Earning a paralegal graduate certificate can open up a variety of different opportunities for career advancement in the legal field. A paralegal graduate certificate differs from a regular undergraduate certificate, however. For instance, to qualify for admissions to this type of program, you must already hold a bachelor's degree.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the occupational field of paralegals and legal assistants to grow by 15% between 2016 and 2026. Compensation is competitive, with paralegals and legal assistants taking in an average annual salary of $50,410. Entry-level positions typically only require an associate degree in this field, but earning a graduate certificate offers a way for you to separate yourself from the competition and demonstrate your expertise. Employers increasingly prefer to hire employees with more advanced levels of education. In addition, those with a higher education can gain more opportunities for earning potential and career growth.
How to Choose the Right Paralegal Graduate Certificate Program
Prospective paralegal graduate certificate students must consider many aspects when choosing a program. Factors to keep in mind include program length, cost, location, accreditation status, and the curriculum. The right program for one person may not suit another.
Most paralegal graduate certificate programs take between six months to a year to complete, though part-time enrollment may extend this completion time. Also, consider which program best fits your budget. Research the estimated total cost for the certificate on each school's website. Typically, students pay less when they complete their certificate program more quickly. Enrolling in a public institution often costs less than a private school education. Consider the available and required courses, specializations, practicums, and internships.
You also need to choose between online and on-campus programs. The flexibility and convenience of distance education leads many individuals to pursue a paralegal graduate certificate online. An online program presents a particularly good option if you plan to continue working full time while earning your certificate. Students coming straight from an undergraduate program, or who currently do not hold responsibility for other major commitments, may prefer a traditional, in-person program. School location may matter even if you choose an online program. Some distance programs still require students to come to campus for coursework.
Employment and Salary Outlook for Paralegal Graduate Certificate Graduates
Entering the legal field with a paralegal graduate certificate opens up excellent employment and salary opportunities. The BLS projects an overall job growth rate of 15% for paralegals and legal assistants between 2016 and 2026, which greatly exceeds the average growth projection for most other fields.
Education and years of experience may affect salary potential for paralegals. The table below shows the median salary for paralegals by years of experience. Those with extensive experience earn nearly $20,000 more each year than entry-level paralegals.
Postgraduate paralegal certificate programs can pursue a variety of career paths in the legal field. Many graduates pursue careers as paralegals, legal assistants, and legal secretaries. Those with extensive experience often move up to become senior paralegals. Some professionals even pursue work in risk management. All positions take research, communication, and interpersonal skills. A broad interest in the legal field can lead to opportunities in different types of law, including criminal, family, corporate, property, and international.
Paralegals provide research assistance to lawyers. They possess skills in litigation, legal research, legal documentation, legal document composition, and Microsoft Office. They write reports, draft documents, compile evidence, and can bill clients for their work. They can specialize in areas like real estate law, criminal law, and immigration law. Paralegals with graduate certificates demonstrate a higher level of expertise and qualify for more advanced positions.
- Legal Assistant
Legal assistants provide a variety of assistance to lawyers. They take on more of an administrative support role compared to paralegals and usually need less experience and education to find work. Holding a graduate certificate can lead to better compensation and more job opportunities.
- Legal Secretary
Legal secretaries provide a variety of administrative assistance to law offices. Some of their duties include preparing legal documents, billing clients, typing correspondence, managing travel arrangements for lawyers and paralegals, word processing, and occasionally conducting basic legal research. Holding a graduate certificate can lead to expanded job responsibilities and greater earning potential.
- Senior Paralegal
Senior paralegals perform more advanced legal work than those with less experience. They provide advanced assistance to lawyers, helping them prepare for hearings, draft legal documents, and perform legal research. Holding a certificate can make you eligible for promotion more quickly.
- Risk Manager
Risk managers help companies address questions and concerns about particular projects and investments. They help minimize risk by investigating company activities. They also provide training and perform assessments regarding operational risk management. If you earn a paralegal graduate certificate, it can help you stand out from other risk managers and demonstrate your advanced research skills.
Accreditation for Paralegal Programs
Accreditation means a program meets educational standards set by an outside professional body. In an accredited program, graduates learn the skills necessary to find employment and work successfully in that field. The American Bar Association (ABA) provides accreditation for paralegal programs, including those offering paralegal graduate certificates. Many employers in the legal field prefer to hire candidates that attend a program with ABA accreditation.
The ability to transfer your academic credit presents another benefit of attending an accredited paralegal program. If you decide to pursue a master's in the legal field at some point, you might be able to transfer some of the credits in your paralegal graduate certificate program, as long as it holds proper accreditation.
Paralegal Graduate Certificate Program Admissions
The admissions process for paralegal graduate certificate programs varies by school. In general, applying to a graduate certificate program takes less time and includes fewer admissions requirements than undergraduate or graduate degrees. However, you do need to fill out an application, pay an application fee, and send the admissions committee transcripts from previously attended schools. To qualify for admission to most paralegal graduate certificate programs, you need to hold a bachelor's degree and meet minimum GPA requirements. Most programs accept candidates who hold undergraduate degrees in a variety of different fields.
Students apply to many fewer certificate programs than they would to degree programs. Make sure to research each program to find out if it meets your unique needs. Only apply to programs you would seriously consider attending.
- Application: Filling out an application for a certificate program typically takes a couple of hours. This includes gathering supplemental materials, paying fees, and ordering transcripts.
- Transcripts: You need to submit transcripts from both high school and previous higher education studies. To do this, order transcripts from the school's office.
- Application Fee: The average application fee for a paralegal graduate certificate program falls around $50. Students experiencing financial hardship can sometimes request a fee waiver, depending on the school.
- Degree: Prospective students typically need to hold a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university. The degree does not need to be in the legal field.
- Minimum GPA: Many paralegal graduate certificate programs do not require applicants to hold a minimum GPA. Those that do often specify a minimum 3.0 GPA.
What Else Can I Expect From a Paralegal Graduate Certificate Program?
Core Courses in a Paralegal Graduate Certificate Program
Paralegal graduate certificate coursework varies depending on the school and program. However, most offer a few courses introducing the legal system and legal profession, along with a couple of electives. The following includes a sample paralegal graduate certificate curriculum.
- Legal Research and Writing
Students explore the most commonly used and cost effective legal research strategies and forms of legal writing. They learn legal citation using Bluebook format and get hands-on experience writing legal documents, such as briefs and memos. Students explore a variety of research resources, including online and in print.
- American Jurisprudence
An introduction to the American legal system, this course explores its history, foundations, and theories, including their relevance to contemporary American justice and politics. Topics explored consist of the U.S. Constitution; courts at the local, state, and federal level; jurisdiction; evidence; and the paralegal profession.
Students explore the basic principles of contract law. Issues investigated include bargaining, breach, offer, acceptance, performance, formation, and remedies. Students learn to use legal reasoning skills and get practical experience drafting sample contracts. The course also looks at problems in contract formation and ways to legally resolve them.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Paralegal Graduate Certificate?
The amount of time it takes to earn your paralegal graduate certificate varies depending on the program you choose and how many credits you take each term. Typical program lengths range between six and 14 months, requiring 18-27 credits. Characteristics affecting length include the number of required credits, how many courses you can take each term, and if the program offers courses year round or breaks in the summer months.
Programs that require students to complete internships or other professional experiences often take longer than those that do not. If you want to earn your degree as quickly as possible, look for programs that offer a fast-track option, require fewer credits, and allow students to enroll in more courses each term. Students who plan to continue working full time while pursuing their paralegal graduate certificate may appreciate programs that allow students to take just one course at a time.
How Much Is a Paralegal Graduate Certificate?
Prices for a paralegal graduate certificate vary depending on several factors, including the type of school you choose and the number of credits required to graduate. Attending a public, in-state school typically costs much less than enrolling in a public out-of-state or private school. Many online programs offer the resident tuition rate to everyone, regardless of where you live. Make sure to find out if you qualify for in-state tuition before you enroll.
Because schools usually assess tuition on a per-credit basis, finding a program that requires you to take fewer courses/credits typically lowers the total cost of your paralegal graduate certificate. Students with previous graduate coursework in a paralegal-related field may be able to transfer in some of their credits, further lowering the price of their graduate certificate. Prices for these programs range from $7,000-$20,000 and beyond. Make sure to consider additional costs beyond tuition, such as student fees, books, and other required materials. Other possible expenses include the cost of housing, commuting, and childcare needs.
Professional Paralegal Organizations
Paralegal students and recent graduates can benefit from joining professional paralegal organizations. Becoming a member of these groups can demonstrate your commitment to the profession, something potential employers may look for on a resume. Other benefits include access to networking events, continuing education and professional development opportunities, discounted entrance to conferences, and free subscriptions to professional publications.
The largest professional association for legal assistants in the U.S., NALA offers professional development and continuing education experiences for legal assistants at all stages of their careers.
Founded in 1929, NALS serves legal assistants and paralegals. It offers certifications, continuing education, publications, and a career center. NALS also hosts conferences, offers an on-demand library, and runs online forums.
A national paralegal organization, the American Alliance of Paralegals seeks to advance the profession. Member benefits include access to a job bank, newsletter, networking, and continuing education opportunities.