How to Become a Paralegal Without Going to School (And Why it May Be a Better Option)

Written by admin on October 29th, 2011

A common misconception is that formal training is required to become a paralegal.  Large law firms often prefer that paralegals are certified, but it is not a law that paralegals have a formal education. National and international firms like to maintain an authoritative image to their clients and do so by hiring ivy league attorneys and the crème de la crème of staff who have decades of experience in specialized areas, bachelor’s degrees, and sometimes even master’s degrees.  However, this is not the case for all firms and there are many approaches to entering the legal industry without certification or a degree.

Interning is a likely way to get your foot in the door, but not always practical. If you’re financially able to intern (working without getting paid), this is the most recommended approach. Law firms run lean and don’t like to hire any more employees than absolutely necessary, so interns are a common solution. Without paying the intern, the attorneys obtain support and use the short duration of the internship to determine if it’s a good fit.  Interns are typically hired in the summer, so if you aren’t a student you will compete against law school students, diminishing your chances. The good news is that small- to mid-sized firms aren’t as structured with intern hiring. If entering the field with no legal-specific training, it is best to target law firms who staff 1 to 10 attorneys. This size of an office is usually growing and the policies are evolving, too. It’s a sink-or-swim environment where the staff tend to create the procedures and even help with the hiring. They will be more compelled to hire an eager learner than someone who just graduated paralegal school. Paralegals understand that getting certification is simply a technicality and not necessarily an asset.

If interning isn’t feasible, you can leverage your odds of being selected over a certified paralegal by the fact that you will cost half as much as your competition. Often, law firms can’t afford the higher salaries of more experienced staff.  Moreover, the firm will be able to train a candidate with no training from scratch while the experienced paralegal may have bad habits or case management approaches that differ from the hiring firm. For an intelligent and driven professional, it is feasible to learn and manage cases successfully within a year. Partners of firms will do anything to cut corners, so this can be viewed as the most cost-effective approach.

Also, experience is more helpful to lawyers than formal training, so many argue that certification doesn’t make a good/better paralegal. The curriculum in a paralegal program covers all areas of law. This means you scratch the surface of different practices and receive no specialization or foundation for any one specific practice area. This is not practical entering into a new position because paralegals almost always have a specialized role. For example, there is transaction law, corporate law, and litigation, to name a few. And within litigation, there are dozens of categories – medical mal-practice, construction, water law, etc.  Just as we see specialty physicians, there are specialties within the legal industry. As far as attorneys are concerned, it is more important to have a paralegal with experience in their practice area than it is that they have a paralegal certificate.

The legal industry is laden with deadlines, demanding personalities, high-pressure scenarios and laborious work. Since paralegals carry a lot of these responsibilities, the relationship between a lawyer and his paralegal is based on trust. A paralegal or legal assistant with a bachelor’s degree but who is lazy, produces sloppy work or has an abrasive personality, will be overlooked for a professional who is a self-starter and accountable. The laws are constantly evolving and the fast-paced nature of the legal industry best suit motivated and results-driven people.

Perhaps most concerning is the rate of paralegals who are not happy in their profession. Attending a university or online college for paralegal certification costs money and time. To reiterate, certification is not required to become a paralegal. You can start at the bottom, as a receptionist, even, and learn the inner-workings of a law firm. Test the waters, maybe at more than one firm and in different practice areas, before committing to the cost and time expense of school. It won’t necessarily guarantee you a job, especially in a difficult economy, and it could be an investment you regret.

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