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.
Step 1. Choosing a training program
When choosing an ideal training course for you, here are some of the criteria you will consider:
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.
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 Universityprogram), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.