Become a Paralegal
Since there are no legal requirements for certification or licensure of any kind in the paralegal profession, attorney offices and other employers effectively set the minimum standards for the paralegals they hire. Without rigid requirements in place, many prospects are left to wonder exactly what steps they should be taking to effectively impress prospective employers and become a paralegal.
Is completing a one-year professional certificate program sufficient, or is a paralegal degree program at the associate, bachelor’s, or even master’s level a better choice? … Or does it make more sense to enter the field without an education in paralegal studies and get training on the job?
There are no clear answers to these questions . In fact, depending on the type of law, the setting, and the employer– the answer may be distinctly different.
- *Whether you’re looking to earn an undergraduate degree in preparation for the Certified Paralegal Exam, or ready to advance your career with a master’s degree in legal studies, accredited online programs make it easier than ever to get the education you need:
- Purdue University Global – Bachelor’s in Legal Support and Services – Paralegal Concentration
- Grantham University – BA in Criminal Justice
- Penn Foster College – Paralegal Studies Associate Degree
A number of national paralegal organizations have developed core competencies for paralegal preparation. These establish guidelines for paralegal programs and bring some type of consistency and uniformity to the profession. Training often includes completing some type of formal paralegal program, gaining experience, and voluntarily earning a national credential.
Here’s the critical steps you’ll need to take to develop skills in accordance with the established core competencies and gain the correct credentials employers are looking for when hiring a paralegal:
Step 1. Complete a Formal Paralegal Education Program Consisting of At Least 18 Semester Hours of Paralegal-Specific Courses
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the paralegal field is open to individuals with varying work experience and educational backgrounds. This also applies to paralegal education programs: admission requirements, length of program, and program design/characteristics vary considerably from one educational institution to the next.
ABA-approved paralegal programs may be:
- Two-year community and junior college programs
- Four-year college or university programs
- Business and proprietary school programs
According to the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), all paralegals should complete some form of paralegal education, offered through a program specifically designed to provide paralegal education. The program should include at least 18 semester credit hours of paralegal classes and must be from an educational program that is:
- An institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education; OR
- Approved by the American Bar Association (ABA); OR
- A post-secondary program that requires the completion of at least 60 semester credit hours
The AAfPE recognizes paralegals as qualified if they possess the following:
- An associate or bachelors degree or equivalent coursework
- A certification in paralegal education completed through one of the following:
- Associate degree
- Bachelors degree
- Master’s degree
According to the AAfPE a paralegal education should consist of both legal knowledge and professional skills that incorporate legal theory and an understanding of practical applications.
The AAfPE recognizes that paralegal education programs should incorporate the responsibilities and competences expected of today’s employers into a well-designed program that emphasizes peer to peer and student to faculty interactions, as well as assignments that teach practical paralegal skills.
Further, paralegal education programs should include classes that cover the following topics:
- Delivery of legal services
- The American legal system Ethics
- Law offices and related environments
- Legal research and writing Law-related computer skills
- Legal interviewing and investigation
- Substantive and procedural law
All programs should also offer an on the job learning component, such as an internship, practicum, or clinical experience.
To become a paralegal, the AAfPE also recognizes that students should possess a basic understanding of American history, business, and political systems, as well as:
- Critical thinking skills (judgment, analysis, research, and problem-solving)
- Communication skills (oral, written, interpersonal, and nonverbal)
- Computer skills
- Computational skills
- An understanding of ethics
- Organizational skills
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) also recommends a formal educational program for paralegals that, at minimum, is ABA-approved or otherwise offered through an accredited institution and that consists of at least 60 semester hours.
However, NALA also recognizes the following as adequate preparation to become a paralegal:
- A bachelor’s degree in any field, plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
- At least 3 years of experience, supervised by an attorney, including at least 6 months of training as a paralegal (in-house)
- At least 2 years of training as a paralegal (in-house)
Step 2. Gain Work Experience with Attorneys
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many employers prefer candidates with at least some experience in a law firm or other accounting office setting. Experience also allows new paralegals to learn about any specific specialty area of law the attorneys at the law firm practice.
Most paralegal students gain work experience through a formal internship offered as part of their paralegal school program and are not typically expected to gain any more pre-employment experience than this.
Not only does a paid internship allow students to begin building a resume for their paralegal career, but it also allows them to learn more about specialized areas of law, such as Divorce, corporate, real estate, and family law, among many others.
Step 3. Earn Paralegal Certification
Although there’s been discussion in the legal community in recent years about some kind of formal certification, or licensing for paralegals, to date no state or county has implemented any regulatory requirements. A lack of legislation in the profession has led to a number of voluntary credentials, all of which require completing a formal paralegal program, experience, or a combination of the two to earn eligibility to take the associated certification examination:
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP)
- Candidates must take and pass the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE)
- PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
- Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE)
- Certified Paralegal (CP) credential
- Candidates must take and pass the Certified Paralegal/Certified Legal Assistant (CP/CLA) exam
- Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
- Candidates must take and pass the Professional Paralegal (PP) exam
- American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential
Several states have also developed state-specific competency examinations through cooperative efforts with state bar associations and/or paralegal associations. Among these states are Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.