Delivering either a general program of paralegal studies or a specialized curriculum in areas like corporate law, litigation, environmental law, criminal law, or immigration law – just to name a few – online paralegal programs make career preparation and advancement more attainable. With more than 600 paralegal programs now available in the U.S., getting a quality education has never been more accessible. For most paralegal students, the trick is in finding a program that aligns with their personal career goals.
Here’s what every student needs to know about associate’s degree options, diploma programs and certificates in paralegal studies so they can select a program that best matches their personal needs and professional goals:
Types of Paralegal Schools and Training Programs
Since 1975, the American Bar Association (ABA) has been approving paralegal educational programs on a voluntary basis. When granting approval, the ABA considers factors like:
- Curriculum and academic policies
- Faculty and program direction
- Admissions standards and practices
- Student services (including placement and counseling)
Not all paralegal programs receive ABA approval. Although it is not necessary for students to complete an ABA-approved program since paralegals aren’t subject to any state licensing or regulatory requirements, many employers look to hire legal support staff that have earned their degree through one of the ABA’s approved programs.
ABA-approved paralegal education programs are available in a number of formats and lengths. Both public and private institutions offer these programs, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, business colleges, and proprietary institutions.
The ABA approves paralegal programs at every level, including:
- Associate degrees
- Bachelor’s degrees
- Master’s degrees
- Certificate programs
Associate Degrees in Paralegal Studies
Associate degrees in paralegal studies consist of about 60 to 70 credits and two years of full-time study. Community/junior colleges house most of the associate degree programs in paralegal studies, although business schools and four-year colleges and universities also offer these programs.
Many aspiring paralegals pursue an associate degree as the final step for career preparation, while many others pursue these programs as a stepping stone and eventually go on to earn a four-year degree in paralegal studies.
Associate degrees in paralegal studies may be designed as:
- Associate in Arts (AA)
- Associate in Applied Science (AAS)
- Associate in Science (AS)
Associate degrees provide students with the skills and knowledge needed to gather and analyze legal information; research the law; prepare and interpret legal documents; and conduct many of the administrative duties associated with working for a law office.
Topics covered in an associate degree in legal studies include:
- Legal process
- Interviewing and investigation
- Research skills
- Document preparation
- Court structure
Graduates of associate degree programs in paralegal studies are prepared to:
- Research legal issues
- Draft legal documents
- Prepare pleadings
- Interviewing clients
- Organizing trial notebooks
- Introduction to legal studies
- Contract law
- Civil litigation
- Legal research and writing
- Torts and remedies
- Law office management and technology
- Criminal law and procedures
Most of these programs culminate in a capstone project or internship.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Paralegal Studies
Bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies consist of 120-130 semester units (60 semester units in paralegal courses) and about four years of full-time study. These programs may be designed as:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Paralegal Studies
- Bachelor of Science (BS) in Paralegal Studies
A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies allows students to develop competency in a number of areas of litigation and legal specialties. For many students, a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies serves as a transition to law school, while for others, it prepares them to take on the many duties associated with senior-level paralegals in law firms, corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and other law-related settings.
Foundational courses in a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies include math and science electives, as well as courses such as:
- Advanced composition
- Professional writing
- Accounting foundations
- Computer applications
- Professional ethics
- Applied information technology
Major requirements include study in:
- Legal research
- Legal writing
- Estate planning and probation law
- Advanced litigation
Many institutions also offer students the option of focusing their bachelor’s degree on a specific area of law, such as family law, criminal law, bankruptcy law, real estate law, and labor law. Students complete this type of in-depth study through chosen electives or through a chosen degree concentration or focus, depending on the program.
Similar to associate’s degrees, most bachelor’s degrees culminate in an internship experience, designed to provide graduates with an opportunity to apply their knowledge in a real world setting, thus gaining valuable practical experience. Many institutions match students with law firms and other legal settings based on their preferences and abilities.
Master’s Degrees in Paralegal Studies
Master’s degrees in paralegal studies are the pinnacle of paralegal degrees, consisting of about 39 credits and two years of full-time study. Because they are chosen for career advancement, most of these programs offer flexible learning formats, including part-time, evening, accelerated, and online formats.
Just a few of these programs exist. However, a number of institutions offer master’s level programs in similar fields, such as legal administration and legal studies. Washington University School of Law, a top-ranked U.S. law school, offers a Master of Legal Studies degree that is ideal for paralegals.
The courses in a master’s degree in paralegal studies are designed to balance the theoretical, philosophical, and historical study of law with practical skills required of highly skilled and seasoned paralegals.
Master’s degrees in paralegal studies are ideal for paralegals seeking careers in research or academia, as well as for those interested in developing advanced skills related to a highly specialized area of law. Still others choose to complete a master’s degree in paralegal studies for management or supervisory roles.
Therefore, many of these graduate-level paralegal programs allow students to either complete a generalized legal studies program or a concentration in an area such as: alternative dispute resolution, environmental law, or legal administration.
Certificate Programs in Paralegal Studies
A wide array of institutions offers certificate programs in paralegal studies. Further, paralegal certificate programs feature many types of formats and are designed for different types of students.
Certificate programs consist of 18 to 60 semester units, with longer programs including both general education and paralegal courses and shorter certificate programs designed for students that already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree. Therefore, these programs may take anywhere from 9 to 18 months to complete.
Post-Associate or Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Programs for Paralegals
Certificate programs in paralegal studies designed for practicing paralegals offer in-depth study in a specific area of law. For example, certificate programs may allow students to study such topics as corporate law, civil litigation, or estate law. These programs also often appeal to those working in the legal field and seeking a formal paralegal credential.
Admission requirements for these programs include an associate or bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, along with some experience in the legal field.
Post-Associate or Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Programs for Career Changers
Certificate programs may also accommodate career changers—those who possess an associate or bachelor’s degree in another field and professional experience and are looking to enter the legal profession.
These programs take into account the student’s previous education and the completion of general education courses, thus allowing them to enter the program and focus only on paralegal-related courses.
Entry-Level Certificate Programs
Paralegal certificate programs may also be designed specifically for the high school graduate seeking an entry-level program in paralegal studies. Usually longer in length than other types of certificate programs, entry-level certificate programs include the foundational coursework and paralegal coursework needed to pursue a career as a paralegal.
Courses in this type of paralegal certificate program often include:
- Introduction to the legal field
- Legal terminology
- Legal analysis
- Federal court structure
- Stages of litigation
- Government court structure
- Ethical considerations
- Court rules
- The arbitration process
- Interviewing clients
- Strategies for employment
- Resume preparation
Online Paralegal Degree Programs
A recurring theme among many of today’s paralegal programs, regardless of their degree level, is online delivery. While some programs offer students the option of completing a hybrid program, which consists of both on-campus and online courses, many offer fully online programs, thus appealing to today’s busy professionals.
These programs are designed to merge the interactive, user-driven aspects of online study with a comprehensive paralegal curriculum, thereby providing students with a paralegal education that is comparable to their campus-based counterparts.
Many online paralegal degree programs are also offered as self-paced programs, allowing students to complete the program at their own pace, within a set timeframe.
Features of Online Paralegal Degree Programs
Although program features of online paralegal degree programs may differ from one institution to the next, many offer the following:
- Virtual classroom experiences
- Online research and writing labs
- Faculty advisors who communicate regularly with the students and track their progress throughout the program
- Online student resources, such as workbooks, support lines, online study tools, mock exams, and practice exercise questions
Upon completion of all the program’s courses, many institutions help students locate and select an internship experience at a law firm or other legal setting close to home.