The short answer is three months to more than six years. Consider the options described below, and discussed in greater detail in other articles on this site, and choose what’s right for you.
Formal training programs: 3 months to 6 years - but usually 2 years or less
Most education and training programs focused exclusively on developing paralegal qualifications and skills will be two years or less. When time is of the essence, it will usually be possible to find a suitable program that can be completed in a year or less – in some cases, 3-6 months.
The short path – one year or less
Certificate training courses and voluntary certification exams are the shortest common paths to becoming a professional paralegal. If you already has an associates or bachelor’s degree, or have substantial related experience, for example as a legal secretary, a certificate training program, or simply taking a certification exam, is often the perfect path.
Applying for certification and taking an exam may take less than a month, and certification training programs take anywhere from 3 months to a year. Certificate options include classroom instruction and distance-based online training programs and exams.
The longer path – two to six years
Longer educational paths apply when one pursues a broader college or university education that culminates in a bachelor’s or master’s degree that includes a focus in paralegal studies. An associate degree typically takes about two years. If one takes on a heavier course-load, this can be reduced to 1-1/2 years, or less.
Associate programs will usually have more concentration on paralegal skills compared to broader general education courses, and thus may cover nearly as much paralegal training content as a four-year bachelor’s degree.
A master’s degree education will usually include both more general education than an associate degree, and also go into some aspects of law theory and practice in more depth.
Optional internship – 3 to 9 months
Some training programs may also include, or entail the potential option for, three to nine months or so as an intern in an attorney’s office, corporate legal department, judicial department or other forum for real-world practical work experience.
Job search time – one day to several weeks or more
Of course, the length of paralegal educational programs is not the whole story, because one isn’t really a professional paralegal until one is actually hired and working as a paralegal. The time to find a job will vary depending on the area of the country and the type of paralegal work one aspires to.
In general, however, the prospects of quickly finding good work are excellent for paralegals. Indeed, as observed in this Forbe’s magazine article, the paralegal job-growth rate is healthy -- and the unemployment rate for paralegals has been only a third of that faced by other professions in general. For example, in 2011, only about 3% of paralegals were unemployed, compared to about 9% of the rest of the population.
In other words, even in a time of high general unemployment, 97% of all paralegals were employed and working in their chosen field.
Is skipping formal paralegal training sometimes an option?
Except in the state of California, there are no government regulations setting specific educational or other requirements to hold the title of paralegal and work as a professional paralegal. So if you are already employed as a legal secretary or in another position within a law-firm or legal department, you can explore the possibility of becoming a paralegal through on-the-job experience. The typical path that paralegals without formal training have taken is to gradually take on more advanced responsibilities until they are promoted to the position of paralegal. Most paralegals do have some kind of formal training program, but there are exceptions.
Regardless of training or experience, one can also apply for certification through one of the organizations offering paralegal certification exams, but in most cases it is unlikely that one will win certification without some related experience or education, or combination of the two.