Fifteen years as a paralegal, another twenty-five as an attorney, Rose M. Turzak, Esq., a retired attorney licensed in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, knows a thing or two about the law. So, when we asked her what words of advice she would give to someone considering a career in the paralegal field, I knew it was time to lean in and listen closely:
“You’ve got to remember that you are directly underneath a lawyer who’s relying on you. You’ve got to know your meat and potatoes, you’ve got to know the fundamentals, and you’ve got to have a good ethical grounding.” After all, she said, “The law is a very demanding mistress.”
And demanding it is. Your day starts bright and early, reviewing the dockets, inspecting the attorneys’ calendars, and answering the long list of emails that have managed to accumulate in your inbox since last evening. You’ll finalize an opposition to a motion and make sure the evidence you’ve prepared over the last few weeks is copied, collated and labeled, but only after you drop everything to handle a minor emergency with one of the attorney’s last-minute schedule changes.
And that’s before lunch.
If you want to become a paralegal, you better come prepared with a keen eye for detail, a knack for organization and multi-tasking, a love of the law, patience, determination… and, of course, a formal education in paralegal studies.
But if you’re looking for a clear-cut, definitive educational path to becoming a paralegal, you might be surprised to find that things aren’t really all that cut and dry. Despite the fact that you’ll spend your days with attorneys who have all checked the same accomplishments off the list – earned an ABA-approved law degree, passed the bar exam, gained state licensure to practice law – there are surprisingly few constants among their most trusted subordinates.
So, here’s the thing about becoming a paralegal: There’s no right or wrong route to take.
The profession is not regulated, there’s no state certification or licensing and, depending on your personal and professional goals, an undergraduate certificate can be just as useful as a master’s degree in legal studies.
Professional Certification is Not the Same As an Academic Certificate
There are exam-based professional certification options too through originations like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), but you don’t want to confuse this with an academic certificate from a college or university:
- Academic certificate programs available through colleges and universities provide entry-level education and training for students looking to acquire the skills they need to work as paralegals.
- Professional certification, of the other hand, is a voluntary professional credential you can apply for by meeting the education and experience requirements set by a certifying body like NALA, and passing an exam that demonstrates competency.
The terms certificate and certification are frequently used interchangeably, which has been known to cause some confusion for people coming into the field. Think of it this way: a certificate in paralegal studies will teach you the skills you need to work in the field, while professional certification is something you can qualify for separately by demonstrating that you’ve mastered those skills.
Still, you will find that many quality colleges offer certificate programs in paralegal studies that do teach specifically to the standards of popular professional certifications, like NALA’s CLA/CP (Certified Legal Assistant/Certified Paralegal) designation. Programs of this sort provide a clear path to earning a nationally-recognized professional credential after completing the program.
Even with Few State Regulations There are Still Commonly Accepted Education Standards
Because there are few legal mandates for paralegals to complete a certain level of education, there is no official educational standard for entry-level employment. But several states do offer paralegals with formal training the opportunity to join the State Bar or enjoy greater autonomy and practice privileges on the basis of education, a trend that is likely to be seen in more and more states in the coming years.
Still, even in the absence of official requirements, there is a commonly accepted educational standard, and the vast majority of paralegals begin with an undergraduate certificate or associate’s degree in paralegal studies. Needless to say, most law firms and corporate legal departments would expect to see this on a resume.
Public and private institutions, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, business colleges, and proprietary institutions, all offer paralegal educational programs. There are about 1,200 paralegal programs in the United States, from undergraduate certificate programs to master’s degree programs, although the large majority are designed as certificate programs and associate degree programs.
The paralegal profession is open to individuals from a wide array of educational backgrounds and professional experiences to draw from. A full understanding of your options will help you in deciding what type of paralegal degree makes the most sense for your situation.
Recommendations and Curriculum Standards for Paralegal Degree Programs
Four main organizations contribute guidelines used in establishing the commonly accepted standards for paralegal education:
- American Bar Association (ABA): The Standing Committee on Paralegals, Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs
- NALA: The Association of Paralegals, Model Standards and Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegals
- National Federal of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), A Guide to Quality Paralegal Education
- American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE): Core Competencies for Paralegal Programs
All these organizations recommend that programs should consist of no less than 60 semester hours of credit, which equates to a two-year program that should consist of general courses along with paralegal core and specialty courses.
But recommendations are just that. Since there is no legal requirement to meet certain educational minimums, this places the onus on you to get the education and training you believe would best prepare you to work in a law firm, government agency, non-profit or corporate legal department…
If you have been working in a profession where you developed strong communication skills through years of practice, then maybe you don’t need the extra coursework, in which case a certificate program would suffice…
But if you’re a new student without much work experience and haven’t had the chance to refine these skills, an associate degree is definitely worth considering. In fact, if you ask these organizations, they’d actually recommend it.
These is even a push now toward a bachelor’s degree becoming the new standard for paralegals, and the movement is starting to gain some backing. For example, the NFPA recommends students pursue a four-year degree to enter the paralegal profession, and the ABA recommends that institutions that don’t already offer a bachelor’s degree for paralegals enter into matriculation agreements with four-year colleges and universities to accept transfer students.
ABA, AAfPE, NFPA and NALA Recommendations Include General Education Courses
There’s a general consensus that the programs that include general education courses along with paralegal core and specialty courses provide the best preparation for becoming a well-rounded paralegals with strong writing and communication skills.
ABA approval is only granted to programs that include at least 18 semester hours of general education. The ABA places such an emphasis on a well-rounded education that it prefers for students to complete all general education courses before taking legal specialty courses. Students in ABA-approved programs must be able to demonstrate writing proficiency at the college level and competency in oral communication.
AAfPE member schools also must offer programs that include at least 18 semester hours of general education. The AAfPE recognizes individuals as meeting entry-level requirements if they hold an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies specifically, but also recognizes equivalent coursework that may have been completed as part of any associate’s, bachelor’s, certificate, or master’s degree program, a statement that emphasizes the value the organization places on general education.
Schools that teach to NFPA standards offer programs with at least 24 semester hours in a combination of general education and useful electives like social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, English, foreign language, or mathematics.
NALA is a little more flexible with their recommendations, but outlines several options that include general education as part of entry-level qualifications, among them deferring to ABA-approved programs with 18 semester hours of general courses, or a 60-semester hour program consisting of general courses, or a bachelor’s degree in any field plus 6-months of in-house training.
No matter how you accomplish it, according to all the organizations recognized as an authority on the subject, some general education should be included in your education.
Legal Core and Specialty Courses
There is quite a bit of uniformity among the national organizations regarding what qualifies as adequate legal core and specialty courses too.
ABA recommends at least 18 semester hours of legal specialty coursework. Legal specialty courses within an ABA-approved program must meet the following requirements:
- Must cover substantive law or legal procedures or processes
- Must have been developed for paralegals
- Must emphasize practical paralegal skills
The ABA notes that legal courses, such as legal research, legal writing, probate, real estate, and litigation, should emphasize practical paralegal skills.
NFPA recommends that paralegal programs be built on a core curriculum that requires students to complete legal specialty courses designed to impart specialized knowledge in one or more paralegal specialty areas.
NFPA does not list specific course titles because paralegal program formats vary. It also doesn’t list a specific number of credit hours that are to be devoted to core or major legal courses. However, it recognizes that the following subjects should be part of the core curriculum:
- Litigation/Civil Procedure
- Legal Research and Writing
- Real Property Transactions
- Business and Corporate Law
- Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning
- Family Law
The NFPA also recognizes substantive paralegal courses in specialty areas that include:
- Administrative Law
- Bankruptcy Law
- Criminal Law
- Debtor/Creditor Rights
- Elder Law
- Environmental Law
- Immigration Law
- Intellectual Property
- Labor Relations/Employment Law
- Law Office Economics and Management
- Pension/Profit Sharing
- Social Security Law
- Tax Law
AAfPE recommends no less than 18 semester hours of paralegal core and specialty courses. According to the AAfPE, the main goal of a paralegal program is to develop competent paralegals. In order to do this, paralegal programs must include legal courses that include both general legal courses and specialized legal courses. All courses should emphasize critical thinking, communications, and practical skills.
Field Experience Requirements
Everybody can appreciate the benefit of gaining some real-world experience as a way to learn and practice the work you’ll be doing before being thrown to the wolves. You can always apply for internships or take advantage of volunteer opportunities outside of your degree program, but ABA and NFPA feel strongly that this experience should be included as part of the degree program. The cool thing is that internships that are part of your degree program are considered a class like any other, which means you’ll be given assistance with placement instead of having to find the opportunities on your own, and you’ll receive credits, just like you would with any other course.
The ABA strongly recommends that field experiences, like internships, cooperative education placements, and law clinics, be offered as part of a paralegal degree program. In order for field experiences offered as part of a degree program to be classified as legal specialty courses, programs must have a systematic plan for developing, assigning, monitoring, and evaluating field experiences. There must also be a clear understanding of course expectations among students and field supervisors, there must be ongoing communication between the field experience supervisor, student, and the program representative, and the program must emphasize a student’s paralegal skills and competencies.
The NFPA recognizes that an internship should focus on hands-on training for the paralegal student and should provide an opportunity for a student to work in a legal environment as part of their educational experience.
According to the NFPA, internships provide students with an opportunity to apply their skills in a practical setting and develop a professional orientation. Through internships, students gain experience working directly in the legal system with other legal professionals. The NFPA recognizes that internships should be closely supervised and should provide “meaningful paralegal work.” The NFPA notes that an internship as a required course helps maintain a balance between practice and theory.
Undergraduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies
- Designed for recent high school graduates and career changers entering the legal field.
- Suitable for people that have an associate’s degree or higher in an area other than law as well as those who have no college education.
- Entry-level certificate programs offer the fastest option available.
Undergraduate or entry-level certificate programs available through community colleges, state schools and private universities provide academic training for paralegals, but aren’t technically considered a degree program since the coursework focuses almost exclusively on paralegal skills and doesn’t include any general coursework. They are designed to provide a broad and foundational education in the legal field that prepares students for the paralegal profession.
Some entry-level certificate programs are designed specifically for people looking to make a career change and require incoming students to hold an associate’s degree in another area. These specialty programs represent a pretty rare exception, and most programs are open to students right out of high school.
Individuals working in the legal environment—legal secretaries, file clerks, etc.—often pursue certificate programs so they can advance into paralegal work.There are some certificate programs specifically designed for
No matter what field or background students might come from, entry-level certificate programs offer the best option for getting an education in paralegal studies and entering the job market as quickly as possible.
The courses taken in these programs can often be transferred toward earning an associate’s degree through the same school, but aren’t always transferrable to another institution.
Admission requirements generally include a high school diploma or GED.
Certificate programs specifically designed for career changers would require an associate’s degree at minimum.
Courses and Credits
These programs provide a strong legal foundation, offering courses such as legal terminology, research, ethics, and document preparation.
An undergraduate paralegal certificate program usually consists of about 24 credits. Most are self-paced programs that can be completed entirely online.
Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Designed for new paralegal students without any post-secondary education and career changers that may or may not hold a degree in another area.
- For those interested in a well-rounded education that includes some electives and general education courses.
Associate degree programs may be designed as Associate in Science (AS), Associate in Arts (AA), or Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degrees and generally consist of two years of full-time study, but are often self-paced, allowing you to take the time you need.
The majority of associate degree programs in paralegal studies are offered through community colleges and private four-year colleges, which also often offer bachelor’s degrees in legal studies, giving students the option to transfer credits toward a bachelor’s degree if they choose. Individuals who want the option of advancing on to a bachelor’s degree in the future often choose an associate degree because of the ability to transfer most or all of the credits.
Some associate degree programs in legal studies even include an internship where students have the opportunity to gain practical, on-the-job experience using the knowledge they gained throughout the program.
High school diploma or GED required.
Despite the open admission requirements among many community colleges, it is quite typical for institutions to require candidates for paralegal associate degree programs to submit writing samples and letters of recommendation and sit for personal interviews to ensure they are able to handle the rigors of a paralegal program.
Courses and Credits
An associate’s degree in paralegal studies includes a comprehensive program of study that consists of about 60 semester credit hours and two years of full-time study that includes:
- 3-4 general education courses that often include English Composition, Business Writing, College Algebra, Probability and Statistics.
- 3-4 core paralegal courses that typically include Contracts, Legal Research and Writing, and Professional Responsibility/Legal Ethics
- 8 or more courses in specialty/advanced law topics:
- Criminal Law
- Business Law & Bankruptcy
- Wills, Trusts and Estates
- Alternate Dispute Resolution
- Employment Law
Bachelor’s Degree Programs in Paralegal Studies
- Designed as four-year programs for new students entering the field who have not yet taken any college courses.
- Offered as two-year completion programs for practicing paralegals who are transferring credits from an associate’s degree program they have already completed.
- Professionals from other fields (including healthcare, business, accounting or finance) interested in becoming paralegals can transfer some undergraduate credits in.
- Great for practicing paralegals who are interested in specializing in an area of law, advancing in the field, and/or considering moving on to law school.
Bachelor’s degrees in legal studies may be designed as Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees and consist of about four years of full-time study, or two years for those transferring in with associate’s degree. They are often referred to as Legal Studies or Paralegal Studies programs, usually with no discernible distinction made between the two titles.
A four-year degree in legal studies not only satisfies the undergraduate requirement necessary for admission into law school, but it is also a smart choice for students who want to work as a paralegal while attending law school.
Many law firms and corporate legal departments also seek paralegals that have some education or a background in the areas they work in, whether finance, healthcare or computer science. Anybody with transferable credits from an associate’s degree in one of these areas would be able to put together an impressive set of diverse skills and knowledge with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
People are also more often choosing to enter the professional workforce for the first time with a four-year bachelor’s degree in legal studies. You also have the option of majoring in an area like criminal justice, political science, and business administration with a minor in paralegal studies, and conversely you could also minor in these subjects if legal studies is your major. Choosing how you want to structure your education in terms of majors or minors really comes down to what area you are most interested in and where you want to go in your career. If you know you’re interested in criminal law and want to work for a District Court prosecutor, then a criminal justice minor would be a natural choice; if you want to work in a corporate legal department, business administration would be a wise option.
Choosing paralegal studies as a minor essentially means you expect legal knowledge to be supplementary to your primary skill-set. This is becoming more and more relevant in a variety of fields as everybody from healthcare administrators to HR professionals find themselves dealing with legal issues on a daily basis. From business to healthcare and everything in between, many fields are seeing new legal roles being created and existing roles being reoriented around the need for legal expertise.
Students who have already earned an associate’s degree in paralegal studies are often able to transfer most of their credits toward a bachelor’s degree in legal studies.
Depending on the requirements of the program, admission is often limited to candidates with a minimum high school GPA and minimum ACT/SAT exam scores.
Transfer students are usually limited from transferring only those courses where they earned a B or better.
Courses and Credits
A full four-year bachelor’s degree will consist of 120 semester hours of credit.
Similar to associate degree programs, requirements include general education courses, electives, and specialty courses. General education courses include topics in English, mathematics, the natural sciences, and the social sciences.
In addition to mastering paralegal core courses in areas like legal research and writing, contract law and ethics, bachelor’s degree program provides students with the opportunity to study one or more areas of legal specialization in-depth. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, you will have developed an expertise in one or more areas of law, which could include these among many others:
- Litigation and Advocacy
- Public Law
- Sports and Entertainment Law
- Commercial and Transactional Law
- Criminal Law and Individual Liberties
It is common for bachelor’s degrees in legal studies to include an internship.
Master’s Degree in Legal Studies
- Designed for practicing paralegals interested in highly specialized and emerging areas of law.
- Also designed for mid-career college educated professionals in a variety of fields, from HR management and business administration to healthcare administration and public policy whose jobs duties frequently intersect with the law.
- Also an option for bachelor’s degree holders in fields other than law looking to make a career change and become a paralegal.
Graduate-level degrees are designed as a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) or a Master of Science in Law (MSL). They may also go by a number of names, such as the Master of Studies in Law and a Master in the Study of Law.
The MLS/MSL is specifically designed for paralegals and other legal and business professionals interested in advancing their knowledge in the law but have no plans to practice law.
A growing number of colleges and universities are offering master’s degree programs in legal studies. These give paralegals working in law firms, corporate legal departments, government agencies and non-profits the opportunity to focus in-depth studies on the very specific area of law they work in. MLS programs are available in a tremendous variety of concentrations specific to different areas of law … HR & Employment, Sustainability, Intellection Property, Disability Law, Health Law, Energy Law, Elder law, Regulatory Law, Sports Law, Government Contract Law, Corporate Compliance … and on and on.
And for this reason, these programs are definitely not limited just to paralegals or those working in legal departments. The MLS is also for HR professionals, healthcare administrators, business managers and executives, non-profit managers, entrepreneurs and just about anybody else whose job frequently involves maneuvering through the legal aspects of their field or industry. This makes the degree ideal for those looking to advance in their career, or reorient their career with a greater focus on field-specific legal expertise.
In fact, in many cases developing this kind of field-specific legal expertise would be the most valuable thing they could contribute to their company. Imagine an HR manager at a construction firm that constantly deals with worker’s comp claims, employment discrimination suits, and benefits administration for current employees. An MLS with a concentration in labor and employment law could be a more relevant option than a master’s in HR management.
Note: The LLM is another graduate-level degree; however, it is designed for practicing attorneys and other legal professionals who want to pursue another specialization. Admission into an LLM program usually requires a JD and a law license.
Admission into these programs requires a bachelor’s degree and acceptable GRE, MAT, or LSAT scores. While some institutions do not require an entrance exam, most require a resume, undergraduate transcripts, and at least two letters of recommendation. Some may also require an essay/personal statement.
Courses and Credits
The MLS/MSL includes between 30-36 semester credits and takes about 12-16 months to complete. In addition to paralegals, these programs are common among everyone from business executives to policy makers, offering in-depth study in areas like intellectual property, business law, and immigration law.
The focus of these programs is on the advanced study of major legal issues and on the legal analysis of cases and laws, the study of constitutional law, the philosophy of law, and contemporary legal issues.
Courses in an MLS/MSL program mirror those taken by first-year JD students. Topics of study usually include:
- Legal research and writing
- Civil procedure
- Intellectual property
Programs typically allow students to choose one or more concentrations. These may include dispute resolution, healthcare corporate compliance, intellectual property, government contract law, and cybersecurity, among many others. Some programs offer the option to earn an accompanying graduate certificate in the area of focus concurrent with the master’s degree.
A capstone project usually rounds out these programs and provides students with the opportunity to apply theory in a real-world setting.
Graduate Certificates/Post-Baccalaureate Certificates in Paralegal Studies
- Designed for bachelor’s educated mid-career professionals in virtually any field who would benefit from a greater familiarity with the law.
- Also an option for bachelor’s degree holders in fields other than law looking to make a career change and become a paralegal.
Graduate or post-baccalaureate certificates offer an accelerated path to developing general legal knowledge. These programs are available to bachelor’s-educated professionals from other fields looking to become paralegals, and mid-career professionals from other fields interested in developing their legal expertise as a way to reorient their career or advance in their current role.
Graduate certificate programs typically offer a general course of study in legal studies and the option to specialize by selecting from courses in various areas of law applicable to the students current career or career goals.
There is little distinction made between programs classified as graduate certificate programs versus those referred to as post-baccalaureate certificate programs in terms of what they offer and the kind of professional they are designed for. The difference is typically in name alone. Schools that offer bachelor’s degrees with the option to minor in paralegal studies simply offer post-baccalaureate certificate programs that mirror the courses students would take as part of a paralegal minor.
It is common for colleges and universities to offer paralegal certificate programs through their continuing education or extension division.
Many of these programs are offered either entirely or partially online, and many programs feature part-time or full-time schedules.
Common admissions requirements include a bachelor’s degree in any major through an accredited school and an accumulative GPA of no less than 3.0. Just like any other graduate program, some schools would require passing scores on GRE, MAT, or LSAT exams. Not all schools require an entrance exam, but all would require a resume, undergraduate transcripts. Some may require letters of recommendation and an essay or personal statement.
Courses and Credits
Many career changers—even those who already hold graduate degrees in another field—often choose graduate certificate programs over a master’s degree because they offer a concentrated program of study that can be completed in just a few months. Some of these programs consist of as little as 18 credits.
Courses typically include an introduction to paralegal studies, legal ethics, and legal research and writing, before going on to courses in the common areas of law, including family law, estate and probate, labor and employment, contract law, and tort law, among others.
Determining the Quality of a Paralegal Program
So, how do you know if the program you choose will properly prepare you to enter or advance in the paralegal profession?
Generally, there are a few things you should look for in a paralegal program. Accreditation is an important factor when determining the quality of a paralegal institution because it indicates that the institution has met specific guidelines for the program and its curriculum. Paralegal programs may be accredited by regional accrediting agencies, such as:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- New England Association of Colleges and Schools
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
There are also a number of specialty accrediting agencies that may accredit these programs:
- Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
- Council for Occupational Education
- New York State Board of Regents
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission
But an examination of paralegal degree programs shouldn’t end there. Other considerations should include the school’s graduation rate, employment rate, and its reputation for professors with industry experience, student support services (academic counseling, job placement, etc.), and innovative courses.
And, of course, geographic location, admission requirements, and tuition costs are also an important part of the equation. Many institutions have begun offering paralegal degrees as blended programs or fully online programs to accommodate working students and those who don’t reside near an institution offering a paralegal degree program.
But What About ABA Approval?
While at first it may seem that only those programs that have been approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) possess the quality curriculum needed to land a good paralegal job, this just isn’t the case. While ABA approval is indicative of a program that has been extensively evaluated to ensure its curriculum produces competent paralegals, there are only about 270 ABA-approved paralegal programs—that represents just about 22 percent of all the paralegal programs in the U.S.
ABA-approved paralegals programs include two-year, four-year, and certificate programs, although they only recognize campus-based programs. This means that the many online paralegal programs in the U.S. are not eligible for ABA approval.
ABA-approved paralegal programs generally have higher tuition costs than their non-ABA-approved counterparts, and for many students, attending an ABA-approved school is simply not possible due to geographic limitations.
Many prestigious institutions have chosen to forgo the ABA approval process for their paralegal programs, largely in part of the fee that’s required to hold this designation. Just a few of the colleges/universities that have chosen to decline ABA approval include Boston University, UC Berkeley Extension, and Duke University.
According to Boston University, “We have found that most employers seeking to hire paralegals place more value on the reputation of Boston University and the Paralegal Studies Program than ABA approval, which is obtained for a fee.”
UC Berkeley Extension determined that “opting for ABA approval will not enhance the quality of the certificate.”
According to Duke, “Students can be assured that when attending the Paralegal Program at Duke, they will be receiving an education that meets Duke’s high academic standards.”
Still, it’s important to know that some employers still prefer candidates who have completed an ABA-approved program. It’s therefore important to weigh your options and consider all educational opportunities before making a decision.