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December 23, 2022

Paralegal vs. Legal Studies: What’s The Difference?

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Legal studies is a broad term that may sometimes include paralegal under its wide umbrella. So it’s easy to get a little confused about certifications and degrees in legal studies and paralegal studies and which does what.

Many students wishing to work in the field of law begin by earning a paralegal degree or certificate. This is a fundamental “first step” that allows entry into a law career, and may allow you to stay employed as a paralegal while you go on to earn a higher degree in legal studies. It also enables you to get hands-on experience in the field and to see if this is really what you’re cut out to do.

But at the most basic level, paralegal and legal studies take a very different focus. Let’s a look at what you’ll study in a legal studies certificate or degree program.

Simply put, legal studies are interdisciplinary programs that are theory and society-focused appraisal of how the law works. They could be classified as a legal discipline or a liberal arts discipline, but will likely combine elements and courses from each. Legal studies examine the ideas of law, its institutions, and practices.

That sounds like paralegal studies though.

Paralegal coursework is more practical-based and focused upon teaching the industry applications—writing, research, technical, analytical, and administrative skills, as well as law basics—designed to put you to work assisting lawyers, firms and clients. As a paralegal, you’ll have the option to focus on a specific area of law if you wish, such as elder law, wills, trusts and estates, or family and divorce law. The practical nature of a paralegal degree makes it distinct from legal studies.

What will I learn in a legal studies program?

Now, let’s take a look at the types of courses you’ll take in a legal studies program. Here is a sample curriculum from Berkeley College’s Legal Studies bachelor degree program:

  • Law and Economics
  • International Human Rights
  • Government and Family
  • Punishment, Culture, and Society
  • Property and Liberty
  • Supreme Court and Public Policy
  • Immigration and Citizenship
  • Legal Discourse
  • Theories of Justice
  • The Modern Constitution
  • Law and Society
  • Youth and Justice
  • Foundations of Criminal Law
  • Police and Society
  • Foundations of Legal Studies (liberal arts theory)

As you can see, coursework is more expansive and theoretical than the skill-specific classes that prepare a paralegal to quickly enter the field.

What could I transition to with a legal studies degree then?

A legal studies degree aims for high-level careers, and are a good choice for not only those interested in law, but in public administration, public affairs, business administration, political science, and academia. Here are some careers that a legal studies program would be suitable for:

Law librarian:
These are professionals working in a variety of settings, such as law firms, law schools, legal departments, courts, and other organizations who maintain a reputable and expansive library of legal resources. You may help with research in this career, as well as aiding access to the variety of resources within the library you maintain.
Paralegal:
Yes, a legal studies degree will allow you to work as a paralegal. While the degree offers a more foundational study of the legal system, many employers will still find that the research skills and theoretical understanding you gain is more than sufficient for paralegal work.
Mediator:
Court mediators generally do not require a specific degree, but an education, such as psychology, law, or legal studies, is encouraged. That said, certification is generally required or encouraged as well, and qualifications vary at state and county levels.
Compliance officer:
These are professionals who review and identify legal and regulatory risks within their organization or with organizations their employer works with. There are many specializations in this career, such as healthcare, higher education, business, and financial.
Probation officer:
These are corrections workers who keep track of parolees and other sentenced individuals as they rehabilitate and transition into community members.

Could I become a lawyer with a legal studies degree?

You can apply to and attend law school after earning a legal studies degree, which could lead you to becoming a lawyer. That said, the American Bar Association emphasizes that there is no single path or bachelor degree that will prepare you for law school, and many educational backgrounds can be great fits for potential law students. What they do suggest is challenging yourself in the courses you take, developing your research and writing skills, and pursuing studies that interest and engage you.