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Choosing a Paralegal School

November 22, 2008

While formal education is not a requirement to work as a paralegal in the United States, many law firms are setting more rigid qualifications that require their legal assistants to possess at least some level of schooling or training. If you're competing against other applicants for a position, you're much more likely to receive an offer if your resume includes at least an Associate's Degree in paralegal studies. Plus, with a higher level of education, you'll command more market value and a higher salary.

With roughly 600 educational facilities offering paralegal training programs across the nation, as well as several reputable online courses, those seeking a career as a legal assistant should have no trouble finding a school that meets their needs.

Levels of Paralegal Education

Although program details will vary from school to school, there are four basic levels of paralegal education that can be achieved:

 

Associate's Degree programs

Available at local community colleges, these programs provide the fastest and most economical means of obtaining formal paralegal training. This is the most common method of becoming a paralegal.

Bachelor's Degree programs

Many universities offer traditional four-year degrees for paralegals. These typically take twice as long to complete as Associate's programs.

Master's Degree programs

Often pursued by paralegals who have already secured a position, a Master's can help legal assistants boost their earning power and improve their chances of being promoted.

Certificate programs

Those focusing on a specific area of law may opt to supplement their Associate's, Bachelor's, or Master's Degree with a specialized certification.

Choosing a School

When evaluating educational programs, there are several key factors to consider:

Are they accredited?

No matter what level of education you're pursuing, you'll want to verify that the educational facility is fully accredited by a reputable agency. Unfortunately, many have fallen victim to phony schools posing as legitimate educators, taking students' enrollment fees and then providing little to no valuable training. These so-called "diploma mills" are especially prevalent online. Before plugging in your credit card number, check to make sure the school has a seal of approval from an industry-accepted organization, such as the American Bar Association (ABA). Keep in mind that not all non-accredited schools are shams, but they should be more carefully evaluated to make sure they fulfill state requirements.

How long is their paralegal program?

Depending on the level of degree you're seeking, educational facilities offer courses of study ranging from a few months up to four years. If you already have a degree or field experience, you may opt for an abbreviated certification program.

Where is the school located?

This is usually the biggest consideration for paralegal students. Many law firms give preference to applicants who received their training in the same city and state as the practice, as they're likely to be more familiar with local laws and organizations. If you have a few top firms in mind, check with them to see if they have a list of favored paralegal training programs in your area.

Can they provide a track record?

It's perfectly acceptable to request such statistics as the percentage of students who complete the program and the ratio of graduates who have secured employment as a paralegal. If the school has an alumni program, talk to graduates of the paralegal program to gauge their experiences. This information will help you to determine the effectiveness of the school's training program.

Is the tuition within your budget?

Compare the costs of the school with other educational facilities to make sure it's within the standard range. If you're on a tight income, check to see if the facility offers any financial aid or deferred payment programs. An online paralegal training program can often serve as a cost-effective alternative, as you'll save significantly on travel costs, books, lodging, and other expenses.

>How flexible is the school?

Depending on your lifestyle and other commitments, you may require a certain amount of flexibility in your paralegal training program. Adult students with day jobs and families may require part-time, evening, or weekend courses. Also check to see if you can perform some of the coursework from home.

Do they offer a high-quality curriculum and faculty?

Review the bios and backgrounds of the school's instructors to make sure they have the necessary skills and qualifications to provide quality training. Ideally, the staff should include former or practicing attorneys and legal assistants. You may also request course outlines to get a feel for the topics that will be presented.

Are internships offered?

Many reputable paralegal programs offer internships to their students, allowing them to gain on-the-job training during their course study. This can be extremely helpful when choosing a specialty of law, and can also help you to form a network of attorneys and other legal assistants. A large number of students who secure internships during school are ultimately offered permanent positions after completing their studies.

Is career counseling offered?

Ideally, the educational facility you choose should be invested in your success - both during and after your training. Ask about available career services to assist with placement at a reputable firm.

Do they offer certifications?

Although they're not required, paralegal certifications can serve as a beneficial supplement to traditional degrees, helping to give you an edge over other candidates vying for the same position. There are two main certifications that can be obtained, both of which require the passing of an examination. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) issues a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation. Issued by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, the Registered Paralegal (RP) certification requires a Bachelor's Degree and two years of industry experience.

As one of today's fastest-growing professions, the paralegal field provides stable, profitable opportunities to those seeking a legal-oriented career. By investing in formal education from an accredited paralegal training program, you'll increase the odds of obtaining high-quality employment, boost your income potential, and network with local attorneys and legal assistants.

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