The most common types of formal paralegal training include:
Associate Degree Programs
These are two-year programs offered by community colleges, business schools and some other colleges and universities. Associate programs comprise about 70 semester-hours of which about one half or more will be in paralegal related studies, and the rest will be basic core curricula (math, English, science, social studies, etc.). Some community colleges offer long-distance online paralegal associate programs.
Bachelor’s Degree Programs
Students in bachelor’s degree programs take a more extensive core of general education courses than those in associate programs, and about 30-60 credit hours of paralegal related courses. Bachelor’s programs typically take four years to complete.
Certificate programs are often taught by practicing attorneys, and are usually limited to paralegal-focused courses to the exclusion of general education requirements. As such, certificate programs are usually quicker than associate degree programs, comprising only about 20 to 60 semester-hours and sometimes can be completed in as little as six months.
Some may also be offered through internet-based distance training method. For example, the National Paralegal College offers a 7-month online certificate program, and the Center for Legal Studies offers a 3-month online course.
Many of the shortest paralegal certificate programs presuppose an associate or bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite, but one’s degree may be in an unrelated area. A small number of certificate programs, however, do require prior law-related credit hours and/or work experience.
Certification as a professional paralegal can also be sought after completing another paralegal training program, or by currently practicing paralegals. For example, a paralegal or aspiring paralegal can apply to the American Alliance of Paralegals for certification, and the National Association of Legal Assistants offers an exam one can take for certification.
In practice, most paralegals do not seek or obtain certification, but in some cases it can be a competitive advantage. Obtaining certification shows employers your commitment to the profession, and substantiates your competence within the skills tested by the certification process including knowledge of legal procedure and research, communication and writing skills.
Master’s Degree Programs
Master’s degrees are relatively rare among paralegal programs, but do exist among some universities that also offer undergraduate paralegal programs. A master’s degree is not required by most employers.
An internship usually spans three months to a year or so, and is likely to be both a valuable training tool and an excellent way to network and get one’s foot in the door. Internships may be included in, as requirements or options, in some of the above training programs. But an internship can also be sought to augment one’s skills and industry connections. In rare cases, an internship could conceivably serve as a stand-alone paralegal training program leading to permanent employment as a professional paralegal.