Isn't My Two-Year Degree Enough?
A Realistic Look at Paralegal Employer Requirements
I am often asked, “what qualifications are employers really looking for in hiring a paralegal?” A few years ago, an 18-month certificate program would have been sufficient everywhere in the country. Today, however, many states, especially those who are heavily dependent on paralegals to keep up with backlog of cases, have moved to a two level approach in which the candidate is first certificated and then certified.
In paralegal jargon, certificated simply means that you have a diploma in paralegal studies from a program that is recognized, or that at least meets the standards of, the American Bar Association guidelines on paralegal and legal assistant training. The vast majority of recognized programs are associate degree programs offered by community colleges throughout the United States. In areas where paralegal pay is highest, for example, California, there are often four-year degree programs in paralegal studies as well. In most of the nation, this is not a sensible approach, as paralegal pay will never justify the expense of obtaining a bachelor's degree. Lastly, there are several online universities, such as Strayer or University of Phoenix, which offer recognized programs as well.
Before signing up for a program at you local community college, you should confirm that their program at least meets the minimum ABA standards. Many programs meet or exceed these standards, without being recognized as an official ABA program. This is because participation in the ABA program is costly, and many schools choose to meet the standards without joining the program.
Once you graduate from the appropriate program with an associate degree or bachelor's degree, you are considered certificated and can begin pursuing work as a paralegal. In some states you must either become immediately certified, or, you may begin working on certification after you become employed.
Get a Head Start
Remember, all of your friends who graduated with you in your paralegal studies program are out there looking for the same jobs, interviewing at the same places and hold the degree as you do. You should work on making yourself the BEST candidate BEFORE graduation, so that when you are looking for the same job, you have a head start. While you are still in school, you should be looking for opportunities to intern at local law firms, even for free if need be, to get your foot in the door. Often times, local organizations that exist to give legal council to the poor are looking for volunteers. That is a good place to start. Jobs like these will help you gain experience, which will look good on a resume, and will lead you to meet lawyers who may very well be in a position to offer you a job when you graduate.
Certification by the National Association of Legal Assistants is recognized nationwide. You can choose to seek certification as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or as a Certified Paralegal (CP). Generally, in most states, these terms are synonymous, however, there is a trend, especially in the west, for CP to be thought of as higher than a CLA. The exam is the same, but the perception is increasingly different. After passing your certification exam, you should begin placing the letters CLA or CP after your name on all documents related to your work. This will show that you are signing in an official capacity. In addition, NALA recommends that you have these letters placed after your name on all of your business cards and stationery.
Certification as a CLA or a CP is obtained by successfully passing an exam based on general law and legal procedures. Like many paraprofessionals, to continue to hold your certification, you will need to obtain continuing education credits before your certification expires, which is typically every five years. Some states require additional continuing education credits for all paralegals and legal assistants, usually about 4 hours every three years. This is to ensure that you stay on top of legal changes, as the law changes over time.
Lastly, it is worth noting the trend toward paralegal specialization. Many states, Texas, for example, now offer specialization licenses for those paralegals who pass a specialization exam, and who have a few years experience in the field. Specialization increases your ability to command a higher salary, and your job security. Generally speaking, the areas of specialization are estate planning, criminal law, personal injury law, civil law, family law and real estate or property law. The areas of specialization available in your area may be different, and, unlike your CLA or CP certification, your specialization license will only be valid in your state. If you move, you will not be able to take it with you.
In order to be a working paralegal, you will need to obtain just three qualifications. First, you must graduate from a program recognized by the ABA and become certificated. Second, you will need to schedule the CLA or CP exam offered each year by NALA in order to obtain your certification. And lastly, you will need to get continuing education credits on a regular basis to maintain your certification. Most importantly, you must begin to stand out from the crowd early in the process. Salaries and job security are both higher than average for paralegals, and so the profession is an attractive field for many people. You may find hundreds of people in your degree program. You need to break away from the crowd as early as possible, and start building your career while they are partying. If you start early, and work hard, you will enjoy a successful and rewarding career as a paralegal. Good luck to you on your journey!