American Bar Association approval is the standard for paralegal education. There are approximately 270 approved programs nationwide, all of which have some common features. However, beyond this, schools and offerings vary widely. The ABA does not rank programs beyond the initial approval. Other published surveys neither describe ranking criteria, nor come up with the same schools. You may find your own top paralegal school on the ABA’s list by evaluating degrees, location and specialty.
What to Expect from an ABA-Approved Paralegal Program
The ABA does not approve completely online programs. You should expect to be in a classroom or at an internship, and you must complete at least 60 credit hours for a degree or 30 for a certificate. At least 18 of these are general education courses and 18 are legal specialty courses. Many programs offer or require an unpaid internship. The program must have access to a brick-and-mortar library that has specialized legal resources and offer considerable help with job placement.
Degree Versus Certificate
Your decision will depend on your current education and a personal calculation that balances cost and employment prospects. Approved programs award post-secondary certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, post-graduate certificates, or master’s degrees. Associate degrees and post-baccalaureate certificates are the most common. The graduate certificates, for which tuition alone ranges from $7,000 to $9,000 at institutions like the University of California (UCLA extension) or Georgetown University at the time of publication, seem relatively expensive. Employers, however, generally prefer more than an associate degree.
Of the 270 approved programs, most are on the east or west coasts. The 29 in California include John F. Kennedy University and Fremont College. The 20 in New York include St. John’s University and Finger Lakes Community College. There are 12 in New Jersey, ten in Florida and nine in Texas. Central New Mexico Community College is the only option in New Mexico. Because reputation is often local, decide where you want to live, then examine the nearby options.
Paralegals specialize. If you already have a specific interest, pick a school with electives and internships in that area. If you want to work as a legal nurse consultant, for example, the Weidner Law Center or Edmunds Community College are good choices. If your focus is immigration, Miami Dade College, New York City College of Technology or West Los Angeles College may work for you. Both Berkeley College and Nassau Community College offer Elder Law. With any specialty, make sure that electives and internships are offered regularly.