Paralegal Certification & Certificate Programs
Learn what it takes to become equipped for the day-to-day operations of a typical law office
A career in the legal field can be both exciting and challenging. If you are looking to make a job change and are interested in entering the fast-paced world of the legal profession, working as a paralegal is a great choice. Becoming a paralegal is a good way to jump into a career in law without having to go through all of the hassle and extra schooling required to become a lawyer. The American Bar Association has currently identified over 1,000 institutions across the country which offer paralegal education. Paralegal education programs come in all shapes and sizes, so choosing a paralegal program that fits your specific needs is important. This page will give you specific information on ways to receive your paralegal certificate so that you can begin working at your desired paralegal job.
What does a paralegal do?
Analyze cases, draft legal documents, and understand the regulations governing research, conduct of discovery, and trial tactics.
Before you invest time and money in a paralegal education program, it is recommended that you determine whether or not a paralegal career will be a good fit for you. “What is a Paralegal” will give you more detailed information if you are just beginning your research. While every position is different, there are some general duties that most paralegals will perform. These include:
- Performing initial client interviews
- Collecting evidence and information for legal claims
- Conducting legal research
- Drafting documents or correspondence
- Drafting pleadings (formal written statements filed with the Court)
- Maintaining contact with clients
- Calendaring court deadlines, trial dates, and meetings
- Other administrative duties including managing phone calls and messages
Of course, every law firm has different duties for their paralegals. Some paralegals may spend most of their time researching for their supervising attorney and never answer a phone call, while others may talk with clients all day and rarely perform and legal research. The job descriptions for paralegal jobs in your area can help you get a better sense of what types of duties local paralegals perform, but if any these generally sound like tasks that you would be interested in performing, then a paralegal education program would likely be a good next step for you.
Another great way to determine if you have interest in pursuing a career as a paralegal is to job shadow a current paralegal. This type of experience can be invaluable when looking into a new career because there are some aspects of a job that are hard to appreciate until you see them first hand. During a job shadow you may also be able to ask questions of the paralegals you are shadowing and get some valuable “insider” information regarding work as a paralegal. Some good resources for potential job shadowing opportunities may be your local or state paralegal organizations, or local schools that offer paralegal education programs.
For a more detailed explanation of the various job types and specializations of paralegals, refer to “Paralegal Job Description”.
Types of Paralegal Programs
The most common paralegal certificate program is the post-baccalaureate program. These programs are offered to students who already have an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in another field and are interested in receiving specific paralegal training. They are convenient because they build upon the general knowledge base gained through a bachelor’s degree, and focus specifically on the skills needed to become a paralegal. They can also give you the chance to further develop your skills and advance your career.
Some colleges and universities provide their undergraduates with the option of obtaining a paralegal certificate alongside their undergraduate and earning both simultaneously so that they graduate with a bachelor’s degree in their desired field and also a paralegal certificate. This can be a great option for those who would like to pursue a major other than legal or paralegal studies, but would still like to have paralegal training.
There are also certificate programs available for students who have already received an associate degree in another field, known as post-degree certificate programs. As with the post-baccalaureate program, a paralegal certificate program which requires an associate degree will build upon the knowledge already obtained in prior undergraduate education to quickly help students become prepared for legal work.
While less common, it is possible to receive a paralegal certificate without a degree in your background. It is important to note that paralegal certificate programs do not provide education degrees and are not viewed by employers as a substitute for undergraduate education. These technical certificates are often looked upon less favorably than other paralegal certificate programs, because there is no base of undergraduate education for the students in these programs. That does not mean that they aren’t helpful, it is simply something to keep in mind when making the final choice as to what type of educational path may be the best choice for you.
Length of Paralegal Programs
Paralegal certificate programs vary in length anywhere from 7-18 months and consist of 18-60 semester credits. The variation in lengths comes from several different factors. The first is whether you pursue your certificate program as a full-time or part-time student. If you have the ability to be a full-time student, then you will be able to complete your program more quickly. If you are a working professional, or have other family obligations that you need to meet, and you pursue schooling part-time, then it may take you a bit longer to complete your program of study.
Length of program may also be set by the institution itself. If you attend classes in person and on campus the schedule will likely be set by the school, and thus take a set amount of months. If you take part in online classes, the speed of the course may be set by the instructor. Some institutions have “self-directed” online courses, meaning that you complete the work at your own speed and can go as fast or as slow as you would like. If you have a good work ethic and time to spare, you could complete an online paralegal certificate program quite quickly.
Lastly, the length of program may depend upon the depth of study. If the program is designed to help you learn legal basics quickly, there may be fewer required credits. If the program is designed to cover some general knowledge as well as specific paralegal and legal topics, then it will likely take longer to complete. The choice about length of program as well as depth of study is a way for you to tailor your paralegal education to meet your needs.
Online or In-person
Another great way to customize your paralegal certificate education experience is by choosing to attend a brick and mortar school or going through an online institution. If you have recently completed your associate or bachelor’s degree and are not yet employed, you may feel that an on-campus learning experience is right for you. If you are working full-time and need a more flexible schooling option, online might be a better option for you. In-person schooling is also available at various locations on a part-time night and weekend basis, so there is likely a convenient option for any type of student.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each type of schooling experience. The traditional in-person classroom setting will give you the opportunity to really get to know your peers as well as your teachers. It may also help you remain focused and energized during lectures and discussions because you are in a setting which leaves little room for distractions or procrastination. Going to class with your peers may also help you develop a better sense of community and give you the opportunity to talk face to face with others who are as excited about the legal field as you are. Of course, going to class also means that you will need to live within a reasonable distance of the campus and are willing and able to spend a substantial amount of time there.
If you are unable to be physically present for classes at a school location, online classes offer a great opportunity for you. If you choose online schooling, you do not have to commute to any particular location and you have the ability to participate at times that are more convenient for you. You can also engage with the student community online through chats and discussion boards with your peers and professors. Some classes are taught through video lectures or a live feed so that you can interact with your professor in real time. Online classes offer unparalleled flexibility and convenience because you can complete your paralegal certificate education from the comfort of your own home. Online education may be difficult for some people because it does require some self-discipline and motivation. You are responsible for engaging with the schoolwork and ensuring that you are meeting deadlines and getting all of your questions answered, even though you are not physically present in a classroom every week. If you have a busy lifestyle but are still interested in moving forward with a new career or enhancing your current skills, online school can be a great option.
Paralegal certificate programs can be completed on-campus or online. Some programs even offer a mixture of in-person and online courses for added convenience. For more specific information on online paralegal education programs, please see “Online Paralegal Certificate.”
Associate, Bachelor’s, and Master’s Degrees in Paralegal Studies
While a paralegal certificate may be the quickest and most affordable option for schooling, it is not the only way to become a paralegal. In fact, if you have not completed any college education whatsoever, you may be more interested in earning a degree in legal or paralegal studies. It is possible to earn either an associate, bachelor’s, or even a master’s degree.Associate Degree Programs
Many institutions offer associate degree programs in paralegal education including community and junior colleges, business schools, online schools, and four-year colleges. The courses required in an associate program will often consist of a combination of general courses as well as paralegal or legal courses. These types of degrees usually take about two years to complete and are offered online or on-campus. Many associate degree programs also offer an internship component. An internship can be a very helpful way to get first hand training as a paralegal and learn more about the profession as a whole.Bachelor’s Degree Programs
Paralegal bachelor’s degree programs are offered by colleges and universities. Some schools offer the option of a major or a minor in paralegal studies, while others offer a more general bachelor’s in law or legal studies. Some of these programs may be designed for students who intend to continue on to law school, but some are geared more specifically towards students pursuing other types of professions including paralegal. A bachelor’s degree program typically takes four years to complete. Four year degrees usually contain a core liberal arts curriculum of general courses such as composition, history, social science, mathematics, or psychology. A bachelor’s degree will take more time to complete than a certificate or associate degree. It may be worth it, however, as it can give you a leg up on the competition for paralegal jobs when you get out of school. A bachelor’s degree is designed to provide a received a well-rounded and in-depth legal education.Master’s Degree Programs
Paralegal master’s degree programs are offered to students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree. Most programs do not require an undergraduate degree specifically in legal or paralegal studies and will accept students with a bachelor’s in any field. If you are looking to advance your paralegal career or increase your legal specialization, a master’s degree in legal or paralegal studies can be very helpful. It can also be a great way to set you apart from other candidates for paralegal positions, and may even help you qualify for more advanced positions at some firms such as senior paralegal or office manager. A master’s degree program usually takes about two years to complete. Many are geared towards working professionals and have class times during evenings or on weekends.
Paralegal Certificate vs. Certified Paralegal and Paralegal Certification
It is important to distinguish between earning a paralegal certificate and becoming a certified paralegal as the two terms are often confused, but are not interchangeable. Having a paralegal certificate verifies that you have completed a paralegal education program and earned a paralegal certificate. The American Bar Association (ABA) explains that a student who has completed an educational program and received a certificate is considered “certificated” but not “certified”.
According to the ABA, a certified paralegal is one who has “successfully completed a certification exam or other requirements of the certifying organization.” There are several professional organizations in the United States which offer certifying exams for paralegals. Some of the prerequisites for becoming certified may include work experience, educational requirements, and passing a certification examination. Once a paralegal has voluntarily completed all of the requirements and passed the exam, he or she is then considered a certified paralegal.
The ABA also notes that “Currently, all certification programs in the United States are voluntary. Therefore, a paralegal may work in the field without obtaining certification.” It is important to know that, while certification may be a good resume builder, it is not required in order to become a paralegal. After earning a paralegal certificate, paralegal certification is another step you can take in your career as a paralegal in order to gain more professional qualifications.
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