Regulation of Paralegals
The only state that currently regulates paralegals directly is California, which adopted regulation in 2000 that requires persons using the titles "paralegal," "legal assistant," and the like to meet certain educational/experiential qualifications and to meet continuing education requirements. For details, see the law at California Business and Professions Code, Sections 6450 through 6456.
In 2012 the Washington State Supreme Court issued an order adopting the "Limited License Legal Technician" Rule to conduct limited practice in only specified areas of law upon meeting certain educational/experiential qualifications as well as continuing legal education requirements. For details, see Rule 28 of the Admission and Practice Rules, and Rules of Professional Conduct.
In 2018, the Utah State Supreme Court launched the "Licensed Paralegal Practitioner" to conduct limited practice in only specified areas of law upon meeting certain educational/experiential qualifications as well as continuing legal education requirments. For details, see rule 14-802 of the Rules Governing the Utah State Bar, and Rules Governing Licensed Paralegal Practitioner 15-703.
Certification is a process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition to an individual who has met certain predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association. It usually involves passing an examination drawn up by the sponsoring organization and meeting specified educational and/or experiential requirements. The American Bar Association does not certify Paralegals. Paralegals may not represent themselves as "ABA-certified paralegals," because the ABA's approval applies to the paralegal education program rather than to the individual paralegal.
Presently, there is no mandatory certification examination for paralegals anywhere in the United States. However, the certification issue has been a subject of considerable interest and debate for the past several years among paralegal associations, bar associations and some legislatures. For a variety of reasons, some of these organizations support certification while others are opposed to it.
The National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (NALA - The Paralegal Association), headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began sponsoring a certification examination (Certified Legal Assistant) in 1975, which is now known as the Certificate Paralegal (CP®). NALA also offers advanced specialty exams (APC®). For information on the exam, eligibility requirements, and more, please visit NALA's web site.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA™), formed in 1974, offers the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE®) to become a Registered Paralegal (RP™) and the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE™). For more information on exam, eligibility requirements, and more, please visit NFPA's web site.
NALS. . .the association for legal professionals, has been sponsoring voluntary certification for over four decades which include an Accredited Legal Professional (ALP), Certified Legal Professional (CLP) or Professional Paralegal (PP). For information on the exams, eligibility requirements, and more, please visit NALS' website.
The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (ACCP). For information on eligibility requirements and more, please visit AAPI's website.
Financial Aid and Career Services
The American Bar Association does not provide financial assistance to individuals interested in enrolling in paralegal education programs. Inquiries pertaining to financial aid, such as scholarships, loans, and grants, should be directed to the program director or financial aid office of the institution you plan to attend. Also, the American Bar Association does not provide placement or career services assistance to paralegals, nor does it maintain lists of law firms or other agencies that employ paralegals.
Paralegal Educational Programs
At the present time the American Bar Association has identified more than 1000 institutions across the United States which offer formal paralegal education programs leading to either a degree or certificate. However, the listing in our web site directory includes only the paralegal education programs that are ABA approved.
Programs are offered by two-year community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and business and proprietary schools, some of which are freestanding institutions devoted solely to providing this type of training. Since entry into the paralegal field is open to a wide range of individuals with diverse educational backgrounds and previous work experiences, the length of programs and their admission requirements vary considerably from one institution to another.
A candidate's personal qualifications for admission into a paralegal education program are very important. Applicants must be able to write clearly and communicate effectively and must possess a high degree of motivation and analytical reasoning capability. Candidates should also be responsible, mature individuals who are sincerely interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal.
Prospective students should be informed that paralegal education is not the equivalent of a law school education. Graduates of paralegal programs are not qualified or eligible to take the bar examination. Academic credit for paralegal courses is not transferable for advanced standing in law school.
Additional information on paralegal education is available from the American Association for Paralegal Education. Please visit AAfPE's web site.
Brief descriptions of the most common types of paralegal education programs available follow:
Associate Degree Programs
Two-year associate degree programs are offered by comprehensive community colleges and some four-year degree-granting institutions. Although a substantial majority of community colleges have an open-door admissions policy, many of the paralegal education programs offered have adopted more selective admission criteria for entry into paralegal studies. Paralegal programs require a considerable amount of study and outside class assignments, and are necessarily taught at a sophisticated level. Additional screening methods which may be utilized include test scores on college-level entrance examinations, special verbal aptitude tests, writing samples, letters of recommendation and personal interviews. The curriculum in an associate degree program consists of a combination of general education, electives and legal specialty courses. The legal specialty courses are selected by educational administrators and faculty members in consultation with members of the legal community. Trends, needs, and changes in the local legal community therefore affect course requirements in legal specialty areas. Ordinarily, an associate degree program provides students with the requisite skills to perform in the legal environment as generalists. Students receive instruction in several different legal specialty areas. Legal specialty courses commonly offered in such programs are legal research and writing, introduction to paralegalism and law, contracts, torts and insurance, business law, estate planning and probate, corporate law, litigation, criminal law, family law, real estate and legal technology. Paralegal programs in community colleges may lead to an Associate in Arts, Associate in Science, or Associate in Applied Science Degree. A growing number of community colleges offer a certificate option for four-year college or university graduates.
Baccalaureate Degree Programs
A number of colleges and universities have developed four-year baccalaureate degree programs with a major or minor in paralegal studies. Curriculum requirements include general education, electives, and legal specialty courses. The four-year program normally encompasses both generalist and specialist courses. The generalist courses are similar to the offerings in an associate degree program. Usually the courses taken during the last two years of the program are more in-depth and advanced and allow a student to concentrate in one or more areas of legal specialization, thereby developing special expertise in those selected areas. Some of the four-year programs offer or require courses on the management and administration of a law office.
In general, a four-year program provides students with a sound liberal arts education and legal specialty training in several areas, thereby enabling them to choose from a wide number of employment opportunities in various legal settings as well as private law firms. Paralegal programs in four-year colleges or universities may lead to a Bachelor in Science or Bachelor in Arts degree. They are found in many different disciplines, including Political Science, Criminal Justice, Human Services and Business and are sometimes in separate Paralegal or Legal Studies Departments.
Non-degree certificate programs are offered by universities, colleges, business and proprietary schools. Some certificate programs are offered for academic college credit and some are not. A certificate program usually offers only legal specialty training. If the general education component is not offered as a part of the program, such programs require applicants for admission to have completed one and one-half years of college or more. Some certificate programs are restricted to only college graduates whose academic record displays a high level of achievement. Classes may be offered full-time during the day or on a part-time evening basis. The length of the program may range from four or five months to two years. Some programs offer legal specialty training and some have a general practice curriculum that includes specialty training. Legal specialty concentrations most often offered are litigation, estate planning and administration, real estate, and corporations.
Many paralegal education programs include an internship as a part of the curriculum. The internship enables a student to utilize skills acquired in the program and to gain practical on-the-job experience. Internships are available in a variety of settings including private law firms, offices of a public defender or attorney general, banks, corporate legal departments, legal aid organizations, and many government agencies.
Home Study and Web-Based Programs
The American Bar Association does not approve correspondence or home study programs and does not provide information on home study programs. The American Bar Association Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs do allow approved programs to offer some paralegal coursework through web-based electronic delivery and other means of distance delivery.
ABA Approval of Paralegal Education Programs
In 1974 the American Bar Association established the first Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs and in 1975 approved the first group of paralegal education programs. The ABA Guidelines were developed to promote high standards of quality for the education of paralegals. The Guidelines have been revised several times since their initial adoption to keep pace with changes in the utilization of paralegals and in higher education.
To become eligible for ABA approval, a program must have been in operation for at least two academic years and have graduated students and must fully satisfy all requirements of the ABA Guidelines. A directory of ABA Approved Paralegal Education Programs is maintained on the website. New programs are approved semi-annually, at the ABA midyear and annual meetings.
Programs seeking ABA approval are required to submit a self-evaluation report which is intended to provide a comprehensive description of all program components with emphasis on the following areas: organization and administration, financial and other resources, advisory committee, educational program, faculty and program leadership, admissions and student services, career services, library and physical plant. As part of the ABA evaluation process, an initial on-site visit is conducted by a two-member team comprised of a representative of the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals Approval Commission, an experienced paralegal or an educator from another paralegal program. The inspection provides an opportunity to verify information provided in the self-evaluation report and to acquire supplementary information essential to making an evaluation. Each inspection includes the following activities: meetings with the program director, administrative officials of the institution, members of the advisory committee, faculty members, students and graduates, and staff of career services, admissions and counseling offices, review of various documents such as course outlines, faculty evaluations, graduate employment records, student files, observation of classes in session and if offered online, and an inspection of the library, off-campus sites, and facilities. Once approved, programs go through the full evaluation process every seven years, and submit a regular interim report between visits that are monitored by the ABA Standing Committee and its Approval Commission.
Seeking approval from the American Bar Association is a voluntary process initiated by the institution offering the program. Therefore, the lack of approval does not necessarily mean a paralegal program is not of good quality and reputable.