Paralegal educational programs can vary considerably in term and substance in the U.S. With the exception of the state of California, the paralegal profession is not presently regulated. Individuals using the titles “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are not required to be licensed or to meet any specific educational or experiential qualifications.
That said, some education and certain skills can put you at the top of the list among candidates if you're job searching.
Types of Paralegal Programs
Over 1,000 institutions across the U.S. offer formal paralegal education programs leading to either a degree or certificate, according to the American Bar Association. These programs include:
- Home study and online paralegal programs
- Associates degrees offered by two-year community and junior colleges
- Certificate programs offered by business and proprietary schools, ranging from several months to a year
- Four-year college and university programs offering degrees in paralegal studies
- Advanced degree programs offering master's degrees in paralegal studies, legal administration, or legal studies
According to the American Association for Paralegal Education, quality paralegal education programs assist students in acquiring these essential related competencies:
- Critical-thinking skills, including analysis, judgment, research, and problem-solving
- Communication skills, including oral, written, non-verbal, and interpersonal
- Computer skills
- Computational skills
- Understanding of ethics
- Organizational skills
Programs should also give paralegals a basic understanding of American history, business, and political systems.
Most paralegal educational programs incorporate an academic curriculum comprised of both substantive legal courses and professional skills that incorporate legal theory with an understanding of practical applications.
Typical substantive legal courses include Introduction to the Legal System and Paralegalism, Ethics, Civil Litigation, Contracts, Torts, Real Estate Law, and Domestic Law. Skills courses include Legal Writing, Legal Research, and Case Analysis.
Many paralegal programs also require students to complete an internship with a legal employer in exchange for school credit.
The American Bar Association has established Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs to promote high standards of quality. A paralegal program must have been in operation for a minimum of two academic years and satisfy all requirements of the ABA guidelines to be eligible for ABA approval. Schools that have obtained ABA approval must seek periodic reaccreditation. The ABA maintains a list of ABA-approved paralegal programs.
Graduates of ABA-approved paralegal programs have a distinct advantage in the paralegal job market over graduates of non-approved programs. Many employers use ABA approval as a way to select the best-qualified candidates.
Your Ticket to Success
Paralegals with certain educational backgrounds have the most employment opportunities and the highest earning potential:
- A four-year degree in paralegal studies or related paralegal field
- A bachelors’ degree in any field combined with a paralegal certificate from a program approved by the American Bar Association
- A bachelors’ degree in any field combined with a master’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field.
Some paralegals in the legal market have no formal education, or they obtain their education through home study or web-based paralegal programs. But these educational backgrounds can limit your employment opportunities and income potential as paralegal educational standards increase and employers become more selective.
If You Have Law School Aspirations
The paralegal field is a great way to gain first-hand legal experience and insight into the practice of law if you think you might eventually want to go to law school. A paralegal education is not the equivalent of a law school education, however. Graduates of paralegal programs are not qualified or eligible to take the bar examination in most states.
Academic credit for paralegal courses is not transferable for advanced standing in law school.
Some paralegal programs allow you to choose an area of specialization. Hot legal specialties for paralegals include complex litigation, corporate law, intellectual property, regulatory compliance, and real estate, according to Charles A. Volkert, III, executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of legal professionals.
Paralegal certification—not to be confused with a paralegal certificate—is a growing national trend that confers special recognition to paralegals who have satisfied certain predetermined qualifications. Certification isn't mandatory, but it demonstrates a commitment to the field and it can enhance your professional credibility and employment prospects.