Requirements to become a paralegal aren't as straightforward as you might expect.The requirements can vary from one law firm to another.
As a paralegal, you'll assist lawyers in preparing legal cases by providing research for each case, which includes statues, case law, and all kinds of records and information. You'll conduct witness and client interviews on a regular basis and be expected to record either all of the interview or portions of it. You'll need to take detailed notes to include in your research reports and documentation. You must also keep accurate records of all the processes you follow in preparation of each case.
Requirements to Become a Paralegal
You may be surprised to learn that currently, if you wish to become a paralegal, certification is strictly voluntary and not a requirement. In addition, you aren't required to have a paralegal or law-related degree. You may, however, discover that due to the competition for open paralegal jobs, you'll have a better chance of being hired when you have a paralegal degree and certification.
Paralegal Degree Programs and Courses
While there are no national requirements for paralegals, individual attorneys and law firms have their own criteria. Employers often seek experienced paralegals with a degree. A degree in any field is a plus, and if you have at least a year of experience under your belt you can be competitive in your job search.
If you decide to go to college to earn a paralegal degree or take a few legal courses to help you as a paralegal, you want to consider only those that are approved or accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). This includes Associate and Bachelor degree programs in paralegal or law-related studies.
Various Paralegal Certifications
Individuals who have a paralegal certification are often favored by those making hiring decisions. This is a voluntary certification and as such demonstrates to a prospective employer that you take your career seriously and consider yourself a professional. You can become a certified paralegal through various organizations. Most certification processes require that you take an exam. There may also be other qualifications and criteria that you must meet such as experience and education in order to be considered eligible to take the certification exam.
Four National Paralegal Organizations
There are four national paralegal organizations that administer paralegal certification exams that are recognized as the industry standards. You may also want to check with your state government for any regulations or state bar approved certifications you may need or want to complete.
National Association of Legal Assistants
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has several ways of qualifying paralegals that include experience and education. If you meet these requirements, then you are deemed eligible to take the organization's certification exam. Taking the test is a two-day process.
Upon passing the exam, you will be a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or a Certified Paralegal (CP) for five years. Since Certified Legal Assistant and Certified Paralegal certificates are interchangeable titles, you can select which one you prefer be used on your certificate. In order to receive recertification, you must have completed 50 CLE (Continuing Legal Education) hours of approved courses.
If you're an experienced paralegal with a specific area of expertise, you can also apply for an Advanced Paralegal Certificate. This certification in specialized areas is completed through an online program offered by the NALA.
American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc
The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc (AAPI) offers its own form of a certification, the AACP (American Alliance Certified Paralegal) certification program. The requirement for application includes five years of paralegal experience and educational criteria. There are three educational criteria and you only need to qualify with one. With 18 CLE hours, you can recertify every two years.
The education requirements for this certification are a bit more complex than those for the NALA certification. According to the website you must have one of the following three criteria:
- Bachelor or advanced degree: Any discipline from an accredited institution
- Associate degree: ABA approved paralegal program or from an institute that's a voting American Association for Paralegal Education member.
- Certificate: ABA approved paralegal program or from an institute that's a voting American Association for Paralegal Education member.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations
Another kind of certification designation comes from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) for a Registered Paralegal (RP) certification.
You must qualify to take the certification exam by having a bachelor's degree and a minimum of two years of experience. You must renew this certification every two years by providing documentation of having completed 12 hours of CLE.
National Association of Legal Secretaries
The National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS) offers a Professional Paralegal (PP) certification. The NALS now includes a tagline that states, "the association for legal professionals". To qualify for the NALS certification you must take the exam and have one of the three credentials:
- Five years paralegal, legal assistant or legal secretary experience
- Four years of experience and hold a post-secondary degree or some form of paralegal certificate
- Three years of experience and a paralegal degree
You'll need to apply for recertification every five years and are required to complete 75 CLE hours.
There are a few other non-academic or regulatory requirements that can assist you in being successful in this career. You need the following attributes:
- Natural and keen interest and curiosity in current legal issues.
- Win other people's confidences and maintain professional client privilege work-relationships
- Profession demeanor and confidence
- Strong understanding of your duties
- Excellent communication skills
- Outstanding research and discovery instincts and abilities
While there aren't any specific licensure requirements to become a paralegal, you can now understand why credentials such as certifications and college degrees are important to law firms. As competition for these jobs increases, you can expect the requirement bar will continually be raised.