What Is a Paralegal Associate Degree?
Paralegals help lawyers prepare for trial by executing research, taking notes, and writing reports. They must know laws and regulations pertinent to their field. Paralegals also help conduct interviews and investigations, and they organize evidence for trial. Some paralegals specialize in a particular kind of law, depending on the firm or organization they work for.
An associate degree provides aspiring paralegals with the necessary skills and knowledge they need to begin their careers. Students learn legal procedure, strong verbal and written communication skills, and necessary laws and regulations. An associate degree covers a broad base of knowledge, preparing students for careers in different types of law.
This degree is ideal for aspiring paralegals or for students who may want to pursue a juris doctorate in the future. The associate degree prepares graduates to enter the workforce as paralegals and start gaining experience. Later, students and professionals might decide to continue their education and become lawyers. An associate degree can help jump start that process.
The career outlook for paralegals with associate degrees is good. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 12% growth from 2018 to 2028 for paralegals, which is much faster than the national average.
Why Earn an Online Paralegal Degree?
Earning an online paralegal degree yields many personal and professional benefits. Below, students will find five benefits for associate degree-holders.
- Career Opportunities
Paralegals with a degree have more opportunities to find a job and advance in their career.
- Higher Income
Degree-holders typically earn a higher salary than paralegals without a degree. Even if two paralegals have the same duties, the one with a degree may be paid more.
- Legal Knowledge
Students encounter laws and regulations in an academic setting that can later be applied to their work.
- Communication Skills
An associate degree teaches essential written and verbal communication skills that will help advance students academically and professionally.
This degree provides students with the training they need to enter the workforce. Even before their first day on the job, degree-holders will understand the essentials of their work.
Career and Salary Potential With an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies
An associate degree in paralegal studies prepares students for careers in the legal industry. Most students find work in law firms that require general or specialized legal knowledge. Graduates may also find careers in other industries, in both the private and public spheres. Businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits may hire students with paralegal skills.
Of course, no degree guarantees a career or salary. This section examines potential careers and their average salaries for this field.
Median Annual Salary: $50,940
Projected Growth Rate (2018-2028): 12%
|Paralegals perform research for lawyers in areas of law, regulation, and business. They help file motions, prepare pleadings, write briefs, interact with clients, and assist with evidence. Most paralegals work for law offices, corporations' legal departments, or for the court system.|
Median Annual Salary: $38,880
Projected Growth Rate (2018-2028): -7%
|Administrative assistants take on a wide variety of responsibilities. These professionals can work in any industry and field. They can answer directly to one individual or oversee work for an entire department. Their duties include data entry, customer service, record-keeping, and correspondence.|
Median Annual Salary: $46,360
Projected Growth Rate (2018-2028): -7%
|Legal secretaries perform secretarial duties for lawyers, law firms, and the courts. They file important legal documents, such as briefs, motions, memorandums, and pleadings. Legal secretaries also schedule appointments between lawyers and clients. Some secretaries may perform pre-screening interviews with clients before letting them sit down with a lawyer.|
Median Annual Salary: $31,700
Projected Growth Rate (2018-2028): 0%
|This is an entry-level position that covers administrative tasks in almost any industry. File clerks assist senior executives and employees and maintain the office's filing systems. Clerks must be detail oriented, self motivated, and hard working. They may handle sensitive, client-related documents with confidential information.|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Earning an Associate in Paralegal Studies Online
Below, students will find information about how to earn an associate degree in paralegal studies. The following sections describe the application process, common courses, average degree length, and skills students will learn from the degree. Applicants to associate programs should always research specific deadlines, courses, and program details for the schools they apply to.
Most college applications require payment of a fee. Questions on applications vary, but students will need to fill out personal information as well as details about their previous education or work experiences.
Most associate degree programs require a high school diploma or equivalent. Applicants must submit official high school transcripts to university admissions as proof of completion. Some high schools may also charge a small fee to send official transcripts. Transcripts also provide proof of a student's GPA. Some universities will require applicants to have a minimum GPA for admittance, usually around 3.0. Students who do not meet the minimum GPA requirement might still be considered although they may be less likely to be admitted.
Many programs ask for a statement of purpose, a short essay that describes why the applicant wants to earn this particular degree. Students should consider mentioning their future career or educational plans, previous work experience, or a relevant and personal story.
Universities also expect letters of recommendation from applicants. Most schools require 2-3 letters, which can come from former teachers, coaches, or employers.
U.S. Legal System
This course teaches students about the American legal system. Starting with the basics, the class describes court system, its inner workings, and how judges process cases. Students gain a deeper understanding of law and legal proceedings, and they learn how paralegals and lawyers interact with the U.S. legal system.
Legal ethics explains the professional responsibility of everyone in the legal system, including judges, lawyers, clerks, and paralegals. Students learn the codes and regulations governing the conduct of law professionals. Students may also study real-world examples of ethical dilemmas and engage in debate with their peers about the correct solutions.
This foundational course focuses on legal study and analysis. The class is largely practice-oriented, allowing students to learn research methodology through experience. Students will also learn critical research and analytical skills needed to find precedent, understand case law, and uncover codes and regulations.
Some associate programs require students to complete an internship. Students gain practical experience by working at a law firm, court, or other legal agency. This internship may take place full time during the summer or part time during the semester. In most cases, universities provide guidance and aid in finding an internship.
This course teaches students essential written and verbal communication skills in a business setting. Students will learn to write reports, correspondence, briefs, motions, and filings. Students will also practice giving presentations, reports, and briefings. These skills are directly applicable to real-world professions that paralegal students might join.
Average Online Degree Length
Most associate degrees require 60 credit hours, and most students complete their degree in two years. Online degrees in particular allow students flexibility of schedule and options for virtual or in-person learning.
Several factors can affect the length of an online degree. First, students must determine if they will study full time or part time. Full-time students can commit to a larger course load and tend to finish their degrees more quickly. Part-time students take on a smaller course load. Though it may take them longer to finish their degree, part-time students can continue working while they study.
Students should also consider if their university has an accelerated timeline. Accelerated timelines help students earn their degrees faster than normal (by months or even a full year). Students in an accelerated timeline must study full time to keep up with the course load.
Skills, Traits, and Knowledge Gained
Associate degrees in paralegal studies impart necessary skills, knowledge, and experience to students. Aspiring paralegals can use these skills to continue their education or to enter the workforce. Below are some common skills that students gain while earning their associate degree.
Accreditation for Paralegal Associate Programs
Independent agencies and councils provide accreditation to universities, colleges, and their programs. These agencies ensure that the schools, programs, and faculty meet high educational standards.
Accreditation, particularly regional accreditation, is important. Many schools will not accept transfer credits unless they come from a regionally accredited institution. If students plan to continue their education or transfer credits from an associate degree to a bachelor's degree, they should always check the accreditation requirements.
The Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee the agencies and councils that bestow accreditation. Students need to see if their program is accredited and make sure the accrediting agency is one approved by these two groups.
For paralegal studies, students should look for accreditation by the American Bar Association. Programs may also receive regional accreditation from the granting bodies in their jurisdiction. Most universities list their accreditations on their websites.
Professional Organizations and Resources
Students and professionals alike can use professional organizations to advance their careers. Professional organizations provide key resources for continuing education, certification, and research to keep their members current on practices and regulations. These organizations also offer networking and career advancement opportunities.
Below are three professional organizations for paralegal students and professionals. These are only some of the organizations available to people in this profession. Students can access these organizations no matter their location or university.
Founded in 1878, the ABA commits itself to advancing the rule of law across the country. This organization provides practical resources for all those in the legal profession, offers law program accreditation, and models ethics codes. The ABA offers advocacy, bias and diversity training, and spreads the ideal of fair legal process for all people.
The AAJ has four main goals: promoting accountability and safety, advocating for the civil justice system, enhancing the practice of law, and improving communities across the country. This organization offers news and research to professionals and students, keeping them up to date on current trends and new regulations.
The NLG believes in "human rights over property interests." It is the country's oldest and largest progressive bar association and boasts that it was the first in the U.S. to be racially integrated. The NLG's mission is to use the law for the people and to unite lawyers, law students, and legal workers in the fight for human rights.
Next Steps: Continuing Your Education
An associate degree is the first of many steps a paralegal student can take in his/her education. Below, students will find information about continuing their education after an associate degree. The following sections list information about transferring to a four-year degree program and additional programs students might consider.
Transferring to a Four-Year Degree Program
Earning an associate degree does not have to be the end of a student's education. Many students enroll in bachelor's programs after completing their associate degree. From there, they may earn a master's or law degree.
Most universities have strict requirements regarding credit transfers. When students move to a four-year program, they should consult with academic advisors to determine how many credit hours they can apply toward their new degree.
Additional Degree Paths to Consider
An associate degree in paralegal studies prepares students for many different four-year degree paths. Students who continue their legal education might consider pre-law majors. From there, students can apply to law school or enter the workforce. Below are three potential degree paths for paralegal studies students to consider.
- Bachelor's in Political Science: There is no set degree path for pre-law students. Many choose to study political science, which teaches them about the political systems in place in the U.S. and how they interact with the legal system.
- Juris Doctorate: Aspiring lawyers need to attend law school to earn a juris doctorate. Most law schools have three-year degree programs that teach students about different types of law and prepare them for their professional careers.
- Bachelor's in Business Administration: Students who want to go a different direction after their paralegal degree might consider business administration. This degree prepares students for corporate work across industries, building off many skills that paralegal students already possess.