Become a Legal Research Assistant in 5 Steps

Legal research assistants may find a job with a bachelor's degree, though some courts may prefer applicants who are in law school or who have earned a law degree. Read on for information about getting a job, earning certification and advancing your career. Schools offering Legal Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Legal Research Assistant?

As legal research assistant, you're a specialist who helps legal executives make informed decisions and supports the pre-trial preparation of lawsuits by researching case law and precedents that are relevant to the issues in dispute. You also compose letters and other correspondence; draft briefs, arguments and opinions; interview live witnesses and clients; provide legal advice to clients; appear in court on behalf of clients as part of a legal team; confer with attorneys, judges and law enforcement personnel; and maintain research records.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Employers may hire you as a legal researcher if you have a bachelor's degree in legal studies. Bachelor's degree programs are designed to provide enough familiarity with the law for you to recognize the proper legal and ethical principles that apply in a given situation, use technology to access legal information, evaluate data's applicability and gain perspective. Course topics may cover history of American law, constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal writing, ethics and research methods.

Step 2: Enroll in a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) Program

Some employers, especially state and federal courts, may require that you either have earned a J.D. (which takes 3-4 years) or completed 2-3 years of the program. J.D. programs acquaint you with legal reasoning, the concepts and principles underlying American legal institutions, analysis of case studies and specific areas of law, such as real estate, antitrust, banking, intellectual property and commercial law. In the second year of most programs, you choose a specialization and customize your course selections around that choice.

Step 3: Find a Job

Law firms, legal department of large companies and local, state and federal agencies are your prospective employers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that approximately 247,940 paralegals and legal assistants were employed in May 2010 (www.bls.gov). By 2018, employment is projected to reach 337,900. The median annual salary you could have earned as a legal assistant was $46,680 as of May 2010.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

With a bachelor's degree, you can opt to obtain certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAP). NALA offers the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA), Certified Paralegal (CP) and Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designations. According to NALA, the CLA and CP designations are equivalent. The CLA and CP exams consist of multiple-choice, matching, true-false and essay questions that test your knowledge in five areas: communications, judgment and analytical ability, ethics, legal research and substantive law. You need to score at least 70% on each section to pass.

AAP offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) designation. To be eligible you need to have completed a certificate program for paralegals approved by the American Bar Association or the AAP. There is no AACP exam. The designation is effective for three years, after which you need to complete 18 hours of continuing-education credits if you wish to renew.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

Your career advancement options depend on whether you've earned a bachelor's degree or a J.D. If the former, you could follow the same advancement path as paralegals - gain experience and seniority until you're promoted to a supervisory or managerial position. If you earned a J.D. and have passed your state's bar exam, you could become a practicing attorney. Your path would then be to work as a clerk for a judge or as an associate in a law firm or corporate legal department. Your firm could make you a partner if you demonstrate talent as a litigator; you could also open your own practice. With enough experience, you could seek election as a judge or join the faculty at a law school.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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