How to Become a Paralegal | 10 Tips

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Paralegals exercise their investigative skills to assist lawyers with cases and other legal matters. There are several paths to becoming a paralegal—here’s key information you’ll want to know to get started.

[Featured image] A paralegal in a yellow jacket works on a laptop computer.

A paralegal assists lawyers with legal cases. Whether it's for defending a person in a court case that's going to trial or to present information at a city council meeting, paralegals research and prepare reports for lawyers to use in their work. 

Paralegals can't work alone—they must work under the supervision of a lawyer—and can’t give legal advice, but may work in a variety of settings such as law firms or government agencies, or for various types of organizations like businesses or nonprofits.

Here’s what your duties as a paralegal might include:

  • Interviewing witnesses 

  • Investigating information about a case 

  • Researching information related to a case 

  • Assisting lawyers during trials

  • Researching and learning about laws and regulations  

  • Maintaining a database of records related to each case 

  • Writing reports 

  • Drafting emails, letters, and documents

  • Acquiring affidavits to be used in court

  • Helping prepare legal arguments 

  • Preparing civil documents, like wills, real estate contracts, and divorce decrees

  • Communicating with clients 

Types of paralegal jobs 

The duties of a paralegal largely depend on where one works. For example, a smaller law office may give a paralegal multiple duties, while a larger organization may assign a paralegal to one phase of a case.

Paralegals can work in different aspects of the law just as lawyers do. Paralegal duties may differ depending on the field of law.

Types of paralegalsWhat they help do
Probate•Write wills and planning estates
•Pay inheritance taxes and record deeds
Corporate•Work for a corporation rather than an individual client
•Research regulations, contracts, and improprieties
Family law•Deal with child custody and divorce cases
•May deal with foster care and adoption as well as work with social services
Immigration•Work with immigrants to file legal documents like visa applications
•May work for government agencies
Litigation•Work with clients who file lawsuits
•May specialize in a specific area of law like intellectual property
Government•Work for federal, state, or local governments
•May assist with community outreach and legal aid
Intellectual property•Work with trademarks, copyrights, and patents
•May work for a marketing firm
Real estate•Assist clients with the paperwork for real estate transactions
•May work on cases like foreclosures, boundary disputes, and zoning problems
Criminal law•Help build cases for or against criminals
•May work for prosecutors or criminal defense attorneys
Bankruptcy•Navigate the bankruptcy process for a client
•Negotiate with courts and creditors
Personal injury•Prepare personal injury cases for trial or settlement
•Act as a liaison between interested parties

10 tips for getting a job as a paralegal

There is not a singular path towards becoming a paralegal, though some states do require specific certifications or degrees. However, certain skills, education, and experience can make you more likely to find a rewarding position that offers competitive wages and long-term job security. Start by following these ten steps.

1. Brush up on these workplace skills. 

Before you start your journey towards your career as a paralegal, make sure you have the workplace skills necessary for the job. These might include: 

  • Communication: You'll communicate daily with clients, lawyers, court officials, insurance companies, witnesses, government officials, and many other people, both verbally and through written correspondence.  

  • Investigative skills: As a paralegal you'll spend plenty of time researching, analyzing, and tracking down information. A good eye for relevant facts and being able to pay attention to detail are a must.

  • Comfort with technology: Law firms are increasingly seeking candidates who are comfortable with computers and common word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software.  

  • Multitasking: It's rare for a paralegal to work on one task at a time. You may make several phone calls, research law, and draft a document all within half an hour. 

  • Teamwork: Paralegals rarely work alone. On a daily basis, you'll likely work with lawyers, other paralegals, legal assistants, and legal secretaries.

  • Time management: There are many deadlines in the field of law. Your job will likely entail finishing your assigned tasks on time and knowing how to prioritize the most important ones. 

2. Get your associate degree. 

There is no rule stating that you need a degree to become a paralegal, and some firms will even train you on the job. However, as the field becomes more competitive, you'll find that many law firms want you to have at least an associate degree. Many community colleges and vocational schools offer two-year programs in paralegal studies.  

If you’re not ready to commit to a degree, try taking a course on law—such as the University of Pennsylvania’s course on American law offered on Coursera—to see if the field is for you.

3. A bachelor’s degree will make you more competitive. 

Some law firms require you to have a bachelor's degree before they'll interview you for an entry-level position, so it’s a good idea to  complete your four-year degree if you can. Though there’s no requirement for what you study, majoring in subjects like criminal justice, pre-law, psychology, communication, or business can help prepare you better for your career and may even help you find a specialty that interests you.

4. A master’s degree can further your career. 

Many paralegals go on to earn a master's degree in paralegal studies or legal studies, which can boost earning potential and open doors to more senior paralegal positions. Law school is also an option if you’re interested in making the switch to become a lawyer.

5. Obtain certification. 

No matter what level of education you pursue, a professional certification may increase your competitiveness as a paralegal. While they're not necessary, some law firms prefer job candidates to have them. National organizations like the National Federation of Paralegal Associations offer exams you’ll need to pass to earn these certifications, as do some state bar associations. 

6. Try to get an internship while you're in school. 

While you're pursuing your degree, it’s a good idea to try to get an internship. Internships can give you valuable real-world experience and introduce you to professionals in the field to network with. You may be able to find legal internships at law firms, businesses, government institutions, or other organizations.  

7. Consider joining a paralegal association. 

Joining a paralegal association can be beneficial to your job search as a paralegal. They can offer several benefits, like scholarships for continuing your education, guidance on choosing the right schools and programs, discounts on exam fees and insurance, guidance on earning certifications, networking opportunities, and many other perks. You'll find paralegal associations at the local, state, and national levels. 

8. Learn a second language.

Learning a second language like Spanish can be useful as a paralegal. You might find it an especially sought-after quality in immigration law, but being fluent in other languages can help you conduct interviews or read documents for other specialties as well.  

9. Network as much as possible. 

Networking is a common way to find a job. Having a large group of contacts at your fingertips means you have more resources when you need a reference, an introduction, or advice. If you're not sure where to start, you can network by: 

  • Getting to know your professors and classmates better 

  • Taking an interest in any guest speakers your school invites to speak to your classes 

  • Attending seminars 

  • Connecting with alumni from your school

  • Reaching out through social media 

  • Joining professional or legal organizations

10. Take an entry-level position. 

Finally, when it's time to look for a job, don't shy away from entry-level positions. Entry-level positions can hone your skills and allow you to introduce you to different aspects of the paralegal career. It also looks great on your resume for when the time comes to apply for a promotion or look for a better job. 

Next steps

Explore whether a role as a paralegal might be a good fit for you by taking An Introduction to American Law from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon completion, you'll have a certificate to share on your resume.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Related articles

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Paralegals and Legal Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm.” Accessed March 23, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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