How Long Does It Take to Become a Paralegal?
There are a number of pathways to becoming a paralegal including the most common option, completing a bachelor’s degree program. While not required by all employers, a master’s in legal studies or other law degree equips aspiring professionals with a broad working knowledge of the law.
It can take two to seven years to become a paralegal, depending on where you are in your educational journey. It takes about two years to complete an associate degree, four years for a bachelor’s degree, and two additional years for a master’s degree. You may also need time to prepare for paralegal certification exams, should you choose that path.
How to Become a Paralegal
How long it takes to become a paralegal depends on how you enter the field. Some paralegals serve as law clerks or legal secretaries before training and transitioning to the role, but most paralegals begin by earning a college degree or certificate.
1. Find the Right Education Path for You
Whether you’re newly graduated from high school or have been working in the legal field for some years, there are law programs specifically designed to increase your knowledge, skills, and expertise, preparing you for a paralegal career. The best educational path for the role varies, depending on where you are now and your future goals.
Associate or Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies or Law and Legal Studies
If you’re in the beginning stages of your career researching how to become a paralegal, you may be wondering what types of degree programs are out there. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you can later pursue a Master of Legal Studies and specialize in an area of interest to you. If not, you may consider a two-year associate degree in paralegal studies. Courses typically include legal writing, research, and software training.
Generally, employers may prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree, though four-year degrees in paralegal studies are limited. More commonly, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a related field like business, social science, security and protective service, or legal studies can help students prepare for a paralegal career or a Master of Legal Studies at a later date, if they want to.
Some professionals may combine their undergraduate degree with a certificate in paralegal studies from a paralegal education program approved by the American Bar Association.
Master’s Degree in Legal Studies
A legal studies master’s degree may be a viable way to showcase your ambition and build up areas of expertise. An MLS degree might also be useful for someone who has a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field. However, it is important to note that a graduate degree is not an education requirement for becoming a paralegal.
For some students, earning an MLS may serve as a stepping stone to earning a Juris Doctor degree, passing the bar, and becoming a practicing attorney. Other graduates who have earned a master’s in legal studies can go on to pursue a wide range of law-related careers including compliance officer, corporate executive, HR manager, social worker, police officer, or lobbyist.
Pepperdine Caruso School of Law’s online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) program can be completed in as few as 16 months, potentially opening the door to a paralegal career and more.
Paralegal Education Program
A paralegal education program approved by the American Bar Association may allow you to fast-track your career by introducing you to paralegal courses in theory, legal skills, and experiential learning activities. Programs range in terms of required credit hours, taking one to four years to complete. Upon completion, graduates receive a certificate in paralegal studies to demonstrate their competence.
2. Choose a Specialization (If You’re Pursuing a Degree)
Students pursuing a paralegal degree may choose to customize their curriculum with a specialization relevant to the role they intend to pursue.
For instance, would-be paralegals in a law firm setting may opt to pursue a litigation concentration within their Master of Legal Studies program to learn more about legal research and writing, negotiation theory, civil procedure, and attorney-client relationships. Others may be more interested in learning how to facilitate the process of resolving disputes between parties. Pepperdine Caruso School of Law offers a Master of Dispute Resolution, ranking No. 1 in U.S. News & World Report’s 2022 rankings of Best Dispute Resolution Programs.
While not mandatory, selecting an area of specialization can frame your academic journey and help distinguish you from other job seekers. Concentrations can also bring unique opportunities for students to find mentors and experts in their chosen area of focus, attend networking events, complete relevant internships, and publish papers on hot industry topics.
3. Consider a Paralegal Certification
You can work as a paralegal without being certified, but obtaining professional credentials in the field is one way to demonstrate preparedness, build skills, and potentially command a higher salary.
Certification programs are available through the following organizations:
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) – Gain paralegal certification after passing the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam® (PCCE) or the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam® (PACE). Maintaining your paralegal credential requires ongoing continuing legal education.
- The National Association for Legal Assistants (NALA) – Become a “Certified Paralegal” after passing a knowledge exam and a skills exam. Take 50 hours of continuing legal education to maintain certification after five years. Be sure to check all eligibility requirements.
4. Explore State-Level Requirements
California is the only state that regulates paralegals directly through the California Business and Professions Code. Since 2000, anyone using the title “paralegal” or “legal assistant” in California must have one of the following:
- An accredited postsecondary degree with at least 24 semester hours of law courses.
- A certificate of completion from a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
- A bachelor’s degree in any subject with one year of attorney-supervised legal work.
- A high school diploma/GED with at least three years of attorney-supervised legal work.
To run a business, independently operating paralegals in the state must be certified through the California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA).
Other states like New York and Texas—which employ many paralegals—have adopted local voluntary paralegal certification programs, meaning you have many choices for networking and seeking advanced credentials, but certification is not mandatory to work in the field.
5. Apply for Internships or Find a Job
Many paralegal education programs include unpaid internships as part of the curriculum. Full-time students may receive practical hands-on experience in a variety of settings, such as private law firms, public defender or attorney general offices, banks, corporate legal departments, government agencies, or legal aid organizations.
Internships can give students a better understanding of what paralegal work entails, provide experience for a resume, and uncover areas for improvement. Once the internship period has concluded, you may receive a letter of recommendation or a job offer.
FAQs on Becoming a Paralegal
While becoming a paralegal, it’s natural to wonder how many jobs there are, what you’ll be doing every day, and how much you can earn.
How long does it take to become a paralegal in California?
There are a number of pathways to becoming a paralegal in California. As previously mentioned, you may complete a paralegal program that’s been approved by the ABA. Other pathways may include attorney-supervised legal work. How long it takes to become a paralegal depends on the educational program you choose to complete and whether or not you pursue certification. On average, it can take four to six years to become a California paralegal with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. A master’s in legal studies may be an option for those interested in this career but is not required according to state law.
Is a career as a paralegal a good choice?
If you want to put your communication and critical-thinking skills to use in the legal field, then working as a paralegal may be a fit for you. When entering the legal field, paralegals do not have to endure the rigorous path to becoming a lawyer. You can choose from a variety of workplaces and specialties to suit your interests. As a paralegal, you will perform a range of duties to support attorneys in providing high-quality service to clients.
What does a paralegal do?
While paralegals can’t legally advise clients, they do perform a substantial amount of legal work under the supervision of an attorney. Their work enables the firm or organization to handle a wide range of internal tasks, such as:
- Drafting legal documents like case files or pleadings.
- Organizing and maintaining case paperwork.
- Interviewing clients and witnesses.
- Managing court schedules and calendars.
- Analyzing factual and legal issues to make connections.
- Conducting research to confirm facts and find applicable precedents.
- Helping attorneys prepare for corporate meetings, hearings, and trials.
- Writing summaries, reviewing transcripts, and handling exhibits.
- Accompanying attorneys to trials and court hearings.
Paralegal duties may vary by niche or size of employer, but these tasks are considered core business operations and often billed directly to the clients.
What skills do paralegals need?
A paralegal program will further your industry knowledge and broaden your skill set to help you along your career path. Paralegals have the following skills:
- Communication skills. Paralegals attend meetings, draft documents, and present research to their supervising attorney, so the ability to communicate in oral and written format is essential.
- Computer skills. Paralegals use computers for legal research, litigation support, maintaining records, and creating documents.
- Interpersonal skills. Paralegals play a role in fostering favorable client relationships and work alongside attorneys, legal assistants, court clerks, and office administrators.
- Organizational skills. Paralegals maintain multiple case files at once, prioritizing and adapting to quickly changing deadlines as needed.
- Research skills. Paralegals gather facts, research laws and precedents, read industry articles, and prepare legal documents.
What qualifications might you need to be a paralegal?
Paralegal qualifications are generally set by employers, as there are no federal requirements. The one exception is the state of California, where paralegals must have a high school education and at least three years of attorney-supervised work experience, a certificate from a paralegal program, or some type of postsecondary degree.
How much do paralegals make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports $56,230 as the median annual pay for paralegals and legal assistants in 2021. Salaries vary, with the lowest 10 percent of paralegals earning less than $36,410 and the highest 10 percent earning more than $88,640.
Industry influences salary as well, with federal government paralegals earning a median annual salary of $69,680, followed by finance and insurance paralegals earning a median salary of $64,740.
Paralegal pay also varies based on an individual’s years of experience, the firm’s size, and geographic location. For instance, California paralegals earned a median annual salary of $61,520 in 2020, according to CareerOneStop.
What is the job outlook for paralegals?
The job outlook is bright for paralegals, with the BLS predicting “faster than average” growth. Employment of paralegals is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030. Each year, the industry will add approximately 43,000 paralegal positions. According to CareerOneStop, employment of paralegals and legal assistants in California is projected to grow 14 percent between 2018 and 2028.
Last updated April 2022.
Explore Pepperdine Caruso School of Law’s online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) now and find out how you can enhance your legal skills.