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How Long Does it Take to Become a Paralegal? The Timeframes and Tracks to Consider

Published on: Mar 12, 2024

Paralegals have a significant role in the legal system, assisting with case development, planning, and management. Paralegals are responsible for interviewing clients, conducting legal research, gathering facts and information, analyzing and drafting documents, and compiling and collecting data to provide lawyers with necessary support. However, while the U.S. Department of Labor predicts rapid growth of the paralegal profession, many people hesitate to enter the field because they need to know how long it will take to become a paralegal and the education and experience involved.

Although many variables affect this timeline, including education and specialization, the article below will explore the timeframes and tracks to help you launch your paralegal career.

Understanding the Paralegal Role

The role of a paralegal can vary greatly depending on the law firm or organization they work for. However, their responsibilities typically involve organizing and reviewing documents, conducting legal research, preparing reports to help attorneys determine how to handle their cases, and supporting lawyers in filing lawsuits on behalf of clients. It is also worth noting that although paralegals may be called by different titles, such as case managers, legal researchers, or legal secretaries, these titles are different, as these jobs can differ significantly. For instance, legal secretaries primarily focus on administrative tasks, while a paralegal focuses more on legal duties, which enhances the ability of law firms to provide further legal services. To better understand the distinction, we encourage you to check out our article detailing the responsibilities of a paralegal versus a legal secretary.

Educational Pathways to Becoming a Paralegal

While a specific degree or paralegal certification is not mandatory to work as a paralegal, obtaining the proper education can provide individuals with additional access to career opportunities that would otherwise be available.

What Classes To Take If You Are Still in Highschool

Paralegal programs will have specific prerequisites depending on the program you choose. However, taking certain classes that can help you improve your writing, reading, and general communication skills is still recommended. Therefore, during high school, you should consider taking courses that can aid in developing these skills and enhance your research skills and logical reasoning, such as AP literature, AP language, and certain math classes. Check out our article detailing the skills required to succeed as a paralegal.  

A Paralegal Certification 

It is important to note that getting a paralegal certification is not equivalent to obtaining a degree. Certification is evidence of passing a third-party course, such as theCertified Paralegal exam through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) The Paralegal Association.On the other hand, a paralegal degree is an accredited credential offered by a university or college, such as a bachelor's or associate’s degree.

How Long Is the Common Paralegal Studies Certificate Path?

Another critical aspect to distinguish is the difference between a paralegal certificate and a certification. People often use these terms interchangeably, but they have different meanings. A certificate is proof that a person has successfully completed a paralegal education program. These programs are typically offered at colleges and universities, such as the online paralegal studies program through Liberty University. Additionally, while the prerequisites may vary, typically, students seeking a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate have already earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in another area of study. In these instances, the students will usually only take specialty courses as part of their work to obtain a certificate since the other general education requirements have been satisfied. Once the student completes all of these educational requirements, the student will be issued a certificate of completion in paralegal studies.  

In comparison, a certification evaluates a paralegal's knowledge and competence and is granted by a professional association or regulatory body, such as NALA, after meeting specific requirements or passing an exam. Paralegals may be required to complete annual continuing education units to maintain this certification.

Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies

Obtaining an associate degree in paralegal studies is often a common choice for those looking to start their careers as paralegals. This option allows individuals to build a foundation in the legal field within a shorter period, usually two years, while still earning a degree.

Full-time students can complete a paralegal associate degree in two years. AtOakland Community College,the institution has a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association, which enables students to earn a paralegal associate degree after completing 63 credit hours of major requirements, electives, general education, and supporting courses. After graduating with an associate degree, students can work as a paralegal or transfer their credits and earn a bachelor's degree through Eastern Michigan University, Oakland University, or Madonna University after an additional year of studies.

Bachelor’s Degree in Legal Studies or Paralegal Studies 

The legal field offers a variety of educational pathways, but obtaining a bachelor's degree is widely recognized as a solid foundation for a successful career. Specifically, individuals who hold a bachelor's degree in legal studies, criminal justice, or business law are better equipped to understand the legal terminology and framework required in a paralegal profession. This degree takes, on average, four years to obtain.

Moreover, depending on the school, paralegals who want to specialize in a specific field of law, such as family law, environmental law, or corporate compliance, have various specialization options. The American Bar Association (ABA) can provide more information about obtaining a specialization in a certain concentration.

Certification and Specialization

It is worth noting that many employers prefer or require paralegal candidates to have professional certification. However, remember that various paralegal certification programs have specific educational requirements. For instance, NALA and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA) offer paralegal certifications, but their requirements are different.

NALA requires that paralegals pursuing a Certified Paralegal credential need to meet at least one of the following requirements:

  • A paralegal studies bachelor’s degree

  • A paralegal studies graduate certificate

  • A paralegal certificate program that has at least 60 semester hours (including 15 in substantive legal courses)

  • An ABA-approved paralegal program

  • A paralegal studies associate degree 

In contrast, the NFPA requires individuals wanting to take the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam ™ to have at least a GRE certificate or high school diploma plus five years of substantive paralegal experience. Those wishing to take the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam® need to have at least an associate degree plus seven years of substantive paralegal experience.

Continuing Education and Advanced Certifications

Due to the ever-changing legal landscape, continuous professional development is of utmost importance for paralegals. With the emergence of new laws, technologies, and regulations at an unprecedented pace, paralegals must stay up-to-date with these changes to ensure that they deliver high-quality services to their clients, colleagues, and employers. If you want to continue your education, check out institutions such as Rasmussen University for additional options.

Real-World Experience and Professional Development

Real-world experience can significantly benefit paralegals. It can help them understand the judicial system and familiarize themselves with key legal terms and processes. This knowledge can prove invaluable when interpreting complex legal documents and communicating effectively with lawyers and the court. Additionally, it can help paralegals provide accurate and timely information to clients and contribute to their professional growth and success.

Paralegal Internships and Work Experience 

Paralegals play a crucial role in the smooth functioning of a law office. Due to the significance of their work, top law firms usually prefer to hire paralegals with some prior legal experience. That is why those aspiring to become paralegals often complete a paralegal internship to gain the necessary experience, which law offices highly value.

Paralegals who secure legal internships can gain real-world experience and learn how a law office operates.  They also typically learn more about the key functions of the position, such as drafting legal documents, researching cases, and navigating technology, which can help paralegals gain familiarity with the legal industry.

Networking and Professional Organizations

There are many advantages to networking and joining professional organizations as a paralegal. Connecting with other paralegals or legal professionals is a great way to increase knowledge and meet those you can learn from. Job opportunities can also develop from these connections, especially as more people notice your profile.

Some professional organizations to consider joining, outside of NALA and NFPA, include the following: 

Financial Considerations

If you are considering becoming a paralegal, it is essential to understand the financial considerations involved in pursuing this career. While an associate's degree may cost less than a bachelor's degree, a four-year degree can provide more job opportunities in the long run. Typically, an associate degree will cost around $20,000 to $25,000, while a bachelor’s degree will cost individuals around $40,000 or more, depending on the school. Those seeking a paralegal certificate may need to spend between $3,000 to $13,000, while a paralegal certification exam cost usually ranges between $75 and $400.

Fortunately, aspiring paralegal students have access to various financial aid options to help them pay for their education. Federal student aid such as Direct Subsidized Loans, Federal Pell Grants, Parent Plus Loans, and Unsubsidized Loans are available to eligible students. However, it is important to note that these financial aids are obligated to repay the loan with interest after graduation. To apply for federal student aid, individuals must file the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online and theStudent Aid Report (SAR) before the deadline.

Timeline Summary

Generally speaking, it can take anywhere from a few months to years to become a paralegal. However, the time frame will depend on your educational path.

  • An associate’s degree in legal studies can take up to two years or more

  • A bachelor’s degree in legal studies can take up to four years or more

  • A paralegal certificate can take anywhere from six months to twelve months

  • Obtaining a certification can take a few months, which can also include a paralegal certification program that may last approximately six weeks to help individuals prepare

However, multiple factors can impact the timeline for completing this education. For example, if you are considering attending in-person, online, or hybrid programs, you may need to wait until the right program becomes available. Additionally, whether you choose to attend school full-time, part-time, or an accelerated option can also affect the time it takes to complete your educational path.

Choosing the Right Path for You

When it comes to determining which educational path is right for you, whether that means a paralegal certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree, there are certain factors that you should consider before making this decision. These factors include: 

  • The time commitment involved

  • Financial considerations

  • Career goals

  • Earning potential

In addition to weighing these factors to help you determine what educational path you should choose, it is also important to consider legal specialty courses based on your interests and career goals, as this decision can have a meaningful impact on your future.

The Bottom Line

Although paralegals' educational backgrounds are very diverse, there is a noticeable shift towards paralegals obtaining specialized legal education and skills. This shift reflects the evolution of the profession and the growing complexity of the legal landscape. If you aspire to become a paralegal, it is important to focus on attaining the right balance between formal education and practical experience. This can ultimately help you become a well-rounded professional who is well-prepared to meet the demands of the legal field.

To better acquaint yourself with your options, continue to explore certification processes, career opportunities, and paralegal programs, as well as contact educational institutions and paralegal associations for further information.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kasia Nelson, Esq.

Kasia Nelson is a licensed attorney and skilled legal content writer with years of experience. With a background in corporate immigration law, she is well-versed in the intricacies of producing legally accurate and well-researched work. 


  • Michigan State University, B.S.

  • Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Law Licensures

  • Michigan

Kasia Nelson

Kasia Nelson, Esq.


Education: Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Knowledge: Corporate Immigration Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning