According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, 85% of paralegals have formal paralegal training. For future paralegals, this statistic is critically important. Your likelihood of career success—from receiving an invitation to interview for a position, to earning a competitive salary—increases if you pursue an appropriate paralegal education.
However, with multiple training options available, and roughly 600 paralegal programs in the United States alone, determining the meaning of “appropriate” can be difficult. To assist you, the below is an introductory guide to how to become a paralegal.
General educational requirements
While different employers seek different credentials for paralegal hires, there are several items to keep in mind. First, a high school diploma or GED is the absolute minimum education allowable, though the National Association of Legal Assistants states that only 14% of paralegals listed this as their highest degree attained in 2016. Pursuing one of the two options below is highly advised.
Second, future paralegals should choose an education program that prioritizes the skills and theory that the profession requires. The American Association for Paralegal Education has identified nine such abilities: critical thinking, ethics, familiarity with computers, general communication, interviewing and investigation, law office management, legal research, legal writing, and organization. A grounding in these areas can position you for a long and successful career as a paralegal, as can an understanding of business organizations, contracts, litigation, and torts. Paralegals should also possess general reading, writing, and mathematics skills, and well-developed interpersonal skills. Finally, in order to become a paralegal, students should complete a hands-on learning experience like an externship, an internship, or a practicum.
Option 1: The paralegal degree
Currently, paralegal degrees are available at the Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s level, with Master’s degrees less common than the first two options. Paralegal degrees are offered by both colleges and universities, though not every school in America will have a program. A paralegal degree is typically intended for people who do not hold such a credential. (If you have earned a two- or four-year degree, see Option 2 below.)
What differentiates an Associate’s and Bachelor’s paralegal degree? Simply put, length. An Associate’s degree requires 60 to 70 semester units. Program completion usually takes two years, and classes are fairly evenly divided between general education and courses specific to the paralegal field. For instance, the Associate of Applied Science at Center for Advanced Legal Studies is 62 credit hours, which can be completed in as few as 21 months on-campus or online. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics states that an Associate’s degree is the minimum educational credential required by most paralegal employers. Shorter program length is often seen as an advantage of a specialized Associate's degree over a Bachelor's degree, and allows earlier entry into the career field.
A Bachelor’s degree is at least a four-year commitment, with a total of 120 to 130 semester units. (30 to 60 of these units concern material specific to paralegals.) Depending on the college or university that you choose, your degree may include a paralegal major, a paralegal concentration within another major, or a minor. A paralegal degree at the Associate’s or Bachelor’s level may be one of several options, including an Associate of Arts, an Associate of Science, a Bachelor of Arts, or a Bachelor of Science.
Option 2: The paralegal certificate
A paralegal certificate is an ideal option for individuals who already possess an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree—regardless of whether your current degree directly relates to law or the paralegal profession. It is also the shortest educational route available to prospective paralegals.
According to the American Association for Paralegal Education, certificate programs are generally 18 to 60 semester units in length. Longer programs typically focus on both general education and paralegal coursework, while shorter programs revolve around paralegal knowledge and skills. An 18-unit certificate may thus be perfect for a career-changer with a Bachelor’s degree, and a 60-hour program may benefit an individual with no formal education other than high school.
In certain instances, credit from a certificate program may be applied toward an Associate’s degree. Students who are interested in immediately furthering their education may benefit from an option like that offered by Center for Advanced Legal Studies in which the paralegal certificate is completed prior to entry into the Associate's degree program. As is also the case for Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree programs, certificate classes may be held in the day or the evening, as well as online and in-person.
by Caroline Duda
Interested in learning more about Center for Advanced Legal Studies? Contact us today to begin your journey toward a paralegal career.