The legal services industry is diverse, complex, and competitive—an integrated system of law practices in varied areas, including civil law, business law, real estate law, employment and labor law and more. This system employs nearly 600,000 lawyers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—lawyers that need the support and services of paralegals. A major industry itself, paralegal services employs approximately 271,000 individuals across the country. The following guide serves as an introduction to paralegal education, including a review of educational options, types of paralegal programs, curriculum, certification, as well as an interview with a senior litigation paralegal with more than 20 years of experience in the field.
For this year’s college rankings, our analysts carefully reviewed statistical data from multiple sources for more than 7,500 postsecondary institutions so that you could easily evaluate schools based on what matters most to you. For each school, we applied the eligibility criteria outlined below, then ranked schools and programs based on four ranking factors.
Eligibility Criteria for All Postsecondary Institutions:
Must be a not-for-profit institution
Must be regionally or nationally accredited
Must offer at least one online program1
Must be located in a state (schools in US territories and Washington DC were not considered)
Dozens of data points were used to calculate a weighted score for four ranking factors: quality, affordability, flexibility and program (in order of significance). To determine quality, which was the most important consideration for all AS Online rankings, the most impactful data points were acceptance and graduation rates; for affordability, tuition2 and grants; for flexibility, part-time enrollment offerings; and for program, degrees conferred in that program area.
Some of our nursing program rankings used exam pass rates from NCLEX
How to Read Our Rankings Tool:
A dash indicates IPEDS data was not available
Annual in-state tuition is displayed unless stated otherwise
1 Our Best Vocational Programs rankings included data for both online and campus programs.
2 Both annual in-state and out-of-state tuition rates were used in our methodology; however, our Rankings Tool currently only displays annual in-state rates.
Finding the best paralegal school is vital for a prospective student’s academic success. Quality paralegal programs will have experienced instructors who are able to provide credible information while covering all of the industry-specific requirements. To help students find the best program that will meet their needs, we have found the top paralegal schools in the country by ranking them based on our criteria. Learn more about the best paralegal schools and programs for 2018-2019 in the list below.
Paralegal Schools and Programs
The role of the paralegal has continued to expand during the past thirty years and, in that role, paralegals function similarly to lawyers. Except for responsibilities barred by the scope of legal statutes, such as representing clients in court, providing legal advice, or setting legal fees, paralegals work in a variety of capacities under the supervision of a practicing attorney. Responsibilities vary by area of practice (e.g., corporate law, intellectual property, real estate), experience and business needs. For example, paralegals may do the following:
Coordinate case management
Draft court pleadings and discoveries
Assist in case planning
Conduct legal research
Analyze legal documents
A rapidly growing occupation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 17 percent career growth nationwide between 2012 and 2022. Meeting that demand is the purview of paralegal schools and universities, which provide several educational paths to becoming a paralegal professional. Below is an overview of the different educational institutions that offer paralegal training and degree options.
Vocational schools, also known as career colleges, trade schools, or technical institutes, provide an array of career training programs designed to prepare graduates for entry-level employment opportunities. Many vocational schools offer diploma and certificate programs in paralegal studies, with some also offering associate degree educational tracks as well. Vocational schools typically offer instruction in paralegal certification. Certification can be completed in as little as six months, but could take up to 18 months to complete. Vocational paralegal certificate programs are designed to provide students with all necessary knowledge and skills to work as a paralegal in as little time as possible. Curriculum typically covers foundational subjects, such as criminal law, legal research, contracts, legal writing, ethics, contracts and administrative law. Some vocational schools may provide transferable credits that can be put toward an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, offer both career-focused training and academic degree programs in a greater variety of professional fields than vocational schools. Students may choose from shorter certificate and diploma and two-year associate degree programs in paralegal studies at community colleges. According to graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), community college programs graduated more than 9,600 students with degrees, diplomas or certificates in paralegal studies in 2013.
Community colleges offer Associate of Arts and Associate of Science in paralegal degree options for paralegal students. These programs are designed to be completed in a 24-month time frame, although study can take longer for some degree plans. Both the A.A. and A.S. of paralegal studies require accumulation of 60 credit hours before graduation. Many community colleges divide curriculum between general education courses, such as science, English, and math, and core courses specific to the paralegal field.
Graduates with paralegal associate degrees are typically eligible to take the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) certification examinations. According to graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), community college programs graduated more than 9,600 students with degrees, diplomas or certificates in paralegal studies in 2013.
Four-year institutions, including public and private universities, offer the most comprehensive selection of academic programs for prospective students. In the field of paralegal studies, these higher education institutions may provide a full slate of options, including certificate, diploma, associate, bachelor’s, and post-bachelor’s certificate programs. Curriculum is split between general education courses-such as English, math, and science, and specialized paralegal studies. Upon graduation, students should be equipped with industry-specific knowledge that will help them in the paralegal field. Students with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies are eligible to sit for certification examinations given by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
In 2013, four-year universities and colleges conferred slightly more than 7,300 degrees in paralegal studies, according to NCES.
Paralegals and Legal Assistants-Is there a difference?
The terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” may cause some confusion, as they are often used interchangeably. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants and the American Bar Association, there is no difference between the two terms. Both terms refer to the same occupation, professional responsibilities, and required level of education. The preference of using one term or the other usually falls to geographic location.
Paralegal Schools Must-Have List
The central role of any paralegal studies program is to prepare its graduates for entry into careers in legal services. The important question for individuals interested in paralegal studies is how to select the right program. Legal organizations including the American Bar Association, National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Association of Legal Administrators, and American Association for Paralegal Education have developed recommendations for evaluating the overall quality and elements of paralegal educational programs. Below is a list of six factors students should consider prior to making a decision about their future paralegal studies:
1. Objectives and Program Philosophy.
The main philosophy and objectives of the program should be clearly stated by the institution and department. For example, does the program take a holistic approach to communication, legal research and writing, critical thinking and decision-making skills? Or, does the program put greater emphasis on certain learning outcomes?
2. Approval from the American Bar Association.
Paralegal organizations recommend students seek out institutions that have American Bar Association approval for their paralegal programs. Approval is voluntary and demonstrates the institution’s commitment to industry-specific educational preparation and outcomes.
3. Membership in the American Association for Paralegal Education.
Membership in the AAFPE, like ABA approval, is a reflection of a program’s commitment to providing an education that is in alignment with current legal trends and developments.
4. Program Reputation.
Students should learn how a program is received by current students, graduates, and the legal industry at-large. Is the program ranked by publications such as U.S. News & World Review? Do graduates speak highly of the instruction they received? Is the school routinely mentioned among the best in the country?
5. Faculty Experience and Background.
The faculty drives the success of any post-secondary educational program. Students should review the individual bios of each faculty member to get an understanding of the faculty’s experience and strengths in the paralegal field.
6. Specialization Options.
What are the areas of specialization available at each paralegal school? Not every program offers a diverse selection of legal concentrations. Students should review the available specializations, the curriculum for each specialization, and the post-graduation opportunities in that space.
7. Student Services.
An often-overlooked factor, student services is an important item to consider prior to selecting a degree program. Does the program enjoy relationships with local legal firms, lawyers and legal organizations? Are career services available to connect aspiring paralegals to internships or job prospects after college?
Paralegal Degrees and Certificates
According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), approximately 85 percent of paralegals in the United States complete some form of paralegal education. Prospective students have a wide selection of training opportunities at every level of post-secondary institutions, including vocational schools, community colleges, and private and public four-year universities.
The associate degree in paralegal studies is considered an industry-respected minimum educational requirement, but the NFPA has stated that paralegal education at the bachelor’s level is becoming the educational standard in many job markets. The NFPA recommends that future paralegals complete a four-year program of study, as well as at least 24 semester hours of instruction in their desired area of practice.
The NFPA has also noted that distance education programs offer complementary options to traditional, campus-based programs. The NFPA endorses online and distance education programs. Each degree path (certificate, associate, bachelor’s) is designed to provide students with a foundational understanding of and practical skills in paralegal studies.
3 to 18 months
24 – 30
124 – 128
Paralegal School Associate Degrees
Associate degrees in paralegal studies are available in two different types: The Associate of Arts in paralegal studies and the Associate of Science in paralegal studies. Both degrees should provide students with an opportunity to develop competencies in the core areas of legal practice, with the AA putting greater emphasis on liberal arts foundational coursework and the AS concentrating on practical, skill-based instruction.
Students receive an education in the fundamental principles of paralegal practice and the foundations of law, covering subjects such as legal terminology, legal writing, business law, ethics, contract law, criminal procedures and legal research. Graduates of associate programs in paralegal studies develop proficiencies in legal research, legal analysis and investigation, ethical issues and concepts, and critical thinking and reasoning when all coursework is completed.
Students receive an introduction to contract law, including contract creation and termination, oral contracts, illusory contracts, breach of contract and more. Students also review and study the Uniform Commercial Code that governs the sale of goods in the U.S.
This course provides students with insight into civil litigation from multiple perspectives, introducing students to the U.S. legal system, the process for initiating a law suit, lawsuit jurisdiction, briefs and pleadings, pre-trial activities, appeals process and the judicial process.
Introduction to U.S. Legal System
This course is designed to provide students with an overview of American law and the U.S. legal system. Student study foundational concepts of legal practice, ranging from regulatory issues to paralegal career trends.
Legal Research & Writing
In this class, students familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of legal research, including the process of finding and analyzing case law. Additionally, students learn about legal reference sources and available research tools (e.g., WESTLAW or LEXIS).
Through this course, students focus their studies on the ethical issues of the practice of law, especially those that impact the paralegal profession. Subjects of study may include client confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and paralegal ethical codes.
Paralegal School Bachelor’s Degrees
The Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies (BS) is designed to expand and build upon education provided at the associate degree level. Bachelor’s degrees are divided between academic curriculum, and industry-specific practical education coursework. Students usually take core classes in multiple disciplines; such as mathematics, humanities, social sciences, and English before transitioning to major course requirements in paralegal studies.
As a preparatory degree path, the bachelor’s paralegal degree usually covers the fundamental principles of the legal system, central areas of practice (e.g., criminal law, family law, real estate law, bankruptcy law), and legal research and writing. A bachelor’s in paralegal can offer students the opportunity to further concentrate their studies in a specialized area of practice. Graduates of bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies are offered a complex skill set and knowledge base that prepares them to work in a variety of legal setting and roles.
In this course, students study the fundamental principles–administrative, legal, and constitutional–at both the local and federal levels. The class investigates the role of the paralegal and covers topics such as judicial review, hearing processes, appeals, and adjudication.
This course introduces students to the basics of environmental law, with special emphasis on the paralegal’s role within the field. Topics of instruction may include major legislation such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and ethical issues and trends.
Wills, Trusts, & Estates
Through this course, students develop an understanding of the laws that govern law estate planning, including the federal estate tax system, charitable trusts, property transfers and more. Students also learn about drafting will and trust documents, the role of probate courts and estate administration.
Advanced Civil Litigation
This advanced course of study prepares students to deal with the various aspects of a civil litigation case. A practical program of study, students learn about each step of the trial process, ranging from client interviews to filing a complaint, the discovery process to the appeals process.
Legal Document Preparation
A practice-specific course of study, this class provides students with an understanding of the preparation of various legal documents. Through a hands-on training approach, students learn about documents in regard to different practice areas, such as wills, trusts, real property and civil litigation.
Paralegal School Certificates
The certificate in paralegal studies is designed for two types of students:
1) An individual with a high school diploma or the equivalent seeking short-term, entry-level career training.
2) A student with an associate or bachelor’s in another field pursuing career training to become a paralegal.
The shortest of all paralegal training programs, the certificate can be completed in as little as 3 months of study, but typically requires between 7 and 18 months to complete. Typically, curriculum is divided between core coursework and a series of electives. Example core class topics include fundamentals of law, legal research and writing, contract and tort law, and legal ethics. Specialty elective subjects can include subjects like family law, environmental law, elder law and insurance law.
Fundamentals of the Paralegal Profession
This course examines the foundational principles of the paralegal occupation. Students study how the role is defined, the scope of responsibilities, technology and specialty areas of practice.
In this class, students gain an understanding of legal writing, research and analysis. Subjects to be studied include writing strategies, legal analysis, legal correspondence, grammar and punctuation, and legal citation.
Through this class, students are introduced to employment law and major concepts in the field, ranging from the employer-employee relationship to employment law principles, employment discrimination and the responsibilities of each party.
In this course, students discuss the ethical issues of the paralegal profession, examining the role of the paralegal, appropriate tasks for the paralegal, conflicts of interest, timekeeping, and scope of practice.
Business Law & Bankruptcy
In this class, students gain a basic understanding of business law, focusing on a variety of topics including publicly held companies, limited liability partnerships and limited liability corporations, and laws that guide business entities.
Paralegal School Master’s Degrees
Graduate education in paralegal studies is an emerging area of training in the industry. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), only a handful of universities currently offer advanced degrees in paralegal studies. Instruction is typically focused in related areas of study, such as legal administration.
One example program is the Master of Paralegal Studies offered by George Washington University. In collaboration with the university’s school of law, the master’s degree also includes a certificate in healthcare corporate compliance.
Employment data from O*NET reveals paralegals should develop skills In ten areas, including reading comprehension, active listening, speaking, writing, critical thinking, time management, active learning, coordination, judgment and decision making, and monitoring.
For career advancement, paralegals may also choose to pursue professional certification from the National Federation for Paralegal Associations or the National Association of Legal Assistants. Additionally, some states offer their own examinations for paralegal certifications as well. The National Federation for Paralegal Associations offers two certifications, the Paralegal Competency Examination (PACE) and Paralegal CORE Competency Examination (PCCE), and the National Association for Legal Assistants offers the Certified Paralegal (CP) and Advanced Certified Paralegal certifications and designations. Certification with the PACE program allows paralegals the ability to use the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation.
The National Association for Legal Assistants offers advanced paralegal credential programs. Paralegals can choose to become certified with the NALA with two separate credential options:
Certified Paralegal/Legal Assistant: The CP and CLA programs are considered national professional standards for paralegals by the NALA.
Advanced Certified Paralegal. The ACP certification offers 20 hour certification programs in 17 industry-specific subjects, including Family Law, Land Use, Contracts Management, and E-Discovery.
Knowledge of current trends in legal services and professional development are two important components for practicing paralegals. The National Association for Legal Assistants provides continuing education opportunities to legal assistants and paralegals. As part of that effort, NALA offers Web-based and campus-based seminars training sessions, annual conventions and various publications such as the CP Study Guide and NALA Manual for Paralegals.
Graduates of paralegal schools and programs may also encounter a range of other similar job titles including legal clerk, law clerk, law associate, paralegal specialist or legal analyst.
Paralegals may benefit from joining paralegal associations or organizations. Paralegal associations can help paralegals keep up with the latest news and developments in the legal field and help paralegals connect with other legal professionals across the country. Some of the most popular and well-known professional associations for paralegals include:
The primary function of the paralegal is to provide support to lawyers, with individual responsibilities varying by area of practice and legal setting. However, paralegals do share common tasks, including filing legal documents, conducting legal research, and summarizing case law to reviewing legal precedents. While the occupation itself is broad, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations notes that many paralegals choose to specialize in specific areas of law. These specializations are varied and include areas of law such as public law, criminal law, family law, litigation, real estate law, bankruptcy, criminal defense and estate planning. Below is a description of example responsibilities for five common paralegal specializations:
Working in administrative law, paralegals may review case law and prepare evidence in advance of a judicial hearing, locate and interview expert witnesses, analyze legislation or develop trial calendars.
Paralegals working in litigation may schedule arbitration meetings, conduct pre-claim investigations, draft pleadings and summons, manage discovery processes, draft research memos or organize courtroom evidence.
In criminal law, paralegals may conduct legal research, secure information from law enforcement agencies, prepare legal complaints and subpoenas, organize trial evidence, assist in trial proceedings, maintain case calendars or communicate with legal counsel for discovery.
Paralegals in family law may speak to prospective clients, schedule attorney consultations, manage hearing calendars, prepare pleadings and court documentation, handle client communication or conduct legal case research.
Real Estate Law
Paralegals working in real estate law may prepare real estate purchase documentation, review purchase agreements, analyze title documents, conduct legal research, review real estate codes or file leases.
Interview with Andrea Holley, Senior Litigation Paralegal, Baker Donelson
Andrea Holley is a senior litigation paralegal with Baker Donelson, a law firm in Memphis, Tennessee. Specializing in medical malpractice and long-term care defense, Ms. Holley graduated with a degree in legal assistant technology from State Technical Institute at Memphis in 1992.
Could you describe your career path to-date?
After graduating from State Technical Institute, I did my internship at a law firm here in Memphis where I concentrated on family law and insurance defense. I then went on to work at a general law firm that represented plaintiffs in personal injury, workers’ compensation, bankruptcy, probate/estate, family law and criminal law matters. I was there for seven-and-a-half years and learned so much. From there, worked at a private law firm in Memphis that worked primarily in the area of insurance defense litigation. My focus was on personal injury and workers’ compensation litigation. I then went to work in-house for a large insurance company, where we focused primary on personal injury and workers’ compensation defense. After three-and-a-half years in-house, I moved on to my current position with Baker Donelson, focusing on medical malpractice and long-term care defense. I am active in the Greater Memphis Paralegal Alliance, having served as secretary in 2013 and president in 2014, and am proud to be president of the organization again in 2015.
Where did you get your degree and why did you choose that program?
I graduated from State Technical Institute at Memphis (now Southwest Tennessee Community College) in 1992. I chose that program because at the time in was the only program in Memphis that was ABA approved. I was once upon a time an accounting major and just knew I was doing the wrong thing. My dad always used to say that I would make a good lawyer because I would argue with anyone about anything, but I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Now, I get to make the lawyer look good.
How did your education in your paralegal degree program translate to your real-world occupation?
My education taught me every step in the litigation process, which gave me a heads-up when I went out to look for my first job. I was really prepared to enter my field running. It also taught me the responsibility of being pro-active with your work, which is essential to being a good paralegal. I enjoyed my paralegal education and still use things that I learned back then in my work today. I have been able to speak to a few paralegal students in their classes in the past few years to discuss my education and my work experiences and it makes me very proud that I am able to give back in that capacity.
After Paralegal School: What’s Next?
After completing a paralegal degree, graduates can pursue an assortment of professional opportunities in legal services. Paralegals are employed across a spectrum of industries, from healthcare to real estate, insurance to government. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the best job opportunities are expected to be in healthcare, insurance, financial services and construction. The table below outlines some of the fastest growing industries for paralegals between 2012 and 2022:
Projected Job Growth
Ambulatory Healthcare Services
Individual and Family Services
Health Practitioner Offices
Insurance and Employee Benefit Funds
Civil Engineering Construction
Nearly 75 percent of paralegals are employed in the legal services industry, comprised of law firms and legal organizations throughout the country. The other major employers include local government (15,790), the Federal government (13,310), and state government (9,750). Within each of those industries, paralegals may be referred to by different titles such as law clerk, law associate, paralegal specialist, legal clerk, certified paralegal, or legal analyst. Day-to-day responsibilities of paralegals are similar, regardless of area of practice or industry. Some of those shared tasks include the following:
Legal secretaries perform a hybrid of responsibilities—part paralegal and part secretary/administrative. They work with attorneys and clients to help with research, prepare and file court documents, and manage projects and any other information that relates to a court case. They also fulfill the administrative role of secretary in an office, making sure that all office procedures and communications run smoothly.
Median Salary: $42,170
Median Hourly: $20.27
Est. Growth: -3.1%
No. Employed: 216,730
Minimum Education: High School Diploma
Paralegals and legal assistants help attorneys prepare for hearings, trials and meetings by performing a variety of tasks. For example, they might draft legal documents and correspondence to clients, judges and other attorneys as well as gather documents from the court. They also schedule depositions, organize and file paperwork and briefs, investigate cases, and write legal reports. Those who work for smaller firms tend to perform a wider variety of tasks.
Median Salary: $46,990
Median Hourly: $22.59
Est. Growth: 16.7%
No. Employed: 267,030
Minimum Education: Associate’s
Advice from a paralegal
Be sure that you want a career that you have the time to put into it and the drive to want to succeed. I would also tell them that they need to want to be a part of a team. The attorney that I work with and I make a great team. It is about give and take and listening to other people.
Andrea Holley, Senior Litigation Paralegal, Baker Donelson