Get into the hot legal field quickly, where paralegal jobs are projected to increase by 15% between 2016-2026, much faster than average. A career in law doesn’t mean you have to go through seven years of law school and rack up a huge debt. Paralegals work with lawyers and do research, draft reports, and keep evidence and documents organized. Plus, paralegals can go into the field with a much quicker—and cheaper—education.
It’s a great time to become a paralegal, also sometimes referred to as a legal assistant. Pay rates are rising, paralegals are in demand, it is interesting work, and you can help people. Law firms, government agencies and companies are all looking for ways to keep costs down. So rather than using an expensive lawyer for tasks that a paralegal can do, employers want to save money. This means there is more work for paralegals in many different areas of general practice or in specialty areas of law.
Paralegals are employed by law firms, both small and large, and by insurance companies, federal government, nonprofits, healthcare companies, state and local governments, and many other types of businesses. Any employer that has a legal team or department will likely use paralegals. If you have a particular interest in real estate, banking, criminal law, immigration, or litigation, you can find specialty jobs in these and many other areas.
What is a Paralegal?
On the job, paralegals are not allowed to practice law themselves, but they work under licensed attorneys. Paralegals can do much of the work that lawyers themselves do, including researching case law, investigating the facts of a case, writing briefs and correspondence, managing case files, taking notes for lawyers, and working as part of a larger team on legal matters large and small. Working with lawyers, paralegals may be asked to use their writing, research skills, critical thinking, and communication skills in many circumstances, making these interesting and varied jobs. Legal technology is fast becoming the norm for case files and having good computer skills is a great asset for a paralegal.
Paralegals may spend their whole careers as a legal assistant, working on a variety of different types of cases and learning new skills on the job. Some people who are interested in law school become paralegals as a way to see the profession “up close” to help them decide whether to invest all the time and money to become a lawyer. Either path offers challenging assignments, the ability to help your fellow citizens, and a good salary.
The paralegal profession attracts people from all walks of life who are interested in law, have a desire to be useful in the community, and want interesting and challenging work. Young people just out of high school may pursue this career, as may career-changers at any stage of life. The physical requirements of the job are low, but there is a good deal of thinking and organizing to be done on the job. Different positions and specialties may require more or less of the various skills, and many types of people can find a great career that suits their skills and their preferences. The work in law is important and a great deal of care goes into accurately representing clients, serving the public, and assisting lawyers to keep our government and civil systems running smoothly and fairly. If you have a sense of justice and want to become part of this system, a paralegal education can get you started on a path to make a difference.
How to Become a Paralegal
Whether you are just out of high school and wanting to get into a great career or wishing to shift careers or re-enter the workforce after taking care of family or military service, paralegal opportunities are in every corner of the country. The type of education you need depends on where you are in your life.
If you have a high school diploma or a GED, you can apply to enter an Associate’s degree program in paralegal studies. Good spoken and written English is also required, though some programs have extra courses you can take to polish these skills. Some programs may require a particular high school grade point average for regular admission, but there are often exceptions for those who may not have worked hard in high school. In an associate degree program, you have the chance to work hard and gain the skills you will need for a comfortable career in law.
There is no universal requirement to enter the paralegal job market, but almost all employers will look for either experience or relevant education when hiring. It is possible to take a certificate program in paralegal studies and use that shorter training to enter the profession. However, high school graduates can benefit from the general education requirements in a degree program that will support the skills needed in a law office. A full degree program will have additional practice in writing, research, and critical thinking. A degree will also give the student a broader perspective, which is important to understanding the complex topics that come up in legal matters in our modern world.
For people who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, it is possible to just take a certificate program to gain the specific paralegal skills that are needed on the job. For people transitioning from other careers, this is a great way to quickly enter the profession and many schools that offer the associate degree in law and paralegal studies also offer certificate programs.
If you have been in the work force or the military but don’t have a degree, you may wish to see if some of your job experience can transfer into an associate’s degree program to make your path to a college degree even quicker (and cheaper!) Many programs offer credit for military service or job experience.
With a certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree plus a certificate, you too could become a paralegal. Many employers prefer to hire paralegals with training that will help them be ready for the challenges of the job. Paralegal training is a very quick path to getting a job in the legal profession, and many colleges offer programs. To learn from anywhere, getting a paralegal certificate or degree from an online program is a great route, but buyer beware! There are some scams out there to avoid.
The degree programs on the following list are all legitimate and respected programs, and anyone can offer you a great degree that you can earn from anywhere you happen to live, keeping your job and family life intact. Look to see what program is the best fit for your interests, your schedule, and your budget, and be assured that you will be getting a quality education and on the way to your new career in the legal profession.
To compare costs, view our rankings of the most affordable paralegal programs.
Top 9 Online Paralegal Associate’s Degree Programs
1. Liberty University
With 8-week course schedules, Liberty University’s online Associate of Arts in Paralegal Studies is easy to schedule into a full life. There are eight start dates per year, and all classes are asynchronous, meaning you can study around any other work or family commitments in your life. The program is 100% online, and 75% of the total credits can be transferred in from another institutions. Electronic textbooks are included in the cost of the program, and there is a discount for military students. General education requirements include courses with a Christian focus, incorporating this viewpoint into the context of the legal system. For students who wish to include theological education in their career preparation, this degree program is a terrific choice.
2. Tallahassee Community College
Tallahassee Community College offers an online Associate of Science in Paralegal and Legal Studies that can be taken completely online or in a combination of day, evening and online classes to suit each student’s needs. All of the courses in this program can be preparation for a career as a paralegal, with the possibility of specializing in a particular area of the law, or for those who might be considering law school later on. The program includes 64 credits in total, including general education and legal studies classes. The paralegal program courses include business law, legal writing and research, litigation procedures, law office management, family law, and wills, trusts and probate. Students can then select one of the following three elective courses: Technology and Professional Programs Internship, Microcomputer Applications for Business, or Criminal Law. Students need to earn at least a “C” in general education classes and should prioritize scheduling their paralegal classes to make sure they can graduate in time. TCC is a military friendly school, with a Veteran’s Success center to help out. With affordable tuition—especially for in-state students—and a well-regarded program, TCC is a great school to consider for your paralegal education.
3. Cowley County Community College
For a challenging and well-rounded program of study, Cowley County Community College’s online Associate of Arts in Law program is a good choice. The program focuses on the competencies recommended by the American Bar Association: critical thinking, research skills, and effective writing. There are required areas of study, such as Humanities and Social Sciences, but students can choose electives that interest them within those departments. The major can include electives in criminal law, constitutional law, criminal justice and more. Students can communicate with an advisor to design a challenging and interesting program of study that will help lead towards a focused career pathway within law. Out-of-state students pay only a bit more than in-state students, so this is a great choice for students anywhere.
4. Barton County Community College
Barton County Community College’s online Associate of Arts in Law is part of their pre-professional curriculum. All students pay the same tuition for this distance program, and the college accepts transfer credits for education, military training or experience, and work experience. Classes are offered in 6, 8, or 16 week sessions, and students can complete their work at any time during the week that the assignments are given. This degree program is one specifically designed to prepare you in a short amount of time for a career in the growing legal field, with the strong possibility of a good salary and quality of life. Classes include foundation studies, humanities, social and behavioral sciences, natural and mathematical sciences, and courses for the law emphasis. The flexibility of course lengths and study times make Barton Community College a solid choice for many aspiring paralegals.
5. Lake Superior College
The online Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies at Lake Superior College can be completed in two years. Lake Superior College also offers an AAS or a Certificate program in Paralegal Studies, for students wishing to pursue a slightly different approach. These programs teach skills in legal terminology, court procedures, the American legal system, interview and investigation techniques, and research skills in particular areas of the law. With online tuition the same for all students, regardless of where they reside, this program can give students a good value for their money.
6. Massachusetts Bay Community College
Massachusetts Bay Community College offers the online Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies degree as a 62-credit program that can be completed in two years. Courses subjects include financial accounting, critical thinking, business law, management, research and writing, and general education electives. In addition, students can choose electives in legal studies such as Fundamentals of Cybersecurity, Criminal Law and Procedures, Real Estate, and Family Law. In-state tuition is quite competitive for this program, and out-of-state students will pay more for this online program. Local students may combine in-person classes with online learning, as is convenient for them. In addition, high school graduates from Boston can enroll tuition-free with a new program called Boston Bridge. For veterans or national guard members from Massachusetts, there are also tuition-waivers available. With a great educational program, and free tuition for many in Massachusetts, MBCC has a strong program for anyone interested in becoming a legal assistant.
7. Marshalltown Community College
The online Associate of Arts Paralegal program at Marshalltown Community College allows students to transfer credits to a 4-year baccalaureate program if they wish. Also offered is an associate of applied sciences for those who want to go directly into the workforce. The paralegal programs focus on Iowa law and global best practices. Subjects covered include writing and research, ethics, computer skills, and public speaking. There are courses in Income Tax Accounting, Business Law, Criminal Law, Real Estate Law, Torts and Litigation, Bankruptcy Law, Employment Law, and Alternative Dispute Resolution. Out-of-state students pay just a little more than Iowa residents for this respected program.
8. American Public University System
American Public University System’s online Paralegal Studies Associate of Science program adapts their curriculum to follow trends in the industry, making this a very relevant degree for those seeking entry into the profession. The program offers a foundation in legal doctrine, teaching the analytical, technical, and communications skills needed in the legal field. Of the 60-credits in the program, students are allowed to transfer as many as 45 credits from previous study. Half of the program is general education credits, with many options for electives in different areas. In the major, there are courses in litigation, ethics, real estate law, criminal law, civil practice, and legal research and writing. This well-rounded program has reasonable tuition and matches tuition to the military allowances for those who serve.
9. Cerro Coso Community College
The online Paralegal Studies Associate in Science Degree at Cerro Coso Community College gives students the option of three different pathways for the general education part of the degree. For the major courses, there are courses in legal research and writing, paralegal studies, business law, civil litigation, ethics, and legal forms. In addition, there are elective courses in specialty areas such as family law, real property law, law office management, bankruptcy law, probate law, criminal law, or worker’s compensation law. Students can transfer general education credits from other institutions, and there are advanced certificate options available for special areas of law. With a robust program for veterans and military members, this community college supports those who serve. Credits easily transfer to other California 4-year institutions, so CCCC is a good choice for those who may wish to continue their education after they get their associate’s degree. Especially affordable for in-state students, the program is reasonable for students from anywhere.
Start Your Path to A Paralegal Career Today!
Paralegals make a good living, with many new jobs projected for the next decade. Plus, the law is fascinating and exciting profession. Add in the fact that you can help people, and you can get a great sense of job satisfaction and purpose in life. This is a fantastic career with many upsides, and you could be working in a law office or government agency pretty quickly. For interesting work that is not going out of style, and is in fact becoming more needed, becoming a paralegal is a great profession that is financially rewarding and emotionally fulfilling. What’s stopping you? Start your search today!