How to Become a Paralegal: Complete Guide

Theoretically, the possible paths towards becoming a professional paralegal are limitless. The paralegal profession is not regulated by the government (except in the state of California), so conceivably one could pursue any number of informal paths, such as self-teaching or on-the-job training or some form of apprenticeship.

In practical reality, however, it is virtually unheard of for an employer to take a chance on a self-proclaimed paralegal autodidact. And it is rare for an aspiring paralegal to be offered an opportunity for on-the-job-training. In the small number of cases where this does happen, it is invariably a situation where an existing employee -- for example, a legal secretary -- has become a valued employee and gained respect for their competence and talent over the years.

For almost everybody else, completing a formal training program is the best way to both get a chance to enter this desirable profession, and to thrive in it.

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Step 1. Choosing a training program

When choosing an ideal training course for you, here are some of the criteria you will consider:

Time required

There are at least 4 main types of formal paralegal education and training. Listed in order from the quickest (potentially as short as 3 months) to the longest (6 years or more), the primary typical training paths are:

  • Certificate programs
  • Associate programs
  • Bachelor's degree programs
  • Master's degree programs

For those who have already decided and are focused on their paralegal career aspirations, the first two types of programs are by far the most common.

Certificate programs can take as little as 3 months, but be aware that such a short program is generally only possible if one already has some significant related work experience or some prior college education.

But there are also some stand-alone certificate programs that only require a high-school diploma or GED, and these usually take one year or less to complete. The other most common path, an associate degree program, typically takes two years or less to complete. You can find more info in our detailed article here.


Compile a list and investigate each candidate

After deciding how much time you can invest in your paralegal training, choose the corresponding type of program. For example, let’s say that you decide that a certificate program makes the most sense for you. These are offered by some colleges and universities and by some proprietary institutions (private companies).

So if certificate programs were your choice, next you would check out all the certificate programs reasonably accessible to you, and appropriate for your plans. A good rule of thumb is to investigate all the certificate programs in your current local area, and in the area(s) in which you may want to live and work in the future.

Regarding locations, you may also want to check out the section of our salary research about the paralegal job markets and compensation levels for different areas of the country. Another factor to consider when it comes to location is that some paralegal training programs are available through web-based distance methods.


Graduate placement rate

One of the most important things to check out is the graduate placement rate of each program you are considering. If a program has been successful in terms of real-world long-term results for other students, the chances are that much better that it will be successful for you, too. If you have any specific employers in mind already and have the opportunity to open up a conversation – then by all means talk to them about what program, in their perspective, will give you the best prospects.


Industry experience of teachers and other factors

Other factors to investigate are what kind of certification is offered, and whether this is ABA approved, or at least recognized by most employers. (If not, you may need to pursue third-party certification after completing your training.) And who teaches the courses? It’s always a plus if you will get direct interaction with practicing attorneys and paralegals.

Naturally you’ll collect and compare all the other practical information pertinent to your situation – costs, availability of financial aid, compatibility of class times and location with your daily obligations, etc.


Balance of curriculum and areas of focus and specialization

Finally, consider the emphases of the programs you are looking at. What is the balance between legal theory and real-world practical know-how? Does the program include internships in real job situations, or another effective form of practicum?

Read our article about different paralegal specializations (which may be formal or de-facto). If you think you would prefer to work in a certain specialty, or for a certain type of company or organization, choose your program accordingly.

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Step 2. Preparing your admission

Most programs share some basic admissions requirements. For example, for any program, you’ll have to get your high-school or college transcript sent – or, if you have not completed high-school, you will have to pass a GED test. For most, but not all, programs, you will also need to arrange for post-secondary education records to be sent – or, alternatively, you will need to verify your legal-related work history and/or arrange a recommendation from a current or past employer.

Some programs, like this Duke University program or this University of California program in Irvine, do require some prior education beyond high-school. Some, like another University of California program in San Diego, and a number of 1- and 2-year certificate programs, including some of the ABA-approved programs listed here, don’t require any college if you already have some significant legal experience as a secretary or in some other way. Some certificate programs can be completed in as little as 3 months (e.g., see this Duquesne University program), and these shorter programs usually do require some prior college credits, and/or related work experience.

Obviously, if you pursue your paralegal education in the context of a 4-year program that culminates in a bachelor’s degree, prior college or work experience will not be required. In general, longer programs, especially programs of 2 years or more, do not have any prior work experience or education requirements – except a high-school diploma or GED.

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Step 3. Training

The goal is to become comfortable and skilled with everything needed to prepare analytical briefs, employ litigation technologies, prepare contracts, analyze liability, equity and other legal issues involved in a variety of situations, conduct manual and electronic legal research, and everything else that a paralegal does.

There is no substitute for the right training program to prepare you to handle all the challenges of being a paralegal with ease and confidence. Paralegal training programs are often designed by, or even taught by, practicing attorneys and paralegals who know exactly what good paralegals can do in real life, and know how to teach the knowledge and skills needed.

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Step 4. Getting your certification and/or degree

The formal end result of paralegal training programs is usually a certificate. In many cases, you will earn your certificate directly from the school you attend; in other cases, as explained in detail here, you may apply to a third-party for certification.

It is also possible to earn an associate, a bachelor’s, or even a master’s degree with a major or focus in paralegal studies. Depending on your specific degree and the reputation of the paralegal program at your school, it may be advantageous to verify the practical value of what you learned by applying for paralegal certification from one of the recognized third-party providers.

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Step 5. Getting your first job

Paralegal work is well-paid and known for high job-satisfaction. As such, it is a competitive field in which to find a job. So check out your local market, apply to enough employers, and follow-up conscientiously – this will bolster your chances of early success.

And remember, one of the reasons it is so well-paid is that paralegals are more and more in demand every year. In fact, unemployment among paralegals is among the lowest of all professions. In other words, the jobs are out there, and there’s a good one waiting for you – all you have to do is put the energy in to find the one that’s right for you.

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Step 6. Maintaining & advancing your career

Career advancement is an open door for many paralegals, and is often accompanied by increasing compensation. Keeping your skills sharp and current with evolving realities in the world always gives an advantage.

There may be opportunities for many types of continuing education, formal and on-the-job. The American Bar Association is one potential source for information on programs to gain certain advanced specialized expertise; in other cases, technical training for certain skills may be available from legal-specialty software manufacturers. One may also opt to pursue formal training in a new paralegal specialty as the opportunities and demands for those skills develop.

How long does it take to become a paralegal?

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.