Paralegals are legal professionals who assist attorneys in the practice of law. They are not merely legal secretaries because their duties include more than simple administrative tasks. For example, paralegals conduct research, interact with clients, prepare court filings and draft important legal documents. Therefore, paralegals must be well-versed in legal terminology and litigation procedures. However, paralegals are not allowed to represent clients in court, give legal advice or sign most legal documents. Paralegals typically work for government agencies, corporate businesses and private law practices.
Many students who want to work in the legal field choose to become paralegals as an alternative to going to graduate school to become a lawyer. Paralegal studies is a good option if you do not want a lengthy and costly education, because most paralegals have an associate degree, which only takes 2 years to complete. However, you can also earn a certificate in paralegal studies, bachelor's degree or master's degree.
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Some confusion exists about the term legal assistant, which describes a range of legal professionals who assist attorneys. In the past, people used the titles paralegal and legal assistant interchangeably, but some states have started to define these professions differently. In these states, paralegals have evolved into a specific career, while legal assistant describes all people who support lawyers, including not just paralegals but also legal secretaries and law clerks. You should be aware that this confusion exists and check with your state to determine how it defines the paralegal profession.
Check the Guide to Accreditation in Higher Education to learn more about accreditation and how to determine if the program you select meets the necessary standards.
An Associate of Arts (AA) in Paralegal Studies offers more liberal arts and humanities courses in addition to paralegal classes to give you a broad education. The AA degree is the best choice if you want to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program.
An Associate of Science (AS) in Paralegal Studies has more science and mathematics along with paralegal courses to give you a technical background. The AS degree is a good choice if you want to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program or begin working right away.
An Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Paralegal Studies is designed to teach applied job skills to prepare you for a career in paralegal studies. The AAS degree is the best option if you want to enter the workforce immediately after you graduate.
A Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Paralegal Studies has more liberal arts classes, so you will explore other disciplines as well. The BA degree is a good option if you want to be a paralegal, but keep in mind that it is very similar to the BS.
A Bachelor of Science (BS) in Paralegal Studies offers more science and mathematics courses so you will spend more time learning methods. The BS offers basically the same program as the BA, so it is also a good choice if you want to work as a paralegal.
A few schools offer master’s degrees in paralegal studies, but this level of education is not recommended. You do not need to earn a masters degree to be successful as a paralegal. Instead, you should focus on earning a good reputation during your undergraduate internship, because job experience is often the most influential factor in hiring and promotion.
Although you do not need a license to become a paralegal, several professional organizations offer nationally recognized certification programs. These programs will give you more professional credibility, which may help you in your job search. Some of the major organizations that offer paralegal certification include:
In addition to the nationally recognized certifications listed above, individual states may offer additional certification options. You can check with your state’s bar association or paralegal association for additional options.
Use this directory to find Paralegal programs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals and legal assistants will see an 18 percent increase in employment in the next decade, which is a little faster than the average projected growth for all occupations. In 2010, there were approximately 256,000 paralegals employed in the United States, and that number is expected to jump to more than 300,000 by 2020. Despite the demand for paralegals, this profession can be very competitive. Therefore, paralegals who have bachelor’s degrees will be the most competitive job applicants.