Online paralegal programs

Paralegals are among the most important professionals in the legal field. Someone unfamiliar with the career might think of a paralegal as a secretary or receptionist, but they have a huge role to play in the inner workings of law firms, and without them, lawyers would have a significantly harder time getting by. Paralegals can't practice law, but they investigate a case's facts, conduct relevant legal research, gather evidence for attorneys to review, help lawyers prepare for trial and much more. Even better, the field is growing faster than the national average, and paralegal salary numbers show an average wage in the U.S. of more than $50,000.

If reading that excites you, check out these frequently asked questions about the paralegal certification programs and how to find the right one for you.

1. What are the different paralegal certification and training options?

There are a few different kinds of paralegal programs, depending on what level of education you want to pursue, including:

  • Associate degrees
  • Bachelor's degrees
  • Graduate certificates
  • Master's degrees

Fast facts about paralegal careers

When you put together the numbers for paralegals, they're very encouraging. The field is growing, popular and financially stable. Here are a few things you should consider:

*As of May 2013, there were 271,320 paralegals and legal assistants in the U.S., with the highest employment level being in California, Florida and New York.

*Paralegal and legal assistant jobs are projected to grow by 17 percent between 2012 and 2022. Projections Central estimates that between 2012 and 2022, the paralegal profession will grow fastest in:

  • Tennessee
  • Washington
  • Florida
  • Utah
  • Colorado

* As of May 2013, the three industries with the highest levels of employment for paralegals and legal assistants in the U.S. were:

  • Legal services: 202,930
  • Local government: 15,790
  • The federal executive branch: 13,310

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

For a long time, associate degrees in paralegal studies or a similar subject were the standard education for aspiring paralegals, and that level of education is still sufficient for many entry-level positions. Candidates who have a bachelor's degree in another subject can also pursue a graduate certificate in paralegal studies to add the required legal training to their existing education.

Bachelor's degrees are becoming more common in the field, and according to the Occupational Information Network (O*Net), 44 percent of working paralegals have this level of degree. Master's degrees in paralegal or legal studies are now being offered as well, and they can be a good choice for working professionals who want to create additional opportunities for themselves in the legal field.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has a list of approved paralegal education programs on its website. You can also compare paralegal schools in your area to see which program fits best with your schedule, location and academic goals.

2. What do you learn in paralegal programs?

Associate's and bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies typically combine paralegal training, such as courses in legal research or the legal applications of computers, with other academic subjects and core classes. These might include courses such as:

  • Criminal law
  • Advanced legal analysis & writing
  • Civil litigation
  • Personal injury law
  • Legal ethics

Certificate programs in paralegal studies, since they're shorter, typically focus primarily on paralegal training, without the additional coursework. Check your school's course catalog to see which classes will be offered, as it varies by school.

3. How do you choose a good paralegal program?

If a paralegal program is American Bar Association (ABA) accredited, you can bet it's a good program. But there's more to look for than that.

Here's what the American Association for Paralegal Education considers core competencies for paralegals, which you'll want to make sure you'll learn in your training program:

  • Critical thinking skills
  • Organizational skills
  • General communication skills
  • Legal research skills
  • Legal writing skills
  • Computer skills
  • Interviewing and investigation skills
  • Paralegal profession and ethical obligations
  • Law office management skills

4. Are there paralegal schools online?

Yes, there are many excellent paralegal schools online. Here are examples of just three that may be worth checking out:

  • Duke University, which offers an online paralegal certificate program.
  • Kaplan University, which offers an online associate's and bachelor's degree program in paralegal studies, as well as a post-baccalaureate certificate.
  • Rasmussen College, which offers an associate's degree or certificate in paralegal studies, online.

Because essentially all the coursework can be completed via distance learning, paralegal training is well suited to online education. Community colleges and universities in your area likely offer the training as well, but the added flexibility of an online degree can be a wise choice for working adults who want to go back to school, or for working paralegals who want to improve their career opportunities with education.

5. How long does it usually take to get a paralegal certificate?

The length of the program depends on what level of degree you're going after, whether you're attending full or part time, and what previous education (if any) you might have. A certificate program in paralegal studies may be completed in as little as a few months, whereas associate and bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies typically take at least two or four years, respectively. It just depends on which program you're tackling and how quickly you can finish it, given your schedule.

Paralegal program length tends to be the same with on-campus and online programs alike, though online programs in paralegal studies may grant you more flexibility to go at a slower pace (or even faster, if you're able).

6. Are there licensing or other certification requirements after graduation?

Unlike attorneys, paralegals do not need to be licensed to practice. Paralegal certification is optional, but can help you stand out above other job candidates, as it shows you're proactive and especially knowledgable. The National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) both offer paralegal certification; you just need to pass the required exams after completing your program of study.

1. Paralegal Approved Program List, American Bar Association, http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/paralegals/directory/allprograms.html
2. Paralegal Core Competencies, American Association for Paralegal Education, http://www.aafpe.org/About_AAfPE/files/core_comp.pdf
3. About Paralegals, National Association of Legal Secretaries, http://www.nala.org/AboutParalegals.aspx
4. Certification, National Association of Legal Secretaries, http://www.nala.org/certification.aspx
5. Professional Paralegal (PP), National Association of Legal Secretaries, http://www.nals.org/?page=pp
6. Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Occupational Information Network (O*NET OnLine), Accessed Jan. 14, 2015, http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/23-2011.00
7. Long Term Occupational Projections: Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Projections Central, https://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
8. Occupational Employment and Wages: Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, April 1, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm
9. Paralegals and Legal Assistants, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm#tab-1

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