Paralegal Studies Degrees: Master's, Certificate & Online Class Info

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What jobs can you get with a graduate certificate or master's degree in paralegal studies? Get the facts about requirements, online options, courses and training programs.
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Studying Paralegal Studies: Graduate Certificates and Master's Degrees at a Glance

A paralegal studies master's degree or graduate certificate program can prepare you to perform many of the tasks normally done by a lawyer, under the supervision of a lawyer. A paralegal doesn't generally perform their law-related duties for the general public, but will provide legal and case-related research, draft legal documents, conduct interviews and manage client files, as well as assist with case preparation.

Law firms are reducing expenses by hiring paralegals to take over many duties formerly performed by higher-priced attorneys. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that paralegals generally have an associates degree, which means having a graduate degree or certificate could make you a more competitive applicant. The BLS predicted that the demand for paralegals would increase by 18% between 2010 and 2020. The BLS also forecasted a demand for paralegals experienced in specialized areas of law, such as healthcare, finance or insurance to fill corporate in-house legal staff positions, rather than generalists hired by law firms.

Certificate Masters
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in entering the legal field as paralegals or supervising paralegal departments Individuals interested in entering the legal field as paralegals or legal assistants
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual median salary) - Paralegal/legal assistant ($46,700) *
- Paralegal Manager ($84,700) **
- Paralegal Supervisor ($70,900) **
- Same careers as graduate certificate program
Time to Completion - 2-3 years depending on if studies include office administration coursework (which is the supervision and management of law offices and/or paralegal staff) Two years full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Pro bono legal service or internship - Independent or Legal Research
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree - Same as graduate certificate program
Online Availability Yes Some courses might be available online

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and **Salary.com.

Paralegal Studies Graduate Certificate Program

Graduate certificate programs in paralegal studies are offered to students who want to supplement their bachelor's degree from a legal area or another field. Students will study law and procedures to perform paralegal duties under the supervision of an attorney.

This program often offers elective courses in managing a law office or other administrative skills. You may want to take advantage of these courses to put you in a better position for advancement on a management career path. With increasing paralegal staff in law firms and corporations, companies will need supervisory paralegals to manage these departments.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • This program is available at more schools than the master's degree program
  • There are more options for specialty law courses, and courses geared toward managing law offices
  • Since law offices are replacing attorneys with paralegals, more of them will require managers and supervisors for their paralegal staff

Cons

  • Not all online programs are offered by state-approved accrediting agencies
  • A paralegal performs many of the same tasks as a lawyer, but the pay is much lower
  • There are no state certification options for paralegals, and a paralegal with a graduate certificate will be competing in the job market with paralegals with associate's degrees or trade school certificates, as well as experience

Courses and Requirements

Paralegal studies certificate programs include intensive coursework in legal theory and analysis as well as general and specialty areas of law. In addition to the theoretical and practical aspects of law, coursework includes litigation, legal research, legal writing and computer technology. Paralegal students may also be required to complete an internship as part of their graduation requirements. Curriculum requirements generally include:

  • Legal research and writing
  • Litigation
  • Civil and criminal procedure
  • A variety of options for specialty law courses
  • Law office management
  • Internship or pro bono community service

Depending on the school, you can also take courses in nonprofit law, family law, healthcare law, constitutional law, intellectual property law, estate and trust law, administrative law and alternative dispute resolution.

Online Course Info

Online paralegal graduate certificate courses are available. These programs may be offered by schools that are not be accredited by state accrediting agencies, but the programs may be approved or accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). There are also several paralegal associations that accept memberships from institutions that adhere to their standards.

Getting Ahead with this Certificate

You may want to specialize in a certain area of law, such as e-discovery, which is the process of discovery that involves electronically generated and stored information. Plaintiffs and defendants in litigation are both subject to this discovery process. If you develop a proficiency in computer technology, you can be a valuable asset as a paralegal who can competently manage e-discovery requirements in client cases, whether you work for a boutique law firm or a corporation.

There are many offerings of continuing legal education (CLE) courses directed at the legal profession that you could take as a paralegal in areas like legal research, real estate and civil litigation. You can find CLE classes through a variety of organizations, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants or National Federation of Paralegal Associations.

Degree Alternatives

You can develop similar research and analytical skills through a graduate certificate program in survey research. In addition to the legal field, survey researchers are utilized in many areas, including science and technology, education and management.

The BLS predicted that employment for these researchers would increase at a rate of 24% between 2010 and 2020, which is higher than paralegals. Survey researchers in social sciences - which include law-related subjects - had an average salary of $66,000, while all survey researchers saw an average of $48,000, according to the BLS in 2011.

If your interest is the law, you can use this certificate to conduct research into programs and policies that affect jury selection, the criminal justice system and other courtroom issues as well as law making. A graduate certificate in this field will make you more competitive than survey researchers with just a bachelor's degree.

Master's Degree in Paralegal Studies

Master's degree programs in paralegal studies cover the study of law in the context of performing legal tasks under the supervision of an attorney. Courses in these graduate programs are often provided in conjunction with an established law school. You will study similar topics to law students, including how to conduct legal research, write legal documents and manage client case files for a law practice or corporate legal department.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Employment for paralegals is growing at a rate that mirrors the national average, 18% between 2010 and 2020.
  • Law offices are replacing lawyers with paralegals, to perform the same duties that lawyers perform, but under the supervision and direction of an attorney
  • Corporations are creating in-house legal departments, which expands the job opportunities for paralegals*
  • The field of paralegals who specialize in a defined area of law, such as healthcare or insurance, is growing*

Cons

  • This is a program of limited availability
  • A paralegal performs many of the same tasks as a lawyer, but the pay is much lower
  • Paralegals with a master's degree may be pursuing similar job openings to paralegals who already have professional training and experience

Source: *U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Master's degree programs in paralegal studies include intensive coursework in legal procedures as well as general and specialty areas of law. In addition to the theoretical and practical aspects of law, coursework covers computer technology and programs commonly used in many busy law offices. Other practical aspects of your education will include classes in research, communication skills and ethics. Paralegal students are also required to complete an internship as part of their graduation requirements. Curriculum requirements include:

  • American jurisprudence
  • Corporate and contract law
  • Legal research and writing
  • Litigation and procedures
  • Specialty law courses
  • Independent research project

Online Course Info

Although rare, you can complete paralegal studies through an online master's degree program. The online course material is generally similar to the curriculum from a traditional program. Online programs from ABA-approved schools offer comparable academic credit to classroom-based instruction.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

The BLS reports that the demand for paralegals with expertise in specialized areas of law is increasing. Healthcare law is expanding, and you could take specialized courses to make yourself more desirable to this market. Trends toward specialization also include insurance and finance law.

Computer technology is also a critical area for a paralegal. Most legal research is done with computerized products, as is client file management, investigations and trial preparation. You should become proficient with not only the commonly used software, but also with new developments in computing devices. As more courts and law offices go paperless, your proficiency with computer technology will be an essential skill.

While states do not have certification for paralegals, you can obtain certification from a private organization that is recognized within the legal industry. Obtaining certification is voluntary, but it shows employers that you meet the proficiency standards required of that certification, making you stand out in the job market.

Degree Alternatives

You may decide to study business management at the graduate level to expand your opportunities to an administrative or supervisory position within the legal community. With a strong background in law and business administration, you can expand your job opportunities outside of the legal profession, to businesses that have legal departments that require supervision. Employment for administrative services managers, including those who work in upper-level supervisory roles, would see a 15% increase between 2010 and 2020. You could also see a higher average salary at $87,000, according to the BLS in 2011.

With a master's degree program in paralegal studies, you have somewhat limited opportunities for advancement, or for parallel career paths. Because your work will be limited by state laws to working under the supervision of a licensed attorney, you cannot offer your services to the general public or perform many legal functions independently. If this poses unacceptable restrictions on you, you may want to consider going for a full-fledged law degree, since it only requires one additional year of school and passing the bar exam. Projected growth for lawyers is slightly lower (10% between 2010 and 2020) than for paralegals, but the career options are more flexible, and the pay is higher at $131,000, according to the BLS.

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Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Master: Legal Studies
  • Master: Criminal Justice

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Colorado Technical University

  • M.S. - Criminal Justice

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Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice Intelligence & Crime Analysis

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Marymount University

Northcentral University

  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Criminal Justice

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Lewis University

  • MS in Criminal Justice

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