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Paralegal Degree Information

Student Guide for a Paralegal Studies Degree

paralegal studiesA career as a paralegal can be a great fit for individuals with an interest in law. Paralegals serve as an integral part of any legal team due to their vast knowledge, professionalism and legal skills. Whether you’re just starting out on your career path or switching careers, the decision to pursue a paralegal degree can be both exciting and a little overwhelming. Knowing how to find the right program, where the best resources are, and how to find a job will determine your success. This guide was written to help you take the right steps that will lead to a successful career as a paralegal. The contents of this guide include: how to choose the right degree, an inside glimpse at paralegal degrees, how to find a job once you graduate, and tips for passing certification exams.

Types of Paralegal Degrees

Choosing the degree that best fits your educational and career goals is very important. There are several different pathways to a career as a paralegal. In fact, there are over 1,000 colleges, universities, community colleges and training programs that train and educate aspiring paralegals. Approximately 250 of those programs are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Choosing an ABA-approved program can give you an advantage over the competition, but should be one of multiple factors to consider when choosing a program.

The first thing you need to do is decide what type of paralegal degree you want to pursue. This depends greatly on the amount of time and financial resources you are willing to commit. Paralegal programs confer several levels of degrees including:

According to the paralegal experts we have interviewed, a four-year bachelor’s degree is often the best option for getting hired in the paralegal field. According to O*Net Online’s survey, 44% of paralegals and legal assistants have a bachelor’s degree and 30% have an associate degree.1

Any of these degree levels can offer multiple options for earning a paralegal degree including evening class and online options for individuals who require greater flexibility, though typically the higher degree levels will require more on-campus time. For paralegal students who are currently working or don’t live near a physical campus, part-time evening or online programs can be a good alternative and help them achieve the desired outcome.

Paralegal Certificate

Many law firms require paralegals to have completed a paralegal certificate program before being hired. Certificate programs are usually designed for people who already have an associate or a bachelor’s degree, or at least some college credits in another subject, and are offered at community and four-year colleges. A certificate program is the most time-effective and economical path to becoming a paralegal, requiring between 20-60 semester credits, and typically taking one-to-two years to complete. While choosing a school that offers a short-term certificate can be appealing because of cost and time, it is still important to consider the level of education required in the job markets where you will be seeking work. You may want to consider speaking with local attorneys and existing paralegals to decide if a certificate is the best option for you. Find out more about paralegal certificates on our Paralegal Certificate page.

Paralegal Associate Degree

There are also many law firms that expect prospective paralegal candidates to have a minimum of an associate’s degree in paralegal studies. Associate degree programs usually require a high school diploma or GED, and take around two years to complete, usually at community colleges. These two years typically consist of 60 semester credits or 90 quarter credits. The degrees earned include an Associate of Applied Studies (AAS) in Paralegal Studies or an Associate of Science (AS) in Paralegal Studies. Associate’s paralegal degrees are normally focused on practical legal training that teaches students about the basics of law and the terminology associated with it. Most community college courses are offered at night and are designed for people who work during the day. Students will also learn how to conduct legal research and investigative interviews, write reports, and file legal documents. Some AAS programs include an internship phase, during which students work with an actual law office to gain real-world experience. You can read in more detail about this degree on our Paralegal Associate Degree page.

Paralegal Bachelor’s Degree

Some schools offer bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies, which are typically three- or four-year programs. Requirements vary for each school and program but typically include a high school diploma or GED with a minimum grade point average (GPA). Degrees earned can include a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Paralegal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Paralegal Studies, or a Bachelor of Science in Legal Assistant/Paralegal Studies (BLA). The degree consists of 120-130 semester credits – half of which are general education credits and are followed by paralegal-specific credits. Coursework includes legal ethics, civil practice, negotiation, and forensic science. Because these degrees take three or four years, they are usually more intensive than associate degrees, offering a more in-depth look at legal studies.

Paralegal Master’s Degree

More and more schools are offering advanced degrees in paralegal studies, which can be gained in around two years. Some master’s programs are built specifically for working professionals, offering classes after work hours or online. The degree earned is called a Master of Science (MS) in Paralegal Studies. Master’s-level programs are often designed for people who already have experience in the paralegal field and are looking to advance their career or focus their studies on one focused area of the law field. Studies usually focus on a more theoretical approach to law, pushing students to complete research projects which test their legal writing and research skills in various areas of law.

Paralegal Degree Online

Online paralegal degrees are a good option for those who seek additional flexibility and convenience. Online programs are often a student’s only choice when there are no brick-and-mortar schools in the area in which the student lives. Online degrees are not for everyone, however. It is imperative that you have convenient access to the internet as well as the skills to allow you to comfortably navigate whatever online platform that the school uses. In addition to internet access, people who want to do a paralegal degree online should be self-disciplined, since students will typically have more freedom when it comes to scheduling and assignments. If you are the type of person who works best in a highly-structured learning environment, you may be better off pursuing a degree on campus.

Examples of Paralegal Courses in a Paralegal Degree Curriculum

Paralegal studies cover coursework in a variety of legal areas, including legal research, legal writing, and legal policies and procedures. Specific courses may include:

  • Introduction to Law
  • Paralegal Business Law
  • Paralegal Contract Law
  • Paralegal Criminal Law
  • Paralegal Family Law
  • Employment Law
  • Real Estate Law
  • Bankruptcy Law
  • Judicial Process
  • Immigration Law
  • Paralegal Intellectual Property Law
  • Paralegal Tort Law
  • Legal Research
  • Legal Writing and Terminology
  • Pleadings and Discovery
  • State Courts
  • Federal Courts
  • Legal Technology
  • E-Discovery
  • Legal Ethics
  • Paralegal Internship/Externship

Obtaining Your Degree

The education process starts out with finding out admissions standards. Some paralegal programs at universities such as NYU require students to have several college credits under their belts. Other programs at four-year schools require students to have a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges and most online programs do not require students to have any college credits for entry.

Admissions

After you’ve determined what the admissions criteria are you must complete an application. Programs at four-year colleges often have a competitive admissions process that may require an interview and personal statement. Community college and online programs typically have open admissions. It is best to thoroughly research the school’s website and talk to an admissions counselor with knowledge of the program. They should be able to discuss all the details including course offerings, class schedules, financial aid, and job services.

Paying for Your Degree

If you’re like most students you are going to need some sort of financial assistance. That means completing the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FASFA). This is a completely free application to fill out and determines eligibility for federal student aid. Completing this single application will determine if you are eligible for federal grants, low-interest student loans, and work-study. It is also possible to get private student loans and scholarships. Many local paralegal associations offer scholarship opportunities for students in their area.

Paralegal Internship/ Externship

Legal externships are typically done towards the end of the program, giving the student the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom. In some instances, the student is retained and hired on full-time after the completion of a successful externship. Even if this is not the case, the experience the students will have gained during their intern/externship will make a great start for a resume and they will leave school with not only a paralegal degree but valuable real-world experience as well.

Advice for Getting a Paralegal Degree from Paralegal Leaders

“As far as advice to becoming a paralegal, I would say choose the best paralegal program you can find. An accredited program is preferred by employers and most require a four-year degree, but requirements on paralegal education by employers vary a lot so it is best to research your area and find out what employers in your local area are looking for when hiring a paralegal.”
-Marisel Walston is the President of the Kansas City Paralegal Association

“Do not stop with a paralegal certificate or two-year degree. Go for a four-year degree. If you can not find a program with a four-year paralegal degree program, obtain a four-year degree in a field of study that will complement your paralegal degree and certificate.”
-Sandra M. Herdler is the Vice President of the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc.

“My advice for getting hired as a paralegal would be to focus first on obtaining a bachelor’s degree. More so than ever, employers are requiring candidates to hold, at minimum, a four-year degree.”
-Kevin Johnson is the Vice President of the Massachusetts Paralegal Association

“My best advice for getting hired as a paralegal is to complete a four-year degree from an accredited program and join the local paralegal organization.”
-Lori Hanlon is the President of the St. Louis Paralegal Association

Read even more advice for getting hired as a paralegal from 40 paralegal professionals on our Advice page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Do you need a degree to be a paralegal?

Answer: Most paralegals have a degree of some sort, whether that be a certificate, an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or higher. Though it is not required for the profession, there is an increasing trend to hire paralegals who have a bachelor’s degree, since it shows that graduates have had an in-depth overview of the legal field. In general, those candidates with a bachelor’s paralegal degree or higher will command higher salaries and be more competitive in the workforce. At a minimum, though, you should consider a certificate or associate degree program before entering the field.

Question: What degree do you need to be a paralegal?

Answer: There is not a “standard” degree needed to be a paralegal, but most employers will demand that candidates have a minimum of a paralegal certificate. An associate degree will give you a more in-depth study of the legal field, and a bachelor’s or master’s degree will provide you with an even more solid understanding of the legal system. Before you decide which degree to pursue, you should research paralegal jobs in your area to get an idea of what local employers are looking for.

Question: What can I do with a paralegal degree?

Answer: Once you have your paralegal degree, you can begin looking for a job. Most paralegals work in law offices, providing assistance to lawyers by filing legal papers, conducting research on cases, interviewing witnesses, and gathering facts. A paralegal degree will allow you to work in the legal field in a support role. If this interests you, you should consider pursuing an associate paralegal degree or a baccalaureate paralegal degree.

Question: How long does it take to get a paralegal degree?

Answer: The answer to that question depends on the type of degree you decide to pursue. A certificate program could take as little as one year to complete, an associate degree typically takes two years, and a bachelor’s degree takes an average of four years to complete. A master’s paralegal degree typically takes two years. Before you decide which degree to pursue, you should research the particular degree program you are considering to see how much time is required and to ensure you have the time and resources to complete it.

References:
1. O*Net Online: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-2011.00#Education