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Why You Should Obtain a Paralegal Specialization

paralegal-specialization

When dealing with the paralegal industry, you’ll likely come across the term “specialization.” For those who are relatively new to the profession may become confused when discussing the variables of paralegal specializations. While you may be familiar with this term, especially in the medical field, specialization in the legal field is slightly different.

Even though a law firm may specialize within a particular industry, such as environmental or real estate law, it’s uncommon the firm spends 100% of its efforts dealing with only these types of cases. Instead, its specialization is the focus of the firm while still taking on projects outside of this scope of practice.

paralegal-specialization-image-2It’s not uncommon for a working paralegal to split their time among various specializations. Much like their attorney counterparts, a paralegal may primarily work within a specific section of law, but generally they often dabble in a variety of legal specialties. However, the most successful paralegals are those who primarily focus on a primary specialization.

Why You Should Specialize

There are many different reasons why a paralegal would want to specialize in a specific field. Many paralegals decide on a specialization based upon the needs of their employer or their personal interests in a specific legal field. It’s not uncommon for smaller legal firms to need a paralegal who is proficient in a variety of law topics as these professionals will be handling a wide array of legal cases. However, in larger law firms, it’s not uncommon for a paralegal to primarily focus on a single specialization as this employer holds many paralegals in their field of specialization.

Another valid reason to branch off into a specialization is to enhance your marketability within the job market. Because the paralegal job market can be quite competitive, obtaining specialization sets you apart from the crowd. Therefore, it can make the world of a difference when it comes to obtaining a job.

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Become Certified in a Specialization

In order to truly showcase your proficiency in a specialization, it’s imperative to become a certified specialist. Educational programs for specializations are available through a myriad of organizations and training institutions. You may choose to specialize in a particular topic before you officially enter the job market or after several years of work as a general paralegal. In many states, continuing education opportunities exist to expand upon your working knowledge within a specialization. There are many states who offer paralegal specialist certifications. Check with your professional organization or educational institution to determine what specializations are available for you.

The Options for Earning a Paralegal Degree

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If you’re interested in starting a career as a paralegal, then you must begin delving into the variety of pathways you may take to accomplish this goal. Although there are literally thousands of pages of content describing this process, the most important step is assessing which pathway is best for you. By taking the time to determine which pathway is best for you, you’ll ultimately save time and money.

Selecting a Paralegal Pathway

Once you’ve decided that becoming a paralegal is best for you, it’s time to start considering how you plan to accomplish this goal. The foundation of any career change is your education. The majority of employers – both large and small – prefer candidates who have some form of formal education. It’s important to note that some states regulate the level of education you must complete. If you live in a state with no such regulation, the majority of employers recommend obtaining an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.

There are four primary educational pathways available throughout the United States for aspiring paralegals. These include:

  • Certificate Programs
  • Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
  • Bachelor Degree in Paralegal Studies
  • Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies

While earning a paralegal degree is a time consuming experience, it’s well worth it. In fact, over 44 percent of all working paralegals hold at least a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. While you may be able to secure a job with an associate degree or by become certificated, to really stand out in this crowded industry, a higher level of education is almost essential.

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Non-Traditional Pathways to Becoming a Paralegal

Of course, there are occasions where the traditional training pathway is not an acceptable option. Whether it be because you can’t afford it or there aren’t any programs in your immediate area, you do have several other options when it comes to entering this profession. These include:

On-the-Job Training | There are many law firms throughout the country that specialize in hiring entry-level paralegals who have little education or experience within this industry. While these jobs are often more difficult to secure – or impossible if your state requires some form of education – it’s not completely ruled out for many aspiring paralegals.

Internships | Perhaps one of the greatest ways to forgo a traditional education pathway is to perform internships at legal offices. While these are often unpaid, an internship program gives you hands-on training to prepare for this exciting career. Many internship programs are organized and managed by a a certificate program.

Volunteer | This may be the least-utilized pathway to becoming a paralegal. There are several reasons why, but the most commonly it’s due to the lack of availability. While rare, earning volunteer experience within a law firm or other legal organization can help you network with employers and eventually secure a job as a paralegal or legal assistant.

Common Coursework for a Paralegal Degree

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Like many other professional careers, in order to become a paralegal you must take some type of training program. While your state may regulate the necessary levels of training, such as a in California where you must hold a bachelor’s degree to work as a paralegal, it’s recommended all aspiring professionals obtain some sort of training. Regardless of where you train or the level of degree you’re pursuing, there are several universal courses all students must take.

What Types of Coursework is Common

Paralegal courses are designed to prepare these professionals when it comes to accomplishing your various responsibilities. For example, the majority of paralegals are responsible for conducting research, organizing case-specific paperwork as well as assisting lawyers before, during and after a trial. While your specific job duties and functions will vary based upon your employer and industry specializations, initial coursework is designed to distill the fundamentals of this profession.

Regardless of the level of degree or specialization you wish to acquire, it’s imperative all coursework follows the curriculum guidelines provided by the American Bar Association. This information is readily available to you. If you’re in doubt, contact the American Bar Association or your state’s bar association.

Because a paralegal must be proficient in a variety of subject matters and industries, the most common coursework will offer in-depth guidance into a vast array of topics. The best foundational studies are those who cover legal principles as well as federal and state-specific law. The level of degree or certificate you’re obtaining will determine the depth of this information.

Common Paralegal Coursework

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As mentioned earlier, there are several common courses you’ll be required to take while going through a paralegal studies training program. The exact depth in which you study these courses will dramatically vary as you progress in your training program. These courses include:

Legal Terminology | As a paralegal you’ll be required to read and draft a variety of legal documents. Therefore, you’ll spend a good portion of your studies learning various legal terms and how to correctly write essential legal phrases.

Legal Research | You’ll likely spend a good portion of your day mulling over various resources in a quest to isolate specific information.

Investigation Techniques | This course bleeds into the legal research coursework; however, it deals more with the various techniques you must master to successfully carry out an investigation.

Legal Ethics | The role of ethics within the career as a paralegal goes deep. In fact, in order to qualify for many certifications, you must have undergone at least one hour of legal ethics within the previous one to two years. Therefore, you’ll likely encounter this coursework at various points throughout your training.

Educational Pathways to Become a Paralegal

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Paralegals can work in a wide variety of industries and roles within the legal system. These professionals are often charged with investigating the details of a case, conduct deep-level legal research as well as assist in drafting a variety of legal documents. Much like lawyers, a paralegal may specialize in a myriad of law specializations, such as immigration, corporate law, personal injury and litigation.

Because of the wide scope of job duties and specializations, there are many educational pathways you may take to start a thriving career as a paralegal. Although there are many training programs offered by colleges, certifying bodies and universities, the most important aspect to any training program is that it’s accredited by the American Bar Association.

Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies

Although the majority of paralegals choose a higher level of education, roughly 30 percent of all working paralegals only hold an associate degree in paralegal studies. A two-year associate degree in more than sufficient to work as a paralegal in most areas throughout the county. However, it’s important to note that larger employers or those who deal with a specialization will likely choose an applicant who features a bachelor’s degree. However, an associate degree is an excellent entrance into further educational opportunities discussed below.

Certification Programs

There are a wide variety of paralegal certification programs available throughout the United States. While you may obtain a paralegal education at a college or university, this does not provide you with the coveted title of certified paralegal. In order to gain this credential, you must take and pass a national certification examination, such as those offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. You may also gain certification from the bar association for your state, if this is offered. While all certification programs feature various eligibility requirements, most require some form of higher education. However, you may qualify for certification if you’ve successfully worked as a paralegal or legal assistant for several years.

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Bachelor Degree in Paralegal Studies

By far, the most common educational pathway to becoming a paralegal is earning your bachelor degree in paralegal studies. In fact, roughly 44 percent of all working paralegals hold a bachelor’s degree. The majority of employers within this industry prefer applicants who hold this four-year degree. Depending on the state you live in, such as California, you may be required to hold a bachelor’s degree before you can begin working in this dynamic field. If you’re searching for the most effective way to be competitive within this profession, taking the time and energy to earn a bachelor degree in paralegal studies (followed by earning a certification) may be your ideal educational pathway.

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