Legal Degrees at a Glance
Legal associate's and bachelor's degrees are commonly offered as legal studies or paralegal studies programs. These programs are designed to prepare graduates for professional work as legal assistants or paralegals, which are professional titles that have similar job responsibilities. As of September 2012, the ABA had approved 270 paralegal programs nationwide. Programs for aspiring legal secretaries are also available at the associate's degree level and are commonly offered as office administration programs with legal concentration options.
Paralegals and legal assistants are professionals who assist lawyers in research and preparation for trial, but cannot practice law. By contrast, legal secretaries would handle office administration tasks like answering phones and preparing messages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that legal assistants and paralegals nationwide would see an 18% increase in employment from 2010-2020.
|Who is this degree for?||Individuals who want to work as paralegals||Individuals who want to work as paralegals or continue their education at the graduate level|
|Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary)||Paralegal/legal assistant ($50,000)*||Paralegal/legal assistant ($50,000)*|
|Time to Completion||2 years||4 years|
|Common Graduation Requirements|| - About 60 credit hours of coursework |
- An internship
| - About 120 credit hours of coursework |
- A final project
|Prerequisites||A high school diploma||A high school diploma|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2011
Associate's Degree in Legal Studies
An associate's degree in legal studies is a 2-year program that includes coursework in general education areas like English and mathematics as well as foundational legal concepts. Related topics in areas of finance or communication may also be included and can help students become prepared for work in a variety of legal settings. Graduates are typically prepared to work as legal assistants or paralegals in government agencies, large corporations or private law firms. An internship may also be available for credit, but is not a requirement for all associate's degree programs. Some employers may prefer applicants who have a bachelor's degree.
Pros and Cons
- You can be prepared to work as a paralegal in only two years
- The mean annual salary for paralegals as of May 2011 was higher than the average for all occupations nationwide*
- Job growth is expected to increase as duties formerly performed by lawyers are transferred to legal assistants
- Paralegals commonly work long hours
- Online programs are rare
- Career options are somewhat limited because most programs are specifically designed for paralegals
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Common Course Requirements
Associate's degree programs in legal studies commonly cover general education topics as well as foundational legal concepts. In addition to relevant subjects like financial accounting and speech, you'll commonly take courses in legal research and learn methods that can help you prepare a lawyer for trial. Legal studies students will commonly take courses in subjects like:
- Family law
- Civil litigation
- Criminal law
- Business law
- Legal ethics
- Property law
Online Degree Options
Online associate's degree programs in legal studies are available, but they are uncommon and may only be available through for-profit colleges and universities. However, for-profit college legal studies programs may be approved by the ABA, just like public or not-for-profit colleges, but you'll have to check with the individual school if this is the case. Online programs typically feature similar coursework as on-campus programs, covering areas like bankruptcy, real estate law, legal research and family law.
Stand Out with This Degree
You may stand out in this profession if you have some experience working in a legal setting, so completing an internship during your associate degree program could help you demonstrate to employers that you're familiar with the responsibilities of a legal assistant. Additionally, certification is available through a variety of organizations, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants. Certification can help you prove both your competency in the field and your dedication to the profession.
Bachelor's Degree in Legal Studies
While bachelor's degree programs are available in legal studies, the program may also be offered as a liberal arts program with a concentration in legal studies. Commonly, associate's degree holders can transfer into bachelor's degree programs to improve employment opportunities. Bachelor's degree programs may offer coursework in a wider variety of legal subjects, and a senior project may be required for graduation. While having a bachelor's degree could prove valuable in the job market, individuals will still compete with associate's degree holders for entry-level positions.
Pros and Cons
- More elective coursework in legal studies may be available
- Coursework in legal office administration could prepare you for management roles
- A 4-year degree program will qualify you for law school or graduate studies
- A bachelor's degree in legal studies is not commonly required for paralegal positions
- You'll be competing with individuals who only hold associate's degrees
- Earning a bachelor's degree after completing an associate's program will not broaden the career paths that you're qualified to pursue
Common Course Requirements
A bachelor's degree program in legal studies will cover many of the topics that an associate's program covers, but will also allow for a more advanced and in-depth study of the field. In addition to foundational legal studies concepts and legal research, a senior project may be required for graduation. Also, you may have the opportunity to choose an area of emphasis, such as a legal assistant concentration or a general legal studies concentration. These program tracks could help you either prepare for a career or the next step of your education. Common coursework includes:
- American law
- Law office management
- Constitutional law
- Legal writing
- Philosophy of law
Online bachelor's degree programs in legal studies are offered in a variety of formats. A program may be offered entirely online or partially online; the online program may be offered in a broader area of study with a legal studies concentration. Like associate's degree programs, bachelor's degree programs that are offered online are less common than on-campus options and are more likely to be available at for-profit colleges. Completing an online program may alter the structure of the program. For example, in an online program, you may be required to complete a capstone project.
Stand Out with this Degree
While earning a bachelor's degree in legal studies will demonstrate to future employers that you've invested a substantial amount of time into the area of study, it will still be beneficial to have some experience in the field. Some bachelor's degree programs may not offer internship opportunities for credit, so you may need to seek employment outside of your program in order to gain hands-on knowledge in the field. Certification through an organization like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) is also an option for bachelor's degree holders and can help you demonstrate your dedication to legal studies to future employers.