, a paralegal must be skilled in preparing spreadsheets, graphs, charts, eFiling, as well as master trial presentation software such as Trial Director, Sanction and OnCue. In addition, paralegals must be adept at legal database research using services like Westlaw International, LexisNexis and HeinOnline to find relevant information about cases.
- Effective oral and written communication: To obtain information, you have to interact with various people, from authority figures to clients and witnesses. This demands superior communication and persuasion skills. Whether writing an email, drafting a briefing or giving a presentation, your words, spelling and grammar must be error-free and profuse with appropriate legal terminology and jargon. This is necessary to effectively impart your expertise and gain the trust of your peers.
- Organization: One of the essential skills of a paralegal is organization. Preparing and filing documents, recording testimonials and making notes require a solid organization system to successfully keep track of everything. A systematic approach makes these jobs more manageable.
- Efficient multitasking: A paralegal has to juggle many tasks like drafting correspondence, retrieving information, transcribing interactions and attending meetings. In essence, handling a busy daily schedule is a common occurrence. Also, you might be requested to take notes during trials. Being able to multitask and work under high-pressure situations while maintaining confidentiality is crucial.
Educational requirements for paralegals
Educational requirements for paralegals vary. In general, there isn’t any specific compulsory licensure or education. Paralegals may hold a bachelor’s degree in any field and receive on-the-job training. Nevertheless, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a paralegal certification or associate degree is the minimum requirement for most job postings.
Paralegal Education programs teach ethical responsibilities, relevant technical skills, and research and writing, apart from American Law education.
Let’s look at the educational requirements to be a paralegal:
DegreesAs stated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one common path for paralegals is acquiring an associate degree in a law-related field such as political sciences and/or taking nondegree certification courses on paralegal duties. Having a bachelor’s degree in any field makes you stand out, but it's not required to start a career as a paralegal. Associate degrees tailored for paralegals are available in community colleges and universities, like American National University, Bryant Stratton College and National Paralegal College.
CertificationNondegree certification programs are available in colleges, universities, and business schools. These programs usually provide legal specialty training and may be full-time or part-time courses. These programs provide legal specialty training in branches such as litigation, real estate law, and corporate law.
Universities and colleges: The ABA (American Bar Association) lists various approved colleges and universities in its website directory that offer certificates and undergraduate courses. For example, Highline Community College in Washington provides a one-year Paralegal Plus certificate in their Legal Studies Program for students who have completed their bachelor’s degree. Another example is LIU Brooklyn, which offers a 328-hour noncredit certificate program named Paralegal Studies Certificate Program.
Member associations: Various paralegal member associations such as the NALA Paralegal Association, NALS Association for Legal Professionals, and the National Federation for Paralegal Associations conduct accredited certificate examinations. Upon completion of these exams, you will receive a credential to add more value to your resume. However, these exams are for paralegals with experience who wish to boost their resume's value.
Online education: MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) companies offer beginner-level courses in primary paralegal education. For example, Udemy offers an entry-level course teaching the legal language, the role of a paralegal in legal institutions, and a legal team. But it cannot replace the education required to become a paralegal. These MOOCs are for skill-building purposes and to show employers how committed you are to learning new topics. Such coursework adds significant value to your resume because of the many specialized courses aimed at in-demand qualifications.
Paralegal resume-writing tips
Many candidates with the right qualifications often don't get hired. You can have an excellent career history on your resume, but it won't impress recruiters if it's not written correctly. Incorrect formatting and other seemingly subtle errors take away credibility from your resume. If you want an overview that improves your chances of getting hired, be sure to follow these tips.
- Write a powerful professional summary: The first thing recruiters see on your resume is the professional summary section, so you should ensure it is engaging and compelling. To deliver an excellent first impression, include the most critical skills listed in the job posting and at least one remarkable achievement. For example, add skills like expertise in legal proceedings and superb legal research skills.
- Include quantifiable metrics and achievements: You don't want your resume to only list your duties on previous and current job positions. Rather, state your accomplishments, challenges you overcame, and how you used your skills to carry out tasks successfully. Add at least one quantifiable metric per job position, such as completion rate percentages and the amount of money you helped your department save per month. An example of a work-related achievement can be: “developed an organizational system that decreased time spent filing paperwork by 30%.”
- Watch the resume formatting: Unprofessional fonts, excessive spacing, color choice, and other formatting errors will decrease your chances of getting hired despite having an impressive career history. Review your resume before submitting it, and stick to classic fonts like Times New Roman. Refrain from using bright colors if you're not in a creative field, as well as buzzwords like “go-to person” and “thinking outside the box.” A single grammar mistake can also affect your credibility, so check the spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure
Are paralegals banned from performing certain legal jobs?
According to the Model Guidelines for Utilization of Paralegal Services, a paralegal cannot:
Where can paralegals be employed? Who is the largest employer of paralegals?
Paralegals can work with individual attorneys, law firms, corporations, and governments. Private law firms remain the largest employer of paralegals.
- Be a partner or a shareholder of a law firm.
- Set or negotiate the fees with a client on behalf of an attorney for a legal service.
- Establish a client-attorney relationship.
- Engage in the practice of law because they are not licensed to do so.
- Represent a client before a court of law unless authorized by the court directly.
Can I become a paralegal via distance education?
No, the ABA doesn’t approve home correspondence or distance education programs. Also, it doesn’t allow its approved programs to allow web-based electronic programs as a means of distance delivery of education. This is why MOOC companies' certifications and coursework don’t qualify as the education required to become a paralegal. It is to be used only as a resource to gain knowledge on specific areas.