Paralegals are legal professionals who work under the direction of an attorney and use their specialized skillset to perform many different tasks. For a detailed description about what paralegals do, please see the article entitled “What is a Paralegal?” Paralegals play an integral role in the legal system and are sought by many attorneys who are in need of assistance. If you are intrigued by the justice system or have an interest in learning more about law, a career as a paralegal may be right for you.
Paralegals are often able to begin working in their field much more quickly than lawyers because there are schooling options for paralegals that are much faster and less expensive than law school. In addition, after graduation from law school, lawyers must study for and pass the BAR examination, whereas paralegals simply need to graduate successfully in order to obtain their paralegal degrees and are not required to pass any standardized test.
If working as a paralegal sounds interesting to you, there are several different options available to you for obtaining a paralegal degree. This article will provide information on online paralegal degree programs, associate paralegal degrees, and bachelor’s paralegal degrees.
Do you need a degree to be a paralegal?
Before you begin researching what type of paralegal degree you are interested in obtaining, it is important to know some facts about the paralegal profession as a whole. There is no governmental regulation or licensure for paralegals or legal assistants. This means that, in most states, in order to practice as a paralegal, you are not required to obtain any type of degree. (The state of California is an exception to this rule and has specific regulations regarding paralegal education and training). This does not mean, however, that any layperson can simply apply for and obtain a paralegal position with a law firm. Paralegals have a very specialized knowledge base and skillset and it is unlikely that attorneys would be interested in hiring a person who did not possess some type of schooling or on-the-job training as a paralegal.
An attorney who oversees a paralegal has responsibility for the work product of his or her paralegal. When an attorney presents some piece of work done by their paralegal, whether it is correspondence, legal research, or a court filing, that attorney is responsible for the contents of that work. For example, if there is a problem with a filing, according to the Court, the fault lies with the attorney and he or she is viewed as the responsible party. Since the quality of a paralegal’s work reflects directly on the attorney and law firm, it is important that they hire paralegals who they can trust. While legally there is no particular certificate or licensure required In order to have the job title of paralegal or legal assistant, the attorney in charge of hiring and working with the paralegal will most likely want to hire someone with a degree to ensure that they will get the best and most reliable work product possible.
Whether you receive an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, the fact that you have obtained a degree as a paralegal may ultimately be the factor that sets you in front of other candidates applying for a position as a paralegal. A degree can give you the educational background, skillset, and confidence to be a great paralegal.
Online Paralegal Degrees
If you are thinking of becoming a paralegal but already have a full time job or family commitments, you may be considering obtaining your paralegal degree online. Online degrees offer the most flexibility as you are able to log on and complete your coursework from your home or office and are not restrained to certain class times or locations. Some schools offer degrees which combine in-person and online learning, while others have classes offered solely online. The variety of paralegal degrees offered online include an associate’s of applied science in legal studies, a bachelor of science (B.S.) in paralegal studies, or a postgraduate certificate in paralegal studies.
The admission requirements for these different types of programs vary widely, but generally, you will be required to have a GED or high school diploma. For bachelor’s programs a specific GPA may also be required. In order to qualify for most paralegal certificate programs, you need to have completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in some other field.
Online paralegal degrees will include coursework in a variety of different formats. Often, there will be online chat rooms or discussion boards where students and instructors can chat in real-time. Assignments may be assigned and submitted via email or through a course-specific website. Exams may also be administered online. Some schools offer “self-paced” courses meaning that students complete the coursework on their own schedule and as it is convenient for them to do so. Other schools utilize online courses with more specific deadlines and rigid schedules which the students are required to follow from home. In either case, online schooling provides flexibility and ease of access for many students.
In order to do well while earning your paralegal degree online, it is important to remember that online schooling may take an extra amount of time management and self-motivation on your part. As long as you are willing to complete the necessary work, you should be able to successfully complete an online paralegal studies course and receive your desired paralegal degree.
Paralegal Associates Degree
One of the most common degrees for someone interested in becoming a paralegal to obtain is an Associate of applied science in Paralegal Studies degree. The associates degree is a good solution because it does not take as long as a bachelor’s degree, but offers a more robust program than a paralegal certificate. If you wish to build a career as a paralegal and have not completed a bachelors or associates degree in any other field, than a paralegal associates degree may be the right choice for you.
Many community college offer Associates of Paralegal studies degrees. The requirements for application vary between schools, but they will generally require a high school diploma or GED and completion of some placement testing. An associate’s degree program can generally be completed in about two years and consists of 60-70 credits, but this can vary between schools and also depending upon a student’s enrollment status as fulltime or part-time. Some associate’s degree programs offer a blended approach where some of the classes are taken in-person and others are taken online. There are also options for fully online learning or fully in-person learning. Depending on the school you choose, you may also be required to complete an internship at the end of your program. Your time as an intern can be a very valuable learning experience as it can help you see what paralegals do on a daily basis and become more acquainted with working in a law office environment.
Paralegal Bachelor’s Degree
If you are interested in pursuing continuing and more in-depth education as a paralegal, and if you have more time to invest in your education, a bachelor’s degree as a paralegal may be right for you. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree generally takes approximately four years and allows you to develop more specialty knowledge in legal studies. A typical program will include 120-130 credits which will be divided between general education and paralegal-specific classes. The different degrees offered include a bachelor of science in paralegal studies, a bachelor of arts in paralegal studies, or a bachelor of science in legal assistant/paralegal studies. All paralegal degree programs will give overviews of legal research, legal writing, and foundations of law, but a bachelor’s degree program may allow you to further explore specific legal interests such as real estate, bankruptcy, family law or criminal law. Some bachelor’s degree programs also provide the opportunity for a minor in a related field such as business or criminal justice.
As with the associates degree, some bachelor’s degree programs offer blended online and in-person courses while others are offered solely online or in person. Your access to schools in your area, prior time commitments, and level of self-motivation may all be factors when considering whether you should pursue an online degree or attend in-person. Another factor to consider when choosing an appropriate program for you is it’s American Bar Association (ABA) approval status. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants, the ABA “has a program of approving paralegal programs which meet their guidelines. Seeking ABA approval is voluntary on the part of the institution.” It is important to note that ABA approval is not necessary to receive a valid paralegal degree, however, it is a notable factor that may be reviewed by potential employers.