What Is a Paralegal?
Are you fascinated by the law? If you’ve dreamed of working side-by-side with an attorney, a career as a paralegal may be right for you. A paralegal is a specially trained legal assistant who works in support of and under the direction of an attorney. Their duties are varied but can include helping during trials, preparing documents, interviewing clients, and conducting legal research. Paralegals can work in private law offices or in the public sphere with district attorneys, prosecutors, or public defenders.
Being a certified paralegal opens the door to a wide range of employment opportunities. Beyond working for an attorney, your training will be of value to government agencies, real estate agencies, corporations, and other organizations. Not only do paralegals earn generous salaries averaging $56,230, but the need for paralegal services is growing so quickly that the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 14% growth in demand over the next ten years.
What is a Paralegal Degree?
Many paralegals already in possession of either a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree enter a post-degree certification program. The material covered in these programs offers training specific to the work that a paralegal will eventually do, including legal research and legal writing. Paralegal candidates who have not already earned a degree can enroll in paralegal associate or bachelor degree programs that provide these foundational courses as well as core educational classes in math, composition, and social sciences.
Types of Paralegal Classes
Whether you sign up for a paralegal certification program or a paralegal associate or bachelor’s degree program, you can expect that the majority of your time will be spent in classes on Torts, Family Law, Contracts, and Legal Research. Your law-oriented classes will be supplemented by others that will support you as an administrative member of a legal practice, including courses in business systems and in law office management.
Typically, paralegal programs will include the following courses:
- Interpersonal Communication
- Domestic Relations
- Copyright Law and Trademark
- Constitutional Law
- Business Law
- Business Ethics
- Alternative Dispute Resolution
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Introduction to Business
- Law Office Management
- Legal Analysis and Writing
- Legal Research
- Pleadings and the Court
- Wills, Trusts, and Estates
Skills Learned in a Paralegal Degree Program
Paralegal degree programs provide the skills and knowledge you will need to perform a paralegal’s duties, but they also prepare you to think critically and to use an organized and logical approach to tasks. Paralegal work requires attention to detail and deadlines. They are expected to catch errors and inaccuracies that others may have missed, whether in spelling and grammar or in citations and timelines. Top skills include:
- Technology skills
- Critical thinking
Because paralegals also spend a great deal of their time interacting with clients, good communication and interpersonal skills are extremely helpful.
How Long Does it Take to Get a Paralegal Degree?
The amount of time it takes to earn a paralegal degree depends on many different factors, but most specifically these:
- Whether you already have an associate or bachelor’s degree
- Whether you are pursuing your program in person or online
- Whether you choose a part-time or full-time program
A comprehensive post-bachelor’s paralegal program can be completed in four months and usually encompasses approximately 75 hours of classroom learning, which can be offered either in person or online. There are also master’s programs that offer a degree in paralegal studies. These specialized programs can generally be completed in one year.
Those without a degree will need to invest more time into their education, as most law offices require their paralegals to have a minimum of a two-year associate degree, and many expect them to have earned their bachelor’s degree.
Paralegal Degree Specialization
Every associate, bachelor’s and post-bachelor’s paralegal provides a comprehensive education in what is needed to succeed in this invaluable role, but there are many areas of law that paralegals can pursue once they are in the workplace. Entry into paralegal work in these practice areas may be based on personal interest or work experience, and include:
- Corporate law
- Estate planning and probate
- Family law
- Government law
- Immigration law
- Intellectual property
- Real estate
- Medical malpractice
- Criminal defense
- Banking and finance
Those who pursue their paralegal degree as part of a master’s program have additional options. While some may choose to complete a graduate certificate in paralegal studies, others can pursue specialty areas of the law that bestow specialty certificates such as a Certificate in Healthcare Corporate Compliance or in any of the areas listed above.
Paralegal Certification and Training
Rather than one single organization, there are several different groups that certify paralegal programs. Though there are small differences in the credentials required, each one provides a reliable indication that those who have completed the program and earned the certification possess a robust knowledge in the following areas:
- Legal communications
- Civil, family, tort, and criminal law
- Required documentation
- Court proceedings
- Legal concepts, skills, and terminology
Certifying organizations include:
- National Association for Legal Support Professionals (NALS)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- American Alliance of Paralegals Inc. (AAP)
- The Association for Legal Administrators
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
Different certifications include:
What Can You Do with a Paralegal Degree?
Most people who attend paralegal programs do so with the intention of going to work for a law firm or similar agency in that role. But sometimes, the education opens doors to entirely different careers. As students expand their knowledge of the law, legal research, and courtroom procedures, they become eligible for a wide range of other professions built on that expertise. These include positions in government assisting legislators, professions requiring a deep understanding of compliance with regulations, and even in law enforcement.
Paralegal Salary and Career Information
The investment in a paralegal program quickly pays off with a generous salary and solid career opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay earned by paralegals in 2021 was $56,230, and the agency is forecasting a 14% increase in demand for paralegals over the next ten years.
Though circumstances could change, that prediction far exceeds what is expected nationally for all positions. This is due in large part to workers transitioning to other positions or retiring.
Paralegal Career Paths
An experienced paralegal’s skills and knowledge can open doors to many other careers, and it is common for these professionals to move on to even more rewarding positions once they’ve identified what they like best about their job responsibilities. Below you’ll find a few of the jobs that graduates of paralegal degree programs can transition into.
- Median Salary: $63,665
- Career Outlook: +7% (2020-2030)
Contract administrators review the terms of contracts to make sure that all parties meet the obligations to which they originally agreed. They also modify contracts where needed and agreed upon.
- Median Salary: $85,991
- Career Outlook: +6% (2020-2030)
Legislative assistants work for elected or appointed officials. They research, analyze, write, and track legislative bills in support of the person to whom they report.
- Median Salary: $62,569
- Career Outlook: +7% (2020-2030)
Law firm practice managers are responsible for the administration of the practice, including hiring, IT, marketing, attorney support, and business development.
Outstanding Paralegal Schools in the U.S.
George Washington College of Professional Studies – Washington, D.C.
GW offers a Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies that has met the approval of the American Bar Association. There are only 260 programs that have achieved this level in the country. The program is flexible, including evening and online classes and has been named among the best in the nation. The MPS in Paralegal Studies program includes a total of 32 credits. The school also offers an MPS in Paralegal Studies with a Certificate in Healthcare Corporate Compliance.
Chattanooga State Community College – Chattanooga, TN
Chattanooga State offers a paralegal studies program leading to an AAS degree. This is a two-year, full-time curriculum that prepares graduates to enter the paralegal profession. Many graduates of the paralegal studies program go on to continue a four year degree.
Bunker Hill Community College – Boston, MA
Bunker Hill’s Paralegal and Legal Studies Program leads to an associate of science degree. Courses are offered in person during the day, evening, and weekends, as well as online. Students are prepared for careers in criminal justice, as well as to continue their studies at four-year institutions.
Tulane University – New Orleans, LA
Tulane University’s General Legal Studies Program is the oldest ABA-approved program in the region. It offers both a bachelor of science degree plus a paralegal certificate and a post-bachelor’s certificate in paralegal studies. The program is available as an online bachelor’s degree, an accelerated degree program leading to a master’s degree in 5 years, and a post-bachelor certificate program.
Long Island University Brooklyn — Brooklyn, NY
Long Island University’s Brooklyn Paralegal Program has been educating paralegals for over 50 years. It is a certificate program that provides 328 hours of either onsite and/or online instruction over two academic semesters. Courses are offered throughout the calendar year. The program is approved by the American Bar Association.
Online Paralegal Degree in Paralegal Programs
Paralegal studies are particularly well suited to online programs. Paralegals are diligent, self-motivated, and organized, and those skills lend themselves to the flexibility of an online degree. By choosing to pursue a paralegal certification online, you can choose to attend a school that is located anywhere. And, in most cases, you can take classes at your convenience. An online degree allows you to continue earning money and fulfilling family and social obligations while providing yourself with the opportunity to enter a new and rewarding career.
Though online degrees were once unfamiliar to law firm hiring managers, today they represent independence, motivation, discipline, and attention to detail.
How Long do Online Courses Take to Complete?
The length of time it takes to complete an online paralegal program depends upon the type of degree or certificate you are pursuing, as well as how much flexibility the program you choose allows.
Some programs offer fully online courses while others expect a certain percentage of in-person attendance. Similarly, some schools offer classes in real time (synchronously) that you need to attend on a set schedule, while others allow you to work at your own pace and view pre-recorded classes on an asynchronous basis.
Generally speaking, an online paralegal certificate program can be completed in 14 weeks.
Next Steps to Become a Paralegal
The paralegal profession is rewarding in so many ways. The work is interesting and collaborative, the pay is good, and there’s growing demand. If you’ve decided that becoming a paralegal is the right step for you, here are the next steps you need to follow to get started.
Investigate whether your state imposes any specific requirements for working as a paralegal. If it does, keep those requirements in mind as you choose a paralegal program.
Identify the paralegal program that works best for you and that fits your goals. If you’ve already earned an associate or bachelor’s degree, that may be a certificate program. If you have a high school diploma or equivalent, you will want to decide between an associate degree program or a bachelor’s degree program, as well as whether you want to study in person, online, or in a hybrid program. There are plenty of options available to you.
Apply to the program(s) that you’re most interested in.
Complete the program.
Complete a certifying examination. Though there is no requirement that paralegals be certified, doing so will add to your credentials and assure potential employers of your qualifications and knowledge.
Admissions Requirements for Paralegal Degree Programs
The requirements for a paralegal program will vary depending upon the type of program that you choose and the individual requirements of that school. If you are pursuing a paralegal degree in combination with earning an associate degree, most schools require a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent. Some require a minimum grade.
A bachelor’s degree program with a focus on legal studies will also require a high school diploma, or equivalent, a minimum GPA, and may also require that you take standardized tests or submit letters of recommendation.
If you are a high school graduate or you have an associate or bachelor’s degree and are strictly pursuing a paralegal certificate, most programs will ask you to score a minimum grade on an admissions aptitude test.
Is a paralegal the same as a lawyer?
- A paralegal works as an assistant to an attorney or under their supervision. They are not able to practice law, to represent clients in court, or generally to give legal advice.
Can a paralegal choose to work in a specific area of the law?
- Yes. Once you have become a paralegal, you can choose to specialize in almost any area of the law. Many paralegals specialize in bankruptcy, family law, criminal law, and other practice areas.
Do paralegals make a good salary?
- The average national salary for a paralegal in the United States is $56,230. Paralegals who work in some industries or settings, including the federal government and finance, tend to earn higher salaries.
How long does it take to become a paralegal?
- The amount of time that it takes to become a paralegal depends upon your previous education or experience and whether you want your certification to be part of an associate degree or bachelor’s degree program. Simple certification can be completed in 14 weeks, while an associate degree program takes two years to complete, and a bachelor’s degree program takes four years to complete.
Is being a paralegal a good job?
- Paralegals report that they enjoy the flexibility of their work, as well as the rewards of helping clients and being appreciated by the attorneys with whom they work.
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