Earning Your Paralegal Degree Online
Paralegals play a crucial role in supporting lawyers in a broad variety of tasks. Professionals trained in paralegal studies are responsible for conducting legal research, drafting documents, and organizing and filing briefs, appeals, and other case materials. According to the BLS, job growth for paralegals continues to grow as fast as the average of all occupations, as they take on “hybrid” roles previously filled by various law firm staff members. In some cases, paralegals can also be an affordable alternative to costly high-end legal services, performing entry-level legal services in place of lawyers whenever possible.
Earning an online paralegal degree can often help aspiring professionals earn job skills and enter this growing field quicker than through a traditional degree. Most paralegal jobs have minimal education requirements and optional certification, which means there are a large variety of online paralegal programs available to distance learners. Many schools offer online paralegal degree programs in an accelerated format and with no campus visits required, allowing students to complete their degree in less time and at a lower cost than traditional options.
Job Outlook for Paralegal Graduates
Associate degrees in paralegal studies are the most common online degrees offered in this discipline; likewise this is typically the minimum education requirement for most jobs. While not mandatory, some employers may require or prefer additional certification–also available online at some schools. An online paralegal degree program or online paralegal certificate may offer intensive study in particular specialty, such as corporate or litigation paralegal studies. Students in this major may also focus on another particular area of concentration in this field, including personal injury, criminal law, bankruptcy, immigration law, or real estate, among many options. The majority of paralegals are employed by law firms, though many corporations are also expanding their paralegal teams to help cut costs. In any work environment, paralegal graduates with strong computer and database management skills should have the greatest job prospects in coming years.
Salaries for Paralegals, By Degree Type
|Years of Experience||Associate||Bachelor’s|
Types of Paralegal Careers
Generally, all paralegals perform the same set of straightforward duties on the job, though there are a variety of legal settings in which paralegals operate. Qualified paralegals assisting lawyers in a particular concentration, such as corporate, criminal, or immigration law, are more desirable in that sector for their specialized skills. Professionals in these areas and many others are responsible for having a thorough understanding of their area of expertise for greater timeliness and efficiency when conducting research, filing documents, and interacting with clients. Most employers prefer at least one year of experience, either in a law firm or office setting or in the technical field of their choice. For example, a personal injury law firm may welcome paralegals with experience in the healthcare industry. Below are just some of the most common paralegal specializations:
Corporate paralegals assist lawyers in preparing and maintaining legal documents, stock options, and financial reports on behalf of a company or corporation. They also keep corporate clients informed of current government regulations and legal requirements, as needed.
Litigation paralegals assist attorneys in preparing for litigation, which can include maintaining and organization evidence for use at trial, drafting settlements, and more. They may also be responsible for coordinating logistics of the trial itself, including transportation of materials to and from the courtroom, reserving space for participants, and securing computers and/or presentation materials.
- Personal Injury
Personal injury paralegals assist lawyers throughout the entire process of personal injury litigation, from the moment a client brings a case to the conclusion of a potential appeal. The most unique aspect of this specialization is the medical analysis, which requires lawyers and paralegals to be well-versed in medical terminology, medical billing practices, and characteristics of various common injuries.
Paralegals working in criminal law may assist criminal defense attorneys or prosecutors in criminal cases. These professionals typically perform a wide variety of duties, from interviewing witnesses to filing and drafting paperwork to interacting with clients. Criminal law paralegals with advanced experience may seek an administrative or managerial role as opposed to providing entry-level case support.
- Employee Benefits
Paralegals specializing in employee benefits are responsible for understanding labor laws, employer contracts, and benefits agreements. They typically assist lawyers in representing clients interested in investigating a possible labor-rights-violation or who may feel they were wrongfully terminated because of a benefits breach.
Many immigration paralegals assist lawyers in government agencies, armed with a thorough understanding of immigration laws to help clients through both the citizenship and deportation processes. By law, immigration paralegals cannot “give advice,” but are needed to help research and obtain foreign documents, update clients on case progress, and even potentially translate numerous languages.
Family law paralegals assist lawyers in matters involving families and the law, including child custody, divorce, adoption, social services, and tax and finance cases. Research for this specialty may include investigating income and lifestyles, or state adoption laws, as well as preparing petitions and other legal documents.
- Real Estate
Real estate paralegals assist lawyers and may also work with real estate agents in participating in real estate cases, often including purchases, sales or short-sales, foreclosures, leases, and more. These professionals should be well-versed in taxes, titles, and real estate codes.
Types of Paralegal Degrees
Earning an online paralegal degree can help the right candidate to go far in this field. While a bachelor’s is typically considered the terminal degree for paralegals, some master’s degrees do exist, and there are a variety of specializations and job options available to students with any combination of education and legal experience. The table below lists the most common types of paralegal degree programs:
|Degree Level||Definition||Possible Concentrations||Median Annual Salary|
|Associate||Associate of Applied Science (AAS) or Associate of Science (AS) in Paralegal Studies||General Paralegal Studies||$28,750|
|Bachelor’s||Bachelor of Science (BS) in Paralegal Studies||General Paralegal Studies||$66,250|
|Master’s||Master of Science (MS) in Legal Studies or (MA) in Legal Studies||Personal Injury, Litigation, Criminal Law, Corporate Law, Intellectual Property, Family Law, Immigration, Bankruptcy, Real Estate||$32,681 – $66,553|
Paralegal Certifications and Licensing
Certification is not required for paralegals in the workplace, though some employers may prefer or require it of their employees. Students who have completed an online paralegal program and who are seeking voluntary Certified Legal Assistant certification, for example, can obtain information about how to become certified in their state through The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS), or the National Federation of Paralegal Associates. In most cases, certification is pursued by professionals who also hold a degree in the field. The process requires students to pass a comprehensive competency exam in their state of practice.
As a popular field of study among undergraduate students, a variety of paralegal scholarships are commonly offered at many schools that offer online paralegal certificates, and associate and master’s degrees in this discipline. With so many job possibilities available to qualified graduates of a paralegal program, there is no shortage of prospective employers, including law firms and government agencies, looking to support up-and-coming professionals in the field. Because the majority of associate and bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies provide broad, foundational curriculum, most scholarships for paralegal programs do not specify a concentration or area of specialization among the terms of the award. Below are just some of the scholarships available to students pursuing a traditional or paralegal online degree or online paralegal certificate:
- GRCF Warner Norcross & Judd Law School Scholarship
This scholarship is awarded to students of color who are attending or planning to attend a paralegal or legal studies program. Applicants must be either a permanent resident of Michigan or attending a law school in the state.
- Amount: Varies
- Deadline: April 1, 2018
- LivSecure Scholarship
Each year, the LivSecure Scholarship awards two $500 (runners-up) scholarships and one $1000 scholarship to students in programs in law enforcement, law, criminal justice, or a related field. Applicants must submit an essay based on pointed question posed by LivSecure, as well as be a graduating high school senior or freshman/sophomore in college at the time of application.
- Amount: $500 or $1000
- Deadline: July 1, 2017
- Thomson/Reuters Scholarship
Awarded by the NFPA, this scholarship provides two scholarships in the amount of $2,000 and $3,000 for students pursuing an education in paralegal studies. Scholarships are awarded at the the NFPA Annual Convention in October each year. Applicants are not required to be a member of NFPA to apply.
- Amount: $2,000 or $3,000
- Deadline: July 1, 2017
- LEX Scholarships
This essay-based scholarship is awarded to as many as five students in a paralegal program, to be used for either part-time or full-time study in this field. Scholarships may be transferred from one school to another, and the program allows past recipients to re-apply for the award.
- Amount: $500
- Deadline: January 15, 2018
- Joy King Memorial Scholarship
This scholarship is awarded to a student enrolled in a paralegal program (does not have to be ABA-approved) who has at least a 3.0 GPA and sufficiently answers all questions posed in the required “statement of interest” part of the application process.
- Amount: $500
- Deadline: January 27, 2018
- State Bar of Michigan – Paralegal/Legal Assistant Section Scholarship
The composition-heavy application process for this award relies on both an essay and autobiographical statement, as well as submission of official transcripts and letters of recommendation. Awards are given to recipients who are Michigan residents or who are attending a Michigan school.
- Amount: Varies
- Deadline: June 1, 2017
- North Carolina Paralegal Association Scholarships
The North Carolina Paralegal Association offers two scholarships paralegal students each year; though the total amount of the award varies, recipients receive the full cost of tuition, fees, and books, or the cost of fees needed to take the National Association of Legal Assistants’ Certified Legal Assistant and Advanced Paralegal Certification exams.
- Amount: Varies
- Deadline: Varies
- Camille Stell Scholarship
The Camille Stell Scholarship, awarded by North Carolina’s Raleigh-Wake Paralegal Association, goes to a recipient who is enrolled in a paralegal program in Wake County. The award is announced at the RWPA’s annual meeting in April of each year.
- Amount: Varies
- Deadline: February 28, 2018
- Nancy McLaughlin Scholarship
Sponsored by the Capital Area Paralegal Association in Texas, this scholarship is offered to two students per year and must be used within 12 months of the date of award. Recipients may apply funds toward a paralegal program at a Texas university, certification exam fees, paralegal courses and/or training fees (continuing education), or membership CAPA fees.
- Amount: Varies
- Deadline: Varies
- PACE and PCCE Scholarships
Made possible by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, these scholarships are awarded to students who are members of the NFPA and are eligible to take the PACE or PCCE exam, and cover all costs related to taking the test in pursuit of professional certification.
- Amount: Varies
- Deadline: July 1, 2017
Internships and externships are common for students in all sectors of paralegal studies, offering a way to gain invaluable industry experience, learn “real world” skills while immersed in a work environment, and make themselves indispensable to a potential employer. As with all internships, while both paid and unpaid paralegal internships are available, paid internship opportunities tend to be the most competitive.
Generally, internships do offer academic credit to paralegal students. Internships are available in a variety of specialized opportunities, including legal clinics, summer sessions, and pro bono projects, in an array of professional settings like courts, law offices, and community organizations, though the most popular type of internship is a judicial clerkship, which offers paralegal students the opportunity to experience the inner workings of trial and appellate courts. As a general rule of thumb, one can never have too much experience when it comes to applying for a job as a paralegal. A good online paralegal program will recommend that each student pursues their own internship experience. Below our some quick tips for choosing, landing, and maximizing an internship:
- Ask school career services staff, mentors, or professors for suggestions.
- Explore opportunities for internships through the professional organizations listed above.
- Browse job fairs in person or online.
- Peruse job websites like Glassdoor, Monster, Looksharp, LinkedIn, and Indeed.
- Check out this dedicated internships website: http://www.internships.com/legal
In a field that values practical experience and professional insight, paralegals stand to obtain unlimited benefits from joining a professional organization. The industry offers several governing organizations for professionals at every level, providing resources for entry-level job seekers, mid-career professionals, and others looking to continue to advance their legal skills as veterans in the industry. Professional organizations can offer internship opportunities, job referrals, networking events, certification opportunities, and continuing education coursework. Below are some of the most prominent professional organizations for aspiring and practicing paralegals:
- National Association of Legal Assistants: Among the best-known professional organizations in the U.S. for paralegals and legal assistants, NALA circulates its own publications, offers continuing education courses, networking opportunities, and a voluntary certification program. Though headquartered in Oklahoma, NALA maintains a heavy Internet and social media presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
- American Bar Association: Best known as the licensing agency for lawyers required to pass the bar exam to practice in the U.S., the ABA also provides extensive resources to paralegals, including a career center, networking opportunities, webinars, and a wide variety of on-demand and free online continuing education courses.
- National Federation of Paralegals Association: In addition to hosting events including an annual convention, publishing numerous newsletters and industry journals, and offering continuing education webinars, the NFPA features a special section on its website dedicated to supplying pro bono professionals with the latest compliance information.
- National Paralegal Association: The NPA offers several publications targeting both aspiring and established paralegals, as well as services such as job boards, mailing list rentals, and corporate sponsorship opportunities geared toward not only individual paralegal professionals but also the firms, agencies, and legal departments that employ paralegals.
Open courseware can be especially beneficial to a paralegal student looking to gain experience from a variety of sources while earning an online paralegal certificate or completing an online paralegal program. Open courseware is often ideal for high school seniors looking to complete college-level prerequisites before enrolling in a higher learning program. The flexibility and affordability of open courseware also allows more experienced students to expand their scope of knowledge or explore a different course of paralegal studies. Additionally, a student in an entirely different area of academia who is interested in entering the world of legal studies can try out a course with no financial or professional obligation. Below are just some of the most notable open courseware options for paralegal students:
- OEdB Paralegal Courses
- OEConsortium Paralegal Courses
- TUDelft Law Courses
- Open Culture Law Courses
- Coursera Law Courses
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