Paralegals can work in a law or an attorney’s office, a government agency, corporation, or any other work place with a legal department. A paralegal’s exact tasks can vary and depend upon the size and legal specialization (if any) of the organization. Generally speaking, a paralegal is responsible for handling legal documents, compiling reports, using software applications, and working with legal officials. Paralegals, as well as legal assistants, help lawyers prepare for court dates and meetings. You can use the links below to navigate through this guide, and learn more about how to become a paralegal.
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Overview of Paralegal Programs and Degree Options
At a minimum, law firms require paralegals to have completed a paralegal certificate program before being hired. An associate’s degree in paralegal studies or legal studies is the next level of education, often designed for working professionals, followed by a master’s program for those who wish to continue their education and advance their careers.
The table below provides an overview of the degree options available in paralegal and legal studies.
Associate Degree – Legal Studies
A two-year degree designed that provides students with the skills and knowledge required to work as a legal assistant in a law office, government agency, or corporation in a shorter amount of time.
Associate Degree – Paralegal
Studies Similar to an associate degree in legal students, this program provides a fundamental awareness of the law and practical hands-on skills in two years or less.
Bachelor’s Degree – Legal Studies
A four-year degree designed for students who wish to advance into a position requiring a higher level of legal knowledge and skills need to work as a paralegal.
Bachelor’s Degree – Paralegal Studies A four-year degree that trains students to perform the duties required of a paralegal through studies that focus litigation procedures, computer applications for law offices, ethics, various legal specialties, in addition to general education course requirements.
Master’s Degree – Paralegal Studies
A graduate-level program designed for students who are already have experience in the paralegal field, and who are looking to advance their career or focus their studies on one area of the law field.
Master’s Degree – Legal Studies
Another option for graduate-level study designed for students who want to stand out among others who are seeking a similar job or who wish to advance in their current position.
The Value of a Paralegal Degree
It’s a great time to earn a paralegal education. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment is projected to grow, and earning a degree will certainly help give you the edge you need in today’s market. The map below from The Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates the top paying States for this occupation:
Paralegal vs. Lawyer – How to Decide
Some paralegals go on to pursue a law degree, depending on their career goals. A paralegal background will certainly help when it comes to your future career prospects as an attorney, if you choose to continue your studies. But is a J.D. what you really want? If you’re unsure if becoming a lawyer is right for you, we’ve outlined the biggest distinctions between the careers between attorneys and paralegals to help you decide.
To be an attorney, one must:
- Graduate from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school (in most cases obtaining a juris doctorate degree).
- Undergo a background screening by the state in which he or she intends to practice.
- Pass a licensing test called the bar exam designed to determine if the attorney is minimally competent in the major areas of practice in that jurisdiction.
- Pay annual fees to maintain a license and participate in ongoing legal education requirements.
To be a paralegal, one must:
- Earn a certificate or degree in paralegal or legal studies from an accredited degree program.
- Find employment that provides on-the-job training at a firm, corporation, or organization.
- Get paralegal certification through an accredited association. (Though certification is not required by all employers, it provides an advantage over competing candidates.
Earning voluntary certification may help applicants get a paralegal job. Designations include Certified Legal Assistant and Certified Paralegal. To get certified, paralegals usually need a year or more of experience and must pass a test. You can find out more by visiting NALA, The National Association of Legal Assistants-Paralegals.
Both are respectable and challenging careers and each position has its own pros and cons. The decision comes down to personal interests and career trajectory.
Resources to Jump-Start Your Career
Deciding on a career takes time, research and much thought. With the right resources, you’ll be better equipped to make a smart decision. The links below provide career-related information for prospective paralegal students or even current students interested in advancing their education:
Step #1: Learn about the profession
Step #2: Determine what degree program to pursue
- How to Choose a Paralegal Program: A Ten-Point Guide
- The Value of a Paralegal Degree: Experts Weigh In