The first step to becoming a paralegal is to get your degree or certificate from an accredited institution.
What is accreditation? Accreditation is the recognition that an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.1 Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then “accredited” by that agency.2
Accreditation is important because it:
- Helps determine if an institution meets or exceeds minimum standards of quality.
- Helps students determine acceptable institutions for enrollment.
- Assist institutions in determining acceptability of transfer credits.
- Helps employers determine the validity of programs of study and whether a graduate is qualified.
- Employers often require evidence that applicants have received a degree from an accredited school or program.
- Helps employers determine eligibility for employee tuition reimbursement programs.
- Enables graduates to sit for certification examinations.
- Involves staff, faculty, students, graduates, and advisory boards in institutional evaluation and planning.
- Creates goals for institutional self-improvement.
- Provides a self-regulatory alternative for state oversight functions.
- Provides a basis for determining eligibility for federal student assistance. Students must attend an accredited institution to apply for federal grants or loans.3
Does the American Bar Association accredit paralegal programs? The ABA is not authorized to accredit paralegal programs. The ABA serves as an accrediting agency for law schools only.4 This distinction has been a source of confusion for many years as some falsely believe they must attend a paralegal program that is ‘ABA Accredited’. Many states require attorneys to attend an ABA accredited law school to sit for the state bar exam to become licensed to practice law in that state. There is no such requirement for paralegals. The ABA does approve paralegal programs, but cautions “the admission requirements, length of time to complete and other characteristics of the [ABA approved paralegal] programs . . . vary considerably from one institution to another.5
Adding to this confusion is the proliferation of paralegal programs housed in the continuing education departments of many otherwise prestigious colleges and universities. While the college or university may be accredited, the programs contained within the continuing education department often are not. It is good to remember, that just because the program is located on the same campus doesn't mean that it is being offered by the same institution or is required to meet the same standards. Be sure to ask if the program is accredited.
Takeaway: There are many factors to consider when choosing which paralegal program to attend. To help insure you receive a quality paralegal education and respected paralegal credential, it is best to give priority to paralegal programs that are accredited.