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How to Obtain a Legal Assistant Certificate: A Comprehensive Guide

Published on: Jun 30, 2024

A legal assistant can bridge the gap between being “just a secretary” and a legal professional like a paralegal. Legal assistants work for law firms or individual attorneys and conduct both administrative and legal support duties. They may need to answer phones, do basic filing, and screen clients, but they may also need to calendar cases, draft letters and memos, and do legal research.

Obtaining legal assistant training can be done at a college in a traditional classroom or online, but many people get on-the-job training by working as secretaries and receptionists in law offices. A good way to jump-start your career is by enrolling in a paralegal studies course or entering a legal assistant certificate program. 

In this article, we will review what is required to become a legal assistant, how to obtain a legal assistant certificate, and the advantages of becoming a certified legal assistant.

What is a Legal Assistant Certificate?

First, you should understand the difference between a certificate and being certified. A legal assistant certificate is awarded for completing a legal assistant studies program or course through a community college, vocational school, or other accredited learning institution. For instance, the Beverly Hills Bar Association offers an eight-week online course in legal assistant training that gives participants specific knowledge in civil litigation, probate, and family law. A certificate is good to have, but if you’ve gotten your training at work, you may not need such a certificate.

A certification, such as a paralegal certification, is given by one of the certification associations, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). These professional organizations have certification exams designed to prove proficiency in legal skills.

Importance of a Legal Assistant Certificate

Not everyone needs a legal assistant certificate or certification, but these credentials can help with your job search. Only California has statutory requirements for paralegal certification, but other states are considering similar laws. Some states, like California, use “paralegal” and “legal assistant” interchangeably. Washington State created the term “legal technician” in its limited practice rule.

More importantly, having your certificate or degree demonstrates you’re a committed professional in a competitive field. These credentials indicate that you’ve taken the time to develop your career skills and advanced beyond being entry level roles such as a legal secretary. Instead of calling your former employers, potential employers will know by your resume that you know legal terminology and procedures.

Most professional certification agencies require continuing legal education (CLE) to maintain your certification. Typically, you must complete and report 20-30 hours of education or workshops each year to stay current. This informs future employers that they won’t have to spend time bringing you up to speed on the latest industry knowledge. Staying current in the legal field is important when laws change frequently.

Overview of Legal Assistant Certificate Programs

The exact structure of a legal assistant certificate program depends on where and how you enroll.  For instance, if you take a certificate course (one that only features legal courses), it may consist of a series of classes on basic legal terminology and procedure.

If your certificate program is a component of your associate’s or bachelor’s degree, you’ll add legal specialty courses to your regular course load. That means completing your general education courses and the certificate program requirements. Your bachelor’s may be in a law-related field or a different discipline.

For instance, the paralegal studies program at El Camino College in California has two tracks, one for those who already have a two- or four-year degree, and one for those who want an A.A degree in paralegal studies.

Nearly all courses are available in-person (brick & mortar), entirely online, or hybrid, and offered day and night. Which one you choose depends on your personality and schedule. Program information and enrollment are available online, although most schools will send brochures, downloadable guides, and catalogs on request.

Curriculum and Key Courses

Even if you’re currently employed as a legal secretary or learned your skills at work, you might want to consider a legal assistant certificate program for the extra knowledge you’ll get in school. Legal assistant courses are a mini-law school, with layperson’s classes in:

  • Legal research and writing

    You’ll learn the use of Westlaw and Lexis and other common online research tools, how to cite cases for memos and briefs, and the correct terminology for legal documents

  • Legal terminology and legal procedures

    Do you know the difference between motion practice and notice practice? Do you know what a motion in limine is? They’re not just ways to wow friends at parties, they’re important tools for your attorney, and ways to enhance your skill set

  • Family law

    An area best known for divorce, but also covering child support, child custody, domestic violence, and modification orders

  • Criminal law

    Everything from traffic tickets and DUIs to robbery and murder

  • Civil procedure

    Torts, contracts, and business law

  • Wills, trusts, and estate planning

Few attorneys handle all these practice areas, and as a legal assistant, you probably won’t either, but it is good to know something about everything when your attorney asks you for help.

Admission Requirements and Program Duration

A legal assistant certificate program seldom has formal requirements. Since a legal assistant is an entry-level position, the program requirements are not strict. In some cases, applicants for associate degrees must complete prerequisite courses before taking advanced courses. For instance, a legal writing class may require a basic English writing class as a prerequisite.

Certificate programs are intended to be one- or two-semester courses. A.A. or A.S. (applied science degree) may be two- or three-year degrees. You should plan on spending several hours per day in class time and independent study. A legal assistant certificate program is as difficult as any other professional class.

Financial Aid and Tuition

Shorter certificate programs may not be eligible to offer state or federal financial aid. Aid may not be available for programs that are only a semester or two long or classes offered by institutions that are not eligible for state or federal financial aid. For instance, Lorman has online training classes for legal secretaries with single-course fees and a yearly subscription.  Aid may be provided by the institution by offering the learning experience on a case-by-case basis. If such aid is provided, you should carefully review the aid contracts and consult with legal and financial professionals. 

Community college tuition for a two-year degree is cheaper than it used to be. As of 2024, at least 30 states offer some variation of “free” community college, although qualifications may be strict. Many require residency, pre-qualification for student loans, or other financial requirements. Still, you can jump-start your career and education if you meet the requirements.

To learn more about these requirements and other financial aid options, you should request information from the colleges and their state board of education. If you’re looking at a certificate program of less than a few thousand dollars, your best bet is family and friends. Financial aid packages will not be available or cost-effective for such small sums.

Certification and Exams

No state except California has any certification requirements for paralegals, and no states require certification for legal assistants. The best-known associations, The National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (NALA - The Paralegal Association), and The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA™) have regular certification exams and CLE courses for members. NALA  has a certified paralegal exam and a legal assistant certification.

These exams are usually two-part: a multiple-choice knowledge test and a written practical exam. Once a legal assistant or paralegal passes the test, they receive a certificate and may call themselves “Certified Legal Assistant” or “Certified Paralegal” on their resumes. Although there are no official licensing boards, employers check membership rosters, and being a member is a definite plus for any legal support professional.

Career Opportunities and Pathways

Membership in one or more certification agencies such as NALA or NFPA provides access to their career centers. Having your name on these job boards increases your visibility and the number of places your resume appears.

The legal skills developed through legal assistant training open several career pathways, some of which you may have yet to consider when you start your classes. Being a legal secretary or paralegal in a law firm is one job, but other options could include:

  • Court reporter

  • Court clerk

  • Legal investigator

  • Legal researcher

  • Administrative assistant

Law firms have other positions open for those committed to the legal field. Law school career services agencies are good places to begin your search for openings in the job market.

Real-World Applications and Job Market

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for legal assistants and paralegals continues to grow steadily. Legal services remain a stable employment area, especially in corporate legal departments and large law firms.

Government agencies are less likely to need legal assistants since they tend to hire administrative staff and promote from within, but related legal service agencies, such as courthouse self-help centers, may benefit from certified legal assistants and paralegals.

Continuing Education and Professional Development

Like all legal professionals, legal assistants, paralegals, and other legal support professionals should continue their legal education. Certified professionals must perform a minimum number of CLE hours each year, depending on their certifications. California requires certified paralegals to complete four hours of legal ethics CLE and four hours of general or specialized legal education CLE every other year for their certification.

If you decide to specialize in your chosen area, advanced certifications are available through certification organizations. The American Bar Association (ABA) has a membership plan for paralegals to continue professional development through ABA-approved courses.

Legal specialty courses can be found on Googling, such as “legal assistant specialty courses.” Once you’ve compiled a list of possible courses and programs, use this checklist to decide which courses are best for you.

How to Choose the Right Legal Assistant Certificate Program

Choosing your legal assistant certificate program will depend on several factors, such as location, time commitment, professional interests, academic reputation, and career support services. You should enroll in the best program that gives you the features you want, is located near you or available during the hours you have open, and that you can reasonably afford. You can obtain program information by reviewing websites and contacting the program directors and managers with any questions.

How to evaluate and prioritize programs during your search include:

  • College accreditation or ABA approval

    ABA approval is voluntary, so courses that have this on their pages have gone the extra step to show they’re professionally oriented.

  • Academic reputation

    You can check social media for the school’s name and names of graduates.

  • Curriculum and CLE

    The school should offer classes unique to the legal assistant position. Beware of schools that offer secretarial courses with a smattering of legal terminology. You want to go back to the same school for continuing education if possible.

  • Faculty credentials

    Take time to review the bona fides of the professors and instructors. Your teachers should be attorneys, paralegals, or experts in the field. Avoid classes taught by legal administrators.

  • Support

    Colleges have student support services and career development centers. Not all online agencies have these, but if they do, check to see if they have testimonials from former students. Read online reviews to investigate if students are satisfied.

Advanced certifications can be obtained in almost every practice area. NALA has Advanced Certified Paralegal courses for members who have completed the CP.

Closing Thoughts

Legal assistants fill a critical role in the legal field. The job can be a springboard to other positions in a legal career. If you already work in a law office or want to learn more, contact one of the agencies here to request information on enrolling in a legal assistant certificate course.

Getting a legal assistant certification and joining a professional organization should be part of your legal career plan. Professional networking on LinkedIn or Facebook is ideal for meeting others who can help you achieve your career goals.

About the Authors

Written by:

Susan Buckner, Esq.

Susan Buckner has a J.D. from Whittier Law School. She’s a contributing author to FindLaw.com with over 350 published articles. Susan has been a legal writer and content provider for five years. She works with numerous online legal content agencies.

Susan worked with Whittier’s Family and Children’s Law Clinic as a junior editor with the Family and Children’s Law Journal from 2009-2011. After law school, she volunteered as a mediator with the Orange County Superior Court, with a 77% settlement rate.

Susan worked as a paralegal for solo attorneys in California and Florida. Her legal experience ranges from contract law to personal injury law, with a specialization in family and disability law. She has written on every legal topic, from contracts to intellectual property. She is also a published fiction and nonfiction author.

Susan lives and works in Southern California.

Susan Buckner, Esq.


Education: Whittier Law School, JD

Knowledge: Contract 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