Guide to College Majors in Paralegal Studies
--Jeff Melvoin, producer of TV's "Northern Exposure"
What is Paralegal Studies?
Paralegals are not just secretaries who work in law offices. The research, filing, and paperwork that go into the average court case can overwhelm even the most experienced attorneys. Lawyers spend a lot of time in the courtroom, and are often unable to perform these tasks on their own. Paralegals bridge the gap between the courtroom and the law office.
Paralegals provide important legal assistance to lawyers. While attorneys meet with clients, hammer out mediations and plead cases in the courtroom, paralegals are researching, filling out important legal documents, and keeping clients up-to-date. Although paralegals do not often show up in the courtroom, they are essential members of the legal community. The main thing that differentiates them from lawyers is that paralegals do not sit for the bar exam, and so cannot give official legal advice or present at a trial. While most of a paralegal's work is done backstage, any lawyer will tell you that they could not operate their law firm without paralegals.
Online Paralegal Schools
A degree program in paralegal studies prepares the student for a career as a paralegal, a legal administrator, or a legal assistant. This course of study is not as rigorous as law school, but still covers much of the same ground. Administrative professionals who wish to advance to higher paying-positions often pursue paralegal training. Many working professionals are turning to online paralegal degree programs, which allow them to study without disrupting their home and work lives. More and more accredited online colleges and universities are offering certificate programs, associate and bachelor's degrees, and continuing education programs in paralegal studies.
Most degree programs in paralegal studies focus on legal documentation, writing, and drafting, as well as legal processes and administration. Students must have a very strong grasp of the concepts that the legal system is built upon, so courses in legal history are also taught. Computers have also become an important part of the legal system, so students must possess strong computer skills. Many more courses are being geared toward computers and law, so students should expect to use a computer to complete their coursework. Students of online degree programs may have a career advantage in this area.
Paralegal studies courses span the entire educational spectrum. The law is involved with all aspects of the arts and sciences, including math, philosophy, literature, environmental studies, history, ethics, sociology, psychology, and writing. Students should expect to take courses in all these areas, learning how they relate to paralegal studies and how to apply them in a legal setting.
The legal system relies upon documentation and accurate record keeping. When people think of "studying law," they often get caught up on the idea that going to school for law is just for lawyers. However, lawyers need a staff of trained legal professionals working alongside them to handle the vast amounts of paperwork that accumulate during litigation.
Paralegals and legal secretaries need as much knowledge and training in legal processes and documentation as any lawyer, as they handle these documents daily. And, since they don't need to go to trial, they operate as the legal office's backbone, filling in for the lawyers while they are in the courtroom and keeping everything under control.
Is a Degree Program in Paralegal Studies Right for You?
Many people who earn degrees in paralegal studies are committed professionals with a sincere interest in the American legal system, but who do not have the time, funds or inclination to go through law school. Paralegal careers require excellent organization skills and stringent attention to detail. Since the law requires comprehensive documentation, the paperwork can quickly overwhelm you if you don't have a top-notch filing system.
Good communication skills are also necessary for this career. Paralegals and legal secretaries often meet with clients while the lawyer is in the courtroom or out of the office, to discuss what certain legal documents mean and how their case is progressing.
Since paralegals and legal assistants will often be in charge of the paperwork for entire cases, they must be goal-oriented. In larger law offices, teams of legal assistants or paralegals will be assigned to larger cases, so teamwork is also very important. Also, a lawyer will be overseeing the case most of the time, so paralegals must be able to effectively follow directions.
Preparing to Enter a Degree Program in Paralegal Studies
Some students enter a paralegal studies degree program directly out of high school, but it is more common for people to choose this career track after a year or two of college or working in a clerical or secretarial position.
If one doesn't have work experience in a secretarial or clerical position, helpful coursework includes keyboarding and word processing, accounting, computer literacy, law, and social studies. Spanish and Latin may also come in handy. In addition, understanding the judicial system is essential. Visiting your local courthouse to witness a few trials and hearings can give you a familiarity with the process and the language that will aid you in your education.
Career Education in Paralegal Studies
Most employers require job applicants to have a certain amount of education in paralegal studies. While some law firms will train paralegals on the job, they usually require at least an associate degree in paralegal studies or a related field.
There are a wide variety of options in paralegal studies. Students just out of high school or who have earned their GED can enroll in an on-campus or online degree program. For working adults who already have a degree but want a career change, many colleges and universities offer post-bachelor's certificate programs in paralegal studies.
Associate Degree Programs in Paralegal Studies
An associate degree is an excellent way to get started in paralegal studies; the field is one of the few well-paying, professional industries that does not require a bachelor's degree at the entry level. If you prefer to get into the workforce sooner rather than later, and complement your degree with extra work experience, an associate degree is the right choice. Another advantage of the associate degree in paralegal studies is that the credits gained from completion of the degree are generally transferable toward a future bachelor's degree program in a related field.
Bachelor's Degree Programs in Paralegal Studies
The bachelor's degree in paralegal studies is the most common route to an entry-level position at a law firm as a paralegal. These four-year degree programs are available online as well as at many traditional and community colleges. In general, bachelor's degree programs are designed to give students a broad liberal arts education combined with specialized skills for specific careers. Potential employers often perceive candidates with bachelor's degrees as well-rounded and versatile individuals who will be able to adapt well to a variety of situations.
The bachelor's degree in paralegal studies is a valuable and versatile degree, acting as a springboard into a variety of different career paths and future educational choices. In addition, the liberal arts focus of most bachelor's degree programs allows the student to change career paths after college if they so choose. Knowledge of legal systems and ethics is useful in any career. It allows the student to bring valuable general knowledge to job interviews in any industry, giving them an edge over the competition. Legal requirements are often overlooked by many small businesses and individuals, creating devastating circumstances that can destroy a business before it has a chance to grow. Employers like to know that their staff is keeping an eye out for potentially harmful legal issues and avoiding them in time.
Aside from the general liberal arts education offered by most bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies, students are also exposed to the inner workings of legal procedures and documentation. Courses are offered in the history and evolution of the American legal system, legal ethics, legal administration, family law, and environmental law, to name a few.
Certificate Programs in Paralegal Studies
Designed for the student who already holds a bachelor's degree, certificate programs provide specialized paralegal training to the college graduate. Many larger law firms require this kind of specialized training before they will consider an individual for employment. This specialized education is a must for those seeking employment with larger, more established law firms where the salaries are higher and the benefits more complete.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Paralegal Studies?
While most paralegal school graduates go on to become paralegals, they have other career options as well. Professionals who are familiar with the American legal system are considered assets in a wide variety of job environments. Moreover, because of the clerical nature of paralegal job training, individuals with a degree in paralegal studies can usually find work as a clerical assistant or secretary in nearly any industry.
Paralegal Jobs: A Day in the Life
Being a paralegal can be exciting, fast-paced, and stressful. People who decide to become paralegals usually work very well under pressure and can perform many tasks at once. Unless they have been assigned to a very large and important case, paralegals will usually be working on more than one case at a time. Paralegals must fact-check and conduct research for lawyers and clients. They must help them prepare for trials and hearings, as well as for meetings with other lawyers. This involves filling out legal documents for clients and attorneys, contacting and interviewing witnesses, and helping to build a flawless argument to be presented in court by the lawyer. They will turn this information into a general summary and draft an argument for the lawyer to approve.
Paralegals are usually responsible for filing legal documents with court clerks, such as pleadings, wills, marriage certificates, and divorce papers. Filling out these documents accurately is also the responsibility of the paralegal. This part of the job requires meeting certain deadlines and working under pressure, making sure nothing falls through the cracks.
In some larger law firms, paralegals will act as supervisors for legal secretaries and assistants. This means that the paralegal will have to know how to delegate tasks and make sure they are done properly. They must also have good leadership and communication abilities. They must also make sure the law firm's library and software are up to date.
Law firms that specialize in property and real estate may require the paralegal to appraise property and assets. They may also act as a go-between for clients selling a piece of property and clients purchasing property. They will draw up all the necessary paperwork required for the transaction to go through and mediate negotiations between the clients.
Paralegals are often required to continue their education throughout their career. The law is constantly changing, so paralegals must stay abreast of the changes in the legal system to do their job effectively. Also, paralegals will often have to take classes on how to operate new computer software that will help them more effectively research or file.
Paralegal positions are often high-pressure and stressful. Everything must be 100 percent accurate, as even the smallest error can lead to serious legal problems for the client later. Paralegals must work flawlessly under tight deadlines, often while working on two or three other cases simultaneously. This career is certainly not for the faint of heart.
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