Best Associate in Legal Studies Programs

James M. Tobin, MFA
Updated September 20, 2023
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Legal studies associate degree programs prepare students for entry-level law careers. Legal studies associate degree-holders typically transfer credits into four-year bachelor’s programs.

This degree appeals to learners seeking to complete a compact introductory program that maximizes their options. Legal studies associate degree-holders may go on to work as paralegals before returning to school to upgrade their education. This work experience can improve future academic performance and job access.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a strong outlook for paralegals and legal assistants, projecting a 12% growth rate from 2020-2030.

Read the Specifics:What to Expect | Cost | Choosing Your Program | FAQs

What Are Legal Studies?

Legal studies programs serve students who are interested in law but not in a particularly technical career. Like pre-law, legal studies programs ground learners in the core aspects of law and legal systems. However, legal studies degrees take a multidisciplinary approach with a broad array of perspectives.

Legal studies programs cover areas that typically receive less treatment in more technical pre-law paths. For example, courses may explore philosophy of law, legal history, and alternative legal systems and traditions.

An associate degree in this field can also prepare students for future legal education, including law school. Degree-holders can also pursue careers in business, finance, and government using knowledge from non-technical law degrees.

In other cases, established professionals can boost their education with a legal studies degree. Additional education can open the door to more advanced careers demanding deeper legal insights.

Why Get an Associate Degree in Legal Studies?

An associate degree in legal studies offers flexibility for various career and education paths. Degree-holders can pursue entry-level and support roles with law firms and within the justice system. There, they can build careers or gain experience before returning to school to earn bachelor’s degrees.

BLS data from May 2020 demonstrates that the average worker with an associate degree earns nearly 19% more than a high school graduate.

Wage and salary statistics from the BLS speak to an associate degrees’ economic value. BLS data from May 2020 demonstrates that the average worker with an associate degree earns nearly 19% more than a high school graduate. Associate degree-holders also out-earn people with some college education but no degree by an average of 6.4%.

Legal studies associate degrees can lead to multiple law-related career paths. Popular examples include:

  • Paralegals: Paralegals and legal assistants provide support to attorneys preparing cases. Among other duties, they gather pertinent facts, organize evidence, and draft documents. Some employers require additional training or certification.
  • Court Messengers: Also known as court couriers, these professionals ensure that all parties involved in a legal matter receive access to necessary court documents.
  • Research Assistants: Legal research assistants help develop case strategies, compile witness testimony, and study relevant legal precedents. They typically work for law firms or individual lawyers.

What To Expect From Legal Studies Associate Degree Programs

Full-time students can usually complete a legal studies associate program in two academic years. Programs usually comprise 60 credits, or about half what a typical bachelor’s degree requires.

Core program focuses and philosophies differ among schools. Some degrees prepare learners for careers as paralegals or for other support roles. Others focus on academic learning more than career training. As such, prospective students should research these aspects before deciding on a program.

Degree designations are another important point of comparison. Some programs lead to associate of arts (AA) degrees. Others culminate with associate of science (AS) or associate of applied science (AAS) credentials.

In general, AA programs emphasize human elements of legal studies. AS programs focus more on quantitative features, such as research methods and statistical analysis. AAS degrees, which are less common, usually lead to entry-level careers rather than further schooling.

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Admission Requirements

Each school sets its own admission policies. The following criteria often apply to legal studies associate degree programs:

  • Applicants must hold a high school diploma or equivalent.
  • Prospective students may have to submit ACT or SAT scores.
  • Admission standards may differ depending on whether the applicant is a first-time student, a college graduate returning to school, or another type of learner.

Institutions often mandate that incoming students meet program-specific and general admission requirements. Candidates usually need to supply documents to support their applications. Depending on the school and the program, these may include:

  • A general application to the institution
  • Academic transcripts from high school and college
  • Official test scores
  • Detailed, official descriptions of previous college coursework if you are seeking transfer credits or advanced standing

Some schools may request additional materials, such as personal essays, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

Comparing Similar Degrees

Students interested in legal studies associate degree programs may also consider degrees in criminal justice and criminology.

Criminal justice overlaps with legal studies but focuses on the law enforcement and criminal corrections systems. Meanwhile, criminology programs concentrate more on the psychological and sociological drivers of criminal behavior.

Students interested in legal studies associate degree programs may also consider degrees in criminal justice and criminology.

Degree-seekers can also pursue bachelor’s programs in legal studies. Pre-law study tracks are another similar option.

DegreeProgram LengthCredit RequirementsAcademic FocusPost-Graduation Placement Options
Associate in Legal Studies2 yearsAbout 60 creditsMultidisciplinary study of law and legal systemsEntry-level careers in law and the justice system; bachelor’s programs in legal studies or pre-law tracks
Associate in Criminal Justice2 yearsAbout 60 creditsLaw enforcement systems and operations; criminal justice and corrections systems and operationsEntry-level careers in law enforcement or criminal corrections; bachelor’s programs in criminal justice, criminology, legal studies, or pre-law tracks
Associate in Criminology2 yearsAbout 60 creditsPsychological and sociological causes of crime; statistical analysis of crime trends; crime prevention and community remediationEntry-level careers in law enforcement, criminal corrections, and private security; bachelor’s programs in criminal justice, criminology, legal studies, or pre-law tracks
Bachelor’s in Legal Studies4 yearsAbout 120 creditsSimilar to associate, but in greater depth and detailEntry-level careers in law and the justice system; law school; master’s in legal studies
Pre-Law Program4 yearsAbout 120 creditsLaw and legal studies coursework taken alongside a major in another subjectStudents preparing for law school usually take pre-law courses as part of a liberal arts degree in another subject area Law school; entry-level careers in law and the justice system

Legal studies and pre-law programs can benefit learners seeking a general education in law. They also provide a strong foundation for future law studies and learners planning to pursue law school.

Meanwhile, alternatives like criminal justice and criminology are more specialized and narrower in their focus. Students planning careers in law enforcement, security, and criminal corrections often pursue these options. Their curricula treat practical and operational aspects of the justice system in greater detail.

Popular Legal Studies Courses

Campus-based and online legal studies programs include two main types of courses. All learners must complete core courses to graduate. Electives offer students choice and the ability to study topics of personal interest.

Core and elective coursework in a legal studies curriculum vary among institutions. Common courses include:

  • Introduction to Legal Studies: This class delivers foundational instruction in legal theory and legal systems. Coursework addresses the applications, functions, and limits of law. Most associate programs require this course in the first semester.
  • Introduction to Legal Research and Writing: This required course introduces students to industry-standard research tools and writing techniques. Some programs offer additional, intermediate-level elective courses in these areas.
  • Litigation Procedures: The civil and criminal litigation processes both involve highly structured operations. This required course places special emphasis on filing requirements, document preparation, and trial processes.
  • Ethics for Legal Professionals: Often appearing as an upper-level elective, this course introduces learners to the ethical issues legal professionals encounter in their work. In associate programs, students examine ethical topics from multiple perspectives, including through the lens of legal support personnel.

How Much Will an Associate in Legal Studies Cost?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks the costs of higher education across the United States. NCES data from the 2019-20 academic year reports the following average annual costs of a two-year degree:

HousingPublicPrivate NonprofitPrivate For-Profit
On Campus$15,700$34,000$32,400
Off Campus, Not Living with Family$18,900$34,100$31,200
Off Campus, Living with Family$9,600$24,500$21,400
Source: NCES

Students can expect most associate legal studies programs to align with these averages. Actual costs may differ depending on factors such as:

  • Whether you study online or on campus
  • The local cost of living where you attend school
  • Whether you receive financial aid

Many students pursue financial aid for help meeting their education costs. Start by exploring non-repayable funding options like grants and scholarship programs. Only consider federal or private loans once you have pursued all other avenues.

Choosing the Right Legal Studies Program

Many schools offer in-person and online legal studies programs. Choosing the best match requires taking stock of your career goals, personal interests, and learning objectives.

Compare these key points when assessing your available study paths:

  • Program Focus: Consider whether the program focuses more on academics or practical career training.
  • Internship Opportunities: Internships offer a valuable way to build professional networks and identify potential career pathways. Consider whether a program offers internships, along with the internships’ locations.
  • Credit Transferability: Associate degree-holders frequently continue their education to earn their bachelor’s degrees. Check to make sure your credits can transfer easily.

Proper accreditation should also rank among your top priorities. Only consider programs at schools with recognized national or regional accreditation. Confirm each school’s accreditation status with a reputable source like the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

The American Bar Association (ABA) endorses programs that meet particularly high quality standards. Thus, you can also look for study opportunities with ABA accreditation.

Should You Get Your Associate Degree in Legal Studies Online?

Legal studies course content is often highly structured and does not depend heavily on interactions among students and instructors. As such, the subject translates well to virtual classroom environments.

Studying online can save students money and benefits learners with outside employment and personal commitments. Online programs often feature asynchronous schedules that allow you to attend virtual classes anytime and anywhere.

However, online learning demands self-discipline and independence. Some students thrive in virtual environments, while others’ learning styles may match better with traditional classroom settings. Consider your strengths, preferences, and personal situation in weighing your program delivery options.

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