If you’re interested in starting a career as a paralegal, there are plenty of options. But what factors are most important in choosing a paralegal program? At the completion of your training, you should have a robust paralegal training, and be able to get hired at a job with minimal friction.
One thing you should verify at any prospective school is their certifications. A reputable paralegal education program will be endorsed or approved by leading legal organizations. The most prominent of these organizations is the American Bar Association (ABA).
Approval from the American Bar Association is one of the most prestigious paralegal education program bona fides. So what exactly does this endorsement mean for paralegal programs?
What is the American Bar Association (ABA)?
Since 1878, the American Bar Association (ABA) has played an integral role in the development of the legal profession. The association’s goals are to serve members by providing benefits, programs and services to promote professional growth and quality of life, to improve the profession of law, to enhance diversity in the legal field, and to advance the rule of law.
The ABA recognizes the vital role paralegals play in the legal field. In 1921, the ABA adopted standards for legal education. Since 1923, the ABA has been an accrediting agency for law schools in the United States.
What does ABA approved mean for paralegal programs?
To qualify for American Bar Association approval, a paralegal education program must meet a strict set of guidelines.
Approved education programs must be planned in cooperation with paralegal organizations and with potential employers and other experts in the paralegal discipline.
Schools are required to conduct needs assessments and feasibility studies, not only when starting a paralegal program, but also when adding new program options. Participant schools are required to truthfully represent academic goals, program options and services.
To earn ABA approval, a paralegal curriculum must help students develop professional competence, and the school’s instructional methodology must ensure interaction between students and faculty, offer meaningful and prompt feedback, and provide practical assignments designed to develop real-world skills.
The curriculum must also respond to the changing requirements of the legal community and must regularly be evaluated and improved to make sure those evolving needs are being addressed.
What ABA Approval Means for Students
Obtaining ABA approval is no small feat. Students can generally rely on this endorsement as a hallmark of quality in a paralegal educational institution.
ABA-approved schools employ highly qualified professors with field-tested experience, and offer a comprehensive curriculum that imparts the skills needed to succeed as a paralegal.
ABA-approved schools also offer career assistance, which can give recent graduates a valuable head start toward obtaining desirable positions. Plus, many potential employers prize graduates of ABA-approved schools because these candidates are reliably competent and well-versed in law.
ABA-approved programs are also recognized in most US jurisdictions. Some states recognize non-accredited programs within their state, but these may not be recognized if you move to another state. An ABA-approved degree would be recognized in most states in the US.
Types of programs that can be ABA-approved
The American Bar Association has stringent guidelines for approving paralegal programs. One might expect that only 4-year colleges or prestigious law schools would have ABA-approved programs, but that is not the case. The ABA approves paralegal programs that meet their guidelines including those at:
- Career colleges
- Two-year community colleges
- Four-year colleges or universities
- Law schools
These are all eligible to develop paralegal studies programs that meet ABA standards.
What are the requirements for ABA approval?
The steps for getting a paralegal program approved by the ABA is not trivial. The entire process is overseen by the ABA Paralegal Approval Committee.
The minimum course length for an ABA-approved paralegal program at an educational institution is one to two academic years. The program itself must have been in place for at least two years, so the ABA can see students have successfully graduated the paralegal program.
Some of the things that the ABA Approval Committee looks for are:
- Student enrollment by year and degree
- Number of graduates by year and degree
- Who is on the advisory committee? What is their involvement and professional career look like?
- Who is on the legal faculty? What is the background of each member?
- Curriculum for each paralegal program
- Are there any legal specialty courses?
Additionally, for a school to have a paralegal course ABA-approved, they must undertake a series of self-evaluation reports to ensure their curriculum is in compliance with ABA Guidelines.
The ABA Approval Committee must receive a detailed curriculum of the paralegal program, including any legal specialty coursework. Also, the ABA Committee will want to know who everyone is in the legal faculty and advisory committee. If the program and faculty meet the standards of the ABA Approval Committee, the committee does an on-site evaluation of the paralegal department, faculty, and institution.
After the initial evaluation period is complete, the school is approved for seven years. This curriculum approval process must be completed each seven years to remain ABA-approved.
Does a paralegal program have to be ABA-approved?
Although graduating from an ABA-approved paralegal program shows that you are highly competent as a paralegal, there are other paths to becoming a paralegal.
The American Bar Association defines a paralegal as a person “qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Though there are many ABA-approved paralegal programs in the US, slightly less than 300, many students may not live near an ABA-accredited legal school. This is why there are three different ways to satisfy the education requirements for becoming a paralegal.
Are you required to have a degree to become a paralegal in California?
Under California law, paralegals must meet one of these three education requirements:
- Complete a minimum of 24 credits in paralegal studies at an accredited college or university.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in any field, and have one year of experience working under the direct supervisions of a California lawyer who has been licensed for at least three years, or a California lawyer working in the federal court system.
- Finish a paralegal certificate program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
What happens if a paralegal program is not ABA-approved?
Not every paralegal program or legal school is ABA-approved. Some employers will look specifically for an ABA-approved degree, and some will not. If you do not live near an educational institution that offers an ABA-approved paralegal program, it does not mean that you will not be able to find work as a paralegal.
However, graduating from an ABA-approved paralegal program means that your training curriculum has met industry guidelines for legal education. Many certificate programs have varying degrees of quality and curriculum oversight. Choosing an ABA-approved degree program means you can have confidence that you are adequately prepared to begin a career as a paralegal.
What do employers look for in a paralegal program?
Though it is not required by all employers, an ABA-approved paralegal degree is something that some employers look for. There are less than 300 US-based ABA-approved programs for paralegal studies on the ABA website (you can search here). There are only 33 California-based paralegal programs approved by the ABA (as of January 2021).
Some state bars and paralegal associations, such as in Nevada and Colorado, encourage candidates to graduate from ABA-approved paralegal programs. Graduating from a ABA-approved paralegal degree program can also prepare you for specialized career paths, such as in banking, real estate, and insurance.
Look at paralegal job listings in your area or state, and decide whether opting for a ABA-accredited paralegal program is right for your career.
Is it better to have a paralegal certificate or degree?
Holding a paralegal certificate, and becoming a certified paralegal seems like a subtle distinction, but they are two completely different things.
Most certificate programs take somewhere between six months and two years to complete. A paralegal degree program (most often an associate’s degree) usually takes two years to finish, unless you hold a prior degree.
Some employers look specifically for candidates that have completed a ABA-approved paralegal degree program.
How much do paralegals typically earn?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for paralegals in 2019 was $51,740 per year, and the media hourly wage was $24.87 per hour. Paralegals with jobs in government, finance, or insurance tended to have an even higher median annual salary, based on 2019 statistics.
Choose an ABA-approved school and start a rewarding career
You know that there’s more than one path to a career as a paralegal, but as you can see, choosing an ABA-approved school certainly has its advantages. Explore MTI College’s American Bar Association-approved Paralegal Studies program and see if our school is right for you.