Paralegal educational programs in the United States vary considerably in length and substance. Although regulation is a hot topic nationally, the paralegal profession is presently not regulated (with the exception of the state of California) and individuals using the titles “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are not required to be licensed or to meet any specific educational or experiential qualifications.
Types of Paralegal Programs
According to the American Bar Association, over 1,000 institutions across the United States offer formal paralegal education programs leading to either a degree or certificate. These programs include:
- Home study and on-line paralegal programs (not recommended)
- 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 in length
- Four-year college and university programs offering degrees in paralegal studies
- Advanced degree programs offering masters 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 (analysis, judgment, research, and problem-solving);
- communication skills (oral, written, non-verbal, and interpersonal);
- computer skills;
- computational skills;
- understanding of ethics; and
- organizational skills.
Paralegal prgrams should also give paralelegals 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 incorporates 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 for the education of paralegals. To become eligible for ABA approval, a paralegal program must have been in operation for a minimum of two academic years and satisfy all requirements of the ABA guidelines. Schools that have obtained ABA approval must seek periodic reaccredidation. 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 because many employers use the ABA-approval as a way to select the best qualified candidates.
Your Ticket To Success
Paralegals with the following educational background 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; OR
- a bachelors’ degree in any field combined with a master’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field.
While some paralegals in the legal market possess no formal education or obtained their education through home study or web-based paralegal programs, I would not recommend this path to those who are committed to a career as a paralegal. As paralegal educational standards increase and employers become more selective, these educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) may seriously limit your employment opportunities and income potential.
If You Have Law School Aspirations
If you have aspirations of going to law school, the paralegal field is a great way to gain first-hand legal experience and insight into law practice. However, you should note that a paralegal education is not the equivalent of a law school education and graduates of paralegal programs are not qualified or eligible to take the bar examination. Furthermore, academic credit for paralegal courses is not transferable for advanced standing in law school.
Some paralegal programs allow a paralegal 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 in the paralegal field. While certification is not mandatory, it demonstrates a commitment to the field and may enhance your professional credibility and employment prospects.