Training to become a paralegal takes anywhere from three months to two years or more. The format can range from informal on-the-job training to a formal academic course of study.
A high-school diploma or GED is a prerequisite for virtually all paralegal positions. However, there are some practicing paralegals who have no further formal training or degree, and no formal certification. Examples of this path include those who start out as a legal secretary and gradually gain more advanced expertise and take on more responsibilities until they are promoted to a paralegal position.
Indeed, with the exception of the state of California, use of the title “paralegal” is not regulated, and there are no specific license, education or experience requirements for paralegals. In practice, however, knowledge and practical job skills make all the difference for the prospects of an aspiring paralegal.
Related job experience, self-education, and formal training are all viable ways for an aspiring paralegal to bolster his or her real-world credentials.
In terms of formal training, there are several hundred paralegal education programs in the United States. By some estimates, they now number over a thousand. This wide range of programs, from university programs to proprietary training and certification programs, offers approachable paths for aspiring paralegals from a variety of backgrounds and financial situations.
Formal training paths include:
- Home study and on-line paralegal programs that may take a few months to a year to complete
- Certificate programs offered by business and proprietary schools (also typically ranging from several months to a year to complete)
- Associates degrees offered by community colleges that are typically completed in two years
- College and universities offering four-year degrees in paralegal studies
- Advanced post-graduate degree programs offering masters degrees in paralegal studies, legal administration or legal studies.
What specifically do paralegal training programs teach?
The curricula of paralegal training programs will teach legal theory and principles along with the practical job skills needed to execute various tasks. The legal theory and principles will include general, municipal and business law, criminal law, civil torts and procedures, as well as particular areas like tax law, real estate, probate and/or intellectual property law. In addition, some general business and finance courses may be included.
The practical job skills covered include legal research, procedural requirements of the court system, introduction to legal software, application of contract practice in business contexts for various industries, docketing, filing and other organizational skills, and sometimes specific skill sets needed for particular paralegal specializations.
Some programs are geared towards, or allow selection of, certain paralegal and industry specializations, while others do not.
Common Paralegal Training Programs
The most common types of formal paralegal training include:
Associate Degree Programs
These are two-year programs offered by community colleges, business schools and some other colleges and universities. Associate programs comprise about 70 semester-hours of which about one half or more will be in paralegal related studies, and the rest will be basic core curricula (math, English, science, social studies, etc.). Some community colleges offer long-distance online paralegal associate programs.
Bachelor’s Degree Programs
Students in bachelor's degree programs take a more extensive core of general education courses than those in associate programs, and about 30-60 credit hours of paralegal related courses. Bachelor’s programs typically take four years to complete.
Certificate programs are often taught by practicing attorneys, and are usually limited to paralegal-focused courses to the exclusion of general education requirements. As such, certificate programs are usually quicker than associate degree programs, comprising only about 20 to 60 semester-hours and sometimes can be completed in as little as six months.
Some may also be offered through internet-based distance training method. . For example, the National Paralegal College offers a 7-month online certificate program, and the Center for Legal Studies offers a 3-month online course.
Many of the shortest paralegal certificate programs presuppose an associate or bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite, but one’s degree may be in an unrelated area. A small number of certificate programs, however, do require prior law-related credit hours and/or work experience.
Certification as a professional paralegal can also be sought after completing another paralegal training program, or by currently practicing paralegals. For example, a paralegal or aspiring paralegal can apply to the American Alliance of Paralegals for certification, and the National Association of Legal Assistants offers an exam one can take for certification.
In practice, most paralegals do not seek or obtain certification, but in some cases it can be a competitive advantage. Obtaining certification shows employers your commitment to the profession, and substantiates your competence within the skills tested by the certification process including knowledge of legal procedure and research, communication and writing skills.
Master's Degree Programs
Master’s degrees are relatively rare among paralegal programs, but do exist among some universities that also offer undergraduate paralegal programs. A master’s degree is not required by most employers.
An internship usually spans three months to a year or so, and is likely to be both a valuable training tool and an excellent way to network and get one’s foot in the door. Internships may be included in, as requirements or options, in some of the above training programs. But an internship can also be sought to augment one’s skills and industry connections. In rare cases, an internship could conceivably serve as a stand-alone paralegal training program leading to permanent employment as a professional paralegal.
Some of the above formal training programs are certified by the Standing Committee on Paralegals of the American Bar Association as meeting the appropriate subset of the ABA’s standards for various legal professionals, and you can see a list of those programs here. Programs are evaluated by the ABA only by the request of the institution, online and other distance training programs are generally not eligible, and less than half of available paralegal training programs are in fact ABA certified.
Things to consider when choosing your paralegal training program
The primary things to investigate and evaluate boil down to two bottom-line questions:
Is this program doable for me?
Location, tuition and fees, availability of financial aid, compatibility with your daily schedule, total number of months or years to complete the program, and pre-requisite requirements, if any, are the primary personal do-ability factors you’ll need to check out.
If you are considering an online or other distance-based program, check out some key details to evaluate if the particular program will work for you. For example, investigate how much direct interaction with teachers is available when needed, whether it can fit your schedule, and how it is done – phone contact, online chat, Skype or similar, etc. And check whether the primary teaching tools – whether they be written materials, videos, or live lecture broadcasts, etc. – are compatible with your learning style.
What will be the practical real-life results of completing the program?
Check out the graduate placement rate of each program you are considering. If a high percentage of those who complete the program are hired for decent paralegal jobs within a few months of graduating, that’s an excellent sign that a program may work for your goals, too – especially if many graduates go on to the kind of paralegal work you would prefer to do, or work for the kinds of employers you want to work for.
If you already have some specific employers in mind, talking to your potential employers and getting their feedback on different programs can be an excellent way to assess which program to choose. A potential employer may indicate that completing some programs more than others will positively influence their confidence in hiring you.