Earning a paralegal studies bachelor's degree opens the door to exciting careers within the legal profession, since so many businesses interact with courts or regulatory agencies -- from individuals purchasing homes to corporations launching new products. Paralegals assist attorneys with legal research, writing court filings and correspondence, working with clients, and performing clerical tasks.
Paralegals may specialize in litigation, helping attorneys during trials and other court proceedings, or work in corporate offices reviewing contracts, monitoring new government regulations, or ensuring financial disclosures meet filing deadlines. Below, learn more about the possible careers available through a paralegal bachelor's education and examples of the skills and courses necessary to earn your degree.
Overview of Paralegal Studies Degrees
A bachelor's degree in paralegal studies prepares graduates to assist lawyers with preparing legal documents, researching legal precedents, and communicating with clients. Students develop an understanding of the judicial system, such as the types of cases each court hears and the appeals process. They also hone the writing, research, and analytical skills required to do paralegal work. Individuals who enjoy research and working with others may thrive as a paralegal or legal assistant. Paralegals compose the fastest-growing segment of the legal field, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 15% growth rate in paralegal and legal assistant employment, compared to its projected 9% growth rate for all legal occupations. Much of this growth comes from entrusting paralegals to take on work once previously reserved for lawyers, especially in corporate offices.
Most bachelor's degrees require students to complete 120 credits, including general education courses in English, math, history, and science, with extensive study of the U.S. Constitution, legal writing, and legal research. The criminal law portions of paralegal studies may mirror some of the requirements of a criminal justice degree, while the paralegal coursework encompasses a variety of legal specialties including family law, probate court, real estate, and corporate law. Many schools also encourage students to complete a hands-on learning experience, such as an internship, as part of a capstone experience.
Applicants to a paralegal bachelor's program should meet the school's general admission requirements. Most schools require applicants to hold a high school diploma or educational equivalent, and take the ACT or SAT entrance exams or the appropriate placement tests for nontraditional students. Some schools with competitive admissions may impose minimum requirements for standardized test scores and GPAs. They may also require applicants to have completed specific high school courses, such as foreign language or four years of math. Schools may also call for prospective students to submit a writing sample, such as a personal essay sharing their professional goals.
Once students gain admission to a college or university, they may need to apply separately to the legal studies department. If required, this application usually takes place during the sophomore year, before students begin taking upper-division coursework. Departments consider students' academic records, GPAs, and professional goals in these decisions. Transfer students should have their transcripts evaluated to ensure they receive credit for as many courses as possible. If you have significant professional experience, ask about a prior learning assessment to receive credit for professional certifications, military training, and life experience. Every credit earned shortens the time needed to earn your bachelor's degree in paralegal studies online.
What Will I Learn?
A bachelor's degree requires about 120 credits of industry-specific instruction in law, research, and technology. The general education core ensures students have a broad understanding of math, history, and English, and gain a well-rounded education. Most programs require 35-45 additional credits in legal studies, which encompass theoretical concepts, history of law, and practical application. The remaining courses include electives that provide an area of specialization or survey of a complimentary subject or minor, such as history or accounting.
Students work closely with their academic adviser to ensure their electives support their ultimate career and educational goals, such as working in a particular type of law or continued study in law school. Students can also gain valuable hands-on knowledge through work experiences, such as internships, which may award academic credit. Students may need to identify potential work sites and have their placement approved by the school if they hope to earn academic credit. Specific requirements vary by school, most paralegal studies programs include courses similar to those listed below.
Paralegals and legal assistants must adhere to a strict code of professional conduct and ethics. In this course, students discuss and evaluate issues of confidentiality, unauthorized practice of law, handling client funds, conflicts of interest, and professional conduct. Assignments may include reading textbooks and case studies, and writing ethics reports and research papers.
Law Office Computer Applications
Students gain experience using industry-standard software to complete a variety of functions, from tracking time and billing to conducting extensive legal research. The course also covers how the use of technology impacts discovery in the legal process and client privacy, and evolving trends in the field, such as online legal services.
Legal Research and Writing
The course teaches students how to access legal resources and the best practices for conducting thorough research into statutes and precedents. The course includes multiple writing assignments, which familiarize students with proper formatting for legal briefs and memos. The class also helps students develop the legal reasoning and analysis necessary to succeed in the field.
In this course, students develop the analytical and reasoning skills to help construct legal theories or defenses. Skills include linguistic analysis of statutes and judicial decisions to extract rules and policies, and forming new arguments based upon their review. The course requires extensive reading of legal decisions and writing assignments.
Civil litigation often includes matters related to property or liability, with different evidentiary requirements than criminal court. This course prepares paralegals to draft documents, such as briefs of court decisions. Students learn the terminology used in civil litigation and the procedures for pre-trial discovery, trials, and appeals.
The U.S. Constitution provides the foundation and framework of the American judicial system, including courts' authority and citizens' rights. In this course, students examine federal jurisdiction, due process and equal protection under the law, and the power of Congress to enforce constitutional protections and limits within the states. Assignments include readings, discussions, and research papers.
What Can I Do with an Online Bachelor's Degree in Paralegal Studies?
Graduates with a bachelor of paralegal studies can immediately enter the workforce as paralegals, working in small law offices or large firms, or with nonprofit or corporate employers. Many court systems and legislative committees also hire paralegals to assist with research and writing responsibilities. In some states, paralegals who complete specific educational, certification, and supervised practice requirements qualify to provide independent legal services in areas such as family law. Paralegal studies degrees also prepare students to enter law school and eventually practice law themselves.
Attention to detail and organization rank among the top required skills for paralegals. Paralegal work requires professionals to closely follow court cases to ensure they meet all court deadlines. Since paralegals often work on multiple cases simultaneously, organizational skills ensure they keep up with all the deadlines, changes, and next steps in the process. They must also seek out details of prior court decisions to determine the facts of a case and how the decision impacts their current client. Paralegals often assist with interviewing clients, taking careful notes of discussions and documenting information for future use.
Paralegals also must communicate effectively with their supervising attorney and the client. They must demonstrate exemplary writing skills and an ability to communicate complex information succinctly. In some offices, paralegals also handle clerical tasks, such as scheduling and calling clients.
Legal firms rely on technology for many office functions. Paralegals must feel comfortable using industry-standard software, such as billing software, and databases, such as Westlaw or LexisNexis. Many bachelor of paralegal studies programs incorporate these technology skills in multiple courses. Practical experiences, such as internships in law offices, ensure students master these important workplace skills.
Potential Careers and Salaries
Any industry that communicates or works with the judicial system or regulatory agencies can benefit from hiring paralegals. Graduates may find work in corporate settings or with government agencies. State and federal court systems employ paralegals to assist with case work, as well. Still, law firms and legal services professions remain the primary industry for paralegals and legal assistants. As law firms and corporations look to control legal costs, they transfer increasing amounts of entry-level legal work to paralegals. A bachelor's degree in paralegal studies online offers students the chance to delve into specialized legal topics and showcase their ability to handle these advanced tasks for potential employers. Across the country, paralegals earn an annual mean wage of $53,910, but the top 10% of paralegals and legal assistants earn upwards of $81,180 each year. Often, specialized experience can qualify paralegals to demand higher wages.
Annual Median Salary: $69,470
Senior paralegals often work in large legal practices directing and supervising the work of entry-level and junior paralegals. They usually have college degrees and several years of experience in the profession. They may draft legal documentation, handle sensitive information, and conduct high-level research. As managers, they may also interview potential applicants.
Annual Median Salary: $50,410
Legal assistants handle a variety of clerical tasks in law firms, such as correspondence and scheduling. Depending on the office size and the employees' skill level, they may also gather evidence and documents for attorney review, file documents with the court, and organize materials for filing systems.
Annual Median Salary: $53,670
Litigation paralegals work closely with attorneys throughout the trial process. They track each case to meet deadlines for brief filings, discovery requests, pleadings, and appeals. These professionals also assist in preparing witnesses to testify, scheduling and carrying out depositions, and conducting legal research. They organize exhibits and assist attorneys during court proceedings.
Annual Median Salary: $65,392
These specialists often find employment with legal departments in large businesses. They help ensure their company adheres to all laws and regulations related to hiring practices, financial disclosures, and advertising requirements. They assist staff attorneys with writing documents, organizing data, and filing forms. They may conduct interviews or gather evidence to represent the company in legal action.
Regulatory Compliance Manager
Annual Median Salary: $76,563
Companies must ensure their departments adhere to set policies and procedures to comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations. Managers make sure their companies meet all deadlines for filing required documentation, investigate complaints, conduct audits, and train employees in proper procedures. Most compliance managers hold experience in accounting, business, and finance.
Will I Need a Graduate Degree for a Career in Paralegal Studies?
Some paralegals enter the workforce with only a certificate or an associate degree, and gain on-the-job experience to advance their careers. A bachelor's degree in paralegal studies ensures entry-level paralegals are equipped to take on greater responsibility or specialized assignments. Ongoing professional development and real-world work experience can provide a path to continued career success without the need to return to school.
The decision to continue a legal education beyond a bachelor's degree depends entirely on your career goals. The undergraduate degree offers a strong foundation in areas of law, and may serve as a first step toward becoming a licensed attorney. Graduates of accredited schools may consider applying to law school to earn a doctorate of jurisprudence, or a master's program to work in an administrative law capacity.
Accreditation for Paralegal Studies Bachelor's Programs
Students should make sure their school holds institutional accreditation from a recognized regional or national agency. Seven regional accrediting agencies, including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, review the facilities, faculty, and academic programs of colleges and universities within their respective regions. These regional accreditation agencies have long histories with academia, and remain the most well-known and recognizable agencies. However, the U.S. Department of Education does identify a few national accreditation agencies. Attending an accredited school ensures your degree meets employer and professional standards, and credits from accredited universities transfer more easily than those from non accredited schools. Anyone planning to continue their education beyond the undergraduate level must earn an accredited degree.
The American Bar Association (ABA) serves as the specialized accrediting agency for law schools. The association also offers paralegal program accreditation to schools that meet their standards for academics, facilities, and student support and resources. Not every state offers an ABA-approved paralegal bachelor's degree, and many quality programs have not sought this designation. Students should evaluate potential schools based on faculty qualifications, modern research and technology tools, relevant coursework, and the success of students in finding good jobs upon graduation.
Paralegal Studies Professional Organizations
The legal profession changes quickly, either through the passing of new laws or court decisions that set new precedents. Paralegals can stay abreast of these changes by networking with their peers, participating in state and national conferences, and completing ongoing professional development and continuing education courses. Joining a professional association helps recent paralegal graduates accomplish these goals. Professional organizations also offer opportunities to showcase leadership by serving on committees, and to identify new job opportunities through members-only job listings.
National Association of Legal Assistants
NALA represents more than 18,000 legal professionals through national and state organizations. Students and professionals can both join and enjoy discounted rates on education programs and services, plus a subscription to the association journals. NALA also offers professional certification for paralegals, on-demand webinars, and self-paced online learning. The association's annual conference also provides continuing education and networking opportunities.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations
NFPA brings together more than 50 associations to share resources, news, and education events. The organization advocates for the profession on issues of nonlawyer practice, professional standards and certification, and labor standards. The association also curates information from association newsletters to publish the National Paralegal Reporter, a quarterly magazine featuring legal updates and professional development articles.
American Bar Association
The ABA welcomes lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants, and other interested parties to join its ranks. The organization provides a variety of continuing legal education courses, plus access to a national legal job board. The ABA Journal offers current information on changes to the legal profession, and 30-plus member groups provide leadership, advocacy, and networking opportunities.