Paralegal Education 101: How to Choose the Right Paralegal Program to Fit Your Life

Becoming a paralegal opens up many doors. While your ultimate goal may be to work in a law firm, corporate legal division, or working in a government agency, there is one thing that all paralegals working in the field know to be true. The skills acquired as a paralegal can be transferred over to successfully work in almost any field. The key? You have to focus on your education.

What Is Paralegal Education?

Generally, a person becomes a paralegal in one of two ways. They either amass on the job experience or they attend an educational program designed for paralegals. Whether you decide to seek out a firm that will hire you with no or little experience or enroll in an educational program will be your decision. Both certainly have their potential drawbacks. Going to school will likely be an added expense. Yet, many firms won’t hire you without either former experience or a formal education.

This article is designed to educate people who are considering a formal educational program for paralegals. These programs are all quite rigorous. They all have some commonalities. You’ll take courses in legal writing and research, civil law, a class dedicated to torts (a part of our civil law), criminal law, and many other courses dedicated to specific areas of law. Those classes are sometimes electives. You may have to choose between taking bankruptcy law or law office management.

There Are Many Choices for Formal Education

Ultimately, the program you choose needs to work best for you. Below, you’ll learn a little bit about each main type of program.

Career Schools

Many vocational schools offer legal courses. Some career schools will offer full-fledged two year paralegal programs. With these programs, there are two main things for you to keep in mind:

  • Is it a degree or a certificate program?
  • If you plan to continue your education in the future, will those credits transfer to another institution?

Two -Year Programs

Many community colleges, career schools, and private colleges offer a two-year paralegal program. You will take general education courses such as English and Algebra. Will you use Algebra? To some degree, you might. It depends on the law office that hires you. Algebra can be used to calculate certain items related to a case or in billing. You should ask:

  • If you will receive an Associate’s degree;
  • If you will receive a certificate of completion (as opposed to an Associate’s degree); and
  • Which institutes of higher education will accept your credits should you choose to further your education.

Four-Year Programs

Yes, Bachelor’s degrees for Paralegal Studies do exist! They are a great choice. Although they take longer, you have one thing that many employers want: a four-year degree. That alone can open a lot of doors in and out of the legal field. You will, take many basic college courses such as English, History, and Algebra. However, you’ll also get more time devoted to various areas of law. In addition to civil and criminal, you’ll take family law, employment law, administrative law, and estates. Of course, that’s not an all-inclusive list.

Keep in mind that a four-year program is a serious commitment when it comes to your time, but it can reap huge dividends for your career. Four-year courses generally provide you with other classes that you won’t get in a two-year program, such as alternative dispute resolution and medical records summary.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Is it an online only program or will you need to attend campus courses?
  • Is there a career services department that can help you learn more about how to find a job?

Post-baccalaureate Certificate Programs

If you already have a degree and you want to be a paralegal, there are certification programs that are designed just for you. Completion of these programs will depend on the school, but they generally last between six months and two years. This is because some programs provide more specialized certification. For instance, it may have an emphasis on family law. You would finish faster than a program designed to instruct you in more areas.

Overall, these programs don’t focus on core education…because you’ve already done that. You dive right in to learning more about legal writing, research, and substantive law courses.

Consider whether you want to focus on one area of law or if you’re interested in multiple areas. This will help you find a program that is right for you.

A Final Note of Consideration

There are many great programs available that can give you the formal education that you want. However, you may have noticed that one question was not answered. Should you attend an ABA approved program?

Although this needs a post all of its own, it still needs to be briefly addressed to clear up some confusion you may have. Ultimately, it’s up to you. Paralegals are not regulated like attorneys. However, the ABA does provide an accreditation process for paralegal education programs. With that said, if a course only offers online courses, they will not, at this time, be ABA approved. That does not mean it is a bad choice for you. Many lawyers don’t care whether a program is accredited.

One way to determine how good a program is for you is to pull up the list of guidelines used for the approval process. Then, compare it to the courses offered by your school of choice. Look at the number of hours of education suggested by the ABA compared to the credit hours that you’ll receive from any particular school.

Start Your Search

Isn’t it time that you moved forward to fulfill your dream of becoming a paralegal? Make your decision on the best education program for you and get started. Your future self will thank you.