Paralegal studies provides a world of opportunity for a student interested in the practice of law as well as the finer points of litigation and legal research. Paralegal studies majors receive training in the many ways a paralegal assistant provides crucial administrative and organizational support to independent practicing lawyers, teams of lawyers, and law firms. Pursuing an associate degree in this subject typically involves a well-rounded curriculum of courses including legal terminology, legal research and writing, and interpersonal communication and ethics. Students at all levels of higher education in this subject are also encouraged to gain work experience in the field to supplement their academic education, and some choose to obtain paralegal certification, although this is not typically required by employers. Because paralegal studies majors will be responsible for performing a broad range of tasks as paralegals, like organizing case files, conducting legal research, and drafting official statements and reports, it benefits those interested in this subject to have high-quality computer skills, be highly organized, possess the ability to perform extensive research, and be able to communicate effectively.
Why an Associate Degree?
An associate degree is the minimum degree requirement for most employers in this field. Most practicing paralegals have an associate degree, along with at least one year of on-the-job training or work experience. Quicker and less expensive than a four-year program, an online associate degree in paralegal studies provides a top-notch education and is the widely accepted standard for employers after college, not to mention the convenience of the online format. This makes the first step toward becoming a paralegal a convenient degree option as well as a lucrative career move. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the demand for paralegals is expected to grow over the next eight years, as lawyers and law firms are rebuilding their support staff of legal assistants since the last recession.
Getting Into an Associate Degree Program
Paralegal studies programs vary by school. Because an associate degree is the starting degree level for paralegal studies, students have minimal prior education requirements to meet :
- High school diploma or GED (or equivalent)
- Application including statement of intent and/or application fees (as applicable, according to school)
- Transferred college-level course credits from previous education, if applicable
Inside an Associate Degree Program
An associate degree in paralegal studies is a two-year program. Students typically are required to complete 10-15 credits of fundamental curriculum, which provides a comprehensive foundation in basic legal issues, practices, and principles. This core curriculum includes courses in legal research, legal analysis and writing, litigation and trial practice, contracts, torts and personal injury law, and criminal law. The structure of the associate degree program is designed to give students an overview of all elements of paralegal studies, as well as prepare them for practical responsibilities in this field. Students may elect to add elective courses to build skills in a particular area of interest, such as immigration law or bankruptcy, and they are also encouraged to obtain work experience through an internship or apprenticeship with a lawyer or in a law firm setting, whenever possible. Students completing an associate degree in paralegal studies will also be qualified to sit for the CLA/CP exam given by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), if they wish to obtain official licensure, although this is not typically required by employers.
The format of an online associate degree in paralegal studies may provide a more convenient option for busy students or working professionals. Students in an online paralegal program receive the same course materials as traditional students, however these materials are available as audio, video, document, or interactive files or downloads through an interactive web module that has been developed exclusively for online learning. Students still receive instruction from paralegal professors and experts, and have email and live chat access to professors, peers, tech support staff, online libraries, and administrative and financial advisors, round-the-clock. Because online learning saves the cost of driving to campus and also reduces many of the in-class materials and operating costs, students save money on tuition and supplies.
What’s Next for Paralegal Studies Associate Degree Holders?
Qualified paralegals are in high-demand in law firms, law libraries, and local government offices nationwide. Most employers require an associate degree, often in addition to at least one year of work experience, to be hired as a paralegal. In this field, an associate degree and minimal on-the-job skills can take you far. The BLS reports that paralegals and legal assistants earned an average of $52,165 in 2010, although figures vary based on location, experience, economy, and other factors. The BLS also predicts improved job prospects for paralegals with experience in highly desirable specializations such as corporate law or litigation.
While an associate degree is widely accepted as the hiring standard for this subject, higher education is available, although very limited. Some students choose to go on to pursue bachelor’s degree or certificates in paralegal studies. The paralegal studies bachelor’s degree program is ideal for a student who already has an associate or bachelor’s degree in another subject, and decides to pursue the fast-track to a paralegal career. Some employers will also hire a candidate with a bachelor’s degree and no work experience, if they intend to provide on-the-job training on good faith that the candidate’s educational background is more than sufficient. Not commonly offered by schools providing paralegal degrees, master’s degree programs are hard to find, since employers typically favor extensive experience and/or specialization training over an academic degree at this level.