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How to become a paralegal in California
It can be difficult to figure out how to become a paralegal in the nation’s most populous state. While the U.S. government doesn’t regulate the work of paralegals, California requires them to meet and maintain certain educational and continuing education requirements.
Samantha Burns, a paralegal and President of the Los Angeles Paralegal Association, wrote in an email that regardless of how you become a paralegal, there are certain qualities essential to anyone hoping to pursue the career.
“What they don’t mention is that you need to be tough-skinned, able to handle high stakes, high stress and a reputation-built industry. Your reputation is everything as a paralegal. If you’re known as a good paralegal or ethical paralegal, you will pretty much almost get any job you want in the legal industry,” Burns wrote.
Become a paralegal in California in 5 steps
Earn an associate or bachelor’s degree.
New paralegals likely need at least an associate degree or higher. There is no requirement for what you must study, but a degree in paralegal studies approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) qualifies you to be a paralegal in the state of California and is highly desirable to employers. However, majoring in other subjects such as criminal justice, business or communications could also benefit aspiring paralegals.
Consider completing a paralegal certificate program.
Paralegal certificate programs approved by the ABA also qualify you as a paralegal in the state of California. These certificate programs are designed for people that already have a degree, be it in paralegal studies or another field. An ABA-approved paralegal certificate is a clear mark of competency for anyone applying to paralegal jobs.
If you have completed an ABA-approved paralegal program, regardless of whether that program was an associate degree, bachelor’s degree or certificate, you are ready to start applying to paralegal jobs. However, if you have a bachelor’s degree in another subject without a paralegal certificate, you will need to gain some other legal experience before jumping into a paralegal position. You may consider working as a legal assistant, doing an internship or some other role in a law setting that is supervised by an attorney.
Consider advancing your credentials.
Paralegals in California can advance their credentials by becoming a California Certified Paralegal (CCP) which is a voluntary certification. You might also consider becoming a Certified Paralegal (CP) through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or a Registered Paralegal (RP) through the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFRP). These are not required by the state of California, but may make you a stand-out paralegal and competitive job candidate.
Keep up your continuing education requirements.
Paralegals in California must complete at least eight hours of mandatory continuing legal education (CLE) every two years. Check with your local paralegal association to find out if they can connect you to any CLE resources.
Education and certification
You need to have some post secondary education and/or experience that demonstrates your competency as a paralegal in California. There are several ways to satisfy this requirement, but there are two primary options that will apply to most new paralegals.
The first is to complete a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA approves paralegal programs for associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, certificate programs and more. Certificate programs typically last between 12 and 24 months. Students learn the practical skills needed to be a paralegal such as the stages of legal proceedings, how to draft legal documents, conduct legal research and explore different legal domains that they could work in. Most of these programs require that students already possess an associate or bachelor’s degree to qualify.
The second option is to have a bachelor’s degree or higher (in any subject) and at least one year of law-related experience working under the supervision of an attorney that is a member of the State Bar of California. This experience could be working as a legal assistant, doing an internship or some other position in a law setting. Although it is possible to be a paralegal this way, many employers may still prefer to see that you have some form of paralegal-specific education.
“The common standard as of today is that paralegals have either a certificate or an associate degree in paralegal studies as their education requirement before becoming a paralegal,” Burns wrote. “Another common standard is that paralegals continue their education and earn additional certifications such as NALA’s Certified Paralegal, CAPA’s California Certified Paralegal, ACEDS’s Certified E-Discovery Specialist, and NFPA’s Registered Paralegal. Some paralegals do end up going to law school and getting Juris Doctor degrees.”
California Certified Paralegal
The California Alliance of Paralegal Associations (CAPA) offers a voluntary certification to be a California Certified Paralegal (CCP). To earn this certification, you must pass their CCP exam. You must satisfy one of the following to be eligible to take the exam:
- You have a Certificate of Completion in paralegal studies from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved paralegal program.
- You have a Certificate of Completion in paralegal studies at, or a degree (associate or bachelor’s degree) from a postsecondary institution that requires the successful completion of a minimum of 24 semester 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.
- You have a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree, in any discipline, from an accredited educational institution; have four years of substantive paralegal experience and have completed the required minimum number of MCLE (Mandatory Continuing Legal Education) credits.
Continuing education requirements
Paralegals in California must complete eight hours of mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) every two years. Four of these hours must be in either general law or in specialized areas of law, and the other four must be in legal ethics. There are many ways to satisfy these requirements—a good place to start is by checking with your local paralegal association, such as CAPA, to see if they offer CLE courses or can connect you to any.
Salaries in California
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), California is the third highest paying state for paralegals and legal assistants. In addition, six out of the top ten paying metropolitan areas in the United States for paralegals and legal assistants are located in California. Here are California’s median annual salaries for paralegals and top paying metro areas.
Median Hourly Wage$34
|Metro area||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||$85,470||$62,600||$140,520|
|San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA||$79,790||$51,400||$129,900|
|Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA||$73,600||$43,570||$105,020|
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||$70,770||$48,460||$105,670|
|San Diego-Carlsbad, CA||$65,830||$50,040||$100,700|
|Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA||$62,720||$40,540||$91,340|
|Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||$61,480||$46,480||$98,080|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
“Being a good negotiator over your salary with your employer for sure. However, you can back it up with a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or even a juris doctor degree. Other ways are to get certifications. There are certifications that you can earn that are geared for specific fields of law as well, such as immigration law, eDiscovery and litigation support, intellectual property and such,” Burns wrote.
Part of your success as a paralegal in California will be your ability to connect and expand your network. Here are just a few resources in the state (and nationally) that can help you get started: