Your Complete Guide to Understanding Academic Paralegal Certificate Options

What is a Paralegal Certificate?

If you’re looking to become a paralegal either fresh out of high school or after completing an associate 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.

How to Get a Paralegal Certificate

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 they already have with the kind of focused education a post-degree paralegal certificate provides.

FIND SCHOOLS
Sponsored Content

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 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 degree in general studies or any other area?

  • You would enroll in a post-associate 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.

What is the Difference Between an Academic Certificate and Professional Certification?

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 You Need a Certificate to Be a Paralegal?

No, but you do need a formal education. It’s up to you whether you want to get it through an associate or bachelor’s degree program, or by getting a more focused education that leaves out all the general education courses that are a standard part of earning a degree. Certificate programs in paralegal studies give you exactly what you need and nothing you don’t – an education that deals strictly with legal studies and practical skills applicable to being a paralegal.

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

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

Advancing or Specializing with a Graduate Certificate in Legal Studies

ABA Paralegal Certificate and Basic School Accreditation

How Much Does a Paralegal Certificate Program Cost?

How Long Does It Take to Get a Paralegal Certificate?

Paralegal Certificate Programs – Frequently Asked Questions


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 Does it Take to Get an Undergraduate Paralegal Certificate?

  • Anywhere from a few months to a year

Can I Get a Paralegal Certificate Without Earning a Degree?

Yes. 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 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 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 at a later time.

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

Paralegal Trade School Certificate After High School

Undergraduate paralegal certificate programs offered at trade schools, proprietary paralegal schools and some community colleges 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.

Paralegal Certificate vs. Degree – Why a Basic Paralegal Certificate Alone May Not Be Worth It

There’s more to the paralegal certificate vs. degree debate than you might think. Everyone agrees that paralegals should have an associate degree at minimum. But with post-degree certificates being the most common educational path into the profession, that doesn’t always mean the associate degree needs to be in paralegal studies.

Paralegal certificates that accept students who hold a GED or high school diploma – the ones sometimes referred to as a “career diploma” – can be awarded after as little as six or eight weeks of training, either online or in person, and are usually touted as solid preparation for an entry-level position in the legal field.

But in fact, there is a big difference from the other type of certificate, the post-degree certificate. Most of these require you to already hold an associate degree, and some, known as post-bac certificates, require that you already hold a bachelor’s of some kind. These post-associate and post-bachelor’s certificates are intended to provide specialized and intensive legal training that builds on top of a non-legal degree.

Although the content and syllabus of the program may seem similar to what is found in a basic certificate program for high school grads, the studies are lengthier and more rigorous, and are designed to begin introducing coursework at a more advanced level appropriate for someone who already holds a degree. These programs are specifically designed for more experienced professionals who already hold a degree and are looking to re-focus their legal career or change their careers entirely to become a paralegal.

If you’re fresh out of high school, an associate or bachelor’s degree in legal studies could very well be your best option for getting the advanced training paralegals are expected to have today, not to mention that a degree gives you the kind of competitive credentials you need for your resume to stand out in a stack of job applications. An associate or bachelor’s degree in legal studies, of course, eliminates any need for a separate certificate program.

Compared to shake-and-bake entry-level certificates, the appeal that a full-fledged degree in paralegal studies or a post-degree certificate has to potential employers should be obvious. But there are some good reasons why a basic paralegal certificate program just won’t cut it in the legal field today.

Unless you already have years of experience under your belt, in the paralegal field, it’s all about your education. It was easier in the past, to simply work your way up from an entry-level position at a law firm to become a full-fledged paralegal. After all, until only a decade ago, paralegal programs were pretty rare.

Licensing May Be Coming and It Will Require a More Advanced Education 

There are other fields where intermediary professions have sprung up to meet demands for cost-efficient professional services, and most of them require a specific license. For example, advanced practice RNs are licensed to provide many of the same services a physician can provide, but at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, paralegals provide many of the same services an attorney can provide, but at much lower rates… however, as of yet, there are only a handful of scattered licensing laws in a few states that grant licensed/certified paralegals the authority to perform some expanded functions.

However, there is a growing movement pushing for uniform paralegal licensing laws through all state bar associations, and it’s starting to gain some momentum. If or when that happens, a formal, college education is almost certain to be a requirement for receiving those licenses.

In states that are already implementing limited license programs, college-level education is cited as a core requirement. In Washington state, for example, the new Limited License Legal Technician category for limited independent practice requires 45 credit hours in a core curriculum program approved by the American Bar Association.

So unless you want an exceptionally short career as a paralegal or end up having to go back to school in a few years, it would be wise to get those credit hours in now.

No Major National Legal Organization Supports Basic Certificate Programs 

Neither the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) nor the American Bar Association have good things to say about basic certificate programs. Since a lot of the people hiring paralegals belong to one or the other of these bodies, it’s probably worth considering their opinion about what sort of education you should get.

The ABA offers specific guidelines on paralegal education programs and has a list of approved programs you can check online. You definitely won’t find any six-week turn and burn programs on this list.

The American Association for Paralegal Education, as you can probably guess from its name, puts quite a lot of thought and consideration into paralegal training programs. Their conclusion is that the minimum requirement for an effective paralegal education program is that it offer at least 60 semester hours of training, the equivalent of an associate’s degree.

Further, they call out basic certificate programs in particular by stating…

“In recent years there has been a proliferation of short-term entry-level paralegal training programs of very limited duration, some with as few as 125 clock hours (which is less than nine semester credit hours). These programs do a fundamental disservice to the legal profession by creating unrealistic expectations in both employers and students that a quality paralegal education has been delivered, when such is not the case.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

FIND SCHOOLS
Sponsored Content

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 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 Does it Take to Get a Post-Degree Paralegal Certificate?

  • Anywhere from a few months to a year

An associate degree is the recommended minimum for paralegals, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be in paralegal studies. If you already have an associate in virtually any area, combining it with a post-associate 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 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 a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate or just post-bac certificate) 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-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 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 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 Does it Take to Get a Paralegal Graduate Certificate?

  • 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.

ABA Paralegal Certificate and Basic School Accreditation

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.

ABA Paralegal Certificate

The ABA approves many post-associate 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 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. So an ABA paralegal certificate is always designed as a post-degree education open to associate and bachelor’s degree holders.

School Accreditation

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-level paralegal 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.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Paralegal Certificate?

Generally speaking, you can earn a paralegal certificate in about a year to 18 months, but it really depends quite a bit on the design and comprehensiveness of the program:

  • Earning a standard entry-level certificate without first earning a degree OR a post-degree certificate will take anywhere from a few months to a year
  • Earning an associate 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
  • Earning a post-master’s certificate in paralegal studies will take anywhere between a year and 18 months

Paralegal Certificate Programs – Frequently Asked Questions

Is Getting a Paralegal Certificate Worth It?

You bet it is. This a fast growing field with a lot of opportunity to specialize and advance. In fact, 2020 job market trends from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a faster-than-average 12% job growth rate for the ten-year period leading up to 2030, with more than 41,000 jobs opening up for paralegals around the country during that time. And with an upper-end salary of more than $85,000 to shoot for, most would say that a paralegal certificate is definitely worth it.

How do I find a good paralegal certificate program?

While the quality of a paralegal certificate program can be rather subjective, it’s always good to look for a program that has been regionally accredited through one of the following accrediting agencies:

  • 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

The American Bar Association (ABA) also approves paralegal certificate programs, although they do not recognize online programs. While ABA approval signifies a program meets strict standards for its program content, there are many institutions that also have quality programs but did not choose to seek ABA approval. To date, just 22 percent of all paralegal programs in the U.S. are approved by the ABA.

Although accreditation should play a role in your decision, don’t forget to look into things that are important to you, such as student support services, the quality of the faculty, graduation rates, etc.

Can I land a job with an undergraduate paralegal certificate?

Sure, there are some employers who hire paralegals that have completed an undergraduate paralegal certificate. However, there are perhaps just as many who demand paralegals who have completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.

The ABA, NALA, the NFPA and other professional associations recommend a four-year degree in paralegal studies because it provides students with a solid general education foundation in the social sciences, math, English, and humanities.

Can I transfer my paralegal certificate courses to an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies?

Unfortunately, most paralegal certificate courses (undergraduate, post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s) cannot be transferred to a degree program. There may be some rare exceptions at community colleges that offer both entry level certificates in paralegal studies and AAS programs in the field, allowing certificate students to complete the associate degree and counting credits earned at the certificate level.

Credits earned in a graduate certificate program, however, can usually be transferred towards a master’s degree.

How much does a paralegal certificate program cost?

An undergraduate paralegal certificate or post-associate’s or post-bachelor’s program through a proprietary school will cost you between $7,000-$13,000, while undergraduate certificate programs through community colleges typically cost between $3,000-$8,000.

Graduate certificate programs through state colleges or universities generally cost between $4,000-$6,000.

You may be able to secure a number of grants and loans that will make it easier to afford the cost of a paralegal program. Depending on the institution and your financial situation, you may be eligible for Federal Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, the Federal Work-Study Program, Federal Perkins Loans, and private loans, among others.


FIND SCHOOLS
Sponsored Content