There are four ways to become a paralegal: (1) obtain a paralegal associates degree from a local community college or online paralegal school; (2) obtain a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies; (3) if you already have a bachelor's degree, you can earn a certificate in paralegal studies from local community colleges and several online schools; and (4) by what I like to call "baptism by fire" or on-the-job-training. There are schools that also offer masters degrees in paralegal studies.
Certificate training focuses solely on paralegal studies whereas associate's and bachelor's programs involve other traditional areas of study such as humanities, sciences and etc.
There are some considerations to be taken into account in selecting a paralegal program: (1) Are you pursuing a degree or a certificate? (2) Online v. traditional in-school classes; (3) Is the school or program certified by the American Bar Association ("ABA-certified" or "ABA-approved")? This is a very important issue. Some employers, typically larger firms, insurance companies and federal/state and local governments, require that your schooling be completed through an ABA-approved program. In 2011, there were over 1,000 schools offering paralegal training but only approximately 260 programs were certified by the ABA. If you have an idea of where you'd like to seek employment, check with that employer's HR department and ask if they require that your degree/certificate be issued by an ABA-approved program. Typically, smaller firms and solo practitioners don't require ABA-approved schooling. However, you can't go wrong by selecting an ABA-approved program, it will never hurt you and may, in fact, greatly enhance your opportunities for employment!
Many community college and university paralegal programs offer internship placement services for newly trained paralegals. If you have no prior legal experience, you may wish to seek your own internship through a local attorney's private office, public defender's office, legal aid or corporate legal department. You may also wish to put an ad on your local Craig's List seeking an unpaid internship for a few months, many times this will lead to a paid position.
If you have a valuable skill or degree in another field that may be useful to attorneys, they may choose to hire and train you even though you have no legal experience or a paralegal degree/certificate. These skills may include a criminal justice background, tax preparation, finance or a medical background. These individuals will usually end up as paralegal specialists in their chosen field.
You may wish to obtain an additional "certification" after you obtain your paralegal degree or certificate from a national or local professional paralegal organization, such as NALA, AACP or the NFPA. It is completely voluntary and typically involves a combination of taking additional classes in your chosen area of specialization (such as a personal injury paralegal), 5 years of paralegal experience, and passing an exam. Be sure to check the prerequisites for each professional organization because they are all different! Certification is voluntary and is not required to be a paralegal. However, it is advantageous in a competitive job market.