If you are considering a career in law but are not looking to become an attorney, earning a certificate or degree in paralegal studies might be a great choice for you. Some people choose to earn paralegal degrees instead of law degrees because they are able to start working in the legal field much quicker by avoiding three years of law school in order to become an attorney. Some choose to become a paralegal to avoid the additional stresses and busy schedules that often come with practicing as an attorney. Others are attracted to the paralegal certificate or degree because it is much less expensive than law school, while others may choose to work as paralegals before obtaining additional education to become a lawyer. Whatever your reason for choosing a paralegal career path, this article will help you discover more information about what paralegal studies are and the different ways in which you can pursue a degree or certificate in paralegal studies.
What is the definition of paralegal studies?
“Paralegal studies” is the most common name given to any certificate or degree program which provides the necessary knowledge base for the graduate to work as a paralegal or legal assistant. As stated by the American Bar Association (ABA), a paralegal is “a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” The title of paralegal and legal assistant are interchangeable.
Why pursue a certificate or degree?
The paralegal profession is not strictly regulated, meaning that a degree or certificate is not a requirement in order to work with the job title of paralegal (outside of California where regulation for paralegals has been imposed). Lawyers are required to pass the BAR examination and preserve their licensure through continuing education. In general paralegals are not mandated to pass any standardized exam or become licensed in their state. Although a certificate or degree in paralegal studies is not required, it may be the best way for someone interested in working as a paralegal to get hired. Law firms may not be interested in providing instruction to an untrained candidate if a pool of paralegals with educational experience are in the job market. A certificate or degree on your resume or CV indicated to potential employers that you have undergone training to gain the knowledge needed operate as a paralegal.
Certificate in paralegal studies
One way to make an entrance into a career as a paralegal is to obtain a certificate in paralegal studies. Certificate programs are usually offered by community colleges, four-year institutions, or online schools. A certificate is a good option if you already have a 2 or 4-year degree in an alternative academic concentration, but are interested in a quick route to becoming a paralegal. The length of a paralegal certificate program can vary depending on the institution you choose. Some online programs are self-directed, meaning that there are no due dates or deadlines, you simply complete the coursework at your own pace (often within a one year window). Other certificate programs are instructor lead or in-person. Those types of programs usually take anywhere from 9 months to 18 months.
Because a student in a certificate program has already obtained a degree in another field, there are usually no required general courses. Most all of the classes required will be specific paralegal or law-based courses. This is a great way to focus on paralegal studies and gain knowledge before entering the paralegal profession. A paralegal certificate will allow you to learn the basics of legal research and writing, legal ethics, and communication skills. A paralegal with a legal certificate is not confined to simply working in a law firm. Paralegals can work in various locations including corporations, insurance companies, government, hospitals, and non-government organizations. Obtaining a certificate as a paralegal is not the same thing as earning a degree, but it is a good way to learn the general knowledge base needed for paralegal positions and to become more desirable and qualified as a potential job candidate.
Associates or Bachelor’s in paralegal studies
Another way to obtain an education in paralegal studies is by pursuing an associates or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. If you have not already received any type of degree and are considering a career as a paralegal, than one of these options may be the right fit for you. An associates degree usually takes about 2 years to complete and a bachelor’s degree takes about 4 years. Both of these types of paralegal studies degrees can be earned through online or in-person study, or a combination of both.
Unlike a paralegal certificate program, a degree program will likely require that you complete some coursework in topics not specifically related to paralegal studies such as humanities, math, social sciences, economics, or statistics. While not specifically legal in nature, this general coursework will likely be valuable as a knowledge base for your future specific paralegal studies. Both associates and bachelor’s degrees will cover legal topics such as foundational law, legal administrative skills, legal research, and ethics.
Those seeking a bachelor’s degree may be able to delve into their particular legal interests with a bit more specificity since they will be spending more time in class. Some more specific topics which could be explored while pursuing a paralegal studies degree include Immigration law, Real Estate law, Employment law, Wills, Estates and Trusts, Criminal law, or Business law. An associates or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies will give you a firm foundation of legal knowledge to begin or advance your paralegal career.
Masters in paralegal studies
After completing an undergraduate degree, one may wish to pursue a Master’s programs in paralegal studies to gain advanced knowledge and training in the paralegal field. There are also graduate programs available in law-related fields such as legal studies or legal administration. Master’s programs commonly take two years to complete. Some master’s programs are completed on-campus while others can be completed online. Master’s in paralegal studies programs are often designed to be friendly to the working professional, offering weekend, evening, or online classes. If you know that you are interested in working within a particular legal field, a master’s degree can provide specialization in that field to advance your legal career prospects. While a master’s program can cover specific legal topics in a more in-depth way, it can also provide more of a broad knowledge base regarding higher level studies of theoretical, ethical, and philosophical aspects of the law. These advanced studies make a master’s degree more of an in-depth endeavor.
A master’s degree can also give you an edge in the job market. If you have a bachelor’s degree and are thinking of becoming a paralegal, pursuing a master’s degree instead of a paralegal certificate may help you stand out among other job candidates in the future. A master’s degree may also allow a paralegal to move to a higher level, earn a larger salary, or move to a management position within their current job. Master’s degrees may also be helpful if you are interested in moving on to become a teacher within a paralegal studies program in the future.
Paralegal studies online
Perhaps the most convenient way to become a paralegal is to complete a paralegal studies program online. If you are currently employed full-time or do not live close to any campus locations which provide the degree you are seeking, then an online degree program may be the best choice for you. There are online programs provided through various colleges and universities which offer the ability to earn a paralegal certificate, associates, bachelor’s, and even master’s degree.
Many online programs ensure that the content of their online classes is the same as that of the on-campus classes, so there is no reason why an online degree cannot give you a good foundation of knowledge to begin your journey as a paralegal. Online programs are very helpful to the working professional because they offer the flexibility to complete coursework in the evenings and on weekends. They also eliminate the hassle of commuting to and from campus.
The length of time it takes to complete an online course of study varies widely. Certificate programs can be completed in as few as 9-12 months, while bachelor’s degrees often take 3-4 years. The prerequisites for these programs also vary, but it is important to note that for all online learning, students must have reliable internet access as well as the skills necessary to navigate the technology used to conduct online classes. Online learning is usually a combination or reading, discussion boards, exams, and video lectures. It can be self-paced, where the student decides how much coursework to complete on his or her own schedule, or the pace can be set by the instructor, with due dates and deadlines. Online learning does require a certain amount of self-discipline and may not be right for everyone, but it is an excellent option to pursue a degree if you need convenience and flexibility.