Advancing From Paralegal to Attorney

Though paralegals play a challenging role in law, some paralegals may seek more responsibility, higher pay and a larger view of the field. Those paralegals who are especially ambitious may aspire to become licensed attorneys. It is not an easy move, as it requires further education and a lot of effort, but it is entirely possible.

The path to becoming a lawyer varies by state. In California, according to Wikipedia, there are at least four ways to become a licensed attorney: attending a law school approved by the American Bar Association, attending a non-ABA approved course of study that is approved by the state, studying law for four years in an approved program under a judge or lawyer, and having a law license from another state. All four paths require passing the California Bar Exam. Other states have similar requirements, generally requiring a formal law education followed by passing a state bar exam. Paralegals are at an advantage in this process, as they may already have learned some of the fundamentals, depending on their experience and prior education.

Going to Law School

According to the US Labor Bureau, entry to law school usually requires a bachelor degree, which some paralegals may already have. Those who have an associate degree or high school diploma may need to return to school to attain a bachelor’s in an appropriate field. Once a degree is attained, students can choose to study law full-time on a campus, study part-time while employed, or take classes online. Your employability in the field is partially determined by the program you graduate from, with the most recommended programs being those approved by the American Bar Association. More information on ABA-approved programs can be found on the ABA Web site.

Tracy Goodwin, a Fresno, CA attorney featured on LawCrossing.com, made the jump from paralegal to attorney by attending a four-year online law school. She entered with a BA in liberal arts, studying while employed by a local law firm.

“I was very overwhelmed, and every day I had to talk myself out of dropping out of law school,” she said. “The firm I work at was very supportive.”

After passing the First-Year Law Students’ Examination (FYLSE, also called the “Baby Bar”), Goodwin was promoted to law clerk, a position similar to paralegal, but with the ability to meet with clients and assist lawyers in court. Later, upon passing the bar exam, she was offered a position as an associate in her firm. Though her job as a paralegal was easier and less stressful, she says her new position as an attorney allows her to make her own decisions on a case, giving her more responsibility, as well as a bigger paycheck.

“Being an attorney feels like a 24-hour job sometimes. However, I think it’s a very good profession to go into, and I think it is particularly a good profession for women,” Goodwin said. “You have a lot more options with a law degree than with a paralegal certificate.”

Those interested in becoming a paralegal with the intention of moving on to become an attorney, or current paralegals planning to pursue lawyer status, should look into tuition reimbursement, as many law firms offer it as a benefit. The Law School Admission Council has information on choosing a law school, including info on financial aid, deadlines, and minority interests.