Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, complete a wide range of administrative and research tasks in the legal field, such as completing case files, interviewing clients, and preparing legal documents. Obtaining a paralegal certificate is often either the first step in one’s paralegal career or a way for a more experienced paralegal to specialize in a particular area of law. These programs can take as little as four months and up to two years to complete and are offered both on-campus and online. Generalist paralegal certificate programs prepare graduates for entry-level positions by teaching a range of skills and building a foundation of legal knowledge. Generalist paralegal programs are designed for a range of students, including those with high school diplomas and those with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. Specialized paralegal programs focus on building knowledge in particular areas, such as family or criminal law, to help graduates improve their employability or find specialized work. Typically these paralegal certificate programs require some prior experience in the legal field.
Paralegals work under the supervision of lawyers and typically find work in private law firms, although some opportunities also exist in the armed forces, government, and the public and non-profit sectors. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in this profession in 2016 was $49,500, while the average pay was $53,180.1,2 The job outlook through 2024 was about average compared to other types of professions, at 8%.1
The admission requirements for paralegal certificate programs vary depending on whether the certificate is designed to provide generalized or specialized learning in legal work and processes. Applicants to generalized paralegal certificate programs need at least a high school diploma or equivalent, although some courses require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, which can be in any subject. Previous coursework in communications or legal studies may be requested in these programs but is not always required. Specialized certificate programs often require applicants to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in any subject with either work experience or a general paralegal certificate. Applicants may also need to submit professional references or letters of recommendation.
Core Concepts and Coursework
Paralegal certificate programs often include both legal theory courses and skills training such as:
- Introduction to Legal Studies
- Legal Communications
- Estates and Trusts
- Interviewing Skills
- Legal Office Technology and Software
- Civil Procedures
- Legal Ethics
- Researching the Law
Paralegal Certificate Learning Goals
1. Develop a thorough understanding of the law.
A key trait of a successful paralegal is understanding how the law and the legal system function. During a general paralegal certificate program, students should take introductory coursework on laws and the legal system. This foundational knowledge ensures that students will be able to work in a variety of legal environments upon graduation. Specialized certificate programs should provide foundational knowledge of the specified area of the law, and are often supplemented with practical experience.
2. Perform a diverse range of legal tasks professionally and effectively.
Another main goal of the paralegal certificate degree is to prepare graduates to work in diverse, fast-paced legal environments by completing a variety of legal tasks. Regardless of the area of specialization, graduates learn how to organize files, prepare legal documents and research, and take detailed notes under the supervision of lawyers. Graduates also develop the analytical skills needed to think critically about legal cases and support case development.
3. Hone clear written and oral communication skills.
Law is a detail-oriented field that requires meticulous accuracy. Many paralegal certificate programs require the successful completion of written and oral communication classes, which teach skills such as note taking, legal analysis, and interviewing, to ensure graduates are prepared to work with lawyers, other legal professionals, and clients.
Traditional Paralegal Certificate Programs
The following profiles highlight paralegal certificate programs with varying admission requirements offered by highly-ranked universities.
Kennesaw State University (Kennesaw, GA)
Kennesaw State University’s College of Continuing and Professional Education offers a paralegal certificate program for applicants with a high school diploma or GED. The curriculum includes 13 courses such as Contracts and Business Associations, Civil Litigation, and Tort Law. This self-paced program offers great flexibility as each course is six weeks long. One to four courses can be taken during each session term and new applicants are accepted in January, March, April, June, August, and October. Classes are held during the day and in the evening and many students finish the program in one year. The college also offers specialty courses in areas such as immigration law and HIPAA compliance, which can be taken as continuing education or as non-credit electives during the program.
University of California – Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)
The paralegal certificate at UCLA is offered by the Business, Management, and Legal Programs Department of UCLA’s continuing education branch called UCLA Extension. The program is offered at both the Westwood and downtown Los Angeles campuses and is open to students who already have a bachelor’s degree. The program is approved by the ABA and delivered in two formats. The five-month format requires students to attend classes Monday through Friday each morning, while the 11-month program is run during two evenings per week. Students in both formats take the same courses, including Legal Research, Contracts, and Civil Procedures. Start dates are offered during the Fall, Winter, and Spring terms with information sessions held throughout the year to help potential applicants learn more about the program and career opportunities.
Pace University (New York City, NY)
Pace University offers a paralegal certificate program for working adults who are already working in a law office or who wish to change careers. Admission is open to all applicants who have a high school diploma or GED and are 18 years of age or older. The five-course curriculum encompasses a wide range of topics such as real estate, mortgages, estates, trusts, wills, and torts. Courses are taken part-time on Saturdays or two evenings per week. The skills-based curriculum aims to prepare competent legal assistants with hands-on experience.
Online Paralegal Certificate Programs
There are many online paralegal certificate programs that enable students to complete an entire program in the comfort of their own home. Following are some programs for students of all education and experience backgrounds from highly-ranked universities.
The University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)
UC Berkeley Extension offers a paralegal certificate program designed for individuals with no previous post-secondary education. Only a high school diploma is required for admission. The program is delivered fully online and can be completed in as little as six months; however, the maximum program duration is one year. Six courses are required, including two core courses and four electives. New students begin by taking Essential Paralegal Studies Part I: Foundational Skills and progress to specialized courses such as Paralegal Contract Law, Paralegal Family Law, and Paralegal California Procedures. Students who enroll in the course Essential Paralegal Skills Part II: Authority, Research and Writing receive one-year access to LexisNexis and six-month access to Westlaw. The UC, Berkeley certificate program in Paralegal Studies meets the educational requirements to become a certified paralegal professional in California.
Boston University (Boston, MA)
For students who may want an online program with more structure, the paralegal certificate program at Boston University provides a fully-online learning experience with a module format. Students must take seven required two-week modules and submit assignments on time during each module. Modules include Legal Research, Technology and the Paralegal, and Litigation. Six start dates are offered throughout the year and the certificate program is typically completed in 14 weeks. Prospective students are invited to take a free online learning course tour to decide whether the format is a good fit. While a degree or work experience is not required, it is recommended that applicants have either an undergraduate degree or several years of work experience, as well as basic computer and internet proficiencies.
Duke University (Durham, NC)
Duke University Continuing Studies offers many different paralegal certificate programs fully online. The generalist paralegal certificate program includes 300 hours of study and is self-paced; however, students must complete all requirements within one year. Applicants must have an associate’s degree in any subject for consideration. Over 20 specialist paralegal certificates are also offered, including certificates in Business Law, Criminal Law, and Workers’ Compensation Law. Each certificate program comprises four courses, is self-paced, and takes as little as six months to complete. Applicants must have either a degree or a certificate in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree in any subject with at least three years’ work experience as a paralegal. Enrollment dates are offered throughout the year.
Paralegal Certification with a Certificate
It is not necessary to be certified to work as a paralegal in most states. Education and experience requirements vary based on the employer and the job description. Paralegal certificate and degree programs may be approved by the American Bar Association; however, applying for this approval is optional. Additionally, no individual certification or examination is required at the state level to become a paralegal. California is the only state that semi-regulates the profession as individuals using the title “paralegal” must meet specific education and training requirements.3
Some schools offer LexisNexis Paralegal Student Certification, offering students training in using lexis.com and the new LexisAdvance. Students receive access to LexisNexis Paralegal Student Certification of Mastery training program, a LexisNexis ID, and access to attorney assistance and research. They can also access five webinar modules with online quizzes to test their knowledge.
Westlaw is another certification offered with some paralegal certificate programs. Three levels of training must be passed (Westlaw 101, Westlaw 201, and Westlaw 301) before taking a certification training quiz to become Westlaw certified.
Optional certifications and examinations are available through organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Assistants, and The Association for Legal Professionals. Some employers may look more favorably upon applicants who hold these additional certifications.
Jobs with a Paralegal Certificate
While many graduates look for paralegal jobs upon graduation, a paralegal certificate also provides useful skills training for jobs in other areas of legal studies. Careers for which a paralegal certificate may prepare you include:
- Administrative Assistant
- Court Reporter
- Executive Assistant
- Generalist Paralegal
- Law Clerk
- Legal Advocate
- Legal Assistant
- Legal Researcher
- Legal Secretary
- Specialist Paralegal
Frequently Asked Questions
Where do paralegals work?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, 84% of all paralegal jobs were located in a legal services setting.2 The remaining jobs were classified in the federal, state, and local levels of government and in businesses.2 Individuals employed by the federal executive branch and the management of companies and enterprises had the highest mean annual salaries at $67,530 and $66,350 respectively.2
Can I specialize in a particular area of law?
Yes. Many paralegals start their careers with a generalized certificate or degree and then pursue a specialized certificate after they have gained work experience. Paralegal skills are valuable and applicable to all areas of law, so choosing to specialize in one area is optional and depends on your career goals.
What are the state requirements for paralegals in California?
Since 2001, the paralegal profession has been semi-regulated in California. Individuals applying for certification in this state must meet one of the following requirements: completion of an ABA-approved paralegal program; completion of a program consisting of at least 24 credits of law-related courses at an institution or organization approved by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education; have a bachelor’s degree in any subject with at least one year of experience working under the supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California who will attest to their ability; or, have a high school diploma and at least three years of experience working under the supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California who will attest to their ability.4 You can read more about being a paralegal in the state of California on our California Paralegal Career Guide page
Can I complete an internship in a certificate program?
Due to the compressed schedules of paralegal certificate programs, internships are not generally included. Some schools offer placement options and job search assistance upon completion of the program. Check with school advisors or professors for work opportunities and resources during the application process.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm
3. American Bar Association: Directory of Paralegal State Activity: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals/profession-information/state_activity_home.html/
4. Business and Profession Code: Division 3: Chapter 5.6 Paralegals: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=BPC&division=3.&title=&part=&chapter=5.6.&article=