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Paralegal degree programs

Practicing law is hard work, and lawyers don't have time to handle all of the logistical, organizational and administrative tasks necessary to keep a law office running smoothly. Paralegals learn to manage these important clerical duties so attorneys can use as much of their time as possible on the sensitive or complex matters of their profession.

If you've been thinking about getting started on a career in the legal field, hundreds of traditional and online paralegal schools and colleges all over the country can help you take that first step. Here's a table of data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics that shows the sheer number of U.S. paralegal programs available on campus and in the virtual classroom:

Region No. of institutions with paralegal degree programs No. of institutions with online paralegal degree programs
Far West (CA, OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 88 10
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 30 8
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 75 14
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 79 31
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 218 49
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 128 22
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 100 10
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 41 11
Total (all 50 states) 759 155

Entry-level paralegal degrees

There are multiple paths you might be able to take to a paralegal career, depending on the individual state and employer you're looking at. Here's some information about study plans for paralegals at the undergraduate level:

  • Associate degrees - An occupational report by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that an associate degree in paralegal studies is typically all the training that's required before you're able to legally work as a paralegal. Coursework in two-year paralegal degree programs may include such subjects as information literacy, legal research, legal terminology, torts, business law, civil and criminal litigation, family law, wills and estates, psychology and interpersonal communication, among others.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Despite the two-year degree serving as the minimum educational requirement, employers may look more closely at candidates who have gone on to complete a full bachelor's degree before applying. Four-year degrees designed for paralegals are typically offered as Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees in legal studies or paralegal studies and may deepen the associate degree courseload with lessons in administrative law, bankruptcy law, risk management, insurance, organizational communication and constitutional law, as well as more advanced study of concepts only just introduced during associate degree programs.
  • Non-degree study - Undergraduate certificates can be a great way for graduates with bachelor's degrees in other disciplines to get the training they need to start a paralegal career. Certificate programs vary in length, from as few as 15 credit hours to as many as 36, and most non-degree study plans focus on the central concepts of law and administrative work without requiring any general education core courses.

If your schedule is already loaded with personal or professional responsibilities, or if you're just looking for a way to knock a few dollars off of the cost of books and other expenses, don't forget to look into programs offered online at paralegal colleges and schools. Online education may not be for everyone, but those who can adapt to the digital learning environment can reap benefits unavailable to students in traditional, classroom-based programs.

Advanced-degree paralegal programs

Paralegals who want to take their careers to the next level can continue their educations into graduate work and beyond. Here are a few quick briefs on advanced degrees at traditional and online paralegal colleges and schools:

  • Master's degree programs - Master's degree programs can impart a thorough understanding of the workings of the law and prepare you for some of the most advanced positions available to legal professionals who haven't yet passed the bar exam. Most degrees at this level are offered as Master of Science (M.S.) programs and focus on a range of major concentrations that includes compliance law, legal studies and taxation.
  • Doctoral degree programs - Terminal degrees like the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) are also available in the legal studies field, although it isn't likely you'll work in any sort of paralegal capacity after earning one — most doctorate degree holders go on to take jobs in academia, typically as educators, researchers or professional scholars. Study concentrations available for doctoral students are similar to those at the master's level, although Ph.D. work typically delves somewhat deeper into the material and culminates in an extensive research project.
  • Graduate certificates - Non-degree study at the graduate level has quite a bit in common with similar certificates designed for undergraduates, particularly in that they tend not to include general education core courses and take anywhere from one to three semesters to complete. Some of the courses in graduate certificate programs may be more advanced, since they're only open to students who have already earned a bachelor's degree, but the subjects covered are typically in the same vein.

Online study may also be available for graduate and post-graduate students, and it may be able to defray some of the culture shock if you're returning to the college environment after some time away from academic life. Taking just a portion of your paralegal coursework in the virtual classroom can help you make a gradual adjustment back into the right mindset for intensive study.

Q&A with an expert

David Freeman, attorney and partner at Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman

David Freeman, attorney and partner at Mazie Slater Katz & FreemanWhy would you encourage someone to consider becoming a paralegal?

DF: Paralegals play an important role in the delivery of legal services and [the job] offers high marks for job satisfaction, security, pay and benefits. Competition is high among law firms to deliver high-quality and cost-effective legal services. To meet this goal, many firms strategically deploy paralegals to supplant services provided by attorneys. With the specialization of the practice of law growing, paralegals with training in distinct high-profile areas are and will remain in high demand.

How can a student best prepare for paralegal training before they enroll in a program?

DF: If seeking employment in the private sector law firm environment, most firms will require a strong background in IT and computers, as well as proficiency in document management programs and approaches. If you don't have these skills, consider taking continuing education courses, seminars, or workshops, particularly those that certify to proficiency. If seeking to specialize, say for example environmental law, intellectual property or real estate, take courses in those fields. Also, look for internships or externships to provide you with exposure in those fields.

What's something that prospective students should know about the current job market for paralegals?

DF: The current job market is competitive and it is tough to land the ideal paralegal position without prior experience. It is important to be open minded and it may take a willingness to consider any job with a legal employer: receptionist, file clerk, junior paralegal, etc. just to get in the door. From there, you are one step ahead of anyone on the outside trying to get into the firm. Take on those assignments, big or small, that will help you to be visible and recognized for the value you bring to the firm.

Types of paralegal careers

Paralegal degree programs definitely prepare you for a career as a paralegal, but there are also other occupations where a bit of extra education may make your knowledge and skills even more useful. Take a look at this chart of data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to learn more about potential careers for graduates of online paralegal schools and colleges:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Paralegal $52,390 8 percent 279,500 Associate degree
Insurance adjuster or claims examiner $64,300 3 percent 315,300 High school diploma or equivalent
Legal secretary $46,470 -4 percent 215,500 High school diploma or equivalent
Arbitrator $69,060 9 percent 8,400 Bachelor's degree
Lawyer $136,260 6 percent 778,700 Doctoral or professional degree

Common misconceptions about paralegal degrees

It may be a vital administrative career with around 280,000 active members in the U.S. as of 2016, but nevertheless there are a few mistaken ideas floating around out there about paralegal degree programs and careers. Here are some brief corrections for a few of the most common ones:

Misconception: "Paralegal" is just another term for "administrative assistant."

  • Fact: While it's true that paralegals do assist lawyers with their day to day operations, and there is a considerable amount of administrative work involved in the profession, it's necessary for them to have a functional understanding of the legal concepts at play in the office in order for them to be effective. Legal secretaries also work in law offices, they just have less training in the letter of the law than paralegals do.

Misconception: Online paralegal programs are an easy way to get started on a law career.

  • Fact: It's kind of hard to believe that this one still haunts the public imagination, even after millions of people have earned their degrees online. The coursework in an online program typically differs very little from the work assigned in a traditional classroom, for one thing, and it's often up to the individual student to make sure that he or she is staying on task and learning what the lessons mean to teach. If you're looking at online paralegal schools for an easy route to a career, you may be better served to look elsewhere.

Misconception: It's pointless to get a paralegal degree because paralegals can't advance to become attorneys without going to law school.

  • Fact: For one thing, paralegal work itself can be a rewarding and long-lasting career, but there's also a fun fact at play here. In the states of California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, an experienced paralegal can enter into an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer and qualify to sit for the bar exam after three years of on-the-job law study. Three other states — Maine, New York and Wyoming — also allow apprenticeship programs but require some formal law school training as well.

How can I enroll in an online paralegal degree program?

The best thing to do when looking for information about the admissions policies of an individual institution is to reach out to them directly. Check out our listings below to get you started, then reach out to a few schools of your choice and find out more about how to start your journey into the legal profession.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed October 27, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed October 27, 2016: Paralegals and Legal Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Legal/Paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm; Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners, and Investigators, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/claims-adjusters-appraisers-examiners-and-investigators.htm; Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/secretaries-and-administrative-assistants.htm; Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/arbitrators-mediators-and-conciliators.htm; Lawyers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm;
  3. School pages, accessed October 27, 2016: Paralegal Degree Online, Associate Degree Program, Penn Foster College, https://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/legal-services/paralegal-studies-associate-degree; Online Paralegal Associate Degree Program, https://www.theparalegalinstitute.edu/programs/paralegal-studies-programs/paralegal-associate-degree/; Legal Assistant - Paralegal Studies Bachelor of Science Degree (B.S.), Pennsylvania College of Technology, https://www.pct.edu/catalog/majors/BLA.shtml; Bachelor's Paralegal Degree, Platt College, http://plattcollege.edu/areas-of-study/school-of-legal-studies/paralegal-studies/bachelors-paralegal/; Online Paralegal Certificate, Peirce College, https://www.peirce.edu/degrees-programs/undergraduate/legal-studies/certificate-of-proficiency-in-paralegal-studies; Online Paralegal Certificate Program, Ashworth College, https://www.ashworthcollege.edu/undergraduate-certificates/paralegal-studies/curriculum/; Certificate in Paralegal Studies, National Paralegal College, http://nationalparalegal.edu/Certificate.aspx; Master of Science in Legal Studies Program, National Juris University, https://juris.nationalparalegal.edu/Legal.aspx; Online Master's in Paralegal Studies Degree Program, The George Washington University, http://paralegalstudiesmasters.online.gwu.edu/; Doctor of Legal Studies, Atlantic International University, http://www.aiu.edu/Doctor%20of%20Legal%20Studies.htm; Ph.D. Program (JSP), University of California, Berkeley, https://www.law.berkeley.edu/academics/doctoral-programs/jsp/; Doctor of Law and Policy, Northeastern University, http://www.cps.neu.edu/degree-programs/graduate/doctoral/doctorate-law-policy.php; Graduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies, The George Washington University, https://cps.gwu.edu/graduate-certificate-paralegal-studies; Online Certificate in Paralegal Studies, Mississippi College, http://www.mc.edu/academics/departments/history/graduate-degrees/online-certificate-paralegal-studies/; Online Paralegal Postbaccalaureate Certificate, Kaplan University, http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/legal-studies/pathway-to-paralegal-certificate.aspx;
  4. May 2015 National Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed October 27, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm;
  5. Interview, David Freeman, conducted October 22, 2016
  6. How to Learn the Law Without Law School, Sean Patrick Farrell, The New York Times, July 30, 2014, accessed October 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/education/edlife/how-to-learn-the-law-without-law-school.html?_r=0
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