Written by: Joe Emerson // Feb 28, 2020
Last updated: Jan 17, 2023
ZipRecruiter, an online employment forum/marketplace for potential hirees and hirers, says one road to a job as a paralegal features these mileposts: Do an American Bar Association-sanctioned paralegal certification program. Get guidance from someone in the legal field. Join a networking group(s) to build contacts. Find an entry-level position at a law firm, be it legal secretary or file clerk. And apply for an opening there or elsewhere once you’ve proved yourself. So, can you become a paralegal with no job experience as a paralegal? The short answer is yes and no. Keep reading for the long answer.
Laying the Foundation for a Career as a Paralegal
Even without any time on the job as a new paralegal, you can begin your career, but there is a bit of currency you will need to buy the “paralegal” label – experiences you will have to bank to make that buy.
Becomeaparalegal.org, which notes that there’s no legal requirement for certification or licensing in the profession, shares a four-point plan “to develop skills in accordance with the established core competencies and gain the credentials employers are looking for when hiring a paralegal.” Here’s the abridged version of the plan:
1. Get Schooled
Paralegal schooling should, preferably, follow guidelines offered by three professional groups, the American Bar Association (ABA), the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Here are the three groups’ base requirements:
- ABA recommends paralegal programs at the associate and bachelor’s degree level and/or business or proprietary school programs.
- AAfPE deems a person qualified for paralegal work if they are paralegal-credentialed through an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree program or otherwise earn paralegal certification.
- NALA says you’re ready for service as a paralegal if you have a bachelor’s in any field and six months of in-house paralegal training; three or more years of in-house training under an attorney, including at least six months of paralegal training; or at least two years of in-house training as a paralegal.
2. Get Some Professional Experience
The academic path to becoming a paralegal almost always includes an internship with a law firm or something akin to one. Becomeaparalegal.org lists seven paralegal jobs that are not with law firms.
ParalegalEDU.org notes that volunteer work with, for instance, nonprofit legal organizations and entry-level jobs at law firms, courts, or groups that have paralegals on staff can help you earn the “paralegal” title.
That experience also can guide you to the niche in the paralegal profession that suits your skills and personality. Want a job in a corporate, medical, government, real estate, or court setting? They’re available, along with careers in other settings.
3. Get Certified
As already noted, there are no state regulatory requirements governing the profession. A variety of reputable voluntary credentials are available. These all require completion of a formal certification program and/or in-house experience to sit for their exams:
- NALA offers a Certified Paralegal credential, which requires completion of the Certified Paralegal/Certified Legal Assistant (CP/CLA) exam.
- NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals offers the Professional Paralegal (PP) credential, which requires completion of the PP exam.
- American Alliance of Paralegals Inc. (AAPI) offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential.
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), which offers two certification paths:
- A CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential that requires completion of the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE)
- A PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) credential that requires completion of the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE)
Becomeaparalegal.org says Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio are among states with competency examinations offered with the cooperation of bar and paralegal associations.
4. Pick a Path and Find a Job
You know you want to be a paralegal. Do you know what kind? We’ve cited the various settings where you can find paralegals, from corporate and medical to government and nonprofit.
You also need to think about specialties, particularly if you’re gunning for a job with a law firm. Do you want to work for a firm that specializes in criminal law? Environmental law? Civil rights? Entertainment? The environment? Family law? The list goes on – and on.
Keep that in mind when you’re looking for internships and entry-level positions that could lead to your shot at being a paralegal.
Expert Advice on How to Get Hired
Paralegal411 shares a truly long list of advice from professionals for students on the verge of graduating who want jobs as paralegals. Here are 10 bullet points gleaned from the list:
- “My advice is networking” and “Network, network, network” are the opening sentences of the first two entries.
- “Join your local paralegal association NOW.”
- “Be honest about your skills.” And be thorough about the skills you have that are applicable to the job, from digital expertise to personality traits.
- Thoroughly research the employers you target, and fine-tune your résumé for each target.
- “Find the area of law that is your passion.”
- Always be willing to learn and adapt.
- Work on your communication skills. “Up to 80% of your day is spent communicating with others”
- Know your tech tools. “Paralegals must master word processing, spreadsheet, telecommunications, database, presentation and legal research software.”
- Being organized matters. “Attorneys rely on paralegals to keep them organized as well as their files.”
- Be a team player. “Everyone has to work together to achieve and complete a common goal.”
Still Want to Be a Paralegal? USF Can Help
The USF Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education (CTPE) has a blog, Career Charge, that includes articles for aspiring and established paralegals. You can learn how to expand your professional social network, explore the benefits of becoming a paralegal, learn why writing skills really matter, and much more.
On the academic side, our Paralegal Certification Program is designed by experts for those who want to start or advance a career. If you’re shopping for certification, consider a few of our program’s selling points. You can:
- Learn from a distinguished faculty of sitting judges.
- Finish the on-campus program in 13 weeks, or opt for the online program and take up to six months to finish it – when and where you choose.
- Take advantage of open-enrollment registration, with no application required.