Profession Development

What is a paralegal and what work does a paralegal perform?

As defined by NFPA:

A Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work. Substantive shall mean work requiring recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.

Over the years, the profession has evolved to the point that the title "paralegal" has needed, in certain circumstances, further interpretation. NFPA has created a comprehensive document reviewing the roles and responsibilities of a paralegal.

If You Don't Have a Bachelor's Degree, Should You Enroll in a Two-year or Four-year Program?

Paralegals can receive education from paralegal programs offered at two-year and four-year colleges or universities. Proprietary schools generally award post-baccalaureate certificates. NFPA's findings indicate 85% of all paralegals receive some formal paralegal education. Paralegal education programs offer degrees and/or certificates.

There are a wide variety of jobs which can be classified as paralegal work, as illustrated in the Paralegal Roles & Responsibilities document found in our Publication Library. 

NFPA recognizes that a two-year degree with an emphasis in paralegal studies is acceptable to employers in some markets as a minimum criterion for individuals to enter the paralegal profession. However, current trends across the country, as illustrated through various surveys, indicate that formal paralegal education has become a requirement to secure paralegal employment, and a four-year degree is the hiring standard in many markets. Consequently, NFPA recommends that future practitioners should have a four-year degree to enter the profession, and individuals receiving a formal paralegal education should have 24 semester hours or the equivalent of legal specialty courses to enhance their ability to practice as paralegals.

How To Choose a Particular School?

Once you have determined a paralegal career is for you, you then need to consider specific information about paralegal education. NFPA has a Suggested Curriculum for Paralegal Studies that you should consider. The American Association for Paralegal Education and NFPA have prepared a paper entitled A Guide to Quality Paralegal Education which you will find helpful. American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) has published information on How To Choose a Paralegal Program.

Should You Enroll in an ABA-approved Program?

NFPA's current representative to the American Bar Association Approval Commission encourages the selection of an ABA approved program. ABA approval means that the program has met or exceeded minimum educational standards established by the ABA in terms of curriculum, faculty, quality of instruction, library, student services, advisory committee support, job placement and other facilities.

NFPA Endorses Distance Education As Viable Alternative

Distance education is defined as a situation where the instructor and student are at some distance from one another yet interactive communication exists. While recognizing that distance education may not be appropriate for courses that require hands-on application NFPA believes that distance education is a viable alternative within NFPA's existing core curriculum and education policies. Accessibility of paralegal education is most important in being able to draw in future professionals, and distance education provides that means. Due to its accessibility and flexibility, for a select group of highly motivated students distance education may be the only form of paralegal education available.

While NFPA recognizes distance education as a viable educational alternative within NFPA's core curriculum and education policies, NFPA further recognizes that distance education may not be appropriate for all courses, e.g., legal research and writing, internships and any other courses which require practical, hands-on applications and are required under NFPA's core curriculum.

NFPA's Position on Recommending Education Programs

NFPA will not recommend any particular education program. You will need to make your choice based on your own research and evaluation of the above information, including How to Choose and NFPA's Curriculum.

Student Membership in NFPA

See our web page describing the benefits of NFPA membership for paralegal students.

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