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How to become a paralegal in California

How To Become Paralegal California
Learn about the steps required to become a paralegal in California; encompassing education, certification, skill development, and networking.

The role of a paralegal in California is a pivotal one in the legal system, assisting lawyers in various aspects of their work. With a blend of legal knowledge and practical skills, paralegals conduct research, draft legal documents, and aid in case preparation.

This article will explore the steps to become a paralegal in California, encompassing education, certification, skill development, and networking.

By delving into the requirements and pathways to becoming a paralegal in California, aspiring legal professionals can navigate their way toward a truly fulfilling career.

What is a paralegal?

Since 2000, California has regulated paralegals. According to California Business and Professions Code section 6450(a), paralegal means:

“A person who holds himself or herself out to be a paralegal, who is qualified by education, training, or work experience, who either contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity, and who performs substantial legal work under the direction and supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California, as defined in Section 6060, or an attorney practicing law in the federal courts of this state, that has been specifically delegated by the attorney to him or her.”  

What are the requirements to be a paralegal in California?

Under Business and Professions Code section 6450(c), a paralegal must possess at least one of the following:

  1. A certificate of completion of a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association.
  2. A certificate of completion of a paralegal program at, or a degree from, a postsecondary institution that requires the successful completion of a minimum of 24 semester, or equivalent, units in law-related courses and that has been accredited by a national or regional accrediting organization or approved by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.
  3. A baccalaureate degree or an advanced degree in any subject, a minimum of one year of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney who has been an active member of the State Bar of California for at least the preceding three years or who has practiced in the federal courts of this state for at least the preceding three years, and a written declaration from this attorney stating that the person is qualified to perform paralegal tasks.

What is ABA approval?

In order to obtain ABA approval for a paralegal program, the awarding institution, “Must demonstrate that its program is consistent with sound educational policies by establishing that it operates in accordance with its guidelines.”

ABA-approved schools are also required to complete a series of self-evaluation forms to ensure compliance with the ABA Guidelines, and all major changes must be approved prior to implementation. As of 2024, there are approximately 66 colleges and universities that offer paralegal degree programs and 51 schools that offer certificate programs.

How long will it take to earn a paralegal certificate?

How long it takes to earn a paralegal certificate will depend on the program you choose.

Twenty-four semester hours is the equivalent of eight three-hour courses. Attending classes on a part-time basis, this can take 12 to 24 months. Some schools offer accelerated programs as short as 12 weeks and paralegal degree programs can take 2 to 4 years to complete. Post-COVID, many programs are online, opening up the possibility of picking the program that best meets your needs.

Paralegal certificate and degree programs in California

The American Bar Association sets the standards for paralegal education, with 260 approved programs across the United States. There are 33 such programs in California.

Click on the links for each institution to see more information about the courses they offer.

InstitutionCertification offered
Irvine Valley CollegeAS, Certificate
University of San DiegoCertificate, Online
CampusAA
West Valley CollegeAS, Certificate
Pasadena City CollegeAS, Certificate
Fullerton CollegeAS, Certificate
El Camino Community CollegeAA, Certificate
De Anza CollegeAA, Certificate
University of California Irvine ExtCertificate
Coastline Community CollegeAA, Certificate
Cerritos CollegeAA, Certificate
Mt San Antonio CollegeAS, Certificate
California State University, East BayCertificate, Online
University of California, Santa BarbaraCertificate
West Los Angeles CollegeAA, Certificate
American River CollegeAA, Certificate
University of La VerneBS, Certificate
San Francisco State UniversityCertificate
Cuyamaca CollegeAS
Miramar CollegeAS, Certificate
University of California, RiversideCertificate
Fremont UniversityAA
Skyline CollegeAA, Certificate
Oxnard CollegeAS, Certificate
City College of San FranciscoAS, Certificate
National UniversityAS, BS, Certificate, Online
University of San Diego ExtCertificate, Online
University of California, Los Angeles ExtensionCertificate, Online
Santa Ana CollegeAA, Certificate, Online
California State University, Los Angeles College of Prof EdCertificate
College of the CanyonsAA,  Certificate, Online
Los Angeles City CollegeAA, Certificate
Southwestern Community CollegeAA, Certificate, Online

How much does it cost to become a paralegal?

With everything, it depends on the program and its length.  The average cost is between $5,000 and $14,000, with degree programs (AA, AS, BA, and MA) costing between $12,000 and $47,000.

An ABA-approved program for legal studies certification can be expected to cost in the former range, while full degrees will naturally be more.

Do you need a certificate, bachelor’s, or associate’s degree to become a paralegal?

You don’t necessarily need a specific certificate, Bachelor’s degree (BA), or Associate’s degree (AA) to become a paralegal in California; so long as you meet the requirements discussed previously for each one, you will be able to work as a paralegal.

Many paralegals pursue certificate programs specifically designed for paralegal studies, which can range from a few months to a couple of years in duration.

These programs provide specialized training in legal research, writing, and other skills essential for the role of a paralegal.

They also tend to be the quickest and cheapest option available, so many considering a paralegal career take the route of obtaining a certificate from an ABA-approved establishment.

What skills are important for paralegals?

A proficient paralegal possesses a diverse set of skills vital for supporting legal operations.

The following highlights key attributes crucial for success in the dynamic legal landscape, encompassing legal research, communication, organizational prowess, and ethical judgment, among others.

  • Communication: This is the single most important skill for a paralegal as the majority of the paralegal’s day will be spent communicating with others, either through verbal communication or written communication.
  • Attention to detail: Often, the paralegal may be the last person to review a document for errors before it is filed with the court, sent to opposing counsel or the client.  Having the ability to catch spelling and grammatical errors is a great quality.
  • Organizational: Being organized has a direct impact on not only the paralegal’s productivity but also the productivity of the attorney. This skill not only includes the ability to file, sort, and index documents, but it also means looking at the big picture and planning for how and when things will be needed.  You may find that you are not only keeping your work organized but also keeping your attorney organized as well.
  • Time management: Rushing to meet a deadline is a recipe for disaster and leads to poor work quality and stress.   Effectively managing your time and prioritizing tasks are essential skills for a paralegal.
  • Ability to multitask: A good paralegal has the ability to pivot and move on to another task at the drop of a hat.
  • Good attitude: It is not pleasant working with someone who is constantly complaining and unhappy.

What is the difference between a paralegal certificate and a certified paralegal?

I am always surprised at how many legal professionals do not know the difference between a paralegal certificate and a certified paralegal. The terms are not interchangeable, and each has separate meanings.

A paralegal certificate means the paralegal is qualified under Business and Professions Code section 6450(c)(1) or (2) to work in California as a paralegal.

A person who has completed a paralegal education or training program may be awarded a certificate of completion. Although the number of hours may vary by institution, the minimum is 24.

A certified paralegal is someone who has, in addition to meeting the requirements of 6450(c), has also successfully completed a certification exam and/or requirements of the certifying agency.  Once this additional criterion has been met, the designation certified paralegal can be used. Certification is currently voluntary.

The National Association of Paralegals (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offer certification for paralegals.

To be eligible to take the NALA CP exam, a paralegal must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Enrolled in or graduated from a paralegal program
  • Obtained a bachelor’s degree in any field
  • Seven years of experience as a paralegal

Since 1973, NALA has certified 20,898 paralegals with an average pass rate of 68%. NALA offers the Certified Paralegal exam and the Advanced Certified Paralegal certification program.

Paralegals who pass the exam or complete the requirements for Advanced Certified Paralegal may use the designations CP and ACP after their name.

NFPA offers two credentialing exams:

  • The Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE) establishes your education has prepared you for many types of paralegal work and helps you stand out from others whose schooling and experience are otherwise similar.  Those who have passed the PCCE may proudly display the CRP® designation after their name.
  • The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) is for those with not only a comprehensive education in paralegal studies but also years of practical experience.  Earning the RP® designation by passing the PACE Exam shows that you are one of the best in the field!

Eligibility requirements vary depending on the PCCE or PACE. The pass rate for the PACE is 86%.

What are the requirements after becoming a paralegal?

Business and Professions Code section 6450(e)

Every two years, commencing January 1, 2007, any person who is working as a paralegal shall be required to certify completion of four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in legal ethics and four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in either general law or in an area of specialized law.

Many bar associations and paralegal organizations offer mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) in a variety of topics.

Every year in April, One Legal presents LegalUp; an online, two-day event of networking and MCLE opportunities for legal professionals. Having participated for several years as both an attendee and for the last two years as a presenter, I highly recommend this worthwhile program, it’s a great example of one of the many online conferences that offer MCLE for paralegals today. I would suggest subscribing to One Legal’s blog to stay in touch and get updates about future LegalUp conferences next year and beyond.

In addition to the California requirements, both NALA and NFPA have their own requirements for re-certification.

What is the difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal?

The tasks assigned to a legal secretary and paralegal will vary depending on the practice area and the size of the law firm.

Generally speaking, paralegals operate under attorney supervision, performing tasks such as legal research, document drafting, case management, and client communication.

On the other hand, legal secretaries provide administrative support, managing communications, documents, schedules, and client interactions.

Both roles are essential, with paralegals handling legal tasks and secretaries focusing on administrative duties, ensuring smooth operations and effective client service.

Here’s a rundown of the distinct responsibilities of both.

Legal secretary tasks

  •  Coordinate office tasks
  • Gather documents, evidence, and other case materials
  • Maintain filing systems
  • Schedule appointments with clients
  • Send and pay bills
  • Type transcriptions, documents, and correspondence
  • Other administrative work as needed

Paralegal tasks

  • Interview clients and witnesses
  • Perform legal research
  • Draft and review legal documents
  • Answer clients’ questions without legal advice
  • Consult with attorneys on legal strategies
  • Prepare and respond to discovery
  • Gather and organize evidence for use at deposition, trial, mediation, arbitration, etc.
  • Provide litigation support to attorneys at deposition, trial, mediation, arbitration, etc.

Conclusion

Paralegals have important responsibilities and mistakes can have serious ramifications not only for the attorney employing the paralegal but also for the client. California has recognized the important role of the paralegal by regulating persons using the title of paralegal to meet certain educational qualifications and continuing legal education requirements.

The role of a paralegal in California is essential to the legal system, providing vital support to attorneys in diverse aspects of their work. Their combination of legal expertise and practical skills, including conducting research, drafting legal documents, and assisting in case preparation, contributes significantly to the efficiency of the legal field.

I hope this article has explored the journey to becoming a paralegal, encompassing educational prerequisites, certification options, skill development, and networking opportunities. By navigating these requirements and pathways, aspiring paralegals can forge a fulfilling career while making substantial contributions to the effectiveness of the legal sector.

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