Accredited Online Paralegal Degree Guide for 2015

There are many compelling reasons to choose a degree in paralegal studies: The degree can be completed in a fairly short time; you will be prepared with specific knowledge and skills which are well-compensated in terms of average salaries for paralegals; there is ample demand for professionals in this field. With a degree in paralegal studies, you should be able to find work, and remain employed in all areas of the country.

A paralegal is a trained professional in the legal field. Paralegals have more training than a typical secretary, yet do not have advanced legal studies and are not licensed attorneys. The specific jobs that a paralegal degree prepares you for include legal secretary, judicial law clerk, and the traditional paralegal position.

Paralegal studies are highly vocational. They prepare you to do a very specific set of tasks and prepare you for very specific jobs. Many people prefer this type of coursework over more generalist degree programs because they are more focused, shorter, and lead directly to a specific type of employment.

Studying to become a paralegal will require you to develop a good understanding of the legal system and its many aspects without having to become an expert, like a lawyer. Expect to study legal terminology, legal procedure, business law, tort law, and litigation.

While there are degree programs for paralegal studies that are 100% online, it is highly recommended to choose a program that is either a mixed on-campus / online program or an online program that requires an internship. This is important because real-world experience is highly valued when applying for a job in this sector, and the American Bar Association (ABA) does not recognize programs that are 100% online. ABA certification is important in establishing credibility of the program, the pedigree of the degree received, and the eventual employability of graduates.


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Quick Answers

 What is the job outlook for paralegals?

There is strong and constant demand for paralegals. In addition, paralegal positions are fairly “recession-proof.” There is always demand for lawyers, and therefore paralegals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 18% job growth for these positions between now and 2020.

Are paralegals paid well?

Yes! The average salary in the paralegal profession is about $47,000 per year. The salary range varies widely based on location and experience, ranging from $25,000 to $75,000.

Is a paralegal degree a generalist or specialist degree?

This is a specialized program. It will prepare you for specific jobs in the legal field. Skills and knowledge acquired are highly transferrable between these positions. The skills obtained in paralegal studies are also easily transferred to other professions.

Do I have to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree?

No. In fact, an associate’s degree is very common for entry-level positions. A bachelor’s degree is preferred by many employers, and is certainly beneficial to differentiate you from other candidates. A BA/BS is necessary if you are eager to eventually become an attorney.

Should my paralegal program be accredited?

Yes. The school should be accredited by a respected collegiate accreditation organization. Also, it is highly recommended to choose a degree program that is ABA certified (only about 1 in 4 programs is certified by the ABA).

Do I have to obtain licensing to become a paralegal?

No. A paralegal license does not exist. However, there are numerous paralegal associations, many of which offer certification (with a test and paying a fee). Certification can be valuable when competing for a job.

Available Degrees

Paralegal-related degree programs (paralegal studies, legal studies, and legal assistant programs) will prepare you to work as a legal assistant to lawyers and judges. A two-year program is all that is needed to be prepared as an entry-level paralegal, in most cases. Some states, like California, require a bachelor’s degree (in any subject area) and a post-baccalaureate certificate from an ABA-approved paralegal program.

You will study many aspects of the legal field while developing skills in legal research, critical thinking, time management, and attention to detail. One of the most important factors to keep in mind, regardless of the degree level or school chosen, is to make sure the program has an internship component, as this will help open the doors to future employment.

  • Paralegal Certificate Programs: These short programs last 6 to 12 months and are limited in scope. They will likely be insufficient to be competitive in the job market except when you already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or work experience in a similar field and are simply adding specialization in the paralegal field. For example, a sociology, accounting, or criminal justice major could find a paralegal certificate program beneficial if they wished to work directly with attorneys on casework.
  • Associate’s Degree (AA, AS, AAS): Paralegal associate’s degree programs can be completed in two years or less in most cases and are sufficient to gain entry-level employment. This option is the quickest route to a job. As paralegal degrees are highly vocational in nature (they prepare you for a specific type of job), it is best to choose a degree with the most concentrated course of studies. AA is the most general degree. AS is more concentrated. AAS is the most focused and applicable to future job tasks.
  • Bachelor’s Degree (BA, BS): Bachelor’s degree programs typically require 120 to 130 credit hours which translate into four years of full-time study.  Because of the high pay, the paralegal profession is highly competitive. Therefore, having a bachelor’s degree can be a good investment since it will differentiate you from many other candidates who may only hold an associate’s degree.
  • Master’s Degree (MA): Master’s degrees in paralegal studies are not widely available. This level of study is not generally necessary for employment or advancement. In the paralegal field, pay raises and better employment opportunities arise from one’s experience more than education. One might consider a master’s degree in this field, after many years of work, if they are interested in becoming a university professor to teach others to become a paralegal, work in paralegal management, or run a paralegal office or department.

Online Degrees & Accreditation

Online degrees in the paralegal field allow you to study remotely without having to attend classes at a specific time and place. This can be especially helpful if you need to work while enrolled in school. An internship is invaluable in helping to prepare you to be hired, as you will have paralegal experience to put on your resume when you apply for your first paralegal job.

Make sure that the school you choose, online or otherwise, is accredited. This is extremely important as it determines the credibility of the school and whether the courses you take will be transferable to another school in the future, if needed.

There are no 100% online programs certified by ABA (American Bar Association), which is a distinct disadvantage to these programs and their graduates. However, the ABA guidelines dictate that certified programs require a minimum of only 10 credit hours of on-campus education. The on-campus classes often can be completed at night or on the weekend. Seek a degree program that is certified by the ABA when possible.

There are over 1000 paralegal degree programs offered in the USA. Of these, only 260 are ABA certified. Clearly, earning an ABA-certified paralegal degree differentiates you and adds credibility when you are applying for work. Although ABA certification is not mandatory, some employers only hire paralegals from ABA-certified programs.

An additional resource for researching paralegal studies certified programs is

ABA Approved Paralegal Education Programs. This is an easy-to-use directory, which you can use to search by state or alphabetically for any degree and certification programs approved by the ABA.

Course of Study

Paralegal programs are based on reading, writing, and research. Paralegal work is detail oriented and courses will help you to develop the skills needed to be successful in the field.

As you will be working with lawyers, judges, and courts, you will need to understand the legal system quite well, including the practice, procedures, and vocabulary of law. You will study civil, criminal, and business law, ethics, the Uniform Commercial Code, liability law, jurisdictions, jurisprudence, and more.

Be prepared to study legal terminology, legal procedure, business law, tort law, and litigation. Since paralegal studies programs are typically structured vocationally (to prepare you for a specific career), you won’t have to take courses that are not related to the subject and your future job. This is truer for the associate’s degree programs than for the bachelor’s degree programs. It will also be truer for the “science” denominated degree programs than the “arts” denominated degrees.


Careers with an AA, AS or AAS degree in paralegal studies:

Legal Secretary
Performs (mainly) administrative tasks at legal firms.

Judicial Law Clerk
Provides assistance to judges; mainly administrative, some technical.

Primarily provides technical support to lawyers including research, preparation of documents, and organization of information. Begin as generalists at entry-level. 30% of paralegals have an associate’s degree.

Careers with a BA or BS in paralegal studies:

Specializes in one or more legal areas. Contributes more complex work product and typically will earn more than a paralegal with an AA degree and similar experience. 44% of paralegals have a bachelor’s degree.

Licensing, Certifications, and Exams

Some may find it surprising to learn that there is no licensing or certification requirement for paralegals (except in California, see below). A paralegal works for a licensed professional (lawyer or judge), and it is that individual who must be licensed.

The ABA does not certify paralegals although it does certify paralegal educational programs. One cannot claim to be an “ABA-certified paralegal” since no such thing exists.

However, there are a number of paralegal associations that offer certification with different denominations, all of which add value and credibility to your professional resume. You will have to take a test and pay a fee to obtain these certifications. In addition, many of these certifications require continuing education and renewal of the certification every few years.

Four states offer – but do not require – certification of paralegals through their state bar associations: Florida, Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina.

California does have a certification requirement, but it is not a state bar certification. Rather, paralegals in the state are required to be qualified by meeting one of several criteria and obtaining certification of continuing education in ethics and general or specialized legal courses totaling eight hours every two years. The work towards this certification is to be presented only to the attorney for whom they work.

The following links will provide you with more information on the certifications available from each of the national organizations, the state bar associations, and the California paralegal requirements.

Scholarship Directory

Additional Resources for Certification Information

ABA – Standing Committee on Paralegals

ABA – Information regarding certification – in general and by state

Future Outlook for Paralegal Careers

The job outlook for paralegal professionals is good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are some 277,000 paralegals today. They expect an additional 45,000+ positions to be added, for a growth rate of 17%, which is faster than average.

As only an associate’s degree is required for entry-level access to this high paying profession, the competition for positions is high. A bachelor’s degree will weigh in your favor when competing for a position against another job seeker who has only an associate’s degree and similar experience.

Another way to distinguish yourself among your peers is through professional certification, continuing education, certified courses, and additional study and specialization in a specific area of law (immigration, corporate, criminal, etc.).

One of the great things about being a paralegal is that you can work in small towns or large cities, with a single lawyer or in a mega-firm with thousands of employees, as a specialist or a generalist. Also, as there are no licensing requirements, your degree and skills can usually easily be applied in other states should you need to move.

Salary Expectations

Salaries in the paralegal professions are generally quite high compared to other professions with similar levels of study. The range for these jobs is from $23,000 to $75,000. The median income of paralegals is $47,000. Salaries vary widely by location, specialization, and employer type. Job seekers with more advanced degrees are also likely to earn more and may be more frequently promoted.

Legal secretaries are on the low end of the earning spectrum, as they typically do more administrative-type work with a lower proportion of legal and technical complexity. The average income for legal secretaries is $41,000.

Judicial law clerks do similar work to legal secretaries but work with judges or in the court system. Their average salary is $42,500, while 80% earn between $23,600 and $74,900.

Paralegals typically add more value to their employers with their more technical work. As such, they earn more, on average. Average pay is $46,700 while 80% earn between $29,500 and $75,000.

Marketable Skills

While this area of study prepares you specifically for a career as a paralegal or related professional, you will also gain valuable skills that are transferrable. These skills include:

  • Attention to detail
  • Time management
  • Critical thinking
  • Administrative acumen
  • Reading comprehension
  • Ability to work well under pressure
  • Research expertise
  • Writing skills

Undergraduate Internships

Internships are a fundamental component of paralegal studies. This is true even in associate’s degree programs. Paralegal majors benefit from the work experience provided by internships. In addition, the hands-on work during internships helps future paralegals to cement the ideas and concepts learned in the classroom.

The following is a list of internship possibilities for a Paralegal Studies major:

  • Defending clients, together with their attorney – criminal law
  • Preparing business documents – corporate law
  • Assisting immigrants to achieve citizenship or fight deportation – immigration law
  • Organizing and filing tax returns for individuals or companies – tax law
  • Analyzing financial statements, assets and liabilities – financial/bankruptcy law
  • Helping to resolve disputes between employers and employees – labor law
  • Resolving claims for workplace injuries – workers’ compensation law
  • Investigating assets and locating debtors – foreclosure law

Professional Associations

Suggested Online Degree Programs

All programs listed below are ABA-certified paralegal degree or certificate programs. To obtain certification, the ABA requires that at least 10 credits must be taken on-campus, making them mixed programs. However, these courses can be mostly be completed online. Most of the schools offer evening and weekend classes as well.

Internship is mandatory. Certificate program is directed at bachelor’s degree holders in another field.

Degree not required as prerequisite for certification program, but does have an 18-credit general education requirement.

Certificate program directed at bachelor’s degree holders in another field. Internships are offered, but optional.

Requires an internship at some unique organizations: their Pro Bono Clinic, Mediation Clinic or Prison Research Program.

Certificate program directed at bachelor’s degree holders in another field.