The paralegal education landscape is changing, shifting to appeal to non-traditional students preparing to enter the profession later in life and those already in the field looking to rise to meet the new challenges lawyers are dishing out daily.
You’ve been working in the law office long enough to see that you’re going to be limited if you don’t dig in now and start furthering your education. That young new paralegal that just got hired on has got nothing on you yet, and they sure as hell aren’t going to gain one inch of ground if you’ve got anything to say about it.
This is the point in your career when specializing and advancing is already as good as done, you just need the right program to move you forward – whether ‘forward’ means being able to take on more specialized work with your existing firm, or making a move for a new job with a bigger, better, badder firm. You know, the one with offices on the top floor of the glass tower downtown.
Fortunately, there are plenty of advanced programs designed with you in mind.
You may hold an undergraduate certificate, a post-degree certificate, or associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies… but now that you’ve put down roots in the paralegal profession, it’s time to get serious about heading back to school to complete a more advanced certificate or degree program.
One of these scenarios likely applies to you…
You have an undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies… so you would complete an associate’s degree in paralegal studies
You have a post-associate’s certificate in paralegal studies… so you would complete a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, with or without a legal specialization in as little as two years by transferring in credits from your associate’s degree
You have an associate’s degree in paralegal studies… so you would complete a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies either with or without a legal specialization in as little as two years by transferring in credits from your associate’s degree
You have a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, with or without a legal specialty… so you would complete a graduate certificate or master’s degree in legal studies with a track in a legal specialty
Have an Undergraduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies?
Advance with an Associate’s Degree
If you’ve completed an undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies, moving on to earn an associate’s degree in paralegal studies is the best choice you can make if you have more/better professional opportunities on your mind.
While an undergraduate paralegal certificate does produce competent paralegals through a foundational education in the legal field, it doesn’t include the general education courses the American Bar Association and the major paralegal professional organizations recommend. All of these organizations recommend at least 18 credits of general education at the post-secondary level, making an associate’s degree the educational minimum.
Ask any of the big industry players – the ABA, NALA, NALS, and the AAfPE – and they’ll say an associate’s is the educational minimum that paralegals need to be able to represent the profession as well-rounded professionals capable of everything from their core legal work to communicating effectively with attorneys and law firm clients.
Schools that offer both undergraduate paralegal certificate programs and associate degree programs in paralegal studies will often allow you to transfer credits toward the associate’s, allowing you to earn the degree in much less time. If the program was offered through proprietary school that doesn’t offer an associate’s, then you won’t have much luck when it comes to transferring credits and will need to complete a full 2-year program to meet the recommended minimums.
A number of schools even offer students the option to complete a certificate in paralegal studies at the same they complete an associate degree in a related field. This provides all the foundational paralegal courses and even some electives that will allow you to tailor your education around a particular area of law, plus an associate’s degree to compliment it. This makes for a powerful combination that goes beyond meeting the minimums and is highly marketable, especially if your degree aligns with the type of law you’ll be practicing or the setting you’ll be working in: Imagine how a law firm that specializes in corporate law would view a job candidate with an associate’s in business with an accompanying certificate in paralegal studies.
Similarly, some schools offering post-degree certificate programs that require an associate’s degree for admission will allow students to concurrently complete the certificate program and the associate degree program in a related field.
Have an Associate’s in Paralegal Studies or Post-Associate’s Certificate?
Advance with a Bachelor’s Degree
You may have earned a certificate or associate degree in paralegal studies, but you know that the American Bar Association (ABA), along with several paralegal associations, including NALA and the NFPA, all recommend the four-year bachelor’s degree for paralegals. You also know that the major law firms with a presence in the most demanding urban markets now often require paralegals to hold a four-degree at minimum. This is your chance to put on the big britches and get serious about making a move to the job you’ve really been coveting. Without a four-year degree, you can pretty much just keep dreaming because it will continue to be out of reach.
Earning a bachelor’s degree is a natural progression for paralegals with advancement on their minds or their sites set on a new employer, not to mention being a smart choice for anybody that wants to simply keep up with the increasingly specialized work lawyers are laying on the desks of their legal support staff.
Here’s your options… Pursue a bachelor’s degree (BA or BS) in paralegal or legal studies or a bachelor’s degree in a similar field, like political science or business administration, with a minor in paralegal studies.
If you already have an associate’s degree, you’ll likely be able to transfer some or all your general education and paralegal course credits, trimming what would ordinarily be a four-year (120-128 credit) degree down to as few as 60 credits that you can complete in a two- or three-year period.
You can choose to complete a bachelor’s degree in general legal studies, or you can focus your bachelor’s degree in one or more areas of the law – contract administration, environmental law, eDiscovery, criminal law, asbestos litigation, immigration law; you name it, there’s a program out there for you with a specialized track or you can simply customize your experience with the electives you choose.
While many bachelor’s degrees culminate in an internship, as an experienced paralegal you may be better off completing a final project or paper that allows you to practice and demonstrate your advanced level of knowledge in the law.
Have a Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies or Post-Bac Certificate?
Advance with a Master’s Degree or Graduate Certificate
You’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree, so you’ve set yourself up nicely to complete graduate work in the study of law. This is your opportunity to really focus in and become an absolute killer in a specific area of law.
Graduate-level degrees are designed as a Master of Paralegal Studies, Master of Legal Studies (MLS) or a Master of Science in Law/Master of Studies in Law (MSL); and of course there are also MA degrees in legal studies … all different names for what is essentially the same degree, so don’t let the variations in name throw you off. Granted, a master’s in paralegal studies is more targeted toward the traditional paralegal role, while the master’s degrees in legal studies offer more flexibility so they are also often used as an add-on degree for people in fields like business administration, HR, or healthcare administration.
You want to get serious about focusing? Here’s your shot at finding a focused program designed to prepare you to bleed your legal specialty. Just about any track you can think of is available these days… innovation and technology, health law, business development, intellectual property, human rights, tribal law, environmental law, international economics and policy, mining and mineral rights… and, of course, all the standards, like tax law, family law, and corporate compliance.
The MLS and other similar master’s are different from the other graduate-level law degree, the LLM. The LLM is for practicing lawyers who hold a JD degree and a law license. Unless you intend to take the bar, then what you’re after is a master’s degree, not an LLM.
Master’s degree programs consist of about 36 semester hours and two years of full-time study, with virtually all coursework related to law.
Graduate certificate programs consist of about 18 semester credits. Many practicing paralegals choose graduate certificates over master’s degrees because they can be completed in about a year.
While your previous undergraduate education in paralegal studies prepared you for the general paralegal field, a graduate degree or certificate is designed specifically for career enhancement. Because most students completing these degrees are working professionals, it is common for schools to offer them through partially or fully online programs.
Entry into these programs often requires a minimum GPA in undergraduate studies and minimum GRE, MAT, or LSAT scores. Additional eligibility requirements include admissions essays, letters of recommendation, and personal interviews.
Advancing and Specializing by Adding Advanced Professional Certification
Professional certification makes it clear that you have no intention of getting lost in the crowd. You’ve worked hard, first by completing a certificate or degree in paralegal studies, then by landing a job and distinguishing yourself through selfless heroism in the trenches. Through professional certification, you show employers, clients, and colleagues alike that you’ll stop at nothing short of excellence.
While the question of state regulation of paralegals continues to dominate the discussion (To date, there is no mandatory licensing or regulation of paralegals), a number of paralegal organizations have addressed the desire of many paralegals to demonstrate their advanced knowledge and competency and specialize their careers on a specific area of law through voluntary professional certification.
Basic professional certification allows you to set yourself apart from your colleagues and demonstrate to employers that you have achieved a higher level of knowledge and competency in the paralegal profession.
Like a formal degree or academic certificate program through a university, advanced professional certification allows you to advance or specialize your career. And just like an advanced degree or academic certificate, it does so through an education-based process, rather than an exam-based process as was the case with the primary certification you likely hold.
Both paths to advancement – through the halls of academia or through a certification agency – are recognized by employers and respected in the profession. However, professional certification comes with the benefit of being easily recognized thanks to the advanced credential that stands proudly behind your name on business cards and email signatures.
It’s not always an absolute rule, but generally you would build upon your existing primary certification to earn the advanced specialized certification offered through the same certifying agency:
- If you hold NALA’s CP credential… you would go on to earn the ACP (Advanced Certified Paralegal)
- If you hold NFPA’s CRP designation… you would earn the RP (Registered Paralegal) and could then even go on to earn specialty certification through their affiliate organization API (Advanced Paralegal Institute)
- If you hold the NALS PP certification… you would continue by going on to earn SC (Specialty Certification)
If you’re looking to add to your credentials, professional certification may be a good fit, whether or not returning to school for additional education is part of your future plans.
If you haven’t yet considered certification, now may be the time to look into basic certification. If you’ve already earned basic certification, it may be time to explore the advantages of advanced certification.
According to NALA, advanced professional certification affords practicing paralegals the opportunity to display their “command of advanced knowledge” in specific areas of law. NALA surveys also show that paralegals with specialty certification earn higher salaries, and firms often bill at a higher rate for paralegals with specialty certification.
A 2016 NALA compensation survey revealed that paralegals with CP certification earned $59,660, compared to just $55,187 for a paralegal without this designation. Likewise, paralegals with NALA’s ACP certification earned an average salary of $73,321, while those without this designation earned $57,340.
NALA, NFPS, and NALS all offer advanced certification for paralegals. While NALA and NALS give paralegals the opportunity to specialize their certification on a specific area of law, the NFPA advanced certification demonstrates a paralegal’s advanced education and experience in the profession. However, NFPA does partner with API, which offers advanced specialty courses that allow paralegals to display their expertise in a specific area of law.
NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP)
To earn ACP designation, you can take a web-based course in everything from commercial litigation to real estate principles to estate planning and more. Each web-based course is about 20 hours in length and organized into multiple modules. All modules are designed in a curriculum-based format and include exercises and a final assessment.
NFPA Registered Paralegal (RP)
NFPA’s RP designation is indicative of a paralegal who has been working in the profession for a number of years and has therefore achieved a higher level of knowledge. To qualify to take the PACE exam an earn the RP designation, you must have one of the following:
- Associate’s degree in paralegal studies through an ABA program or accredited college or university AND at least 6 years of paralegal experience; OR
- Bachelor’s degree in any course of study and at least 3 years of paralegal experience; OR
- A bachelor’s degree in a paralegal program or a bachelor’s degree followed by a paralegal program AND at least 2 years of paralegal experience; OR
- At least four years of paralegal experience (obtained on or before December 2000)
The PACE exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. Candidates are assessed in the following areas:
- Administration of Client Legal Matters (23%)
- Development of Client Legal Matters (30%)
- Factual and Legal Research (22%)
- Factual and Legal Writing (20.5%)
- Office Administration (4.5%)
To maintain the RP credential, you must complete at least 12 hours of continuing legal education every 2 years.
NFPA Advanced Specialty Courses
In addition to NFPA’s RP designation, paralegals also have the option of earning specialty certification through the Advanced Paralegal Institute (API), which offers 5 advanced specialty certificates:
- Corporate Law
- Elder Law
- Intellectual Property
- Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution
- Corporate Law
API specialty courses are designed for paralegals who have already earned a certificate or degree from a program accredited by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
These graduate-level certificate programs consist of a three- or four-course sequence. All courses are 5 weeks in length and can be taken one at a time. Courses consist of assignments, readings, discussions and e-lectures delivered through a flexible, online learning format.
NALS Specialty Certificate
NALS Specialty Certificate allows experienced paralegals to display their expertise in a specialty area of law, from administrative law to business law to contract law to estate planning and more.
To earn the Specialty Certificate, you must complete at least 50 continuing legal education credit (CLE) hours within a five-year period in your law specialty of choice. Some of the ways you can earn CLE credits include attending seminars and workshops, authoring articles and publications, teaching seminars and workshops, and completing post-secondary courses.