What Does It Take to Become a Legal Assistant?

Do you want to make a positive impact on the lives of others? Are you interested in legal studies, but don’t want to attend law school? Then a career as a legal assistant might be for you!

A legal assistant, which is sometimes called a paralegal, works with attorneys to help streamline the process of working with clients. This is done in a variety of ways, from performing clerical duties to conducting legal research to working as a liaison between attorneys and clients.

This is an exciting field of work, and one from which you can derive much job satisfaction. But it does require that you have certain skills and abilities.

Before we discuss the education, skills, and abilities you need to be a legal assistant, let’s review what a legal assistant might be expected to do as part of their job.

First and foremost, legal assistants are often responsible for day-to-day office-related tasks. This might include, but is not limited to:

  • Answering phones and taking messages
  • Making photocopies of documents
  • Filing
  • Scheduling appointments

Legal assistants are often tasked with legal-related duties as well. For example, legal assistants often draft legal documents for attorneys in the office, like contracts or responses to lawsuits.

Additionally, legal assistants typically conduct legal research. As an example, a legal assistant that works for a defense attorney might be asked to fact-check the details of the accusation against their client.

There are many other legal-related duties that you might be responsible for carrying out as a legal assistant. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Procure affidavits from witnesses
  • Conduct research on case law that is relevant to a case
  • Help attorneys prepare for trial by organizing evidence, writing case summaries, or filing documents with the court
  • Assist attorneys during trials by overseeing exhibits

Of course, the specific duties of a job in this field will depend on a variety of factors, including your level of education, experience, and area of specialty. For example, a legal assistant that specializes in corporate law would potentially have a much different job description than one that specializes in criminal law.

If the idea of becoming a legal assistant excites you, the good news is that you don’t have to go to school for a long time to get the needed qualifications.

Where lawyers will typically spend three years of full-time study in law school (after completing a four-year bachelor’s degree), a legal assistant might only need an associate’s degree.

An associate’s degree is a two-year degree that is a basic introduction to a specific field. In this case, the most appropriate associate’s degree for legal assistants is one in paralegal studies. This degree is, in most cases, the minimum educational qualifications for work as a legal assistant.

To better your chances of finding a job, it’s recommended that you get a bachelor’s degree. These four-year degrees include much more coursework in paralegal studies and give you a broader and deeper base of knowledge about the work you’ll do as a legal assistant. While there are some bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies, they are fairly rare.

Instead, many legal assistants choose to get a bachelor’s degree in a related field – like criminal justice – and then get a certificate in paralegal studies. Typically, a post-baccalaureate certificate in paralegal studies requires just a handful of courses. This means that you might be able to finish the program in a year or less.

Whether you choose to pursue a two-year degree and a certificate or a four-year degree and a certificate, you can expect to take law-related classes that will help prepare you for this line of work. Some of the courses you might take include, but are not limited to:

  • Business Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Contract Law
  • Family Law
  • Tort Law

As you can see, the coursework to become a legal assistant or paralegal is quite varied. That’s because paralegals need to be familiar with all sorts of different types of law, that way they can provide support services to attorneys that practice in a wide range of areas.

In addition to having the proper formal education, legal assistants must have certain hard skills in order to be successful in this line of work. Some of the primary hard skills you should have include:

  • Investigative skills
  • Legal writing skills
  • Understanding of legal terminology
  • Understanding of legal processes
  • Understanding of different types of law
  • Understanding of confidentiality (and the ability to maintain it)
  • Ability to use technology like computers and computer software

You might already have some of these skills. For example, you might be an excellent writer. If so, that will only help you in your pursuit of a career as a legal assistant.

But if you lack some of these hard skills, you will have many opportunities to develop them as you pursue your degree or certificate program in paralegal studies.

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There are also a variety of soft skills that will be beneficial to you in your work as a legal assistant. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Excellent organizational skills
  • Ability to work as a member of a team
  • Ability to type at an above-average rate (e.g., 60-80 words per minute or more)
  • Ability to work on multiple projects at the same time
  • Ability to work independently

Given the sometimes sensitive nature of legal proceedings, it’s also helpful if you have the ability to empathize with others. Legal assistant work often puts you front-and-center with clients that are experiencing very difficult times. Being compassionate and empathic will certainly help you in your work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for legal assistants in 2020 was $52,920. However, the pay range for this job is quite wide.

For example, the lowest 10 percent of earners in this field make a median annual wage of just under $33,000. The highest 10 percent of earners make more than $85,000 per year. This wide gap is due to differences in the level of education, years of experience, and the location of employment, to name but a few factors. 

Conclusions

The BLS predicts that jobs in this field will grow at a rate of 12 percent through 2030. This is a faster rate than average, which means that this is a growing line of work.

But, as noted earlier, to enhance your chances of getting a job as a legal assistant, it’s important to get the proper education. Once you get your foot in the door, keep learning, earn a certificate (or two!), and get a more advanced degree. Doing so will give you the best chance of staying employed and finding more lucrative jobs in the future.

Article by Kathleen White

Kathleen White is a freelance writer, digital marketing communications pro, and digital strategist. She is associated with various organizations as an external digital strategist.

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