If you are like most people looking at becoming a paralegal, you’ve probably quickly run into a logjam of options when it comes to getting an education in the field… an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in legal studies, that’s clear enough… a career diploma or certificate, that starts to seem a bit muddled… then you come across certificate programs that require you to already have a degree, and now you’re just plain confused.
It quickly becomes very clear that not all certificate programs are created equal, but it’s probably still a little confusing that some of these certificates cost quite a lot more than some of the others—seven or eight times as much.
And still all of them are a lot cheaper than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, regular two and four-year-degrees that costs as much in time and tuition as any other associate’s or bachelor’s degree program.
Chances are that the less expensive options are entry-level, basic paralegal certificates that accept students who hold a GED or high school diploma – the ones sometimes referred to as a “career diploma.” These certificates can be awarded after as little as six or eight weeks of training, either online or in person, and are usually touted as solid preparation for an entry-level position in the legal field.
Sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it?
But in fact, there is a big difference from the other type of certificate you see available, the post-degree certificate. Most require you to already hold an associate’s degree, and some, known as post-bac certificates, require that you already hold a bachelor’s of some kind. These post-associate and post-bachelor’s certificates are intended to provide specialized and intensive legal training that builds on top of a non-legal degree.
Although the content and syllabus of the program may seem similar to what is found in a basic certificate program for high school grads, the studies are lengthier and more rigorous, and are designed to begin introducing coursework at a more advanced level appropriate for someone who already holds an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. These programs are specifically designed for more experienced professionals who already hold a degree and are looking to re-focus their legal career or change their careers entirely to become a paralegal.
If you’re fresh out of high school, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in legal studies could very well be your best option for getting the advanced training paralegals are expected to have today, not to mention that a degree gives you the kind of competitive credentials you need for your resume to stand out in a stack of job applications. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in legal studies, of course, obviates any need for a separate certificate program. You’re essentially wrapping a traditional college education together with the in-depth legal studies that a post-degree program would offer.
Compared to shake-and-bake entry-level certificates, the appeal that a full-fledged degree in paralegal studies or a post-degree certificate has to potential employers should be obvious…
But in case it isn’t, here are five reasons that a basic paralegal certificate program just won’t cut it in the legal field today.
Education Is The Major Qualifier For Paralegals Today
Since you’ve been researching what it takes to become a paralegal, you already know that there are no cut and dry professional qualifications for the job— the paralegal evolved from highly experienced and specially trained legal secretaries. Though there are voluntary certifications available, virtually no licensing or regulation of the profession is conducted at the state or national levels, unlike lawyers themselves, who must pass a bar examination to practice their craft. Without laws to dictate the level of training necessary, would-be paralegals are left to figure out what they need to meet the expectations of employers in their area.
Make no mistake, as a professional field, there are plenty of barriers to entry, even if they are not always clearly spelled out for you. The fact is, meeting employer expectations can be trickier than jumping through hoops to meet state licensing requirements as is the case with licensed professions like accounting, financial advising or nursing.
Unless you already have years of experience under your belt, in the paralegal field, it’s all about your education. It was easier in the past, to simply work your way up from an entry-level position at a law firm to become a full-fledged paralegal. After all, until only a decade ago, paralegal programs were pretty rare.
Today, however, if you’re not hired into the position based on your qualifications, you can’t really expect to get there over time through promotion. And besides, you are extremely unlikely to get hired in the first place without a credible, well-respected degree or post-degree certificate.
Licensing May Be Coming and It Will Require Advanced Education
There are other fields where intermediary professions have sprung up to meet demands for cost-efficient professional services, and most of them require a specific license. For example, advanced practice RNs are licensed to provide many of the same services a physician can provide, but at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, paralegals provide many of the same services an attorney can provide, but at much lower rates… however, as of yet, there are only a handful of scattered licensing laws in a few states that grant licensed/certified paralegals the authority to perform some expanded functions.
However, there is a growing movement pushing for uniform paralegal licensing laws through all state bar associations, and it’s starting to gain some momentum. If or when that happens, a formal, college education is almost certain to be a requirement for receiving those licenses.
In states that are already implementing limited license programs, college-level education is cited as a core requirement. In Washington state, for example, the new Limited License Legal Technician category for limited independent practice requires 45 credit hours in a core curriculum program approved by the American Bar Association.
So unless you want an exceptionally short career as a paralegal or end up having to go back to school in a few years, it would be wise to get those credit hours in now.
No Major National Legal Organization Supports Basic Certificate Programs
Neither the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) nor the American Bar Association have good things to say about basic certificate programs. Since a lot of the people hiring paralegals belong to one or the other of these bodies, it’s probably worth considering their opinion about what sort of education you should get.
The ABA offers specific guidelines on paralegal education programs and has a list of approved programs you can check online. You definitely won’t find any six-week turn and burn programs on this list.
The American Association for Paralegal Education, as you can probably guess from its name, puts quite a lot of thought and consideration into paralegal training programs. Their conclusion is that the minimum requirement for an effective paralegal education program is that it offer at least 60 semester hours of training, the equivalent of an associate’s degree.
Further, they call out basic certificate programs in particular by stating…
“In recent years there has been a proliferation of short-term entry-level paralegal training programs of very limited duration, some with as few as 125 clock hours (which is less than nine semester credit hours). These programs do a fundamental disservice to the legal profession by creating unrealistic expectations in both employers and students that a quality paralegal education has been delivered, when such is not the case.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Basic Certificate Programs Don’t Attract The Best Teachers
Although the syllabus may look the same as it is for post-degree certificate programs, you probably already recognize that the actual content of basic certificate programs don’t hold a candle to what you’ll find in a degree or post-degree certificate program in legal studies. But what you may not realize is that the teachers also make a difference, and you probably aren’t getting the best of the bunch when you go with a basic short-course certificate program.
The essential difference just comes down to math. A $1,200 shake-and-bake paralegal program just isn’t going to be able to afford to pay instructors as high a salary as one that costs $8,000 or more. Instructors at post-degree programs or in associate’s or bachelor’s programs in legal studies are often the same faculty that handle instruction for full-fledged law school programs. The amount of support and experience available is far different from what you will find from the faculty at a short-course vocational college or private certificate program in paralegal studies.
Basic Certificates Don’t Prepare You With Sufficient Knowledge of the Law to Succeed as a Paralegal
The final, but possibly most important, reason you don’t want to saddle yourself with a basic short-course certificate is simply that it’s not enough. You can’t learn enough about the law, your role as a paralegal, and the practices and expectations of attorneys in a simply eight week course. You will have tremendous difficulty adjusting to life in a law office without some substantive college coursework under your belt and only a superficial education in the law.
As the National Federation of Paralegal Association’s (NFPA) position paper on paralegal education puts it:
Because the law is complex and often ambiguous, paralegals must be intelligent with an analytical and logical mind. They must be able to recognize and evaluate relevant facts and legal concepts, and have the ability to organize, analyze, communicate, and administer.
Lawyers go through three intensive years of law school and often serve clerkships before attempting to take on their professional role. To a large extent, paralegals are generally expected to perform much of the same type of work as those lawyers— and trying to do so without advanced education is essentially impossible.
An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in legal studies – or a post-degree certificate if you already hold a degree in another area – is the only way to truly ensure you understand your craft well enough to genuinely hold your own as a paralegal today.