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What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is someone who performs delegated legal work for which a lawyer is ultimately responsible. They do a variety of tasks, which include maintaining and organizing files, drafting documents and conducting legal research. Paralegals work in various organizations, but most work for law firms, government agencies, or corporate legal departments. Almost anywhere, there is a functioning law department-there will be paralegals, legal assistants, and legal secretaries.

The American Bar Association (ABA) perceives paralegal and legal assistant as similar professions. In the eyes of the ABA, both qualify by education, experience, and training to work wherever law is practiced. Employment options include law firms, government agencies, a corporation’s legal department, or any organization requiring legal services.

The key word is ‘education.’ A larger, prestigious law firm in a metropolitan area will likely employ paralegals with at least an Associate degree. Those assisting senior law partners may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. However, for many individuals, a degree is not a prerequisite to work in this field. For some, there might be an urgency to obtain sufficient knowledge to apply for entry-level positions.

Individuals with the goal of working in the legal environment can begin as a legal secretary. A legal secretary has various functions within a law office or a similar workplace. Some of the duties may seem mundane, such as answering the phone, directing calls, greeting visitors/clients, and reminding lawyers of scheduled appointments. Depending on the level of skill, the legal secretary may also perform duties more aligned to a paralegal or legal assistant.

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A certificate should not be confused with certification, such as those granted by the National Association of Legal Assistants or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.

A certificate is a program you take on-campus or online, usually at a state or community college. The following are examples of certificate programs.

The first example is the Paralegal Certificate Program offered at the University of Texas in San Antonio (UTSA). Three sections comprise the program that allows up to eleven months to complete online. The curriculum provides a strong foundation in all facets of the law. Some of the classes teach civil litigation, legal research, wills, probate, and family law.

National Paralegal College (NPC) is the second example that offers a Paralegal Certificate. Founded in 2003, NPC provides internet-based education and training to individuals seeking to develop careers as paralegals, legal, and regulatory professionals. Their 24-credits certificate entails four paralegal core courses (12 credits) and four courses of additional legal studies. Students taking two classes at once can complete the program in nine months. By choosing one class at a time, it will take 17 months.

Purdue Global University offers an online Legal Secretary Certificate that consists of 31-quarter credit hours. There are six courses, which include College Composition (I & II), Introduction to the Law and Legal Profession, terminology, technology, and office management. As a graduate, you will have the qualifications to launch your career as a legal administrative assistant or a legal secretary in a law firm or an organization’s legal department.

Another online program is available at the University of California Berkeley Extension. The school has a Certificate Program in Paralegal Studies that you can complete in as little as six months to twelve months. The program consists of three required courses and three courses from the list of seven electives. Some of the electives are contract law, criminal law, family law, tort, and intellectual law.

The University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill refers to their Paralegal Certificate as the fast track to becoming a paralegal. Graduates of this program will possess the legal knowledge to apply for the North Carolina State Bar Paralegal Certification.

This program lasts less than five months during which you have 300 hours of the study. It breaks down to 190 hours of classwork and a minimum of 110 of study time. The curriculum consists of five law courses, two survey courses, and a Paralegal course.

The UNC is not an online program. Students must take evening and Saturday classes for an average of ten hours a week.


A certificate program will be the most expeditious and effective way to qualify for a job in the legal profession. As you research these and other programs, you will notice a variance in tuition. Some schools charge per credit hours. Others may have a lump sum. The UNC certificate is $5,695 for the nineteen weeks. UTSA charges for each of the three semesters, which is $1,750 per semester.

Additional Resources

What degree do I need to be a Paralegal?

Why should I consider a degree in Law?