How to Become a Legal Assistant

To become a legal assistant, aka a paralegal, involves taking on much of the work of a law practice. Legal assistants are well organized, focused administrators, as well as experts in the processes and issues involved in legal work.

Legal assistants have become indispensable to modern law. The best description of their jobs is as the operational arm of law practices. The work of a legal assistant can be truly demanding, dealing with the entire range of legal and statutory issues in their law practice. That may involve multiple forms of process in many different cases.

Note: By law, legal assistants are not allowed to provide the services of legal practitioners or give legal advice. They can work with any of the legal processes in an advisory capacity, but not act as lawyers.

Education and training

Paralegals require formal training to enter the profession. At entry level, they may receive on the job training from a lawyer, but the more common forms of basic training are an associate degree, either through a paralegal program, or a college degree with a certificate in paralegal studies. Some colleges offer actual degrees in paralegal studies at Bachelors and Masters levels.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has approved many certification programs. These ABA certifications aren't compulsory, but do act as a recognized standard of certification, and are helpful in getting employment as a paralegal.

Other certifications available for paralegals are available from a range of industry organizations. The requirements for certifications vary considerably. These include:

  • National Association of Legal Assistants: Certified legal assistant (CLA) and Certified Paralegal (CP) certifications

  • American Alliance of Paralegals Inc: American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) certification

  • National Federation of Paralegal Association: Registered Paralegal (RP) certification

  • National Association for Legal Professionals: Professional Paralegal (PP) certification

The actual requirements for certification and qualifications in any paralegal job depend on the nature of the position. In large legal practices, a very high level of credentials will be required for paralegals. Where the practice involves regular court appearances, court procedure experience will be required. In cases where legal practices specialize, additional experience in that legal field is necessary. 

The work environment

All that training and certification is absolutely necessary to work in the paralegal field. Working in any legal environment involves many possible scenarios. To give an example of a small general legal practice's workload for a paralegal:

  • Statutory documentation
  • Affidavits
  • Subpoenas
  • Real estate documentation
  • Local court documents
  • Fines
  • Client briefings
  • Legal records
  • Contracts
  • Legal research materials
  • Correspondence
  • Computer database
  • Accounts-related data

If you've ever seen the pictures of large amounts of documents being wheeled into a court on a hand truck: One mistake in a big stack of documentation can cause the court to throw it all out, being unacceptable under statutory evidence requirements. It's the paralegal staff who research, compile those stacks of documents, collate them, and present them to the court in a form acceptable as evidence. That's a big responsibility, and performance standards in the legal profession can be stringent. This is meticulous work, and only experts can do it properly. Although the legal assistant's job includes many standard procedures, the actual work is anything but standardized.