A Growing Field
If you are thinking about obtaining a certificate in paralegal studies, you are on the right track. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "experienced, formally trained paralegals should have the best employment opportunities" in the field.
In the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, the following “significant points” were emphasized about the paralegal profession:
- Employment of paralegals is projected to grow 15 percent between 2016 and 2026, much faster than average.
- Most entrants have an associate degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor degree coupled with a certificate in paralegal studies.
- About 7 out of 10 paralegals work for law firms; others work for corporate legal departments and government agencies.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics goes on to state that "paralegals and legal assistants held about 285,600 jobs in 2016," and that "despite projected rapid employment growth, competition for jobs is expected to continue as many people seek to go into this profession."
The fact that paralegals perform an incredible variety of tasks, and are trained in advanced skills such as legal research and writing, may be a surprise to you. It's not a surprise to most lawyers.
The legal assistant concept began to develop in the late 1960's when law firms and individual practitioners sought ways to improve the efficient and cost effective delivery of legal services. Other factors such as the growing volume of legal actions also entered into the development of the legal assistant field.
In the past, the terms legal assistant and paralegal were used interchangeably. However, the term paralegal is increasingly used to describe someone with more credentials than a legal assistant, such as a degree or certificate in legal studies.
The practice of law is regulated by each of the 50 states, in which legal assistants and paralegals are prohibited from practicing law without a license. Professionally, a paralegal's time for legal work (as opposed to clerical or administrative work) is billed to clients much the same as an attorney's time, but at a lower hourly rate.
A legal assistant or paralegal may perform any function delegated by an attorney, including but not limited to the following:
- Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client, so long as the client is aware of the status and function of the paralegal, and the paralegal works under the supervision of the attorney
- Locate and interview witnesses
- Conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research
- Conduct legal research
- Draft legal documents, correspondence and pleadings
- Summarize depositions, interrogatories and testimony
- Attend executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings and trials with the attorney
- Author and sign correspondence, provided the legal assistant status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice
Paralegals have found the field satisfying, lucrative and replete with opportunity for growth. Paralegals are becoming an essential part of every successful law firm. Law firms are increasingly hiring paralegals to do many things that attorneys have historically done (under the supervision of an attorney), so they enjoy the respect of employers who recognize them as an asset to the organization. Many are interested in the legal field, but choose not to go through years of expensive education to become an attorney. Earning a paralegal certificate is the perfect entrée into this rewarding field!
Due to the high level of competition in the paralegal field, those with a formal paralegal education and experience are more likely to succeed in the paralegal profession. Prospective paralegal students have a wide variety of educational opportunities. Below is a description of several forms of formal paralegal education that can help you become a qualified paralegal.
A few schools offer Bachelor’s Degree programs in the paralegal field. This is a good option for students considering going to law school. As with any 4-year degree, many courses are general requirements and only those within the paralegal "major" will concentrate on paralegal skills.
Many technical schools and community colleges offer Associate Degree programs in the paralegal field. As with Bachelor’s programs, most required courses are general requirements for the degree. This is a good choice for candidates just out of high school, or with little workplace experience.
Paralegal Certificate Programs
Certificate programs have the advantage of focusing the entire educational experience on paralegal skills. Most certificate students already possess a college degree and prefer to complete a focused program rather than returning to a formal degree program. Many students have legal experience or other life experience that has helped to prepare them for the profession, but require more formal education or credentials to progress.
USC’s Paralegal Certificate Program offers a dynamic choice and admission into the program requires a four-year undergraduate degree and/or four years of professional work experience. This ensures that all of our paralegal certificate graduates are qualified for employment after graduation.
One of the most exciting aspects of the paralegal profession is the diversity of employment opportunities. While the majority of paralegals work as litigation paralegals, and do a little work in one or two other areas, such as contract law, or incorporating businesses, there are many other areas of employment available to paralegals.
Here are some of the career choices available:
- Criminal Law
- Workman's Compensation
- Construction Defect
- Contract Law
- Corporate Law
- Real Property
- Administrative Law
- Court Clerk
- Prosecutor's Office
- Public Defender's Office
- Oil and Gas
- Environmental Law
In addition to these opportunities, a paralegal certificate provides additional professional advantages. There are many professions that, while not titled "paralegal," are able to make use of a paralegal’s skills. Some of these professions include:
- Real Estate Professionals
- Landlords/Property Managers
- Patent Clerks
- Investigative Positions
- Social Services, and Office Managers
- Government and Corporate Positions
Note: We do not recommend that paralegals offer their services directly to the public. To do so risks engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Legal Assistant Today Magazine publishes a salary survey that is conducted every two years by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). In the 2004 survey, graduates of certificate programs, such as the one offered at USC, are compensated at a higher rate than any other form of paralegal education!
Why? Attorneys know certificate program students are trained in one specialized area
- paralegal skills. So, if you want to put yourself in a great position to succeed
in the paralegal profession, consider the University of South Carolina’s Paralegal
|Legal Assistant Education
Post Baccalaureate Certificate
Source: Legal Assistant Today Magazine, National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report, Copyright: October 2004. Note that these are national averages and do not reflect starting salaries. Also note that certificate salaries are for individuals also holding a four-year degree in another discipline.