If you have previously researched the paralegal profession or perused a job board advertising paralegal positions, you will have noticed that hiring managers are not only looking for individuals with a paralegal education but they specify a preference for those educated in a program approved by the American Bar Association. The ABA’s Standing Committee on Paralegals’ mission, in part, is to “improve the American system of justice by establishing ABA standards for the education of paralegals.” ABA approved paralegal programs have been vetted by the association on multiple criteria and are required to comply with the ABA’s Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Programs which includes guidance pertaining to, among other things, credit hours, required coursework, and instruction methods. Of the thousands of institutions offering paralegal education programs across the country, just 275 were designated ABA Approved Paralegal Programs by the association as of February 2016. A full list of ABA approved paralegal programs may be accessed on the ABA website.
Types of Paralegal Degrees and Certificates
There are multiple educational paths to becoming a paralegal. The most common include obtaining an associate’s or bachelor degree, or a postgraduate certificate. In the ABA approved paralegal programs at the undergraduate level, you can expect a course of study that includes both general education requirements and instruction in legal specialty courses. Most paralegal certificate programs are postgraduate certificate programs designed for students who have previously completed their bachelor or associate degree (and sometimes those without a degree but an extensive history of employment in the legal field) and wish to further their education or career in the field of law. These programs are offered by technical schools, community colleges and universities. There are ABA approved paralegal programs offered by each of these types of institutions.
Paralegal Certificates and Paralegal Certification
Paralegal certificates and paralegal certification are often confused. It is important to understand the difference between earning a paralegal certificate or degree and obtaining paralegal certification. Schools confer certificates and/or degrees upon students who successfully complete the institution’s paralegal education program. Earning a certificate or degree may be a first step towards certification, but more work is needed. To become certified, one must sit for an exam offered by one of the national paralegal associations or a state agency. You can see the article about paralegal certification here.
Online Paralegal Programs
One of the most common trends in education today as a result of ubiquitous mobile technology is a move toward online education. There are a vast number of online paralegal programs from which to choose. But if ABA approval is one of your criteria for selecting a program, take note that you will not find a fully online program that is approved by the ABA. This is because one of the requirements outlined in the ABA Guidelines is that at least 10 credit hours of legal specialty coursework be completed in the traditional classroom setting. As a result, fully online paralegal programs do not meet the ABA’s criteria. The ABA does, however, allow for hybrid or blended courses to fulfill the strict classroom hour requirement for legal specialty coursework. A hybrid course can take advantage of technology in order to live stream synchronous class lectures and activities to multiple classrooms. This means that unlike fully online programs where a student can frequently choose the time and place in which they are accessing content, the paralegal student participating in an online program option approved by the ABA will be required to attend lectures and activities at set times and locations.
How long does it take to get a paralegal degree?
How long it takes to become a paralegal depends upon a number of factors including whether you are pursuing a degree or certificate and whether you are attending school on a part-time or full-time basis. Generally speaking, an associate degree requires two years of full-time attendance whereas a bachelor’s degree requires four years. The time to complete a certificate program varies. Like with the degrees, attendance may be fulltime or part-time. Schools also have the option of compressing classroom time into an intensive time period. With all these options a certificate program can take 2 months or a year to complete depending upon the options offered by the institution and how you approach it.
Do you need a degree to be a paralegal?
The ABA’s definition of a paralegal is a person “qualified by education, training or work experience ….” The organization whose approval process lends prestige and credibility to paralegal education programs itself acknowledges that it is not the only path to a career as a paralegal. However, it is important to keep in mind that in the current job market a formal education including a degree or a certificate is practically a litmus test for hiring managers.
Factors to consider when choosing a paralegal program
There are several things too keep in mind when selecting and enrolling in a program beyond considering whether it is an ABA approved paralegal program, including
- Does the program fit your budget? Does the institution offer financial aid? And how much debt does the average student have upon completion of the program.
- Does the program allow for part-time and/or full-time study? If you are working or have a family, is there the flexibility to allow for the work-life-fit you need?
- Are there opportunities or requirements relating to experiential learning through internship or externships?
- Who are the instructors? Many programs require that instructors be practicing attorneys. But don’t rule out those that also have experienced paralegals teaching some courses. They are closer to the job and the day to day responsibilities than an attorney and can provide valuable insight.
- What career placement assistance and services are available to graduates? And equally important, how successful have the program’s graduates been in finding employment in their chosen field? Institutions who receive Title IV federal financial aid assistance for its students are required to post this information on their websites.
- What other support services are available: technology support, tutoring, disability services.
- Does the program offer a specialty track in which you may be interested such as electronic discovery, child advocacy or environmental law?