Online Associate Degree in Legal Studies

Associate degrees in legal studies introduce you to a wide range of law-related topics such as the American legal system, research techniques, and professional ethics. Legal studies programs are generalized, providing great flexibility after graduation. Many paralegal programs provide focused training for a specific profession, and lead to certificates or diplomas rather than degrees. With an online legal studies degree, you can pursue a variety of careers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that legal occupations will grow by 9% between 2016 and 2026.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that legal occupations will grow by 9% between 2016 and 2026, leading to more than 116,000 new jobs for lawyers, paralegals, and legal assistants. With many American law firms looking to cut costs by hiring more paralegals and assistants while employing fewer lawyers, the job outlook for graduates with associate degrees in legal studies is strong. Most associate programs require only a high school diploma or equivalent, making it easy to get started.

Most online legal studies programs culminate in either an associate of arts (AA) degree or an associate of science (AS) degree. While both options cover similar topics, they differ significantly in their supplemental focus areas. In an AA path, students complement their core learning with classes in creative and technical writing, history, and literature. AS legal degrees typically take a more mathematical and scientific approach with quantitative analysis, accounting, and computer applications. Schools with elective or required practicums enable students to make professional contacts and gain valuable hands-on experience.

It is important to balance cost with factors such as the school's reputation, career center facilities, job search support programs, and post-graduation employment rates. Out-of-state schools may offer study opportunities that aren't available at local colleges, but learners are also likely to pay higher tuition fees. Students should also consider the program's format. Is it fully online, on-campus only, or a hybrid? Fully online programs offer flexibility, while traditional on-campus programs deliver interactive learning experiences. Hybrid programs deliver the best of both worlds.

Sample Courses for an Associate Degree in Legal Studies Online

Most online associate programs include a similar set of core course requirements. Below are five sample courses that appear in many legal studies course catalogues:

Example Courses

Fundamentals of the American Legal System Students explore the structure and policies of the American legal system. A sound understanding of these topics helps learners succeed in practically every law-related career path.
Professional Ethics and Values State and federal laws require legal professionals to adhere to a strict set of professional values and ethical conduct guidelines. Students especially benefit if they wish to become a paralegal or lawyer.
Legal Research and Analysis Lawyers expect paralegals and assistants to make valuable contributions during the case-building process, which requires specialized research and analysis skills.
The Criminal Justice System Students explore the rights and obligations Americans have when interacting with the criminal justice system, and the policies and procedures criminal courts follow. Students considering a career in criminal prosecution or defense law need a strong understanding of these topics.
Civil Litigation Unlike the criminal system, American civil law primarily exists to compensate victims rather than punish offenders. Courses provide an introduction to this parallel system, helping students build toward a civil law career.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Associate Degree in Legal Studies?

Earning an associate degree in legal studies online typically takes four semesters of full-time study. Students can complete the program in about two years by taking full course loads in the fall and spring semesters. Most associate degrees in legal studies require the equivalent of about 60 credits to graduate.

The program's learning structure also influences the amount of time it takes to complete your studies. Individual pace structures allow you to move through coursework at your own speed. Cohort structures move students through the program together and typically offer fewer options for expediting graduation.

Earning an associate degree in legal studies prepares you for entry-level careers in law-related fields. Graduates enjoy a broader range of career opportunities with an associate degree than if they only earned a diploma or certificate in a narrow and highly specific area. With an associate degree, you can pursue opportunities in many roles, giving you enhanced flexibility and prospects. However, for more advanced and technical roles, students are better served with an online bachelor's degree in legal studies.

Private law firms employ many graduates with an associate degree in legal studies, and firms of all sizes tend to hire more paralegals and assistants while reducing the number of lawyers on their payrolls. In the public sector, graduates can seek careers with federal and state justice departments, district attorney's offices, law enforcement agencies, revenue agencies, customs agencies, housing authorities, and insurance regulators.

What Kind of Job Can You Get with a Legal Studies Degree?

Earning an associate degree in legal studies online opens doors to a broad range of entry-level careers. Graduates typically assist established professionals who work with lawyers, courts, and other aspects of the criminal and civil litigation systems.

Here are five examples of entry-level jobs you can pursue with a legal studies associate degree:

Paralegal

Also called legal assistants, these professionals assist lawyers by taking notes during meetings, performing preliminary case law research, providing organizational assistance, and drafting documents. Many law firms, especially larger ones, prefer to hire legal assistants with degrees, since degree holders have a more comprehensive education.

Law Clerk

These positions include file clerks and mail clerks. File clerks store, organize, and retrieve case files, legal documents, and evidence. Mail clerks manage incoming correspondence and interact with professionals at all levels of an organization. In both cases, degree holders are more likely to be promoted.

Legal Receptionist

Administrative assistant positions are excellent launch points for a career in law, as they inherently involve frequent interpersonal contact with law firm principals. Degree holders can rapidly advance beyond this entry-level position.

Research Assistant

Practically every criminal and civil case involves intensive research as part of the litigation preparation process. With an associate degree, professionals have more advanced knowledge and research skills, making them more valuable team members.

Court Messenger

These professionals file court documents, deliver legal paperwork to opposing attorneys, and perform other errands for lawyers. The position offers excellent networking potential, and an associate degree helps graduates advance their careers.
Occupations and Salary for Online Associate Degree in Legal Studies Graduates
Job Title Overall Median Salary Median Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 years) Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years) Median Salary for Late-Career Employees (>20 years)
Paralegal $54,066 $42,114 $61,049 $67,407
Law Clerk $30,978 $23,862 $34,898 $38,630
Legal Receptionist $30,978 $23,862 $34,898 $38,630
Research Assistant $30,165 $21,369 $34,091 $38,962
Court Messenger $30,467 $21,570 $35,332 $39,445
Source: BLS, May 2017

Licensure and Certification

Licensure and certification is voluntary and only applies to the paralegal/legal assistant profession. Self-regulation serves as the unofficial standard for legal support professionals in the U.S., and while certification is not required, it is recommended. Holding appropriate certifications helps professionals find more lucrative and rewarding career opportunities.

All U.S. states boast a paralegal professional organization, and if you are interested in earning certification, contact the chapter in the state where you plan to work.

Schools earn accreditation by meeting strict standards of educational program quality as defined by national or regional accrediting bodies. National accreditation generally applies to private, for-profit schools and schools with particular religious affiliations. Regionally accredited schools are typically state-owned, nonprofit, and degree-oriented. Neither form of accreditation is superior to the other.

With online schools, students should look for one with national accreditation from the Distance Education Training Council, or regional accreditation from one of six regional accrediting agencies.

Programmatic accreditation for legal studies degrees may also be offered by the American Bar Association Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, but this designation rarely applies at the associate level and is usually reserved for law schools.

By studying online, you can enjoy far more flexibility than you would if you attended traditional classes. This flexibility allows you to work while you take courses, enabling you to help finance your studies. Those needing additional financial assistance may also file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. By doing so, you are evaluated for government financial aid eligibility, a process that culminates in a customized Student Aid Report that lists the types of federal aid you qualify for.

Government loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities are the most common financial aid offerings.

Government loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities are the most common financial aid offerings. You can also borrow money from private lenders including banks, credit unions, and specialized financial institutions, but note that private student loans tend to come with higher interest rates and stricter repayment terms than government loans. Scholarships can also help legal studies students, with many awards available upon acceptance into an accredited program. Private institutions, law firms, philanthropic organizations, and bar associations offer scholarships.

Legal Studies Scholarships

Students typically receive scholarships based on merit. Usually, organizations that offer scholarships select applicants with demonstrated academic excellence, community involvement, and extracurricular activity. Unlike loans, scholarships do not need to be repaid.

Here are five national scholarships open to students in associate legal studies programs:

Scholarships for Legal Studies Students

Aiello Harris Legal Scholarships $1,000

Who Can Apply: Applicants need a minimum high school 3.0 GPA and be pursuing a degree related to legal assistant or paralegal studies. View Scholarship

Console and Hallawell Paralegal Scholarship $500

Who Can Apply: open to U.S. citizens in college-level paralegal or legal assistant programs. View Scholarship

D'Olivera & Associates College Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: This essay-based competition is open to students in accredited legal studies programs in the U.S. View Scholarship

Law Offices of Billy Skinner Student Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: open to full-time students in legal studies programs with a minimum 3.0 GPA. View Scholarship

Thomson/Reuters Scholarship of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. $2,000-3,000

Who Can Apply: Applicants must submit an essay on an assigned topic, provide two references, and use the awarded funds solely toward paralegal studies. View Scholarship

Many students enroll in bachelor's programs in legal studies after completing their associate degrees. A bachelor's in legal studies opens up many academic and professional opportunities. Most law schools admit applicants from various academic backgrounds, but students with a bachelor's pre-law degree are often viewed more favorably by admissions personnel.

Graduates with bachelor's degrees can select from many career paths that are not available to associate degree holders. A growing number of law enforcement agencies require trainees to hold at least a bachelor's degree. Graduates can also pursue careers in compliance, contract mediation, and public policy. A bachelor's degree also commands a higher salary. The median annual salary for an entry-level paralegal with an associate degree is $42,114, and this jumps to $52,640 with a bachelor's degree.

With an associate degree under your belt, you can complete your bachelor's degree in about two academic years. You will also have a strong background in legal fundamentals due to your previous studies.

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