The chances are that if you’re reading this, then you may be considering the life-changing decision to become a paralegal. Making a decision to change or start a new career is not always easy. It takes careful consideration of all the factors involved.

How much does it pay? What are the job prospects? Do I need to have a degree? How much does paralegal training cost? These are just but a few of the questions you need to get answers to.

One critical question you may be asking is “how long does it take to become a paralegal?” Time is an important issue for anyone when making big decisions. When it comes to paralegal education, there are many options available. It is important that you determine what your short and long-term goals are and what will best work for you.

Types of paralegal programs

Each state and educational institution will have various standards to meet for attaining a professional degree or certificate. In general, there are certificate programs primarily designed for those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field. This type of certificate should not be confused with obtaining a paralegal certification, which will be touched upon later. There are two-year associate’s degree programs available for those who want to obtain a degree while starting a new career.

Associate’s degree programs to become a paralegal

So, just how long does it take to become a paralegal in an Associate Degree program? Most Associate Degree programs in paralegal studies are designed to be completed over the course of four terms or as little as 16 months. This determination is based upon a student taking a full load of classes each semester.

A basic two-year degree program will consist of taking a mix of general education courses and coursework specific to the paralegal profession. Of course completion time may vary and can be shorter depending upon how many previous units of general education credits you may have. Availability of classes could also affect the length of time for completion.

Certificate programs to become a paralegal

Many career colleges,  community colleges and four-year institutions do offer certificate programs in paralegal studies. These shorter programs can confuse some people as they may be led to believe that they could shortcut their way into a new career by taking less coursework.

While that may be possible, it is not always recommended. A certificate program is generally for those who have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in some other area of studies. It can even be considered a post-baccalaureate program for those deciding to change careers.

A certificate program consists mainly of specialized coursework in the area of paralegal studies. There may be some general education requirements for those who may be missing that on their transcripts.

Most certificate programs are designed to be completed in one year or less. Depending upon the institution, completion should take about 30 credit hours of coursework. Again, availability of classes should be taken into consideration.

Paralegal Certification

It is important to define the difference between a paralegal certificate and certification as a paralegal. They are two very different things, and it is important not to confuse them. Certification is not required to become a paralegal, but it does provide documentation to potential employers that you have taken a nationally recognized exam to be recognized as certified.

One major organization, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), has outlined its requirements for candidates to take a certification exam. Acquiring this certificate indicates an elevated level of professional accomplishment by the paralegal. The American Bar Association recognizes NALA certification as an indicator of high achievement in the professional development of the paralegal.

Making the time commitment to become a paralegal

It must be recognized that when asking “how long it takes to become a paralegal?” that it will be completely individualized for each person. In short, it should take anywhere from one to five years, depending upon the educational route you have already taken, or plan to take.

While it is entirely possible to become a paralegal without any formal training, it should be deemed a tough route to break into the profession. Many legal firms want people who have a basic college education background at a minimum. However, there are plenty of options available to you. You just have to choose a program that fits your lifestyle, educational background and personal situation.

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