Guide to Accredited Paralegal Programs & Schools

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. Read More


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Paralegals vs. Legal Assistants

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.

Degrees

Certificate in Paralegal Studies

  • Credit hours/length of study: 6 months – 1 year (18-24 credit hours)
  • Coursework: Undergraduate certificate courses include litigation, lawsuits, corporate law and real estate law. In addition, you will take classes that train you to how to conduct legal research and to prepare documents. Graduate certificate courses include more advanced classes about law and paralegal studies like legal procedure, intellectual property law, advanced legal research and writing and civil and criminal procedure.
  • Employment prospects: As long as you have at least a bachelor’s degree, you should be able to find a job as a paralegal.

Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies

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.

  • Credit hours/length of study: 2 years (60-70 credit hours)
  • Coursework: You will take classes that teach you about law and administration. Some of the classes you may take include business law, legal analysis, legal procedures and ethics. Many paralegal studies programs also require you to take an internship.
  • Employment prospects: An associate degree qualifies you to start working in the field as an entry-level paralegal in law firms or government offices. However, more competitive positions often require bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies

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.

  • Credit hours/length of study: 4 years (120-130 credits)
  • Coursework: You will take a variety of classes that are designed to teach you about law and its practical applications. For example, you might take classes in business law, civil and criminal litigation, legal research and legal procedures. Some programs also allow you to concentrate on a specific area like real estate, litigation, health law or corporate law. Some programs also require internships.
  • Employment prospects: Even though you can get a job in the paralegal profession with an associate degree, earning your bachelor’s will increase your professional opportunities. With focused training, you can work in many specific jobs, including as a real estate paralegal, corporate paralegal or litigation paralegal.

Master’s Degree in Paralegal Studies

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.

Licensing and Professional Certification

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:

  • The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) issues professional certification as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or a Certified Paralegal (CP). This certification requires you to pay a fee and pass a test. Certifications from NALA must be renewed every 5 years. NALA also offers advanced certifications in specific areas of law.
  • The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) issues professional certification as a CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) for entry-level or early-career paralegals, or Registered Paralegal (RP) for experienced paralegals. Both certifications require you pass the Paralegal Core Competency Exam and pay a fee. Certifications from NFPA must be renewed every 2 years.
  • NALS , known as “the association for legal professionals”,  issues professional certification as a Professional Paralegal (PP). This certification requires you to pay a fee and pass a test. Certifications from NALS must be renewed every 5 years.
  • The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI) offers a professional paralegal certification as an American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) based on your education and work experience. There is a fee for this certification, but you do not have to take a test.

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.

Directory

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Careers

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.

  • Legal Secretary
  • Judicial Law Clerk
  • Paralegal