Study Paralegal Studies: Associate's and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance
Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, play a vital role in the legal system by assisting attorneys with research, documentation, trial preparation, organization and drafting legal documents. An associate's or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies is typically the first step toward starting a career in this field. Completing a paralegal studies program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) enable you to become a certified paralegal through a national organization.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted an average growth rate of 18% for paralegals from 2010-2020. In 2011, the BLS reported than paralegals had a median annual salary of approximately $47,000.
|Who is this degree for?||Individuals interested in working as paralegals or legal assistants||People who want to work as specialized paralegals or legal instructors|
|Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary)|| - Paralegal or legal assistant ($47,000)* |
- Title examiner ($41,000)***
|- Paralegal manager ($85,000 may require at least 8 years' experience)**|
- Legal support instructor ($47,000 may require 2-4 years of experience)**
- Immigration specialist ($59,000 may require 2-4 years of experience)**
|Time to Completion||1-2 years full-time||4 year's full-time|
|Common Graduation Requirements|| - Roughly 60 credit hours in paralegal studies and general education coursework |
| - Roughly 120 credit hours in paralegal studies and general education coursework |
|Prerequisites||High school diploma or equivalent||High school diploma or equivalent|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures). Source: **Salary.com (May 2012 figures). Source: ***ONetOnline.org (2011 figures).
Associate's Degrees in Paralegal Studies
An associate's program in paralegal studies is designed to provide you with all of the necessary training and education you need to pursue a successful career as a paralegal, while also providing you with a solid foundation in legal principles and ethics. Upon earning your associate's degree in paralegal studies, you will be able to effectively research legal cases, conduct interviews, organize documents and use legal databases. ABA approved associate's-level programs are commonly available through community colleges.
Pros and Cons
- Holding an associate's will make you more desirable to potential employers over someone holding a high school diploma
- An associate's degree in paralegal studies might count as the first half of a bachelor's degree if you ever decide to continue your education to qualify for higher paying paralegal jobs
- Paralegals can work in a variety of industries, like government agencies, law offices and financial organizations
- There are no state or federal licensing/certification requirements for paralegal training/education, so earning a degree might not be necessary
- An associate's degree in paralegal studies trains you for one job and thus there is very little diversity in careers
- You might work long, unpredictable hours
Courses and Requirements
The courses you will take in an associate's degree program in paralegal studies will focus on introducing you to legal concepts, ethics and practices in addition to teaching you how to assist attorneys and other law professionals in their daily work. Some general courses you might take include:
- Legal analysis
- Introduction to law
- Civil litigation
- Legal research
- Legal ethics
In addition to coursework, you might need to complete an internship. Your internship will take place in an attorney's office, courthouse or similar environment and will give you the opportunity to take learn in a real world situation.
When pursuing your associate's degree in paralegal studies, you have the option to do so on campus, online or through a hybrid program that combines both formats. ABA approved online programs do exist, and provide coursework that is virtually the same as what you would find in an on-campus program. If you are working full-time or have other commitments, an online paralegal degree could provide the flexibility you need to pursue your education.
Stand Out with This Degree
According to the BLS, having work experience in an office setting may appeal to employers. While earning your degree, try to find a full- or part-time job working in a legal office as a receptionist, secretary or assistant. This work experience could prove valuable for finding a job when combines with your associate's degree.
You can earn a certification from a nationally recognized organization, such as the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), by taking an exam. While certification is not required in this field, earning this credential immediately after graduation could make your resume stand out to potential employers.
Bachelor's Degrees in Paralegal Studies
Bachelor's-level programs in paralegal studies are very similar to associate's programs, but offer more advanced coursework and specialized areas of study, such as social work or immigration law. Bachelor's programs in paralegal studies are not nearly as common as associate's level programs, but they do exist. Earning your bachelor's degree could qualify you for managerial or specialized paralegal work, or it could be the first step you take toward attending law school or earning a master's degree in legal studies.
Pros and Cons
- A bachelor's degree in paralegal studies can serve as a stepping stone toward law school if you decide to continue your education
- A bachelor's program might offer more in-depth coursework through areas of specialization
- Courses may be taught by practicing lawyers or judges, giving you the opportunity to learn from top professionals in the field
- Work experience is favored over a higher degree in this field, with the highest paying jobs available to associate's degree holders with work experience over bachelor's degree holders without relevant experience
- A bachelor's degree is not required for most jobs in the field
- A bachelor's degree in paralegal studies is focused on obtaining a job as a paralegal, and if you should want to change careers, you may need more education
Courses and Requirements
The majority of the courses you take in a paralegal studies program will focus on teaching you the foundations and basic principles of the law. This portion of the coursework will be highly similar to coursework offered in associate's programs, though the work may be more advanced or complex. Bachelor's programs differ from associate's in the fact a wider range of specialized electives are typically available, enabling you to customize your degree to some extent. Some general courses you might take include:
- Constitutional law
- Computers and the law
- Introduction to legal studies
- Advanced legal research
- Principles of litigation
As with associate's programs, your school may require you to complete an internship in a legal setting before awarding your degree.
If you are interested in earning your bachelor's degree in paralegal studies, you have the option to complete your coursework on campus, online or through a hybrid program. Some hybrid programs require as little as one day a week of campus study. An ABA approved online program will provide the same quality of education and coursework similar to what is offered by campus-based institutions.
Stand Out with This Degree
If your school offers a variety of electives in specialized areas of the law, take as many as you can. Having diverse education and experience might give you a competitive edge when applying for jobs because you will be able to cover more than one area of legal research.
The BLS reports that some firms hire paralegals with a bachelor's degree in any field and paralegal training or experience. Pursuing your bachelor's degree in another field won't necessarily increase your job prospects for becoming a paralegal, but it will open up more job opportunities to you in other fields in the event you ever want to change careers. Some schools even offer an accelerated paralegal training program for people who have earned a bachelor's degree in another field of study.