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How to Become a Paralegal

Discover how to launch your career as a paralegal professional. Find out about program types, curriculum content, delivery formats, and more. Learn the step-by-step process of how to become a paralegal, including selecting, applying to, and completing a paralegal program.

Author: Michael Hoffman
Editor: STEPS Staff

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A person with long hair wearing a light-colored blazer and white shirt is sitting at a desk, smiling while working on a laptop. They are holding a mug in one hand. The background shows a blurred office space with a container of pencils to one side.

For many individuals interested in the legal profession, becoming a paralegal is a great alternative to a career as a lawyer. Good pay – with a national mean annual wage of $62,840, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – job security, and work that is both challenging and rewarding are important reasons. Another is that you won’t have to spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree plus three years of law school for a career in law.

There are, however, required steps that prepare you for a paralegal career. This guide outlines the nine major steps to becoming a paralegal from deciding if the profession is right for you to landing your first paralegal job. Begin learning how to become a paralegal today by jumping into the first step.

Step 1: Is Becoming a Paralegal Right for Me?

Before diving into the formal process of becoming a paralegal, it’s critical to decide if being a paralegal is the right career choice for you. That seems obvious, but it’s tempting to jump right into that process. In doing so, you may commit to a career that doesn’t provide the lifestyle and job satisfaction you want

So, how do you determine if becoming a paralegal is the right choice? By taking some time to make a detailed assessment of your professional aspirations, personality traits and talents, and lifestyle preferences and goals. A good way to do so is to write down your answers to each of the following five questions.

  • Do I work well under the supervision of others? Paralegals are supervised by attorneys, so it’s critical to understand and appreciate the necessity of completing your work assignments fully and specifically according to the instructions you’re given.
  • Do I have the talent needed for a successful paralegal practice? Paralegals handle complex litigation that requires attention to detail, strong organization, time management, and critical thinking skills.
  • Am I a people person? Paralegals work closely with clients, attorneys, and fellow law office staff, which requires strong communication skills and an innate compassion for others.
  • Do I place a high value on professional and ethical practice? Paralegals are held to the same high standards of professionalism and accountability as the attorneys they work for.
  • Do I have a real passion for the law? Legal work can be difficult and involve long hours. A genuine interest in the law and the legal process is essential to success as a paralegal.

If you answered “yes” to all or most of these questions, a paralegal career is likely a good choice for you, and it’s time to move to the second step.

Step 2: Determine Your Path to Becoming a Paralegal

There are several paths to becoming a paralegal as quickly and affordably as possible. Before you can successfully navigate your path, however, you must choose the right one. To do that, first determine your unique starting point.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Where am I presently in my schooling? Are you in high school about to graduate or already in college? Are you looking to make a career pivot and considering going back to school? All of these are points to assess to figure out what your next steps should be.
  • What are my ultimate career goals? Do you want to be a paralegal as your permanent career? Is being a paralegal just a steppingstone to becoming an attorney or pursuing another role? Whatever the answer to this question is, or even if you don’t have an answer just yet, it’s important to consider what your short and long-term goals are here.
  • How much time can I afford to spend earning my paralegal education? Can I only commit approximately 2 years to learning to become a Paralegal or would you rather attend a 4-year university, earn a bachelors, and then get your paralegal certificate. Whichever path you choose should align with your goals, how soon you want to enter the workforce, and what you are prepared to pay for.

Answer these questions before exploring paralegal programs. Remember, though, that nothing is written in stone. Some of your answers may change along the way, but having a well-considered starting point is a necessity.

Step 3: Explore Paralegal Degree Programs

Now that you’ve outlined the basics of your paralegal academic and career path, decide on the type of paralegal education program that best fits that path. Three major types of paralegal programs are described below to help you consider how individual program elements (e.g., curriculum content, study options, program length, total cost, etc.) combine to meet your unique academic needs and professional preferences.

Associate Degree

Paralegal associate degree programs are the most common type available because they offer an appealing combination of affordability (particularly public community college programs), fast completion times (typically around two years full-time), and well-rounded academics that include both general education and major-specific coursework. A paralegal associate degree also, in most cases, allows students those credits to a bachelor’s degree program later. Our Online Paralegal Associate Degree Programs page gives more details on associate paralegal programs if this feels like the right path for you.

Bachelor’s Degree

If your career plan requires postsecondary education with a graduate degree or law school, a paralegal bachelor’s degree may be the best choice. A paralegal bachelor’s degree offers the benefit of distinguishing yourself in the job market from paralegals with only an associate degree, but you’ll spend approximately twice as long (typically four years full-time) pursuing your bachelor’s. Also expect a larger total program cost once you factor in four years of tuition at a higher rate. Our Guide to Online Paralegal Bachelor’s Programs can give you a more detailed look at earning your paralegal bachelor’s online.

Paralegal Certificates

Students with associate or bachelor’s degrees in other subjects can prepare for a paralegal career without having to complete an entirely new degree through a paralegal certificate program. A paralegal certificate program allows you to skip general education requirements and concentrate solely on paralegal-specific coursework. Program lengths vary, but most can be completed in about a year of full-time study. Programs with part-time options take about a year and a half. For a look at how you can obtain your paralegal certificate online, check out our Guide to the Best Online Paralegal Certificate Programs.

Step 4: Decide How You Want to Learn

Your next decision has to do with program format and delivery options. Below are descriptions of format factors to consider. Selecting the format that best suits your study needs and style is crucial to your academic success.

There are both online and traditional campus-based options available for all three paralegal program types. Online programs offer study flexibility and convenience, but not all students are cut out for distance education. So, it’s important to consider all the pros and cons of both online and on-campus academics when selecting a paralegal program.

Online Program Advantages & Disadvantages

Benefits of online study: The cost savings and convenience of attending classes and completing coursework from anywhere and, often, at any time.

Possible disadvantages: Fewer chances to network and high levels of self-discipline.

On-Campus Program Advantages & Disadvantages

Advantages of on-campus study: Plenty of networking opportunities and other benefits of face-to-face interaction with instructors and fellow students.

Disadvantages include: Less scheduling flexibility and the extra time, costs, and hassle of traveling to and from campus.

Part-time vs. Full-Time Paralegal Programs

The major advantage of a full-time paralegal program is completing your studies in less time than in a part-time program. However, students with full-time jobs or substantial family obligations often don’t have the luxury of tackling their paralegal education on a full-time basis. While most paralegal programs are full-time, some schools offer part-time options. This is especially true of online programs.

Step 5: Pick a Paralegal Program and Apply

You know your program type and have decided on a program format, so now it’s time to find the specific program that fits those choices. Again, here are some questions to answer before moving to the next step.

  • Is the program’s school regionally accredited and the program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA)?
  • Does the program fulfill licensing requirements in the state in which I intend to practice?
  • Does the program’s format work for my schedule?
  • Can I realistically afford tuition and other costs?
  • Can I meet admission requirements?

Once you’ve answered the above questions, it’s time to search for your program. Have a goal of finding two or three programs to which you’ll apply.

Prerequisites and Applications

Next is the application and admissions process. There are two main factors that most prospective students need to be concerned with when applying to a college degree or certificate program: prerequisite course requirements and the application process itself. Here’s a quick look at both.

  • Prerequisites: It’s highly unlikely you’ll need any college-level courses to qualify for admission into a paralegal education program. You will need an associate or bachelor’s degree for admission into a paralegal certificate program. Otherwise, prerequisite coursework is seldom a requirement for paralegal program admission.
  • Application: The application requirements and process are likely the same as those for the college or university generally. That means you need a high school diploma or equivalent (e.g., GED) with a stated minimum grade point average. Paralegal certificate program applicants also need an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Step 6: Fund Your Paralegal Degree

Students in practically all accredited associate and bachelor’s programs, as well as some certificate programs, are eligible for a wide variety of financial aid resources. Common sources include scholarships, grants, work-study programs, employer tuition reimbursement, and VA benefits. Student loans, like those available through the U.S. Department of Education, are also available.

A great way to start your funding search is by visiting the financial aid offices at each of the schools you’re considering. Also check out STEPs’ guides to Paralegal Scholarships, Public Service Scholarships, and Public Service Financial Aid.

Step 7: Finish Your Coursework

You’ve jumped through all of the hoops to find and get admitted into a paralegal degree or certificate program. Now your academic work begins. For associate and bachelor’s degree students, curriculums include general education courses that certificate students do not have to take. For all paralegal students, the bulk of their studies focus on core paralegal courses and electives. Below are five examples of courses like the ones found in practically all paralegal programs.

Course Examples

1. Introduction to Paralegal Practice:

This beginning course overviews both the American legal system and the basic roles, responsibilities, and limits of paralegal practice.

2. Criminal Law and Procedure:

An introduction to the foundations of substantive criminal law and the criminal legal process, topics in this course include crime classification and analysis, constitutional and criminal law concepts, and the elements of federal, state, and local jurisdiction.

3. Civil Litigation

This course is a survey of the basics of civil law and procedure plus an introduction to the five most common types of civil litigation: business law, class action litigation, contracts, family law, and personal injury.

4. Legal Research and Writing:

This course overviews the fundamentals of research and writing for paralegal practice. Topics include primary and secondary source materials, legal analysis, legal writing techniques, the various types of legal documents, and more.

5. Paralegal Internship:

Typically functioning as the capstone project for most paralegal programs, the paralegal internship provides an opportunity to apply the knowledge gained in the classroom to actual legal cases in any of a number of professional practice settings.

Be sure to visit the Paralegal Courses and Classes page for more on paralegal program curriculums.

Step 8: Get Your Paralegal Certification

There are no states that require a license to practice as a paralegal, though California does regulate the use of the paralegal title, and some states (including Arizona, California, Utah, and Washington) allow paralegals to conduct some legal services beyond those normally allowed if they meet additional educational, practice experience, and continuing education requirements.

There are, however, several voluntary national and state paralegal certifications available to qualifying paralegals, and it’s in your best interest as a paralegal professional to obtain one or more of them. Many employers require certification as a condition of employment. Plus, being able to list national and/or state-level paralegal certification on your resume makes you a much more attractive employment prospect.

Here’s a look at the paralegal certifications you’ll want to consider.

National Certification

There are two major paralegal certifying bodies on the national level. The best known is the National Paralegal Association (NALA) which administers the Certified Paralegal (CP) certification. There are several different paths you can take to qualify to sit for the CP exam, each requiring some form of degree or certificate education. In addition, paralegals with CP credentials can obtain the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designation by completing the NALA’s ACP course.

The second certifying body, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), offers two national-level certification options. The CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) certification is for entry-level and early-career paralegals. The CRP credential indicates possession of the knowledge and skills needed for professional practice in many areas of the paralegal field. The PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) certification is for working paralegals with several years of practice experience. The number of years of experience required depends on the specific type of paralegal education program completed. Both CRP and RP certifications require taking and passing an NFPA-administered exam.

State Certifications

Voluntary state certifications are available in many states, each with its own requirements and credential designations. The NFPA can connect you with these certification programs as well as to states that regulate the practice of non-lawyer professionals.

Step 9: Apply For Jobs & Start Your Paralegal Career

Once you’ve graduated from your paralegal degree or certificate program, it’s time to find your first paralegal job. Don’t wait until graduation to start planning your job search, though. In fact, it’s beneficial to start your paralegal education and job planning process at the same time. Below are five tips for planning for – and landing – your first paralegal job.

  • Think about the type of law you’d like to practice. At the beginning of your paralegal education program, explore the different legal fields to see which ones interest you the most.
  • Tailor your studies to match your top areas of interest. Once you’ve settled on one or two areas, be sure you cover those in your choice of elective courses.
  • Network, network, network. Nothing helps you in your paralegal job search more than getting known. Your legal community, even if it’s in a big city, is smaller than you think. So, join your school’s paralegal club or local paralegal association, attend law-related events, volunteer at local law clinics, etc. These activities will get you noticed and pay off big time when you’re looking for your first paying paralegal position.
  • Prepare for your job interview. Your paralegal job interview lands – or loses – you the job you really want. So, put some serious time into it. For detailed advice, tap into resources like How to Prepare for a Paralegal Job Interview from Boston University.
  • Apply, apply, apply. Do it in person. The law business is a face-to-face business, so get your face out there.