Is Earning a Paralegal Certificate Worth It?
By Carrie Mesrobian on 09/20/2021
You’re probably familiar with the legal profession as Hollywood has a long-standing love affair with courtroom dramas and crime thrillers. These high-stakes dramas have often provided the initial spark of interest in the legal field, but often that career momentum begins to fizzle out as the realities—and requirements—associated with the field come into focus.
Becoming a paralegal, however, can be an appealing option for those who are wary of investing the time, money and effort associated with attending law school. That’s for good reason: This in-demand legal role has a lower barrier to entry and solid earning potential—the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of paralegals to grow 10 percent by 2029 and a 2020 median annual salary of $52,920.1
While you might know that the path to becoming a paralegal is shorter than becoming a lawyer, there are still some potentially confusing education options you’ll need to sort out. One route is completing a Paralegal Certificate program. But is earning a paralegal certificate worth it? Read on to help you sort out whether this option is the right fit for you.
Certificate versus certification
One important distinction to make is the (understandably confusing) difference between a paralegal professional certification and Paralegal Certificate program. While these might sound like the same thing, they are not, and the terms should not be used interchangeably. A Paralegal Certificate program, like what you’ll find at Rasmussen University, is an academic program with coursework designed to prepare students for a paralegal career. At Rasmussen University, this program is geared toward students who have already earned an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree and would like to supplement their degrees with a focused, paralegal-specific education.
Paralegal certification refers to professional certifications like the Certified Paralegal (CP) credential from the National Association of Legal Assistants. This certification is not directly tied to the completion of an academic program and requires applicants to pass an examination to verify their paralegal expertise. Students who complete a Paralegal Certificate program can choose to go on and pursue this credential after graduation.
Can you become a paralegal without a certificate?
The short answer to this question is yes, but there’s some nuance to this. Most states do not have mandatory requirements for paralegals. That means employers can choose to hire practically anyone they deem qualified. While that makes finding a paralegal job without paralegal-specific training or a nonacademic certification credential possible, it may present challenges.
According to Benjamin Green, a paralegal at Halunen Law, not having a paralegal certification is due more to his unique family circumstances.
“Most people don’t grow up around their dad’s law office, listening to lawyers talk about issues and people’s problems, the guts of law and politics,” Green explains about his own upbringing with his attorney father.
“Getting a certificate introduces the lay person to the language, culture, rules and special, weird way time works in the legal world,” Green says. “And many corporate paralegal positions will require a certificate, often for insurance roles.”
Is earning a Paralegal Certificate worth it?
The legal professionals we talked to believe certification is worthwhile for a variety of reasons.
“Paralegal Certificates are invaluable,” says Matthew Dolman, managing partner at Sibley Dolman Gipe. “They pave a path toward a sustainable and lucrative career in the law.”
Dolman has recruited and hired dozens of paralegals in his career as he relies on their services regularly.
“Paralegals do a lot of the heavy lifting at a law firm or at the legal department of a company,” Dolman continues. “If someone likes the law, becoming a paralegal is definitely a manageable and straightforward path toward a career in this field.”
For many, a certificate program is the simplest and shortest route to landing a paralegal job, especially when they already have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.
“It’s become increasingly acceptable for paralegals to complete a certificate program, some of which last just months,” says Alison Pearson, head of Human Resources at Hal Waldman and Associates. “Considering the time and money spent, it’s definitely worth it to get your paralegal certificate.”
Pearson says that what makes these certification programs valuable is the accessibility.
“Paralegal certificate programs often offer a wide range of training options in which you can customize according to your schedule, prior work experience, etc.,” Pearson continues. “These programs provide courses like law, legal research and even secretarial duties.”
Is earning a paralegal certificate hard?
“The question of whether it’s hard to become a paralegal is subjective,” Dolman says. “Does it require some hard work on the student’s part? Sure. However, it’s not nearly as expensive nor as lengthy and demanding as law school.”
With any new educational endeavor, you can expect to put in some long hours and intense effort, and earning a Paralegal Certificate is no different. If you’re feeling a little unsure about your ability to manage the academic demand, remember that you’ll have a variety of student support resources at your disposal.
How does a Paralegal Certificate prepare you for the job?
Having familiarity with the standard practices and terminologies involved in legal work is a big part of what certification programs can offer paralegal candidates.
“The law has always been a unique culture with its own language and rules,” says Green.
Paralegal certification may also expand your job search beyond traditional law firms.
“Paralegals are mostly in demand by law firms, but they’re also hired by corporate departments and government agencies,” says Pearson. Other employers of paralegals include insurance companies, hospitals and any other large organization that needs legal representation and counsel.
“Decide if you want to specialize in one type of law—family, criminal, civil, etc.—or if you want to be a generalist. This determines where you will ultimately work.”
Could this be the right step for you?
Legal work is an excellent profession for detail-oriented people who have a passion and interest in the law and working toward justice in their communities. Now that you know more about the value of a Paralegal Certificate program and how it may benefit you, it might be time to find out what else you need to know before getting started in this career. Our article “What I Wish I Knew BEFORE Becoming a Paralegal” can give you some insider insight from established paralegals.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed August, 2021] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.