Steps 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 the salary and outlook for the occupation. Before you take the first step in beginning your new career, it will help to first understand the requirements and the timing involved in 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.
What Is a Paralegal?
Paralegals play a vital role in the legal system by completing essential legal tasks to ensure the delivery of quality legal services to clients with legal needs. Paralegals are responsible for a wide range of important legal activities and work on many of the same tasks as attorneys except for providing legal representation to clients or giving legal advice. Due to the dynamic nature of the US legal system and the constant need for legal services by individuals and businesses, working as a paralegal can be an exciting and promising career. There is solid demand for paralegals; jobs are expected to grow by 10% for paralegals and legal assistants in the decade from 2018 to 2028 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.2 Here you’ll learn more about getting started as a paralegal, with information on finding paralegal schools to getting your first job.
Read advice from 43 leaders in the paralegal field about how students can get hired to their first paralegal position after graduation.
5 Steps for Becoming a Paralegal
1. Choose a path to become a paralegal.
Once you’ve decided that becoming a paralegal is right for you, you can begin to look at the various paths for how to become a paralegal. For most, becoming a paralegal starts with education. 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.
However, some employers require no particular education at all, and may provide training or internship programs to get a person started in the paralegal field. To decide on the path that is best for you, it is important to understand the possibilities and the cost and time involved for each, and then to weigh that information against the requirements of the specific law firms you are targeting.
2. Explore the options for earning a paralegal degree.
While not required, it is becoming more and more common for aspiring paralegals to get an educational background in the subject before applying for jobs, and this tends to make applicants more desirable to employers. Some employers look for a prospective paralegal to have completed a certificate program in paralegal studies. Others require the candidate to have an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in the subject. Some even prefer paralegals to have a master’s degree in paralegal studies. The primary educational paths for becoming a paralegal include:
- Paralegal Certificates
- 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 a deeper background, but 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 10 and 18 months. 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.
3. Consider other paths to a paralegal career.
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 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 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, but others may not have a degree at all, 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 a paralegal certificate program. 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 become 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.
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.
4. 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, but each test provides 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 calling themselves paralegals with documentation proving that you passed an objective test as well as a credential that you can use as part of your professional title.
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 the NFPA’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
NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants, also offers certification through its CP Certified Paralegal program for entry-level professionals and its Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC) program for experienced professionals. Passing the CP certification exam earns candidates the right to designate themselves Certified Paralegals (CPs), while passing one or more of the APC 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.
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.
5. Earn state-level paralegal certification, if available in your state.
Most states do not require or regulate paralegal certification to work as a paralegal. However, California, Montana, and South Dakota have set statewide education and experience requirements for those who wish to work as paralegals. Arizona has a Legal Document Preparer certification requirement for those who prepare legal documents without an attorney’s supervision.
States that have voluntary certification programs (aside from national examinations) as of 2015 include Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington (Spokane County). 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 programs 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.
Learn the Steps to Become a Paralegal in Your State
- Select One
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington D.C.
- West Virginia
Gain Other Helpful Skills and Experience to Become a Paralegal
Prospective paralegals should be analytical, naturally investigative, and excellent communicators. Solid writing skills will be advantageous for paralegals, as well as good time management and decision-making skills. 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. Candidates should also consider:
- Joining a local, state, and/or national paralegal association: Paralegal associations can provide deep 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. NALA offers a series of specialized courses and exams to prove skills in knowledge in specific areas of law. Many paralegal schools also offer specialized certificate programs.
- Earning complimenting certifications: Various paralegal schools offer certificates in legal research and writing as well as commonly used office applications like Microsoft Office. In a competitive job market, these certifications can set candidates apart.
Read 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.
Other Helpful Resources for Becoming a Paralegal
Following are additional resources for you in your quest to become a paralegal. Use our list of paralegal career research tools, paralegal forums, and paralegal associations and organizations to find out more.
Paralegal Career Research Tools
- Paralegal Gateway – A Facebook community dedicated to the profession. You can interact with members to improve your skills and network for better positions.
- Law Guru – This site provides an Internet law library and is one of the most important research tools you can use. It was once known as the House of Representatives Law Library and was only used by members of Congress. Here, you can get complete access to all federal and state laws.
- Public Legal – This site is designed by the Internet Legal Research Group and contains countless articles and help tools that will improve your research skills and access to information.
- US Government Publishing Office – provides any information that you need for federal cases. Most documents are free downloads, and many links that can be used for additional research can be found throughout the site.
- Harvard Law Library – one of the most complete libraries for legal research available to a paralegal. This tool helps any paralegal who wants to use the most current information for a case.
- The Law Dictionary – Black’s Law Dictionary is the standard book for all legal terms used in the United States. Bookmark this page so that you can quickly look up any legal terms you encounter that do not seem familiar.
- Paralegal Today – Forum – This is a listserv-styled community that has created an email based discussion forum. Great for making contacts within the profession.
- Indeed.com – Paralegal Forum – This forum allows you to interact in discussions posted by paralegals or post your own thread. Great way to find many answers to professional and personal issues.
Paralegal Associations and Organizations
- American Association for Paralegal Education – The AAfPE is a member association for professional paralegals, promoting quality education for all in the field.
- The Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegals – NALA is 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 is a non-profit organization that was established to address policies and issues in the paralegal field.
- American Alliance of Paralegals – A members only organization for paralegal professionals in the US.
- The American Bar Association – 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 work extra hours or nights and weekends to meet deadlines when working on a particular case.
Can I get my paralegal certificate or degree online?
Many schools and programs do offer online classes for paralegal studies. Check with your particular schools of choice for more information on class structure and options.
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 in paralegal studies, it can take anywhere from one to four years to get a degree. If you decide to get a paralegal certificate, programs can take as little as a few months. If you get lucky enough to be 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
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm