How Do I Become a Legal Researcher?

Terry Masters

You can become a legal researcher by adding skills that demonstrate a research specialty to paralegal credentials or by completing the formal legal education to become an attorney and specializing in legal rhetoric instead of representing clients. The title is the same in both instances, but the scope of work and accompanying pay scale is completely different. Law firms tend to hire paralegals or the functional equivalent as legal researchers to provide case support. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations often hire non-practicing attorneys as legal researchers, sometimes with an underlying title as a staff attorney, to conduct issue-related research and writing.

A legal researcher may be tasked with retrieving and organizing old case files.
A legal researcher may be tasked with retrieving and organizing old case files.

A paralegal, or a person with similar basic credentials, can become a legal researcher by obtaining training or practical experience using legal databases, locating primary and secondary sources online and in print through the legal citation system, and verifying the validity of precedent using Shepard's Citations (Shepardizing). This level of legal research is task-oriented and appropriate for legal assistants. To qualify as a paralegal, you typically need a bachelor's degree and some experience or training working on litigation cases at a law firm. Many community colleges and proprietary schools have paralegal certificate courses that can serve as a substitute for a bachelor's degree or practical experience in some instances.

Paralegals often become legal researchers.
Paralegals often become legal researchers.

Once you have worked as a paralegal for one to three years, you can apply for a specialty position as a legal researcher for a law firm. The same places that provide basic paralegal training will often offer advanced training in specific areas. You can also take advantage of courses offered through legal trade associations. To become a legal researcher in this instance, you need to know how to use the major research databases, find information using the legal citation system, and establish the current status of legal precedent by Shepardizing cases.

The legal researcher at the paralegal level is only one track under this title. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies that want to hire people with formal legal educations without having to pay them the same rate as as a practicing attorney will advertise a position as a legal researcher. To become a legal researcher in this context, you need a basic legal degree and possibly an advanced degree. Positions offered by government agencies typically require you to be licensed in at least one jurisdiction even though you will not be representing clients, offering advice, or doing anything else that requires a license. Most employers will also require you to have three to five years practical experience in a relevant topical area of the law.

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