How long does it take to become a paralegal?
How long it takes to become a paralegal depends on where you plan to work and what field (or practice area) you want to work in as a paralegal. Generally speaking, it can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 4 years.
In some major metropolitan areas, you will need an undergraduate degree plus a paralegal certificate from an ABA-Approved program if you want to work in a law firm. While some of the larger firms have strict education and certificate requirements, others do not. In smaller towns or small law firm settings, you could become a paralegal through on-the-job training and no paralegal certificate. However, that path will limit your future employment opportunities as a majority of law firms require at least a 2-year degree and a paralegal certificate.
Step 1: Choose Your Education Path
6-Week Online Paralegal Certificate
It is tempting to choose an online paralegal program that gives you a “certificate” in 6 weeks. Before doing that, you should research whether law firms in your area actually hire graduates from those programs. It’s not the “online” part that is the problem with this paralegal programs. Especially at a time when the entire world is moving to an online education system. Instead, the problem is the curriculum of those certificate programs. Regardless of how “affordable” and convenient some of them appear to be, if you can’t get a job upon graduation, you might as well have thrown that $1,500 out the window.
TIP: If that online paralegal certificate program allows you to choose from a drop-down menu which college name you want on that “certificate,” you should do some more research into the program. Read our article on How to Spot a Paralegal Program Scam.
6-Month to 12-Month Paralegal Certificate Program
Most local community colleges and universities offer paralegal programs (in-person, online, and hybrid) that will get you a paralegal certificate in six to twelve months, depending on how many paralegal courses you take in each session. Some of these paralegal programs require you to have an undergraduate degree (in any major) before enrolling in their program. If you already have a college degree, these paralegal programs are your best option for ensuring better employment opportunities to work as a paralegal.
Some of these programs are ABA-approved and some are not. Whether or not a school is ABA-approved does not really have much of an impact on the quality of the paralegal certificate you receive or your employment potential upon graduation. ABA approval does not mean that you become “ABA-Certified” upon graduation. There is no such thing as ABA certification.
2-Year Associate’s Degree in Legal Studies
State colleges, community colleges, and technical institutes offer associate’s degrees in legal studies. While it could take up two years or more to become a paralegal, if you choose this route, you do have the option to take more paralegal classes than the minimum credit hours per semester. Doing this would allow you to become a paralegal in a little less than two years.
4-Year Bachelor’s Degree in Legal Studies
Getting a bachelor’s degree in legal studies is the longest path to becoming a paralegal. However, it is also the path that will open up the most opportunities for you (with exception to #2 above). With this option, even if you chose to pursue another career path altogether, you would still have an undergraduate degree that would open up other job opportunities for you.
Like other undergraduate degrees, your electives would be courses that would prepare you for working as a paralegal. Many universities offer online courses that would allow you to complete some or all of your degree online.
Step 2: Get More Training
You’ve completed your paralegal certificate program, now what? Consider getting some paralegal training on specific skills needed in the area of law you want to work. There are courses for paralegals that could give you an edge over the competition when it comes time to send out your paralegal resume to find a job. For example, most paralegal certificate programs do not stress the importance of drafting time entries, but if you decide to go to work as a paralegal in a law firm, drafting time entries is a paralegal skill that you must have.
Specialty Training for Paralegals
There are many practice areas to choose from when you become a paralegal. When you’re just starting in your paralegal career, you might not have the luxury of being picky about choosing a practice area. Most paralegal certificate programs only teach you the basics of theory and terminology in the core areas of civil litigation, real estate, corporate, and torts. There are so many other practice areas to consider when you’re ready to become a paralegal. For example, while there are litigation paralegals, there are also many subspecialties within the litigation practice area:
- Personal Injury Paralegal
- Medical Malpractice
- Intellectual Property
- Real Estate Litigation
- Insurance Defense
- Mass Torts
- Workers Compensation
- Civil Rights
- Labor & Employment
- Family Law
The list of practice areas for a litigation paralegal could go on and on. If you know that you want to work as a litigation paralegal, try taking some additional paralegal courses in a few of the litigation areas listed above. Even if you don’t know whether you’ll be hired in any of those areas, you will be adding to your skillset and your resume.
The Paralegal Boot Camp currently offers several online training programs for litigation paralegals, including the Personal Injury Paralegal Boot Camp, E-discovery Paralegal Boot Camp, and the Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp. However, these paralegal courses should not be taken until AFTER you have completed your paralegal certificate program.
Step 3: Get Certified.
A certified paralegal is different than a paralegal certificate. A paralegal certificate shows the successful completion of a paralegal education program.
A certified paralegal has passed an exam and met specific prerequisites of governing state authority or an independent association. A certified paralegal can use special designations or credentials after their names, such as CP or RP. A person who has a paralegal certificate cannot use those designations. The designations are similar to that of a CPA in the accounting field. Typically, one of the requirements for sitting for a certification exam is already having a paralegal certificate from an accredited school.
Why get certified? Not all paralegals need certification. However, as a new graduate, it may help you land your first job if you can show a potential employer that you have the basic skills to do the job of a paralegal (or that you test well). For example, NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations) has a CORE competency exam that tests paralegal graduates on the knowledge, skills, and ability of entry-level paralegals. NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) and NALS also have certification exams. Before you invest in certification, find out which exam is most widely-recognized in your legal market.
Depending on the state that you live in, there could also be state requirements to become registered or certified. Look up paralegal CLE by state.
Just like you would do with any significant expenditure, research the various options, prices, and reputation of the school you choose on your path to becoming a paralegal.
Step 4: Don’t Ever Stop Learning.
Paralegal training does not stop at the paralegal certificate. Regardless of the education path you choose and the practice area you choose, all successful paralegals will tell you that they continuously look for ways to advance their paralegal skills, technology skills, and soft skills.
How long does it take to become a paralegal who lands their first job as a paralegal? That’s a better question! We’ll be answering that in another blog article.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Pearson is the Founder of the Paralegal Boot Camp, where she develops courses for paralegals and other legal professionals. The Paralegal Boot Camp’s training programs add immediate value to a paralegal’s career.
As a former litigation paralegal and paralegal manager, Ann knows that paralegals are too busy to waste time sitting through a boring CLE presentation. She also knows that attorneys don’t always make the best trainers. That’s why law firms and corporate legal departments partner with the Paralegal Boot Camp to provide skills-based professional development programs to their legal support professionals.