Academic Paralegal Certificate Options

If you’re looking to become a paralegal either fresh out of high school or after completing an associate’s or bachelor’s in another area, it isn’t necessary to earn a degree to get there – or a second degree, as the case may be. A certificate program in paralegal studies is all that’s standing between you and the paralegal career you want, and that’s exactly why these programs exist: They provide a focused education in paralegal core subjects like legal research and writing and various areas of law without any extra general education coursework.

It’s very common for people to become interested in the paralegal profession after working in another profession for a while. In fact, many paralegals will tell you that it’s actually their second or even third career. For career changers with a degree in any other area, it’s only natural to build off the existing undergraduate education with the kind of focused education a post-degree paralegal certificate provides.

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Whether you’re a traditional student looking at a straight-line career trajectory from high school to a law firm or a non-traditional student shifting gears and looking to make a career change after earning a degree in another area, there’s a certificate option that will give you the exact education you need to make it happen:

Have a high school diploma? You’ve got two options:

  • A basic pre-degree undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies will take you less than a year
  • An associate’s degree in paralegal studies OR in a related field along with an accompanying certificate in paralegal studies that you earn concurrently will take you about 2 years

Already have an associate’s degree in general studies or any other area?

  • You would enroll in a post-associate’s certificate program in paralegal studies, which will take you about a year

Already have a bachelor’s degree in another major?

  • You would enroll in a post-bachelor’s (post-baccalaureate) certificate program in paralegal studies, which will take you about a year

And, of course, if you’re already working as a paralegal, either with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or another area, you can advance and specialize with a graduate certificate in legal studies, but that’s a sligtly different animal. We’ll touch on that a little later, but what we’re really trying to focus on here are certificates designed to get your career started, whether you’re a recent high school grad or career changer interested in becoming a paralegal.

When talking about certificate programs for people coming into the paralegal profession for the first time, it’s always worth taking a minute to explain the difference between a paralegal certificate and paralegal certification:

  • An academic certificate is an education program offered through hundreds of different schools and is your passport to becoming a paralegal. Once you complete a paralegal certificate program, you are said to be certificated
  • Professional certification is a voluntary exam-based credential offered through a few national certification agencies that you can qualify for once you have the right education. After completing a paralegal certification program, you are said to be certified.

This is an important point to clarify, but here we’ll just be talking about academic certificates.

Do a search for paralegal certificate programs and you’ll find no shortage of colleges, universities, and proprietary schools offering these programs. But you’ll also quickly find that not all certificate programs are created equal, and they’re certainly not all created with the same student in mind…

Getting Started with An Entry-Level Undergraduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies

Who They’re For

  • High school graduates looking for a program in paralegal studies that will get them from the classroom to the law firm in no time flat

Where You’ll Find Them

  • Community colleges and proprietary schools

What They Offer

  • An abbreviated course of study in the paralegal field and the U.S. legal system

How Long They Take

  • Anywhere from a few months to a year

The entry-level undergraduate paralegal certificate program is the easiest and least complicated path to becoming a paralegal. It’s also the shortest educational program in paralegal studies.

However, it’s also becoming a less and less viable option as the paralegal profession has evolved into a highly specialized field that involves substantive legal work. You’re going to find that few mid-size law firms and corporate employers look for paralegal job candidates with anything less than an associate’s degree, and with the big firms in the major metro areas, you can pretty much forget about an undergraduate certificate as being an option.

Still, they have their place. Plenty of small firms, one-man law practices, non-profits, small realtors, and even municipal government agencies are glad to take on new paralegals with a high school diploma and undergrad certificate in paralegal studies, especially the ones located outside major metro areas. And, many of these entry-level certificate programs are offered through schools that also offer an associate’s degree, allowing you to get the basic education you need to get your foot in the door with the option to apply credits toward an associate’s at a later time.

If the program is not offered through a school that also offers an associate’s in paralegal studies, chances are credits won’t transfer. Keep this in mind if you intend to further your education down the road.

Undergraduate paralegal certificate programs consist of anywhere between 18 and 30 credits, which means you can complete the program in as little as a semester. The only requirement for admission into these programs is a high school diploma or GED, which is why they are often referred to as ‘entry-level’ certificate programs.

You won’t find any general education courses or other requirements beyond courses targeted at the paralegal profession. Instead, an undergraduate certificate program will provide you with a primer in the law and the paralegal field, with coursework focusing on the fundamentals of the legal system, including an overview of litigation, legal analysis, and the role of the paralegal.

Many are offered as online, self-paced programs featuring interactive curriculums and online textbooks.

Getting Started or Changing Careers with a Post-Degree Certificate in Paralegal Studies

Post-Associate and Post-Baccalaureate

Who They’re For

  • Career changers who already hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in another field or law office employees (secretaries, file clerks, runners, etc) looking to advance into the paralegal profession
  • Also a viable option for any high school grad making plans to earn a degree in a related field and stacking that with the education needed to become a paralegal

Where You’ll Find Them

  • Community colleges, proprietary schools, colleges and universities

What They Offer

  • A focused course of study in the paralegal field that builds off an existing undergraduate education

How Long They Take

  • Anywhere from a few months to a year

An associate’s degree is the recommended minimum for paralegals, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be in paralegal studies. If you already have an associate’s in virtually any area, combining it with a post-associate’s certificate in paralegal studies makes for a strong credential that any employer would look at favorably.

Some schools even offer certificate programs in paralegal studies designed specifically to accompany the associate’s degrees they offer in related fields, allow students to earn both the degree and the accompanying certificate at the same time. These, technically, are not a post-degree certificate, but you will complete general courses before going on to take paralegal specialty courses so it has the same net result.

Post-bachelor’s certificates (usually called post-baccalaureate or just post-bac certificates) work in the exact same way, allowing you to build on your undergraduate degree to stack up educational credentials that law firms and corporate employers drool over. The powerhouse combo of a bachelor’s and post-bac certificate will open up a lot more job opportunities than even the associate’s-certificate combo. In fact, you’ll find that with the major firms in the big metro areas, anybody without a bachelor’s (whether in paralegal studies or in another area along with a post-bac certificate) need not apply.

Earning a post-degree certificate doesn’t have to be done as an afterthought for career changers. Plotting your course after high school by earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a related field like business, then going on to earn a post-degree certificate is a very viable plan and one that will earn you some very marketable credentials, especially if your degree is in an area that aligns with the area of law you’ll be working in: Want to work in a corporate legal department or a law firm that specializes in corporate law? A degree in business with a post-degree certificate in paralegal studies would be hard to beat.

Still, you don’t have to earn a certificate per se to become a paralegal. An associate’s degree specifically in paralegal studies is a strong credential by itself that meets the educational minimums that the American Bar Association and several national paralegal professional associations recommend, and, of course, a bachelor’s in legal studies is even better.

Like entry-level undergraduate certificate programs, these programs consist of between 18-29 credits and take about a year to complete.

Because of their focus on working professionals, many are offered as self-paced, online programs.

Advancing or Specializing with a Graduate Certificate in Legal Studies

Who They’re For

  • Individuals who hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in another field and want to switch careers
  • Professionals in other occupations with a bachelor’s or master’s degree whose career would benefit from a greater familiarity with the law
  • Paralegals with a bachelor’s or master’s degree who want to specialize in a particular area of law

Where You’ll Find Them

  • Continuing studies departments of colleges and universities

What They Offer

  • A general study of the law or a focused course of study on a specific area of law

How Long They Take

  • Between one year and eighteen months

Graduate certificates in paralegal or legal studies build on the general courses of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in virtually any field.

A graduate certificate is essentially the same as a post-bac certificate, with the most substantial difference being that a post-bac certificate is still considered an undergrad credential while a graduate certificate is officially a graduate-level credential usually offered through universities that also offer a master’s in legal studies. This means they are subject to the stricter entry requirements typically associated with a master’s degree.

Graduate certificates are a great option if you want to change careers or expand your legal expertise in your existing career. For career changers, the graduate certificate in legal studies provides a general course of study in the law, while for practicing paralegals or mid-career professionals in other occupations they can be tailored around a legal specialty.

For example, a nurse already holding an MSN may choose to pursue a graduate certificate in legal studies with a focus on healthcare law, while a practicing paralegal working in litigation may choose to complete a graduate certificate with a focus on litigation to advance to a supervisory role.

Admission requirements can be rather stringent, with most schools requiring minimum GPAs and minimum passing scores on the GRE, LSAT, or MAT for admission. It is also common for schools to require candidates to submit letters of recommendation and resumes and to sit for personal interviews.

Similar to other paralegal certificate programs, many of these courses appeal to the working professional by offering flexible, online courses. Many include about 18 credits, thereby allowing students to complete them in a matter of months.

Are Paralegal Certificate Programs Accredited?

Like degree programs, paralegal certificate programs are offered through schools that can hold accreditation through regional accreditation agencies and the programs themselves can qualify for approval through the American Bar Association. The ABA approves many post-associate’s and post-baccelaureate certificate programs, provided they meet the ABA requirements and include at least 18 course credits. Since the ABA maintains that an associate’s is the minimum education required to enter the field as a competent paralegal, the organization does not grant approval to undergraduate certificates not offered as post-degree programs.

Regional accreditation is often a good place to start when browsing paralegal certificate programs, as it is an indicator that the program has met specific curriculum standards:

  • 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

But don’t stop there; look at the program’s features, courses, faculty, delivery method, cost, and student services so you can be sure you choose the one that best meets your specific needs.

How Much Does a Paralegal Certificate Program Cost?

Post-degree paralegal certificate programs can cost you between $3,000-$13,000. Some of the least expensive undergraduate certificate programs are found through community colleges, where you can expect to pay between $3,000-$8,000. Proprietary schools often charge higher rates, although it’s possible to find rates that rival those of community colleges.

Graduate certificate programs tend to cost slightly more, given that they are most often found in universities. However, we found some as low as $4,000.

Keep in mind that most schools provide students with payment plans, so paying upfront is typically not required. Further, most students qualify for some type of assistance, whether through loans or grants, so it is important to take the time to meet with a financial aid counselor and discuss your options.

Depending on the institution and your financial situation, you may be eligible for Federal Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Perkins Loans, and private loans, among others.