Find Paralegal Certificate Schools

How to Become a Paralegal

paralegal working with attorneyNow that you have decided to achieve your paralegal certification, it is important to select a school that will provide the right kind of training.  You can start your career by earning a certificate in as little as 6 months. Or you can opt for a more advanced Associate’s Degree, which will take 2 years to complete, or even a Bachelor’s Degree which will take 4 years.   A paralegal is actually considered to be the same position as a legal assistant, with the same job description but perhaps a little more professional sounding title.  So for either position, the educational requirements will be the same.  Once you have obtained your certificate or degree, although not legally require in {state}, you will want to earn your certification.  A certification designation can not only help increase your opportunity for employment, but shows your prospective employers that you are a committed professional.  Some of the most widely recognized and respected industry certifying groups are:

  • National Association of Legal Assistants
  • National Federation of Paralegal Associations
  • National Association for Legal Professionals
  • American Alliance of Paralegals

Attending an accredited school (more on that later) and earning a certification are two important first steps that will help ensure your success as either a paralegal or a legal assistant.   But before we discuss in more detail how to compare schools and choose the right one, let’s first take a look at what you will be doing in your new career and then talk a little bit about the online education option as well.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

law libraryThe job titles “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are virtually synonymous.  It is important not to confuse “legal secretary” with either of these positions, as it is a separate and distinct job classification.  In general terms, both help attorneys with a wide variety of tasks.  They can assist attorneys with legal research, interview and communicate with clients, or draft certain types of legal documents.  Their specific duties are dependent on the type of law practice where they are employed.  For instance, if the practice specialized in real estate law, a paralegal would probably be involved in assisting attorneys with real estate closings.  In private law practices, a legal assistant’s work is often billed by the hour similar to attorneys.  And just as with lawyers, they must abide by a strict code of ethics and conduct themselves with a high level of professionalism.  As mentioned, their duties can be expansive in the support of their employers, but some of the duties a paralegal may perform are:

  • Research and fact check cases
  • Draft legal documents
  • Participate in client meetings
  • Research supporting laws and statutes
  • Help attorneys prepare for trials and legal proceedings
  • Help attorneys stay organized with their cases
  • Draft legal arguments, pleadings and motions
  • Acquire affidavits for cases
  • Catalog and maintain different types of legal documents, files and resources

As you can see, the duties of a legal assistant can be quite diverse and challenging.  What they cannot do is provide legal counsel or participate directly in a legal proceeding.  But unlike legal secretaries, whose duties are more clerical or administrative in nature, paralegals really are the support team for attorneys.  Because of their ability to do much of the legal ground work, lawyers are then able to handle much heavier case-loads than they could without their help.

Taking Paralegal Classes Online

attending paralegal school onlineTaking a paralegal or legal assistant course online can be a good option for those who are looking for flexibility in scheduling as well as more convenient access to classes.  The online method of education can be a big advantage for those who are working, or have a family and other obligations.   Plus online schools are sometimes less expensive than more traditional options.  Even non-tuition expenses, such as commuting and text books can be reduced to some extent.  But one warning, not all online schools are accredited, which is very important for future job placement.  Accreditation signifies that the school or program meets high academic standards, hires quality teachers, and stays current with its syllabus.  So be sure to verify that any online training you are considering is accredited by one of the national accrediting agencies or the American Bar Association.  If you are disciplined and motivated enough to dedicate yourself to this style of learning, then obtaining your training online may be the right choice for you.

Paralegal Certification

Certified Paralegal

Certified Paralegal (CP) or Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) is the title of paralegals in the United States who have passed the Certified Paralegal Exam and have met additional education and experience requirements for certification as a CP or CLA. In the United States "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are frequently used interchangeably.*

The primary function of paralegals is to assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. According to the American Bar Association: “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” [1]

To become a Certified Paralegal in the United States, the candidate voluntarily passes the Certified Paralegal Exam (CP Exam). The Certified Paralegal program established in 1976 is administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).[2] The CP designation is a certification duly registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (No. 78213275)

Questions to Ask Paralegal Certificate Programs

Now that you know what a paralegal and legal assistant are and what they do, let’s take a look at a check list of items you should consider for each potential school to help narrow down your field of options.

Is the Paralegal Program Accredited?  It is important that the program you choose is accredited by one of the major national accrediting organizations or the American Bar Association.  Without accreditation, which certifies that the school’s program provides excellent training, you may not receive the proper education that will allow you to pass any of the certification exams.   Also, financial aid may not be available if you are attending a non-accredited program.  Finally, attending an accredited school makes you more marketable and in higher demand by employers once you are ready to begin your new career in jurisprudence.

Is there a Job Placement Program?  The program you choose should have a successful job placement program for graduating students that has on average both a high and rapid placement rate.  The school should also have relationships with law firms in {state} as well.

Are Internship Programs Offered?  Internships provide an opportunity to gain real work experience, as well as develop relationships in the practicing legal community.  Find out if the school of your choice offers internship programs, particularly with law firms that specialize in the area of law you are most interested in.

What is the Reputation of the Program?  Be sure to verify that the program you are considering has a solid reputation for success.  Contact some former students (ask the school for references) or even some local practicing paralegals to find out what their opinion is of the program.  Since you already know to only consider accredited schools, check with the accrediting agency for its input.  The accreditation alone should be enough to guarantee that the program is well qualified.  But a little extra due diligence is always a good idea.

What is the Total Cost of Education?  Legal assistant programs can vary in cost from state to state and based on the amount of training provided.  Tuition is not the only cost of your education.  Remember to include the cost of books, supplies and commuting as well. Financial aid may be available to help offset some of the cost, so be sure to check with the school’s financial aid department to see what is available in {zip}.  Of course if you decide to attend an online school, some of these additional costs, such as commuting, may be reduced.

Where is the School Located?  Since laws vary from state to state, it is important to choose a school located in the state where you ultimately want to practice.  Also, it will be important to develop relationships in the neighboring legal community, perhaps through an internship program.  This is all the more reason to obtain your education in the community where you want to work.

Can the School Accommodate your Schedule?  If you require certain class hours be available for your scheduling due to work or family obligations, be sure to find out if they are offered.  Also, if you are only free to attend weekend or evening classes, make sure that they are offered as well.

Choose the Right Paralegal Training Program

law books and judge's gavelPicking the right paralegal or legal assistant program is very important for your success in this exciting field of law.  As we have discussed, you can choose to take your classes either by attending a traditional brick and mortar school in person, or you can take your instructional classes online in your {city} home.  However you choose to receive your education, by following the previous guidelines, you will be better able to evaluate each school.  And by choosing the right one, you can achieve your career goal to become a paralegal.