Virginia is a national player in terms of corporate strength. Home to big names like General Dynamics in Falls Church, Capital One Financial in McLean, Dominion Resources in Richmond, and AES in Arlington, Virginia enjoys a strong economy that’s backed by no less than 33 Fortune 500 companies. This, of course, translates into a strong legal services industry and an equally strong paralegal profession. Whether you’re interested in a paralegal career in one of the Commonwealth’s many corporations or in a growing law firm, big-name nonprofit, or state or federal governmental agency, Virginia’s opportunities are plentiful. Learning how to become a paralegal in Virginia includes earning the education and credentials today’s top employers demand.
Virginia does not regulate its paralegals, which allows paralegals to enter the profession through either on-the-job training or education with no legal standards to meet. However, in 1995 the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations created guidelines to help employers determine if a person is qualified to work as a paralegal. These guidelines are:
- Graduation from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved program or a program of equivalent rigor
- Earning national certification from a program recognized by VAPA
- Completion of a bachelor’s degree in any field with either at least 24 semester hours of paralegal studies courses OR one year of work experience as a paralegal
- Completion of an associate degree in that includes a minimum of 60 semester credit hours with at least 24 of those in paralegal coursework
- At least five years of work experience as a paralegal under the direct supervision of an attorney
As in other states, Virginia’s Rules of Professional Conduct 5.3 require that attorneys provide direct supervision of any nonlawyer assistants including paralegals. Attorneys must instruct paralegals in matters of confidentiality and ethics, and assume responsibility for their professional conduct.
Is There Paralegal Certification in Virginia?
The Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Association’s (VAPA) educational standards reflect the growth in prominence of the paralegal profession within the legal community. As increasing numbers of law firms hire paralegals, the need for standards of qualifications has grown. Along with it, educational opportunities for paralegals have increased.
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Aspiring paralegals can earn associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in paralegal studies. Earning a degree usually takes two to five years to complete. Students who earn a degree are introduced to a broad spectrum of knowledge while also focusing on coursework in the specialty area of paralegal studies.
Certificate programs usually do not offer many general education courses and so may be completed more quickly than degree programs. Certificate programs offer focused coursework on paralegal studies to prepare graduates for a new career. While some certificate programs only require applicants to have a high school education, others are designed to supplement their students’ previous bachelor’s degree in any field and to help them enter the workforce as paralegals. Graduates of certificate programs are called certificated paralegals.
VAPA’s educational standards require that degree and certificate programs meet ABA approval guidelines or the equivalent and that educational institutions be accredited. ABA approval and accreditation are also required by some employers and for eligibility to take national certification exams. All educational programs should be closely examined by prospective students.
VAPA recognizes national certification as a means of demonstrating one’s qualifications as a paralegal. The national certification exams are offered by three professional paralegal associations to paralegals who meet eligibility requirements of education, training and experience. Paralegals that pass the national certification exam become certified paralegals. Currently the three professional organizations offer four national exams from which to select:
- The PACE offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- The PCCE also offered by National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- The CLA/CP offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- The PP offered by the Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)
Virginia has a wealth of paralegal associations from which to choose, including organizations affiliated with each of the three major national paralegal associations:
NALA, NFPA and NALS. Many of these local paralegal associations work together as part of VAPA, the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations.
The Paralegal Association of Northern Virginia (PANV) is Virginia’s largest NFPA affiliate, offering membership to paralegals, student paralegals and corporate members who wish to support the profession. PANV promotes the increased utilization of paralegals by networking with other legal organizations and educating the general public. PANV works to elevate the professionalism of its members by offering continuing legal education (CLE), supporting members that are seeking national certification, and offering opportunities for members to specialize their legal knowledge.
Within the VAPA alliance the participating paralegal organizations recognize the voluntary Virginia Registered Paralegal (VARP) credential, sponsored by VAPA.
To be eligible for the VARP credential you must be a voting member of a paralegal organization that participates in VAPA and have one of the following:
- Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies from an accredited institution and one year of paralegal experience
- Bachelor’s degree in any subject from an accredited institution, a paralegal certificate from an institutionally accredited paralegal program, and one year of paralegal experience
- Bachelor’s degree in any subject from an accredited institution and three years of paralegal experience
- Bachelor’s degree in any subject from a non-accredited institution, a paralegal certificate from an institutionally accredited paralegal program, and two years of paralegal experience
- Associate’s degree in paralegal studies and two years of paralegal work experience
- Certificate from an institutionally accredited paralegal program and three years of paralegal experience
- Associate’s degree in any subject from an accredited institution and four years of paralegal experience
- Certificate from a non-accredited paralegal program and four years of paralegal experience
- Five years of paralegal work experience plus six hours of continuing legal education
- National Association of Legal Assistants’ (NALA’s) Certified Paralegal (CP)/Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) credential, or another VAPA-approved national paralegal credential
The local paralegal organizations that are members of VAPA are:
- Fredericksburg Paralegal Association (FPA)
- Tidewater Paralegal Association (TPA) – NALA affiliate
- National Capital Area Paralegal Association (NCAPA)
- Paralegal Association of Northern Virginia (PANV) – NFPA affiliate
- Richmond Paralegal Association (RPA) – NALA affiliate
- Roanoke Valley Paralegal Association (RVPA) – NALA affiliate
- Shenandoah Valley Paralegal Association (SVPA)
- Virginia Peninsula Paralegal Association (VAPPA) – NALA affiliate
Association of Legal Secretaries (VALS), a NALS affiliate, is open to all legal professionals including paralegals. Continuing education is a major focus of VALS, which offers an annual conference, support for those preparing for national certification, workshops and professional courses. VALS members may also benefit from networking opportunities, scholarships and social events. VALS has chapters throughout the commonwealth.
Virginia is home to many large law firms that are also large employers of paralegals. Such law firms can be good entry points into a career as a paralegal. Virginia’s large law firms include:
- McGuireWoods LLP
- Hunton & Williams LLP
- Williams Mullen
- Framme Law Firm PC
- Frith Anderson & Peake, PC
- Gardner, Gardner, Barrow & Sharpe
- Geddy, Harris, Franck & Hickman, LLP
- Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, LLP
- Glasser & Glasser
- Glenn Feldmann Darby & Goodlatte
- Goodman, Allen & Filetti
- Greenberg Traurig LLP
- Greenblum & Bernstein, P.L.C.
- Hancock, Daniel, Johnson & Nagle
- Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman
- Harrison & Johnston
- Hirschler Fleischer A Professional Corporation
- Hogan Lovells
- Holland & Knight
- Hoover Penrod PLC
- Hunzeker Lyon & Leggett
- Johnson, Ayers & Matthews
- Jones, Blechman, Woltz & Kelly
- Kalbaugh Pfund & Messersmith
- Kaufman & Canoles
- Lawson & Silek
Important Contacts for Paralegals
- Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA)
- National Capital Area Paralegal Association (NCAPA), affiliated with the NFPA
- Richmond Paralegal Association (RPA), affiliated with NALA
- Virginia Peninsula Paralegal Association (VaPPA), affiliated with NALA
- Paralegal Association of Northern Virginia (PANV), affiliated with the NFPA
- Tidewater Paralegal Association (TPA), affiliated with NALA
- Virginia Association of Legal Secretaries (VALS), affiliated with NALS
- Fairfax Bar Association – Paralegal Division
- Virginia State Bar
- Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia
- Virginia’s Judicial System
- Educational Standards for Paralegals in Virginia
May 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary, growth, and job market trends for paralegals and legal assistants. Figures represent state data, not school specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2021.