Advice for Paralegal Students
Completing a paralegal program is a challenging endeavor, but one that will lead to a rewarding career where you can do interesting work and help clients with their legal problems.
How well you do in your paralegal program will directly impact your career prospects, so it is important to go into the program prepared to excel and to take the right steps along the way to make sure you grasp the new concepts and learn massive amounts of material necessary to become a great paralegal.
Tips for Paralegal Students
In order to do well in your paralegal program, there are a few tips to consider both before you get started in the program and while you are taking your courses:
Before you get started:
- Take the time to get familiar with legal language. There are many cases published online both on the websites of local and national courts and on websites such as Google Scholar. The language used in these legal cases is different than anything you've heard before, so reading cases before you start can help you to get off on the right foot and not be confused during the early weeks of your paralegal program.
- Consider reading summaries of some key areas of law. Most paralegal students will be expected to develop a basic understanding of contract law, constitutional law, property law, real estate, and family law. There are many summary guides written on these areas of law and you can benefit from reading through them before you start school to get a better understanding of some of the concepts you will need to cover.
- Get organized. You should have a plan in place to handle the different courses you are taking and to keep all of the material you will learn straight. Whether you choose color-coded notebooks for your notes, practice your shorthand to get used to taking notes on cases and classes quickly or simply take the time to think about study skills that have worked for you in the past, you will need to be prepared to learn lots of information quickly.
Once you are involved in your paralegal courses, you will typically be thrown right into learning how to brief cases and how to write the types of legal memos and documents that you'll have to write in your career as a paralegal. To make sure you do well in your class work at this stage of the game:
- Learn and use the standard method for briefing cases. Most paralegals and lawyers use a formula referred to as IRAC. This stands for issue, rule, analysis, and conclusion. Every case you should read be viewed in terms of identifying these key things: what the legal issue(s) are in the case; what legal rule(s) the case creates; an analysis of the thinking used to develop the legal rule, and the conclusion.
- Learn to use Westlaw and Lexis Nexis. These outline research tools will be invaluable in finding relevant cases both as you are attending school and in your career as a paralegal. Using these legal databases costs a lot of money when working for a law firm since the firm normally pays per search, but most students get free access. Take advantage of the access you have to develop a deep understanding of how to search effectively and practice as much as you can. You can also use the case briefs available on Lexis Nexis and Westlaw to make sure the case briefs you are writing for your own classes are on track.
- Don't get focused on the facts of the cases. One thing you will learn as you participate in your paralegal classes is that not every single fact is important in every case. Only facts with legal relevance matter. If you try to take notes on every fact, you'll waste a lot of time on unnecessary information. Practice reading cases to identify the facts that helped to lead to the development of the legal rule or influenced the judge's decision in the case. This will make reading cases much quicker and you will eventually get good at understanding what's most important.
- Remember, legal writing is different than other writing. When you write legal memos or case briefs, you are trying to share specific information about the law with the attorneys you work for (or with your professors). Be brief and to the point and avoid extraneous language.
- Develop and practice good study habits. There is a lot of reading and a lot of work in a paralegal program, and if you fall behind, it may be very difficult to ever catch up.
By perfecting your ability to read and understand cases, focusing on the relevant areas of the law you are learning and maintaining good study habits, you greatly increase your chances of success in a paralegal program.