From the Paralegal Alliance:
While the phrases “paralegal certificate” and “paralegal certification” are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. In fact, they are two very different things and all paralegals and future paralegals should understand the difference.
Paralegal Certificates are issued by post secondary educational institutions such as a community (two year) and private colleges. Certificates can be earned in a few months, as opposed to the two years that it takes to earn an Associate degree. A paralegal certificate can be a valuable asset or a waste of time and money, depending on your previous education and experience and your career goals.
When a Paralegal Certificate might be Valuable
While an associate or bachelor degree in Paralegal Studies is generally best when looking to become a paralegal, there are a couple situations in which a less expensive and time consuming Paralegal Certificate might be all that you need. This might be true if:
- You have a Bachelor degree. If you already have a bachelor degree or higher, but not in Paralegal Studies, and you want to become a paralegal, you may only need a Paralegal Certificate to get started on a paralegal career. Check local job listings for the educational requirements of those who actually employ paralegals in your area. Many listings will want an Associate or Bachelor degree in Paralegal Studies or a related field. In that case, a Bachelor degree in anything and a Paralegal Certificate will very likely satisfy the positions requirements.
- You have worked as a paralegal before. If you are, or have been, employed as a paralegal, and are looking to move up, move one, or restart your paralegal career, you may be able to pass employers educational requirements with a paralegal certificate, because you have previous work experience that might be more valuable than a degree. Look at some help wanted ads and see what employers in your area are looking for in their paralegals.
- You have an Associate Degree and have worked as a paralegal before. If you already have an associate degree in anything and you have worked as a paralegal in the past, or are doing so now, you may find a paralegal certificate will satisfy the educational requirements of paralegal jobs in your area, when combined with your Associate Degree and previous work experience.
When a Paralegal Certificate May Be a Waste of Time
Unless you already have some type of degree and/or previous experience working as a paralegal, a Paralegal Certificate may not be worth the paper on which it is printed. Because a Paralegal Certificate is not a degree, it may not satisfy employers’ educational requirements for a paralegal position.
Evaluating Paralegal Certificate Programs
If you are considering earning a Paralegal Certificate, you should keep in mind that not all educational programs are created equal. There are four very important things that you should consider when choosing a Paralegal Certificate Program:
- Accreditation. Accreditation is the most important criteria, when evaluating any educational program. You should always obtain your education from an accredited college or university. For more information about what it means for a school to be accredited, see the U.S. Department of Education’s (“DOE”) Accreditation in the United States webpage.
- Transferability of Credits. Anytime you are paying for college level courses, you should make sure that the credits you earn are transferable to other colleges and universities. Generally, if the school is accredited, the credits are transferable, but this may not always be the case. To determine if a program’s credits are transferable, ask an academic advisor at the institution.
- Job Placement Services. The number one complaint of recent paralegal graduates is that they cannot find a job that does not require previous experience and they cannot gain any experience unless they can find a job. If you can find an educational program that will help you find that first job, you might want to bump it to the top of your preferred program list.
- Cost. When comparing the cost of programs, be sure to take into account, the three evaluation criteria above. If the program has transferable credits, the easiest way to compare costs is by credit hour. It is does not have transferable credits, it may not be worth the cost, no matter how inexpensive it seems.
Paralegal Certification requires passing a comprehensive exam, for which you must have the required level of education and/or experience necessary to be qualified to sit for the exam. Certification exams are offered by all three of the national paralegal associations, as well as the states of Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida. The state of Washington has a Limited License Technician certification that allows paralegals to practice law in limited way. See Paralegal Certification – Do I need It?, State Certification and Registration Programs for Paralegals, and Court Adopts the Limited License Technician Rule for complete information about the various state and national Paralegal Certification and Registration programs.
Obtaining Registration or Certification shows that you excel in certain areas of the law, are a professional willing to be bound by professional rules of conduct, and that you care about your career as a paralegal.