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All you need to know about paralegal degrees and programs

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Finding the right paralegal degree and program

With such a variety of paralegal degree programs available, how do you go about picking the one that’s right for you?

The type of paralegal program you choose will depend on a number of factors, such as your current level of education, previous work experience, special focus or interests or the availability of part-time paralegal training. It is important for those pursuing any career in the legal field to find the educational route that suits them best. “There is no one correct way of becoming a paralegal. I’ve seen all kinds of backgrounds and education paths that people have taken in becoming one,” said Derek Henry, a paralegal based in Houston, Texas.

Certificate programs

The widest variety, in terms of education programs for paralegal training, is available through certificate or diploma programs offered by business or vocational schools, community colleges and even some larger universities. 

Paralegal certificate programs can range from just three to 24 months and most are intended for students or career-changers who already have an associate or bachelor’s degree. However, the timing of these programs may vary depending on whether you attend school full-time or part-time, if your course is online and other scheduling factors.

Shorter programs typically focus on paralegal courses in law, legal research, law office administration and other fundamentals such as legal report writing, while longer programs take a more traditional degree route and include both general education and paralegal courses. These are much more similar in scope to associate degree programs.

Associate degree programs

Associate degrees in paralegal studies can typically be completed in two years of full-time study. These programs are available at business or vocational schools, 2-year community colleges and some 4-year colleges and universities.

According to a 2022 Zippia survey, 29% of paralegals have an associate degree while 51% hold a bachelor’s. In some employment markets, an associate degree may be the appropriate level of paralegal training to enter the field. However more career-changer paralegals are working with a bachelor’s granted in another area and then go on to earn a paralegal certificate, or less typically, a degree in paralegal studies.

Bachelor’s degree programs

Bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies are not as readily available as associate degrees or certificate programs. But even if colleges and universities near you do not offer a major in paralegal studies, they may offer it as a minor within a related major, such as criminal justice. “I was enrolled in a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice degree program with a concentration in Pre-Law and Paralegal Studies at Northwestern State University of Louisiana,” says Henry. “The last two years we focused on the Paralegal aspect and it has helped in so many ways.”

Other majors, such as history, English, political science, psychology, accounting or business administration may benefit paralegal students as well. Regardless of your major, it’s important to have a strong foundation in the law and the inner workings of the legal system. “You already have so much experience by the time you finish your degree that you are a lot more confident during the job hunting process,” says Henry.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) has adopted a policy urging future paralegals to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but many employers still consider associate degrees or certificate programs to be adequate preparation for entry-level work as a paralegal, especially if a prospective employee has relevant legal work experience.

Advanced Paralegal Degree Programs

If you can afford the time and money to obtain your master’s degree in paralegal studies, you will set yourself apart from other paralegals seeking employment or advancement.

Master’s degree programs are offered by 4-year colleges and graduate schools and are typically offered in law, legal studies or legal administration. Master’s-level paralegal programs usually take a minimum of two years to complete.

Classes you’ll take in your paralegal program

Depending on the degree or certificate program you choose, you’ll be assigned coursework designed to give you the skills and knowledge you need to be a successful paralegal. Your coursework will either focus entirely on paralegal studies in a shorter certificate or associate program, or expand to include general education classes and other areas of legal studies in a bachelor’s program.

In a certificate program, paralegal students will gain the basic education requirements to pursue a paralegal career, while courses in an associate degree program will focus on a variety of related topics, from law specialties such as torts and contracts, to legal writing and technical writing classes. In a bachelor’s degree program, you’ll begin thinking of specializing as a paralegal, and you may take courses in pertinent areas of your law concentration. As an example, on top of your general and legal classes you might take courses that focus on:

Courses in advanced degree programs will require a broader study of the curriculum and more expert knowledge in general legal studies. Master’s degree programs may include coursework specializing in:

An advanced degree may also help students with salary negotiations as they navigate the job market.

Students considering a career as a paralegal should take the time to research the education resources and programs that will best suit their long-term goals. The cost, time, accreditation and scope of a school and its curriculum are all important factors to consider when pursuing an a paralegal degree.

joe edwards

Written and reported by:

Joe Edwards

Staff Writer

With professional insights from:

Derek Henry

Paralegal, Houston, Texas