While they don't directly participate in court proceedings and aren't allowed to dispense legal advice, paralegals -- sometimes known as legal assistants -- represent a vital part of every law office. They work on a variety of tasks that support lawyers, ranging from administrative work and office organization to research, interviews, and legal documents. Paralegals can find work in nearly any law office, including those for personal injury, criminal law, employment law, and immigration law.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a growth rate of 15% for paralegal and legal assistant jobs through 2026. This pace of job growth makes a compelling argument for those interested in earning an online paralegal associate degree. With a median pay of $50,410 each year, the potential return on investment of an online paralegal degree is also quite lucrative.
What Kind of Degree Do You Need to Be a Paralegal?
An online associate degree in paralegal studies and internship experience are typically sufficient for entry-level employment as a paralegal, but some employers prefer applicants to have a bachelor's degree. Because paralegals often hold responsibility for a wide range of tasks, they may also find employment by earning an associate degree in criminal justice. This path is ideal for individuals interested in working as a paralegal or legal assistant in a criminal law office, where they can apply their knowledge of the criminal justice system.
As the occupation's popularity has grown, the availability of online paralegal associate degree programs has also seen a significant increase. Students can earn paralegal certificates and associate degrees from a number of colleges and universities without ever stepping foot on campus. For students who prefer a traditional college experience, paralegal degrees can also be completed on-campus or through a hybrid format (i.e., a mix of online and on-site learning). Online paralegal associate degrees offer an ideal experience for working professionals who may be interested in a legal assistant career change but who prefer to continue earning a full-time income while they study.
While most paralegal degrees cover the same learning outcomes, specific graduation requirements may differ from one program to another. On-campus or hybrid programs may require a brief externship or internship, while online programs more commonly require a capstone project. The cost of an online associate degree in paralegal studies is also affected by the school you select. Although online degrees can be completed from anywhere, enrolling in a college located outside of your home state may incur a higher tuition cost than enrolling in an online, hybrid, or on-site program from a in-state school.
Courses for an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
Since law offices and attorneys require similar skills and knowledge from their legal assistants, learning outcomes of online paralegal associate degree programs are generally the same across most schools. The courses listed below are representative of what you can expect from your curriculum, though specific content varies depending on the school in which you choose to enroll.
|Legal Research and Writing||This course is guaranteed to be part of your online paralegal associate degree curriculum. Students learn to conduct legal research and write legal documents, typically through the completion of projects.|
|Ethics||Every member of a law office must have a strong background in ethics. Paralegal students in ethics courses develop an understanding of confidentiality, law conduct, and types of malpractice.|
|Law Office Management||This introductory course provides an overview of different types of law practices. It also examines roles of staff and attorneys with a focus on the lawyer/client relationship.|
|Interpersonal Communication||Paralegals hold responsibilities that require communicating with coworkers, attorneys, clients, and other officials. Courses in interpersonal communication develop necessary skills for professional communication with all parties.|
|Externship||While not offered or required by all paralegal programs, an externship provides students with practical, on the-job training through a short-term work assignment at a local law office.|
How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Associate in Paralegal Studies?
Students typically complete an online associate degree in paralegal studies in two years. But a number of factors can impact this timeline, such as whether a student takes classes on a full-time or part-time basis. Part-time studying lessens your immediate workload, but it also extends the total duration of time spent enrolled in the program.
Part-time students typically study at their own pace, while full-time students are enrolled in cohort learning. In this popular distance-learning format, online students are placed in groups not unlike a traditional class, and everyone completes assignments and course requirements at the same time. This allows for a certain level of familiarity to develop between cohort participants as they interact on course websites. Online paralegal associate degree programs typically do not have any on-site components.
Over the next decade, job opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants are expected to grow faster than the national average. Individuals interested in taking advantage of this growth may find their path to a paralegal job through various educational avenues. While an associate degree in paralegal studies fulfills the typical entry-level education requirement, many law offices do require their paralegals to earn a bachelor's degree. Earning a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies, or in a related field such as criminal justice, advances your earning potential and better allows you to compete in this growing occupational marketplace.
|Location||Annual Median Wage|
What Does a Paralegal Do?
In many ways, paralegals are the chameleons of a law office. With a wide range of knowledge and skills, from legal research to professional communication, they work at front desks and behind the scenes.
The exact duties of paralegals tends to vary depending on the requirements of the specific law office where they work. On the one hand, paralegals may complete case research -- conducting interviews with clients, gathering and organizing evidence for review, and investigating relevant laws and regulations. On the other hand, they may draft, review, and proofread correspondence and legal documents. Moreover, especially in smaller offices, some paralegals will take on more administrative tasks like screening phone calls, scheduling appointments, and maintaining the organization of files. A paralegal or legal assistant must be flexible and prepared to take on a variety of tasks from day to day.
|Location||Annual Median Wage|
|District of Columbia||$78,350|
Licensure and Certification
Because they do not practice law, dispense legal advice to clients, or participate in court proceedings (aside from managing the attorney's documents and maintaining the organization of evidence to be displayed), paralegals and legal assistants are not required to obtain licensure in order to secure and retain employment at a law office. A growing number of states offer voluntary paralegal certification programs, however, which may benefit an individual's professional reputation and earning potential. Two organizations that offer these voluntary paralegal certifications are the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.
Earning a Bachelor's Degree in Paralegal Studies
Upon graduation, those who've earned an associate degree may question whether they should continue their education or enter the workforce. To come to an answer, they might examine local employment opportunities to determine if law offices in their area prefer paralegals to hold bachelor's degrees. Whether they do or not, a bachelor's degree may still offer additional benefits, such as a higher earning potential. As a paralegal, there is little room for upward mobility in the workplace unless you choose to attend law school and become an attorney. Though it is a personal decision to continue your education, earning a higher salary by obtaining a bachelor's degree could be worthwhile.
Whether you decide to pursue only an associate degree or to continue onto a bachelor's program, it is vital to research the accreditation status of any prospective institutions. Accredited schools meet and consistently maintain certain educational requirements set by third-party organizations. These organizations can either be nationally or regionally based. While both are legitimate forms of accreditation, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to transfer academic credit from a regionally accredited school to a nationally accredited school (and vice versa). Because regional accreditation is the most popular and common form of accreditation, regionally accredited schools are highly preferred by students who are interested in transferring academic credits from one institution to another. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation offers a directory of approved agencies and organizations you should look for when researching the accreditation status of prospective schools.
Trying to figure out the best way to pay for higher education can be intimidating, to say the least. There are resources available, however, to reduce your final out-of-pocket cost.
Most important, especially for first-time college students, is that you make sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This can be done online and will guide you toward any applicable federal funding for which you may be eligible, including grants as well as subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Because law is a vital and growing industry, many independent organizations and law firms also offer tuition grants to students pursuing legal degrees, including paralegal associate or bachelor's degrees online.
Prospective students should plan to set aside a significant amount of time to research scholarships. Each year, thousands of dollars of available scholarship funds are left unused due to a lack of qualified applicants. Scholarships for law students are available from schools and colleges, nonprofit organizations, individuals, local and national law offices, and professional organizations. Taking the time to find what awards you qualify for could pay off significantly in the end.
Paralegal Studies Scholarships Scholarships
Scholarships are cash awards given to students for the purpose of covering college enrollment costs, including tuition, books, and fees. Awards may be a one-time gift or be available for renewal over multiple semesters of study. Applicants typically are required to meet criteria based on residency, enrollment status, academic major, or ethnic background.