In the case of the paralegal, some firms may hire a paralegal straight out of college with only a bachelor's degree. However, this is rare and will usually only be done by firms that are looking for someone with a specific background in a subject such as economics or mathematics. However, a paralegal should have at least a bachelor's degree and have gone through some paralegal certificate program in order to be competitive.
For either position, it is best that the individual be comfortable using a computer and able to use a word processor, Excel or equivalent, and PowerPoint, because law practice will involve the usage of one or more of these programs at some point. Knowledge in computer programming may be also helpful in some situations because evidence that appears during investigations or discovery may be in the form of computer code. For example, knowing how to analyze a program and determine what it does can be helpful in a case where the program reveals how a company operates. This can then translate into facts needed for a complaint to be drafted.
The majority of students who enter law school and complete their first year will not have any idea what law practice really entails until they obtain their first legal position. Like other graduate programs, law school is very costly. This means that upon graduation, most people will have easily accumulated a debt of at least $80,000, one-third of which will be during the first year. Therefore, it is a very good idea to see what practicing law in a firm or corporate setting is like. This involves gaining practical experience, which includes learning how to analyze the law and translating concepts into writing.
Much of the training in legal secretary or paralegal programs is practical. This means that the individuals who go through the programs will end up with very little theoretical knowledge of the law and a lot of training on how to complete tasks such as conducting legal research or drafting complaints or demurrers. The reverse tends to be true for law students. However, with experience at a firm and the guidance of an attorney, the legal secretary or paralegal can become as competent at analyzing legal issues as the law student.
Occasionally, a law firm may hire a paralegal with the condition that he/she go to law school in the future. This arrangement can serve two purposes for a firm. The first purpose is to try to obtain the most dedicated and hardworking employees, because individuals with high aspirations will tend to have those qualities. The second purpose is to set up a long-term investment for the firm.
Ideally, the firm puts effort into preparing one of its legal secretaries or paralegals for law school so that it can add another attorney to the firm or replace an attorney who will be retiring in the near future. For the paralegal or legal secretary, this will probably mean that the attorneys at the firm will probably play more of a mentor role. This way, when the paralegal or legal secretary gets into law school, he/she will be well equipped to face any challenges and be able to grasp legal concepts.