Paralegals perform legal tasks, such as conducting research and writing briefs, under the direct supervision of licensed attorneys. They are not to be confused with legal office assistants or secretaries.
Undergraduate paralegal certificate programs introduce students to basic topics in law, litigation and legal terminology. At the post-baccalaureate level, students take courses addressing advanced topics in these areas, in addition to learning about court proceedings and rules, legal technology and legal ethics. Many programs are approved by the American Bar Association. Graduates can pursue voluntary certification offered by professional associations in the field.
Undergraduate Paralegal Certificate
Undergraduate paralegal certificate programs are available for students of varied education levels, from high school graduates to bachelor's degree candidates. Curricula typically cover the makeup of the U.S. legal system and the role of paralegals within a law firm. Special emphasis is placed on conducting legal research and drafting legal documents. Aspiring paralegals also are introduced to major areas of law, such as contracts, criminal law, real estate and torts. Many employers prefer to hire paralegals and legal assistants who have graduated from a certificate program approved by the American Bar Association, www.abanet.org.
Admission requirements for undergraduate paralegal certificate programs vary by institution. Some schools require applicants to have a high school diploma or the equivalent, while others require prior completion of an associate's degree. Additionally, some 4-year colleges and universities offer undergraduate paralegal certificate programs only for students who are concurrently enrolled in a bachelor's degree program.
An undergraduate paralegal certificate curriculum gives students a solid understanding of legal terminology and concepts. Course subjects might include:
- Introduction to law
- Civil litigation
- Criminal litigation
- Legal research and writing
- Legal terminology
Post-Baccalaureate Paralegal Certificate
Students in post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate programs receive training in core paralegal skills, as well as placement assistance and advice. General areas of legal practice, including criminal, civil, probate and family law, typically are covered. Students also study concepts, such as natural and common law, which will enable them to become contributing members of any legal team.
A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for admission to a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate program. Students in any paralegal program must be proficient in written and spoken English, as well as being computer and internet literate.
Courses in a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate program are similar to those in an undergraduate certificate program and might include:
- Court rules
- Law office etiquette
- Legal ethics
- Legal technology
- Pleadings and discovery
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
Most paralegals are hired by private law firms, but job opportunities are also available with real estate and title insurance firms, corporate legal departments, insurance companies, banks and government agencies. Employment of paralegals and legal assistants was expected to grow 8% from 2014 to 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), www.bls.gov. This growth may be the result of businesses seeking to reduce costs and thus assigning paralegals tasks once performed exclusively by lawyers. Paralegals and legal assistants made a median annual salary of $48,810 as of May 2015, according to the BLS.
Continuing Education Information
Unlike lawyers, paralegals don't need to pass a bar exam. However, two organizations provide voluntary paralegal certification. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), www.nala.org, offers the Certified Legal Assistants (CLA) exam to anyone who holds a paralegal associate's degree or certificate. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), www.paralegals.org, offers a Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) to those with a paralegal degree or certificate and a minimum of four years' job experience as a paralegal.
Paralegals can earn certificates at the undergraduate and post-baccalaureate levels. The post-baccalaureate certificate delves deeper into law topics, whereas the undergraduate certificate offers a solid foundation for students who are just beginning their studies.