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What are the Requirements to Become a Paralegal?

Published on: Sep 29, 2023
Second floor of a law library

Law school is a considerable investment, requiring at least 24 months of intensive coursework and costing upwards of $50,000 or more each year in tuition alone. Those with an interest in the legal system but who do not have the ability or commitment to go to law school might look for alternative careers in the legal field. One such legal career is that of a paralegal. 

Paralegals play a vital role in the legal system by performing legal research, drafting legal documents, and supporting lawyers. If you are considering a career as a paralegal, you might be wondering about the educational and professional qualifications needed to succeed.

This comprehensive guide will delve into the educational paralegal requirements and the various career paths for aspiring paralegals.

Professional Skills to Succeed as a Paralegal

Before focusing on the educational requirements for a paralegal, it is essential to understand the necessary professional skills. Paralegals must have strong analytical and research skills, excellent communication abilities, and the ability to multitask and meet deadlines. They must also have strong organizational skills and attention to detail. Regarding formal education, a paralegal must have a good grasp of legal terminology and know how to conduct legal research and write legal documents. 

For additional and more in-depth discussion about the skills necessary to succeed as a paralegal, please see our article, “Skills Necessary to Succeed as a Paralegal.”

Soft Skills of Successful Paralegals

In addition to the technical skills required of paralegals, certain soft skills can benefit aspiring paralegals. These include strong interpersonal and communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively with colleagues, excellent problem-solving abilities, and the capacity to handle stressful situations. It is also essential for successful paralegals to have a strong sense of ethics, professionalism, and organizational skills.

Personality Traits of Successful Paralegals

The legal profession is incredibly challenging, and an ideal candidate must possess certain personality traits. For instance, successful paralegals must be self-motivated and able to manage their own work schedules. They should also have a passion for learning new information and techniques and a desire to stay up-to-date on changing laws or procedures. Additionally, paralegals must be detail-oriented and have excellent time management skills to complete tasks efficiently while maintaining high levels of accuracy.

Finally, successful paralegals should have strong people skills; they often need to interact with clients or other attorneys to provide legal advice or support services.

How Much Will it Cost to Become a Paralegal?

The cost of becoming a paralegal varies depending on the type of training program pursued. The quickest and cheapest way to obtain an education in paralegal studies is to complete a certificate program or an associate’s-level degree either online or through traditional campus-based programs. Certificate programs may cost as little as $1,600, and you can find an online associate’s program through community colleges that are less than $5,000.

Each school has its own tuition rates, with some offering scholarships and financial aid opportunities. Private student loans may be an option for some borrowers to finance their education. And some employers like McDonalds and Wal-Mart may even offer an employer reimbursement program for educational expenses. 

In addition to tuition costs, other expenses are associated with pursuing a career as a paralegal, such as textbooks and fees for professional certifications or memberships. Additionally, those pursuing an online certificate program may incur extra costs such as internet access fees and computer equipment necessary for completing online coursework 

Certificate holders may qualify for entry-level positions in law offices or legal departments. However, those wishing to advance in their career as a paralegal may need additional paralegal education. Such additional training could include pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or obtaining paralegal certification and becoming a certified paralegal through a paralegal association such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).

How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?

The time investment needed to satisfy paralegal requirements and become a paralegal depends on what level of paralegal education you decide to obtain. Those who want the fastest paralegal program should consider obtaining a certificate, which they can do in as little as six months. Individuals who want an associate-level degree will generally invest two years of full-time study. And those seeking a bachelor’s degree can expect their paralegal program to take anywhere from three to six years to complete depending on a full-time or part-time commitment.

Furthermore, aspiring paralegals may pursue additional certifications or memberships, which can add up to another year of study. For instance, the paralegal association NALA offers certification programs that require candidates to attend classroom courses or complete online courses and pass an exam to receive their Certified Paralegal (CP) designation. 

You should know that California requires that you complete certain educational or experiential requirements before you can hold yourself out as a paralegal. Similarly, in Utah and Washington, you must obtain state licensure in order to perform certain tasks that are within the paralegal’s wheelhouse. Licensure or certification in one of these states does not automatically confer licensure in another jurisdiction.

Therefore, with careful planning and dedication, you can become a qualified and successful paralegal within six months to six years.

paralegal applicant biting a pencil and looking at a computer screen

What Are the Educational Requirements to Become a Paralegal?

Paralegals require formal education and training to succeed on the job. The following are the four main educational paths to becoming a paralegal and their respective pros and cons:

Pros and Cons of a Paralegal Certificate Program

Aspiring paralegals looking to break into the industry quickly and with minimal expense might opt for a paralegal certificate program. Students can complete these programs within six months, and paralegal certificate programs can be found at community colleges, universities, and online schools.

The paralegal certificate courses are designed to provide an introductory overview of the fundamentals of legal studies and provide a sound foundation for students looking to begin a career in this field. Coursework typically includes classes on legal research and writing as well as overviews of substantive areas of the law.

The primary advantages of a paralegal certificate program are the costs and completion times for these certificate programs. A certificate program generally does not require coursework in subjects not directly related to paralegal studies. For example, unlike a four-year degree, you generally will not have to complete math and science coursework to achieve your certificate in paralegal studies.

Additionally, certificate coursework completed through an educational institution like a community college or university accredited by the ABA or other organization might transfer into an associate’s or bachelor’s program, if you later decided to further your education. The transferability of credits and the ability to use one program’s completion to pursue further education are two of the chief benefits of taking courses from an accredited institution. You should be aware, however, the process of transferring credits from one program to another and from one university or institution to another can be complicated.

Overall, the paralegal certificate is an entry point for those interested in pursuing legal studies without long-term commitment or significant costs; however, it is important to understand the pros and cons of this path before enrolling in such a program.

Pros and Cons of an Associate's Degree

An Associate's in Legal Studies (ALS) or Associate’s in Paralegal Studies is a great way for aspiring paralegals to gain knowledge and develop skills in the legal field beyond that acquired through a certification program without committing to the time and expense associated with a bachelor’s degree program. 

An associate’s degree program typically requires two years of full-time study beyond high school. Coursework includes a broader array of classes like psychology and English in addition to legal courses like business law, criminal justice, and legal ethics. Successful students graduate with a deeper understanding of the American legal system as well as more robust skills in legal research and writing. This more complete understanding is due to the length of time it takes to complete an associate’s program versus a certificate program.

One advantage of obtaining an Associate’s in Legal Studies is the cost of these programs compared to bachelor’s or master’s programs. An associate’s degree can cost as little as $11,000 to obtain on average, although some private institutions may cost substantially more. 

Having studied the subject matter in an associate’s degree paralegal program for two years, the set of skills and knowledge base graduates possess is generally more well-developed than paralegals who only obtained a certificate. Last, the credits obtained through an accredited associate’s degree paralegal program can typically be applied more easily to a bachelor’s program, whether within the paralegal field or in another field.

However, there are also some drawbacks associated with obtaining an Associate’s in Legal Studies or similar degree. Not all coursework would be relevant to other career fields beyond the legal industry if you decide to pursue another career or educational pathway. While the general education requirements associated with an ALS degree will be similar to general education requirements in other programs, legal industry-specific courses such as Legal Research and Writing, Tort Law, and other similar courses may not transfer to other programs and industries as easily.

Additionally, although individuals with this educational path have gained basic skills in legal analysis, they may still require further instruction or on-the-job training to round out their understanding of the various substantive areas of law. For example, while an ALS program might teach a paralegal the basics of contract law and legal writing, drafting a contract is a skill that requires considerable practice.

In sum, an associate’s degree in paralegal studies can present a sensible middle ground for some individuals. With this degree, you will gain a more complete understanding of the legal system and spend more time practicing skills you will need in your career without the expense and time commitment associated with a bachelor’s or master’s program.  Just keep in mind that if you wish to take on more responsibilities or supervisory authority at your firm or organization in the future, you may need to get additional education or experience first.

Pros and Cons of a Bachelor's in Legal Studies

A Bachelor's in Legal Studies (BLS) can provide aspiring paralegals with a more comprehensive educational experience than a certificate program or ALS program. This type of degree typically requires four years of full-time study. It includes traditional college courses, such as history, philosophy, and English, as well as legal-focused courses, such as family law and civil procedure. By completing a bachelor's program, students gain an in-depth understanding of the American legal system and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential for success in the field.

The primary advantages of a bachelor's degree in legal studies are its advanced education and greater potential job opportunities. This degree gives students an even deeper understanding of the legal system and transferable skills that could apply to other professions. 

Additionally, a bachelor’s degree serves as evidence of your interest in the legal field, your ability to follow through on long-term commitments, your capacity for intellectually rigorous work, and your ability to manage deadlines and program requirements over a long period of time. While employers may have differing views on the value of a bachelor’s degree, successfully completing a bachelor’s degree program shows a potential employer your potential to succeed.

The cost and time associated with obtaining a bachelor’s degree are the program’s main drawbacks. The average bachelor’s degree program is about $36,000 per year, or nearly $150,000 over the course of a typical four-year course of study. Whereas a paralegal with a certificate can enter the workforce within six months and one with an associate’s can get started working in two years, a bachelor’s degree will delay the start of your professional working career by at least three, and up to six years.

Although obtaining a bachelor's degree typically requires more financial resources and time commitment than other educational paths currently available to aspiring paralegals, it is worth considering due to its comprehensive education and increased job opportunities it provides graduates upon completion.

Pros and Cons of a Master's in Legal Studies

A Master's in Legal Studies (MLS) can provide experienced paralegals who want to pursue senior-level employment opportunities that are connected to the legal field in corporations and agencies, such as Director of Human Resources, Policy Analyst, or Budget Director.

The requirements for this degree can vary widely by school, with some schools offering an option to complete a Master’s in Legal Studies or equivalent degree part-time in just under three years. However, to even enter into a Master’s of Legal Studies program, you must first have obtained a bachelor’s degree. Thus, by the time you have completed your MLS, you will have been in school for as few as five and as many as nine years. 

Because a MLS degree is an advanced and specialized degree, coursework is focused primarily on the areas of the student’s interests. While programs may require one or two courses in general topics covering the American legal system, from there students can take electives in a variety of topics such as health law, cybersecurity law, or oil and gas law.

The primary advantages of a master's degree in legal studies include increased job opportunities and better salary prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 18 percent of jobs in the United States will require a master’s-level or higher degree.  With this level of education, graduates may be well prepared to pursue upper-level positions at firms or organizations; employers may view those with advanced degrees more favorably than those without them. 

Additionally, compared to those who hold only a paralegal certificate or Bachelor's degree, individuals with a master's degree may have improved compensation potential due to their higher educational attainment.

At the same time, there are also some drawbacks associated with obtaining a Master's in Legal Studies. For example, this type of program usually requires higher tuition due to longer course lengths when compared to other educational paths. Additionally, students pursuing this program must commit two full years to study above and beyond the time required to obtain a bachelor’s degree before they can put their master’s degree to use via full-time employment

Furthermore, because job opportunities requiring a master’s degree are fewer in number than those that require less education, you might still face stiff competition as you compete against other candidates who hold a master’s degree for a limited number of open positions.

Overall, while obtaining a master's degree typically requires more financial resources and time commitment than other educational paths available to aspiring paralegals, it could provide graduates with increased job opportunities along with greater salary prospects once they complete their studies.

Final Thoughts

A career as a paralegal can be rewarding and fulfilling, but completing the paralegal requirements requires dedication and hard work. To succeed as a paralegal, one must possess both the required professional skills and the necessary educational qualifications. 

There are various educational paths to becoming a paralegal, each with its own pros and cons. These paths can be completed through a paralegal association, community colleges, and traditional colleges and universities. Prospective students must weigh the cost, time commitment, and level of education before making their choice.

With the right combination of education, soft skills, and personality traits, a paralegal can play a crucial role in the legal profession and significantly impact their career.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

Kevin Salzman is the elected county prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas. Prior to taking office in 2017, he worked for six years as an assistant county attorney across southwest Kansas, prosecuting crimes ranging from traffic offenses to first-degree murder cases. Kevin got started in legal content writing in 2014 and enjoys the opportunities it affords to explore new and changing areas of the law. He believes solid content writing helps people understand the law and how it can help them overcome the challenges they face. He is a 2010 graduate of St. Louis University School of Law.

Kevin Salzman portrait

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

Contributing Author

Education: St. Louis University School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Criminal Prosecution

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