Paralegal Degree Information
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. Understanding how to find the right program for you will help determine your success in your future paralegal career. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), there are over 650 not-for-profit colleges and universities in the US that train and educate aspiring paralegals.1 Continue reading to learn about the levels of paralegal degrees (e.g., certificate, associate, bachelor’s, and master’s), how to choose the degree that best matches your career goals, and expert advice on paralegal degree choices.
Table of Contents
- Levels of Paralegal Degrees
- Online Paralegal Degrees
- Paralegal Coursework
- Finding Quality Paralegal Programs
- Advice from Paralegal Leaders
- Frequently Asked Questions
Levels of Paralegal Degrees
Choosing the paralegal degree that best fits your educational and career goals is very important. If you choose an American Bar Association (ABA) approved program, it can give you an advantage over the competition, but that is just one of multiple factors to consider when choosing a program.
While it is possible to become a paralegal without a formal education, according to the paralegal experts we have interviewed, a four-year bachelor’s degree is usually the best option for getting hired in the paralegal field. Additionally, according to O*NET OnLine’s survey, 34% of paralegals and legal assistants recommend that new entrants to the field have a bachelor’s degree and 50% recommend at least an associate’s degree.2 In a 2020 report by NALA (formerly the National Association of Legal Assistants), the majority of respondents (48%) held a bachelor’s degree as their highest degree attained, followed by an associate degree (31%).3 In addition, 45% of respondents had a paralegal certificate and 35% had a paralegal associate degree, compared to only 1% with a paralegal bachelor’s degree.3
Still, some aspiring paralegals may choose not to get a paralegal degree; instead, they become paralegals through on-the-job training. In fact, of the respondents in the same NALA study, 15% reported having no paralegal degree at all.3 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), though, many employers require or prefer candidates with a degree, and the majority of paralegals and legal assistants hold an associate degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree in another field with a certificate in paralegal studies.4 That is why the first step for most is to decide what level of paralegal degree you want to pursue. You should consider the amount of time and financial resources you are willing to commit, as well as your career aspirations. Paralegal programs confer several levels of degrees including one-year certificates or diplomas, two-year associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees.
With any of these degree levels, multiple options are available, including daytime and evening classes, as well as online options for individuals who require greater flexibility. 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 same degree. Keep in mind that higher degree levels will typically require more on-campus time, and the ABA does not approve fully online programs.
Many law firms require paralegals to have completed a paralegal certificate program before being hired. There are two main types of certificates, generalist and specialized. Generalist certificate programs are for students who are new to the field and wish to gain a foundation that will qualify them for entry-level positions. Paralegal certificates are usually designed for students who already have an associate or bachelor’s degree. Those who have degrees in subjects other than legal studies and who do not have experience in the field may be interested in generalist paralegal certificates. Specialized certificate programs are designed for people who already have experience in the field and are offered at both community and four-year colleges. They may appeal to practicing paralegals who want a higher level of expertise in a certain area of law, possibly positioning them for higher pay or increasing their hiring potential. Paralegal certificate programs commonly require between 18 and 60 credit hours and typically take a few months to two years to complete, depending on the type of program. Longer programs typically include general education coursework, similar to an associate degree, whereas shorter programs tend to be focused on legal subjects. It is important to consider the level of education required in the job markets in which you will be seeking employment. You may want to speak 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 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, take around two years to complete, and are usually offered at community colleges. These two years typically consist of 60 semester credit hours or 90 quarter credits. The degrees conferred include an Associate of Applied Science (AAS), an Associate of Science (AS), and an Associate of Arts (AA). 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. 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 at a local 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 four-year programs. Admission requirements vary for each school and program, but typically include a high school diploma or GED with a minimum grade point average (GPA). Degrees conferred include a Bachelor of Science (BS), a Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS), or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Paralegal Studies, or a Bachelor of Science in Legal Assistant (BLA). The bachelor’s degree consists of 120 semester credits, about half of which are general education credits and half of which are paralegal-specific courses. Coursework includes legal ethics, civil practice, negotiation, and forensic science. Because these degrees take most students four years to complete, they are usually more intensive than two-year associate degrees, offering a more in-depth look at legal studies. According to the BLS, many employers prefer or require paralegals to have a bachelor’s degree.4 Due to the relatively few schools that offer paralegal bachelor’s degrees, however, it is common for aspiring paralegals to have a bachelor’s degree in another subject and a certificate in paralegal studies.4 For more information on bachelor’s degrees for paralegals, see our paralegal bachelor’s degree page and guide to earning a paralegal bachelor’s degree online.
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 conferred may be a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) 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 that test their legal writing and research skills in various areas of law. For more information on master’s degrees in legal studies, read our comprehensive paralegal master’s degree page.
Online Paralegal Degrees
Online paralegal degrees are a good option for students seeking flexibility and convenience not offered by traditional on-campus programs. Online programs are often a student’s only choice when there are no brick-and-mortar schools in the area where they live. Online degrees are not for everyone, however. It is imperative that you have access to the internet as well as the skills to allow you to comfortably navigate whatever online learning platform that the school uses. In addition to internet access, students who want to get a paralegal degree online should be self-disciplined, since they will typically have more freedom when it comes to scheduling and turning in 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. To learn more about online learning and top-ranked online paralegal degrees, visit our online bachelor’s degree guide.
Paralegal studies cover coursework in a variety of legal areas, including legal research, legal writing, and legal policies and procedures. Specific courses may include:
- Bankruptcy Law
- Employment Law
- Federal Courts
- Immigration Law
- Introduction to Law
- Judicial Process
- Legal Ethics
- Legal Research
- Legal Technology
- Legal Writing and Terminology
- Paralegal Business Law
- Paralegal Contract Law
- Paralegal Criminal Law
- Paralegal Family Law
- Paralegal Intellectual Property Law
- Paralegal Internship/Externship
- Paralegal Tort Law
- Pleadings and Discovery
- Real Estate Law
- State Courts
Legal internships or 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 may be retained and hired full-time by a firm after the completion of a successful internship. Even if this is not the case, the experience you will have gained during your internship will make a great start for your resume and you will graduate with not only a paralegal degree but valuable real-world experience.
Finding Quality Paralegal Programs
As the expert advice below echos, choosing a paralegal program that is accredited is of utmost importance. Regional accreditation of a school is perhaps the most important consideration in the selection process. The US Department of Education recognizes six regional accreditors that hold the higher education institutions in that region accountable for meeting minimum standards of education. In addition to ensuring the quality of these colleges and universities, regional accreditation is required for students to receive federal financial aid and other types of aid, which most students rely on to pay for their education.
Another consideration in selecting a school is a paralegal program’s voluntary approval status with the ABA. The ABA approves paralegal education programs that it deems to meet its guidelines in order to ensure a high quality of education for future paralegals. The ABA approves paralegal programs at the associate, bachelor’s, and certificate levels. While ABA approval is not required for all jobs, it does indicate to prospective employers that your training has been carefully evaluated by a third party. It does not currently approve fully online programs. Since schools have to seek out and request ABA approval, however, it does not necessarily mean that ABA approved programs are always the best.
According to the American Association for Paralegal and Legal Education (AAfPE), other factors to consider when evaluating paralegal programs include the reputation of the school and program; the services, facilities, and activities available to students; the school’s mission and program goals; the content of the paralegal curriculum; graduation requirements; faculty qualifications; and, if it’s a distance education program, other special considerations.
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
Do you need a degree to be a paralegal?
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. 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.
What can I do with a paralegal degree?
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.
How long does it take to get a paralegal degree?
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.
How do I get admitted into a paralegal program?
Programs at four-year colleges often have a competitive admissions process that may require an interview and a 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.
How can I pay for my paralegal 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.
What are the common prerequisites required for a paralegal degree?
It depends on the program and the school. Some paralegal programs at four-year universities such as New York University (NYU) require students to have several college credits under their belts before being admitted. Paralegal master’s programs typically require students to have a bachelor’s degree. Certificates may or may not require a degree, depending on whether they are generalist or specialist programs. Associate degrees in paralegal, often offered at community colleges, do not usually require students to have any college credits for entry.
1. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. O*NET OnLine, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-2011.00#Education
3. NALA 2020 National Utilization & Compensation Study: https://nala.org/research-and-survey-findings/2021/
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm