In the United States, paralegals have taken many different paths to their careers. These paths comprise an array of varying levels of education, different certifications, and on-the-job-training. They work in government, for law firms, for corporations, for real estate firms, and for nonprofit organizations. Where they work and what they do often depends on what mixture of experience, skills, education, and certification they possess.
Some paralegals have only on-the-job experience, while some paralegals have completed a two-year course or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Others have completed a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in another field, and quite a few of these people have also completed a regular or post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, or have completed some semesters of law school but have not been admitted to the bar. Many paralegals have completed all of their training before entering the profession, while others have completed their education while working their way up from the mailroom in a law firm. Many paralegals take Continuing Legal Education credits to fulfill the requirements of their firm, state, or association.
Paralegal or Legal Assistant courses of study have long been available in associate’s degree or certificate programs at community colleges and private universities. However, similar programs exist at four-year universities and have expanded over the years. More and more prestigious universities offer bachelor’s degrees and post-baccalaureate certificates in the subject.
There is generally no requirement in states for legal assistants or paralegals. California, however, is a major exception. Up until Business and professions code 6450 was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 2000, there was little, if any regulation of paralegals in the state. Thus, many people would prepare legal documents for the public (even though it is understood that paralegals are not supposed to provide services directly to the public) and call themselves paralegals. In addition to the flurry of lawsuits filed against these individuals, the paralegal profession began to be attacked. This caused the paralegal community to demand that the paralegal profession in California be regulated. Now persons wishing to become paralegals must complete a program approved by the ABA, complete a 24 semester unit paralegal program at an accredited institution or they can be grandfathered in under BPC 6450-56.