I would echo everything Kim mentioned above. I would also add the following.
As someone who has worked with hundreds of paralegals over the years (and hired them and fired them), being a happy paralegal really does depend on the type of work you like doing. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find and do work you love.
Paralegals can make a great living. I've worked with paralegals who earned $150,000+ per year and I've recently seen employment ads for paralegal jobs that pay over $100,000 per year. The bad news is these tend to be very stressful jobs. You generally have to work long hours and in fast-paced, high-stress legal specialties like litigation and corporate transactions where you have to track your billable hours (a giant pain).
However, the good news is you can get a job in other specialties that are much less stressful. Here are a few ideas for you:
- Probate Paralegal - These specialists help attorneys prepare estates, trusts, wills and things like that. There are few deadlines and the attorneys in this field (in my experience) tend to be much more laid back. This is super low stress and there are lots of forms to fill out. I find it a little boring, but it could be perfect for you. I know that some probate courts also employ paralegals to help with the administration of estates and trusts. Pay is a often lower, in my experience, but the benefits associated with working for the government are usually very good.
- Government - Cities, counties, and the federal government hire paralegals to work in many different departments. The hours tend to be good and the stress is pretty low and you can probably find a department/job that is within your interest or specialty.
- Criminal Law - This can be high or low stress, depending on the type of person and firm you wind up working for. The paralegals I worked with at the prosecutor's office had very low stress jobs. The work was steady and interesting (lots of rapes and murders and drug crimes, if you like that sort of thing). Again, pay is not always that great working local government (city, county), but the benefits were great. Not a lot of tight deadlines usually and most of the prosecutors I know are pretty laid back. Not super high energy, demanding or jerky because their jobs are less stressful too.
In private criminal firms, the work can be stressful because sometimes the deadlines are short, particularly if your attorneys do a lot of trial work. A lot of criminal work is kind of hurried and seat-of-the-pants. It's about the volume but there is not a lot of paper on minor cases usually. Trials are very stressful for the lawyers and, if you are the type of paralegal who goes to trial with the attorney, there are a thousand details for you to handle. However, most criminal law attorneys don't go to trial that much so this is not a bad gig if you can get it.
- Insurance Work - Firms that do insurance defense (like property claims, auto claims, professional liability claims, etc.) tend to be pretty low stress for paralegals and staff in my experience. Insurance companies also hire lots of paralegals. Usually this is low stress, but litigation can be more stressful sometimes.
- Patent/IP Work - If you don't do intellectual property litigation, this work is pretty low stress from my experience. There is a lot of paperwork prep, filings and using tracking software to make sure fees are paid and filings are made timely to protect the patents. trademarks, copyrights, etc., of your clients. Patent litigation work is more stressful. There is LOTS of paper and trials are often long. Judges and lawyers are impatient. Long hours, lots of worrying about billable hours. And I find it boring, but it's a personality thing.
- Real Estate - Real estate work involves lots of paperwork and not a lot of tight deadlines, in my experience. The paralegals I know that make a ton of money have worked in specialty areas like SALT (State and Local Taxation). This area seems to involve a lot of feast or famine. In busy years, you and your attorneys work A TON of hours and get paid A TON of money. In slow years, less so.
- Contract Document Review - I've hired paralegals to do document review. This is very low stress usually. You basically review documents for litigation or due diligence looking for responsive and privileged material. Being specialized can help (like if you can read financial statements or have IP experience). The money is not always great, unless you have super rare skill (like you read Chinese, or know computer coding, or something).
- Trial Work - If you work for a plaintiff or defense firm that does a lot of civil litigation, you're looking at stress. Lots of it. There are tons of deadlines and attorneys who are very high-performing that routinely work 100+ hours a week. Not every week, but a lot of weeks. And the paralegals are right there with them. Depending on the type of practice and your role, you may have to travel a lot for trials. The best paralegal I ever had quit because of the long hours and travel. She was great but it eventually burned her out. You can make a lot of money if you bill a lot of ours, but it's hard work and a lot of the lawyers you work with are stressed, angry and unpleasant much of the time (not all, but most, particularly those at the big firms who do high-end commercial litigation). It can be hard looking out your hotel window at a beautiful ocean sunset somewhere knowing that you have a ton of work and can't leave the hotel until the trial is done and you climb back onto an airplane for a short break until the next trial somewhere else.
The only paralegal I ever fired got fired because she called in sick on the first day of a big trial I had and it really hurt the client's case. If you know how to work specialized trial presentation software (like Trial Director or Sanction) you are very valuable. You are the key member of the trial team and are going to be very stressed as well.
- Healthcare & Other In-House Legal Departments - In-house legal departments tend to be lower stress and the money is pretty good. That great paralegal I lost went in-house for a big hospital system and she loves it. She's incredibly happy, sees her family a lot now and never has to go to trial. Her attorneys are awesome to work with, she says. You also have a good chance to specialize if you go in-house. You can get into risk management, IP, real estate, oil and gas, environmental, etc., depending on the type of company you target. And in my experience you do get a fair amount of autonomy once you've proved yourself.
- Tax - Here you help with complicated tax issues. Not a lot of deadlines, in my experience, and pretty decent attorneys.
- Securities Law - Here you help with corporate filings, investigations and other duties. Pretty low stress, though M&A (mergers and acquisitions) or internal investigations can get heavy.
- Environmental Law - You can work for private firms, the state or even non-profit groups. Low stress in my experience if you stay of litigation or work for a governmental agency or nonprofit (like the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, EPA, etc.).
As to additional training, it depends on what area you want to go into. Most of the experience paralegals have is gained on the job but they did have some kind of a paralegal certificate, paralegal degree or other background. Your legal secretary background will help. I've seen much more of a blending or merging of the "Legal Assistant" and "Paralegal" job descriptions. They are often interchangeable. But beware: it is likely that big firms, big companies and government agencies may have very specific requirements that include an actual bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. Honestly, the best paralegals I've hired and worked with did not have a bachelor's degree. In fact, the ones with a bachelor's degree were often the least valuable right out of school. These programs often teach skills that you won't use like cite checking briefs, legal writing, constitutional law and other unhelpful stuff. When I taut paralegal school (a post-baccalaureate certificate program) I made sure everyone in my classes could draft pleadings, answer interrogatories, understood the court systems, and could use all the essential software, which is the stuff they were going to be doing at the firms that would hire them.
Check out the want ads and see what specific requirements they list and be sure you have those. However, there are some specialties that are very valuable and may not require the actual degree. Coupled with the degree, they provide a great living and quality of life.
- Specialized Software Training/Certifications (for document review tools like Relativity or Summation, or trial presentation software like Trial Director)
- Special eDiscovery Certifications (CEDS, which is Certified Electronic Discovery Specialist)
- Tax (With some specialized tax training you will be more valuable)
- Real Estate (if you have real estate license or other training it may be valuable)
- Foreign Language - It's probably going to be hard to go from speaking only English to being fluent in another language without years of study. I myself speak two languages (English and Bad English). But if you can already speak a real second language getting a certification in that language may be very beneficial (though I suspect that most employers won't care if you are certified unless the job requires it). paralegals who speak languages like Japanese, Chinese, German or Spanish can command high rates as contractors (I've seen $100 per hour+ advertised). The big bucks are usually associated with litigation which equals deadlines and stress.
- Computers - As a rule, get as much computer training as you can. This will make you more valuable and may help if you don't have an actual paralegal degree or cert.
I suggest you join professional paralegal groups to talk to paralegals and find out what special skills they have, if they like their work, how stressful they find their work, and to network, network, network.
The most important thing to do is figure out what you love to do and find work that lets you do it. Good luck.