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Your Path to a Paralegal License: What You Need to Know

Published on: Jun 22, 2024

A paralegal license or certification is a voluntary professional designation that paralegals get by completing a paralegal studies course and then passing a certification exam. Although such a certification is only required in one state (California), having a license is a sign of professionalism for the holder.

Let’s take a look at what a paralegal certification is, how you can get one, and what the benefits are in a crowded professional field. We’ll review who needs a paralegal certification, the process of obtaining and keeping your certificate in different states, including state registration, and look at different educational options for getting your paralegal studies certificate or degree.

Finally, we’ll cover some helpful paralegal organizations and other resources that can help you study for the certification exam, and give you career advice once you’ve completed the certification process.

What is a Paralegal License and Do You Need One?

A paralegal license distinguishes a legal professional from other legal service providers. According to a poster on Reddit, a certified paralegal certificate was extremely helpful in their career, and belonging to professional organizations gave them additional leverage in the job market.

Only California has legal and educational requirements for those calling themselves “paralegals.” Many other states have voluntary certification programs or other regulations within the legal field. For instance, Delaware’s Certified Paralegal Association offers certification for Delaware paralegals who have completed a paralegal studies program or other legal training. The Oregon State Bar is reviewing licensing requirements for paralegals and legal assistants in that state. According to California attorney James L. Arrasmith, having your certification gives you an edge in a competitive market.

You should understand the difference between a certificate and a certification. A certificate is awarded once you have completed a paralegal program or a degree with a specialization in paralegal studies. A certification is granted by a national association, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Certifications are given to association members who pass the exams and maintain continuing education (CLE) requirements with the organization.

Who Should Pursue a Paralegal License and When?

You might not have thought about getting a paralegal certification before. Since most states don’t require it, having your license might not seem beneficial. It would be best if you considered getting a certificate when: 

  • You want to advance your paralegal career with your current employer, ask for a raise or a better position

  • You’ve gained substantive paralegal experience through your job and want to continue that path

  • You want to enhance your skills and marketability as a legal professional

If you’re already a legal secretary or legal assistant, you may have taken a paralegal studies course as part of your training. More legal knowledge makes you more valuable to your firm and can boost your confidence when you ask for a salary increase.

If you’re considering advancing in your legal career and attending law school, a paralegal certification exam is a good warm-up for a grueling experience later. Paralegal classes prepare you for life in a legal practice and get you used to studying again. There are no wrong reasons to get your paralegal license.

The Process of Getting a Paralegal License

Getting a paralegal license is a matter of learning how to be a paralegal. Although there are courses to teach you the nuts and bolts of becoming a paralegal, NALA (The Paralegal Association) allows you to take the exam if you meet the following requirements:

  • Graduated from an ABA-approved paralegal program, associate’s degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, or

  • A bachelor’s degree in any field plus a year of experience as a paralegal or 15 semester hours of substantive paralegal studies, or

  • A high school diploma plus five years’ experience as a paralegal plus 20 hours CLE within two years before the exam

NALA will consider other education/experience combinations upon request, such as a graduate degree plus experience as a paralegal or inactive law license.

The test consists of two parts: a knowledge exam and a skills exam. Applicants must pass both parts to receive their certificate. NALA’s certificate is good in all 50 states for those wishing to call themselves “certified paralegals.”

California has its own paralegal licensing requirements and agency, the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations (CAPA). CAPA holds ABA-approved paralegal exams several times each year and tracks its members’ CLE compliance.

In Florida, paralegals can register through the Florida State Bar. They pay a registration fee and submit their CLE hours through the state bar website. There is no requirement to do so, but registrants receive the same benefits as Bar members. Paralegals who are not registered cannot call themselves “registered paralegals.”

These regulations are always changing, so it’s a good idea to check with the state bar or one of the listed agencies when you become a paralegal. Usually, you’re safe if you work for a licensed attorney or law firm, but if you work for a clinic or as a freelance paralegal, you should be sure you’re not violating any rules of professional conduct.

Registered Paralegal vs. Certified Paralegal vs. Paralegal License

NALA is currently the only agency accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The NCCA is a private organization that oversees standards and practices for professional certification agencies and helps ensure standardized testing, licensing, and assessment of members.

A certified paralegal is someone who has taken and passed NALA’s certified paralegal exam and maintains certification through NALA’s CLE program. NALA members must recertify every five years. Only individuals who have taken NALA’s exam can use the “Certified Paralegal” designation.

Some states, such as Florida, allow paralegals to register through the state bar. Registered paralegals must meet state bar standards and pay a registration fee. Different states may have exams or want proof of substantive paralegal experience for registration. In these states, only members of the bar may call themselves registered paralegals.

Some schools offer training and certification in other legal skills. A legal document assistant receives training in preparing legal documents for non-lawyers. These individuals often assist at legal clinics and self-help centers. Certified legal assistants may be paralegals or have less legal training than paralegals.

Currently, no state except California requires licensing, registration, or certification for any paralegal. There may be legislation in your particular state to change this, so keep an eye on your state bar website for changes.

Paralegal Studies and Certificate Programs

The American Bar Association (ABA) provides links to ABA-approved paralegal programs and paralegal certificate programs. More than anyone else, the Bar Association appreciates the need for well-trained and certified paralegals and stresses the importance of accredited programs for professional paralegals.

Paralegal studies programs are available at community colleges and four-year universities. The California State University system has a certified Paralegal and Advanced Paralegal program that complies with the state’s regulations. A popular option today is the online self-guided course. NALA and its affiliates offer these classes, which can be purchased through Amazon.

A good paralegal certificate program stresses the importance of continuing education or CLE. Most certificate and state registration programs require a certain number of hours of continuing education each year. Once you’ve gotten your certificate, you can join the state bar and take advantage of CLE opportunities offered by the bar.

Key Components of Paralegal Education

Paralegals are essential to attorneys, law firms, and legal clinics because of the professional skills they bring to the table. Paralegal courses teach some essential skills, while internships teach the rest through practical application.

A typical paralegal course description might contain these courses:

  • Legal research

    Use of law libraries and online research sources, cite-checking, and secondary sources

  • Legal writing

    Proper formats for legal briefs, memoranda, persuasive and informative techniques, citing and footnoting

  • Legal terminology

    Correct phrasing for calendaring, motions, and notices

  • Litigation procedures and state-specific processes

  • Rules of Civil Procedure

Program requirements vary depending on the particular state and program. For instance, California’s paralegal programs must conform with the state’s legal rules for paralegals. Your college can give you more details when you sign up.

Benefits of Obtaining a Paralegal License or Certification

Being a certified paralegal is more advantageous than having a fancy paper on the wall or putting “certified” after your name. A paralegal certification puts you among a select few legal professionals. When you take the time to study, pass an exam, and maintain your CLE, you appear more serious, more dedicated to your craft, and more employable than those who don’t.

According to NALA, having a paralegal certification increases your salary potential and your marketability. It also improves your negotiating position within your current firm since you are now more desirable to other companies. Since no state requires certification, obtaining one voluntarily indicates professional conduct above and beyond career training.

Financial Aid and Resources for Aspiring Paralegals

Depending on where and how you try for your certification, financial aid may be available or may be unnecessary. A four-year bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies at a state university may qualify for a FAFSA student loan if you plan to continue your legal career.

If you intend to take a paralegal studies program and you’ve already been working as a paralegal (one of NALA’s options for the exam) then you need not get a B.A. to take the exam. Your best course of action is to consult with the career services center at the college or contact your state bar or law school.

Consider what you want from your certification versus where you are in your career. For instance, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in any field, you only need 15 hours of substantive paralegal coursework to take NALA’s certification exam. There is no need to obtain another B.A. at great cost. Certification programs like those offered by Cal State University are one- or two-semester courses and may not qualify for financial aid. In that case, you should find the least expensive accredited course available.

National associations like NALA and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) provide additional resources for paralegals just getting started in the field. Your state bar association and the ABA’s paralegal program are outstanding sources of information and assistance for new and aspiring paralegals.

Other associations and organizations that can help:

Self-Assessment for Aspiring Paralegals

So, is a paralegal certification something you need? Is it something you want to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself before you take the time and effort to get a paralegal certification:

  • Do you want to continue in your paralegal career? Will the additional time and expense improve your opportunity and income later? If this will be your life’s work, then the more you do to improve your position, the better.

  • Do you have a legal specialization or niche? Do you want to stick to one legal field, or do you want to work in various legal fields? Some top-rated paralegals spend 20 or 30 years as family law or contracts paralegals and know almost as much as any attorney. Having your certification could make a big difference on your resume.

  • Are you detail-oriented? Good at spotting errors and making corrections on the fly? Attorneys depend on paralegals to catch all their little mistakes, and a certified paralegal will be held to a much higher standard.

You can be an outstanding paralegal with nothing but extensive work experience. Professional studies show that certification is a shortcut to years of repetitive work. On the other hand, it isn’t absolutely necessary if you’re already well-established in your career. The final decision to get the certification is up to you.

Key Takeaways

Getting your paralegal certification is an important step in advancing your paralegal career. Just as important, if you don’t get your certification immediately, you should continue your paralegal education and continue advancing your knowledge base.

Whether you’re already a paralegal or legal assistant working in the field or you want to start a new career as an entry-level legal professional, start by looking into educational programs, researching professional organizations and networks, and applying for available jobs. The first steps are the hardest; after that, certification is easy.

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