How to Become a Paralegal
If you are interested in becoming a paralegal, this page will serve as a guide to inform you about what paralegals do, the kind of experience and schooling needed to become a paralegal, and salary and job outlook information. Before you take the first step in beginning your new career, it will help to understand the requirements and steps for how to become a paralegal. Once you understand the possible paths for becoming a paralegal, you will be able to customize a path for yourself, setting realistic and attainable goals along the way. Continue reading to learn more about getting started as a paralegal, along with information on finding paralegal schools and getting your first job.
Table of Contents
- Three Steps for Becoming a Paralegal
- Other Helpful Skills and Experience
- Steps to Become a Paralegal by State
- Advice for Getting Hired as a Paralegal
- Additional Resources
- Frequently Asked Questions
Three Steps for Becoming a Paralegal
1. Choose a path to become a paralegal.
Once you’ve educated yourself about the career and decided that becoming a paralegal is right for you, you can begin to look at the various paths for how to become a paralegal.
Getting a degree
For most, becoming a paralegal starts with education. According to a survey by O*NET OnLine, 50% of subject matter experts and job incumbents recommend that paralegals and legal assistants have an associate degree, 34% recommend a bachelor’s degree, and 7% recommend a post-secondary certificate to be hired.1 Employers tend to prefer candidates who have formal education, especially in states where paralegal certification is required. Voluntary national paralegal certification programs also tend to set minimum education guidelines. The primary educational paths for becoming a paralegal include:
- Paralegal Certificate
- Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Online Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
Earning a paralegal degree does take both time and financial commitments. For those who have no previous college experience, an associate’s degree can be earned in about two years with full-time study. A bachelor’s degree provides more in-depth education and typically takes four years to complete. Candidates who have previously earned a degree may wish to consider a paralegal certificate program. Timelines for completing a certificate program vary, but generally fall between a few months and two years. Any of these paralegal degree options can help candidates become more competitive in the paralegal job market and also help candidates qualify for certification, which is covered in more detail below.
Though earning a paralegal degree is recommended, many employers do not require candidates to have a particular background or education in paralegal studies in order to be hired in a paralegal position. However, prospective paralegals should be aware that employer requirements tend to vary by geographic area. Employers in urban centers like New York City and Chicago, for example, often set a higher bar for entry-level positions and may expect candidates to have a degree combined with some work experience. Employers in more rural areas and smaller cities may have less stringent requirements. At the same time, those with a strong work ethic and skillset may be able to break into a paralegal career without previous experience. Other paths to becoming a paralegal include:
- On-the-job training: Some law firms may hire entry-level paralegals with no experience or education in paralegal studies, training them once they are hired. New hires like these usually have a bachelor’s degree in another field, while others may not have a degree but may have helpful technical experience in another area of criminal justice.
- Work your way up: Another way to become a paralegal is to start in a law firm as an office assistant, legal secretary, or document preparer. Once you learn the terminology and basics of law through exposure, it may be easier to become a paralegal with that law firm.
- Internships: Some prospective paralegals participate in internship programs, often organized through paralegal certificate programs. As an intern, a candidate will gain practical experience and legal knowledge, which may help them be hired in a full-time role later.
- Volunteer work: Though less common than other paths to becoming a paralegal, there are many organizations that welcome volunteer legal assistants. Earning volunteer experience can help candidates get a foot in the door with paralegal employers. Organizations to explore include mediation services providers and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) programs.
Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to pursue an educational path to become a paralegal is entirely up to the individual. A degree in paralegal studies will certainly not hinder your ability to be hired as a paralegal, but this advantage also must be weighed against the cost and time associated with such a degree.
2. Apply for national certification.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals, and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offer paralegals the opportunity to take voluntary examinations to test their knowledge of the law and the skills required in the field. Each organization offers its own examinations, all of which provide employers and others with an objective standard by which to evaluate a paralegal. Passing a paralegal certification exam offers you the opportunity to stand out from others as well as a credential that you can use as part of your professional title. Candidates may pursue certification through more than one organization. However, it should be noted that employers in certain geographic areas may prefer the certification standard of one organization over the others. It is wise to check the norm in your area by looking at current employment listings or referring to your local paralegal associations before committing to a certification program.
NALA, the Paralegal Association, also offers certification through its Certified Paralegal (CP) program for entry-level professionals and its Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) program for experienced professionals. Passing the CP certification exam earns candidates the right to designate themselves Certified Paralegals (CPs), and passing one or more of the ACP online courses leads to the award of the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) credential. Candidates for the Certified Paralegal program must have at least an associate’s degree in paralegal studies if they have no legal work experience. Find out more details on how to obtain these credentials NALA’s website.
NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals, offers three pathways to paralegal certification. The Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) certification exam is for students and early career paralegals who have either completed an accredited business/legal course or who have one year of experience. The Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and/or Certified Legal Professional (CLP) credential is also earned by examination. PLS/CLP exam candidates must have at least three years of legal work experience, or two years of legal experience plus formal education or another acceptable credential (such as previous ALP certification), to qualify to sit for the exam. Finally, the exam for Professional Paralegal (PP) certification is designed for those who have earned a formal education in paralegal studies (at least an associate’s degree from an accredited program with a minimum of 15 credit hours in substantive law), or who qualify through a combination of education and experience. Detailed eligibility criteria are available on the NALS website.
The NFPA offers the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE) for entry-level paralegals as well as the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) for more experienced paralegals. Those who pass the PCCE can refer to themselves as CORE Registered Paralegals (CRPs). Passing the PACE leads to Registered Paralegal (RP) certification. The minimum qualification to take the PCCE with no prior legal work experience is an associate’s degree in paralegal studies. To be eligible to take the PACE for paralegal certification, candidates must have an acceptable combination of education and experience. You can read more about the eligibility requirements for these exams on NFPA’s website.
3. Earn state-level paralegal certification, if available in your state.
Most states do not require or regulate paralegal certification to work as a paralegal. California is the only state that regulates the profession directly, but states such as Montana and South Dakota have set statewide education and experience requirements for those who wish to work as paralegals. Other states offer licenses for specified areas of law. For example, Arizona has a Legal Document Preparer certification requirement for those who prepare legal documents without an attorney’s supervision; Utah launched a Licensed Paralegal Practitioner license in 2018; and Washington State has a Limited License Legal Technician Rule.
States that have voluntary certification programs (aside from national examinations) as of 2021 include:
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- Washington (Spokane County)
- Washington DC
These voluntary certification programs are typically administered through the state bar association or local paralegal associations. Though they are voluntary, in states where they are available these certifications tend to be the norm for paralegals – meaning candidates should strongly consider their options for meeting the certification qualifications before embarking on a paralegal career. In addition, some state bar associations have recommended that employers only hire paralegals who are qualified by education and/or experience.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Prospective paralegals should be analytical, naturally investigative, strong in research, and excellent communicators. Solid writing skills are advantageous for paralegals, as well as good time management and decision-making skills. Here are some other factors to consider:
- Prior experience in the field of law, or another area of criminal justice, will help make a paralegal candidate more marketable, as will an educational background in criminal justice or paralegal studies.
- Joining a local, state, and/or national paralegal association: Paralegal associations provide networking opportunities and frequently offer members-only benefits such as jobs boards and continuing education.
- Earning specialized paralegal certification: For example, the NFPA offers the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) for paralegals with at least two years of experience to prove advanced competency and earn the title of Registered Paralegal (RP). NALA offers a series of specialized courses and exams to test knowledge of specific areas of law. Many paralegal schools also offer specialized certificate programs.
- Earning complimenting certifications: Various paralegal schools offer certificates in related skills such as legal research and writing. In a competitive job market, these additional certifications can set candidates apart.
Steps to Become a Paralegal by State
As mentioned above, while most states do not require paralegals to be licensed, some states have voluntary certification options and others offer related licenses. To find out how to become a paralegal in your area, click on your state below.
- Select a State
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington D.C.
- West Virginia
Advice for Getting Hired as a Paralegal
“My advice is networking. Networking with other paralegals in your area, by joining a legal organization or paralegal association.”
-Laura Kryta, President of the Western New York Paralegal Association and Paralegal at Phillips Lytle LLP
“If you have no legal background and work experience, I would suggest volunteering. There are many organizations looking for volunteers where you can glean legal experience, such as becoming a mediator or a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Neither of these opportunities require you to have legal background and both will give you an immense amount of exposure to the legal world as well as being a very rewarding experience.”
-Rebecca Lewis, MBA, MPA, Vice President of the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio and Paralegal Supervisor at the Office of the Chief Legal and Governance Office, Nationwide
“Your package must be top-notch to be noticed. The resume must be current and organized so potential employers can easily get a flavor about you, your education, and your experience.”
-Mindi Schaefer, MS, RP, OSBA, AACP, President of the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio and Lead Paralegal at Poling Law
“I would recommend that any paralegal graduate seek an entry-level position such as a “Legal Secretary” for the mere fact that they need to know the “guts,” if you will, of a law firm beforehand to build their confidence and knowledge of their firm’s duties and daily expectations.”
-Diana Martinez, Second Vice President of Memberships of the Ventura County Paralegal Association
“As far as advice to becoming a paralegal, I would say choose the best paralegal program you can find. An accredited program is preferred by employers and most require a four (4) year degree, but requirements on paralegal education by employers vary a lot so it is best to research your area and find out what employers in your local area are looking for when hiring a paralegal.”
-Marisel Walston, President of the Kansas City Paralegal Association
“Take an internship if they are offered as a part of your program. If they are not, approach your instructors or counselor about implementing such a program.”
Johnanna Oglesby, CP, Vice President of the Oklahoma Paralegal Association
“My best advice for someone fresh out of school trying to get a paralegal position is to be willing to start as a legal assistant and get their foot in the door. Once they are in, they will have the opportunity to prove their skills and worth and move up very quickly in the organization.”
Melanie Ells, Treasurer/Membership Director of the Central Massachusetts Paralegal Association
You can find more advice from paralegal leaders on our interviews page.
Following are additional resources for you in your quest to become a paralegal. In addition to these national organizations, there are many state and local associations for paralegals, which you can find on your state’s career page.
- American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE): A member association for professional paralegals, promoting quality education for all in the field.
- The Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegals (NALA): An association for paralegals in the US, providing opportunities for networking, certification, and education for those in the paralegal field.
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA): A non-profit organization that was established to address policies and issues in the paralegal field.
- American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI): A members only organization for paralegal professionals in the US.
- American Bar Association (ABA): A directory of paralegal programs in the US currently approved by the ABA.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need a degree to become a paralegal?
There is no particular degree that you need to become a paralegal, but a degree in paralegal studies or criminal justice will certainly make you more marketable to law firms who are hiring.
What kind of hours do paralegals work?
Most paralegals work full-time, daytime hours, though it is common for them to work extra hours on nights and weekends to meet deadlines when working on a particular case.
Can I get my paralegal certificate or degree online?
Many paralegal schools offer online classes for paralegal studies, and some even offer completely online programs. Check with your schools of choice for more information on class structure and options. You should also keep in mind that the ABA does not approve 100% online programs.
How long does it take to become a paralegal?
The amount of time it takes to become a paralegal depends on the path you choose. If you choose to go to school to get a degree or certificate in paralegal studies, it can take between several months to four years to gain an education If you are hired as a paralegal at a law firm that will train you on the job, it can take even less time.
1. O*NET OnLine, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-2011.00