What Does it Mean to Study Paralegal Studies?
Paralegals may perform plenty of administrative duties, but they are more than secretaries who happen to work in law offices. These professionals conduct a wide range of important duties that keep the courts running smoothly. Not only do they research and file paperwork, but they offer important legal assistance to lawyers who must spend the bulk of their time in the courtroom.
A paralegal studies degree program can teach you about the various duties these workers take on, as well as the skills required to complete them. As a paralegal studies major, you have the opportunity to learn about our court system and how it works, as well as the behind-the-scenes movements that help lawyers do their jobs.
Types of Paralegal Studies Degrees
While a paralegal studies program is usually not as rigorous as law school, it is still a deep subject that requires hard work, dedicated study, and a substantial investment of time and energy. Fortunately, many colleges, universities, and career training schools are offering their paralegal programs online. The flexibility offered by an online degree program can be very helpful to a working professional who is looking to make a career change into a paralegal, a legal administrator or a legal assistant.
What you intend to do with your degree can make a big difference as to what level of degree you should look into pursuing. Let's look at some of the different types of degrees that can be earned in this field, so you can consider which might be best for you.
Certificate Programs in Paralegal Studies
While most paralegals start their search for entry-level work by completing an associate degree in paralegal studies, certificate programs can also serve this end in some circumstances. These programs may last as little as a year and tend to be most helpful for professionals who have earned a bachelor's degree and are already working in a related field.
A certificate program is meant to serve as a basic introduction to the foundation of a paralegal's work. It rarely focuses on any general education, concentrating on subjects such as technology and tools used by paralegals, various areas of law, and research and writing skills and how to utilize them in a courtroom environment.
Courses you might take during a certificate program include:
- Legal Research
- Legal Writing and Reasoning
- Real Estate Law
- Business Law
Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that associate degrees are the most common degree option for paralegals. Typically two years in length, these programs are structured to educate students on the skills of a paralegal: preparing legal paperwork, filing important court documents, performing legal research and more. Emphasis is also put on reading comprehension and sharpening your writing skills to the level required for this career.
While specifics of an associate-level paralegal studies degree program curriculum can vary, courses might include:
- Civil Litigation
- Criminal Litigation
- Interpersonal Communication
- Business Law
- Legal Research and Writing
Bachelor's Degree in Paralegal Studies
Earning a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies is another common route to an entry-level position as a paralegal. In general, bachelor's degree programs are designed to cover both a broad liberal arts education as well as specialized skills for specific careers. Potential employers often perceive candidates who have earned bachelor's degrees as well-rounded and versatile individuals who can adapt well to a variety of situations.
Aside from the general liberal arts education offered by most bachelor's in paralegal studies degree programs, students should also expect to learn about the inner workings of legal procedures and documentation. Courses in the history and evolution of the American legal system, legal ethics, legal administration, family law, and environmental law are common. Other courses in these programs might be:
- Constitutional Government and Free Enterprise
- Family Law
- Foundations of Law
- Criminal Practice and Procedures
- Legal Writing
What Can You Do With a Paralegal Studies Degree?
While most paralegal studies majors go on to become paralegals, they have other career options as well. That's because familiarity with the American legal system can be an asset in a wide variety of job environments. Moreover, because of the clerical nature of paralegal job training, individuals who have earned a degree in paralegal studies can usually find work as a clerical assistant or secretary, not just as a legal employee.
Common career paths for paralegal studies graduates include:
Corporate paralegals perform all the job duties of a paralegal, except they do their work in a corporate setting. Instead of working for lawyers who do their work in a courtroom, these professionals help corporate lawyers prepare employee contracts, shareholder agreements, and their company's annual financial reports.
Depending on the specifics of the job, corporate paralegals may also be charged with monitoring and reviewing government regulations to ensure that the corporation that employs them operates within the bounds of the law.
- Corporate paralegals very often get started with an associate degree in paralegal studies. However, they may also earn a bachelor's degree in another field or a certificate in paralegal studies later on.
- While certification isn't required, some employers prefer for their paralegals to be certified. Several independent organizations offer certification for paralegals, including the National Association of Legal Assistants, which offers the Certified Paralegal Program and the Advanced Paralegal Certification Program.
Unlike corporate paralegals, litigation paralegals work with lawyers who conduct their operations in and around the courtroom. These workers maintain documents, conduct litigation-related research for lawyers, retrieve and organize evidence for trials, and draft settlement agreements. They may also coordinate some of the logistics of a trial, such as reserving office space, moving documents or setting up computers and makeshift operations.
- Litigation paralegals usually get started with an associate degree in paralegal studies. However, they may also earn a bachelor's degree in another field or a certificate in paralegal studies later on. Bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies are also common.
- Several independent organizations offer certification for paralegals, including the National Association of Legal Assistants, which offers the Certified Paralegal Program and the Advanced Paralegal Certification Program. Certification isn't required, but it may help improve a paralegal's career prospects.
Legal secretaries perform many of the job duties of traditional secretaries. The difference is, these workers are required to have knowledge of important legal terminology and procedures. Legal secretaries typically prepare legal documents under the supervision of a lawyer or paralegal. These documents can include paperwork such as summonses, complaints, motions and subpoenas. Legal secretaries may also help paralegals with their legal research.
- A high school diploma and on-the-job training is required for this career. However, many legal secretaries take courses to learn common legal jargon and terminology. Some legal secretaries also complete a certificate program or earn an associate degree.
- Certification isn't common for legal secretaries.
Arbitrators, Mediators and Conciliators
Arbitrators, mediators and conciliators facilitate negotiation and dialogue between disputing parties to help resolve various conflicts. They do their work outside the courtroom, however. They serve as a negotiator that stands in the middle, communicating each party's issues, needs and complaints. While these workers are typically lawyers or judges who transition out of their initial fields, business professionals and individuals with legal expertise can also find employment in this field.
- Arbitrators, mediators and conciliators find entry-level work in this field by having the right combination of experience and skill. Earning a bachelor's degree in a related field is often sufficient.
- Some states require these workers to become certified to work on certain types of cases. However, there is no national license or standard for these workers.
Associations and Organizations
As a paralegal studies major, it's important to stay abreast of changes within the industry as well as new educational opportunities. The following associations and organizations offer news and certification opportunities for professionals in this field:
- The National Association of Legal Assistants -- The NALA offers continuing education and voluntary certification opportunities for paralegals and related workers. Certifications include the Certified Paralegal Program and the Advanced Paralegal Certification.
- Law and Society Association -- This organization hosts annual meetings that allow members to discuss recent papers and legal findings. Job boards and networking opportunities are also available.
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations -- The NFPA is a national paralegal association that sets standards within the industry. They monitor legislation that affects the paralegal profession, offer networking opportunities and create ethical standards that all paralegals must accept. The NFPA also offers educational webinars and professional development opportunities.
- American Alliance of Paralegals -- This organization offers membership opportunities and representation for operating paralegals. As a member, you can gain access to a job board, classified postings, networking events and continuing education.
- Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/arbitrators-mediators-and-conciliators.htm#tab-1
- Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies Online Degree Program, Liberty University, http://www.liberty.edu/online/bachelors/paralegal-studies/
- Online Paralegal Studies Program, Boston University, https://paralegalonline.bu.edu/
- Paralegal Studies Associate Degree, Penn Foster College, https://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/legal-services/paralegal-studies-associate-degree
- Paralegals and Legal Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm#tab-1
- Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/secretaries-and-administrative-assistants.htm#tab-1