Few careers are more rewarding than those in the legal system. With a background in legal studies, students are eligible for a variety of jobs and can compete for highly coveted positions in the legal and criminal justice fields. Courses in legal studies comprise a well-rounded, interdisciplinary study of the “meanings, values, practices, and institutions of law and legality,” and teach students how the law is influenced by forces in the political, cultural, and economic spheres. Courses in law and legal issues, “teach you to speak, to read, to write and research” – skills useful in any career.
Types of Legal Studies Program Concentrations
You may think that courses in a legal studies program focus on only one subject: law. However, you can concentrate your coursework in a variety of areas, including criminal law, political science, tax law, and estate planning, among others. Use your legal studies degree to become a paralegal, a probation officer, court clerk, law enforcement officer, or, with an advanced degree, even a lawyer or judge.
The type of legal job typically depicted on television programs such as “Law & Order” is usually in the field of criminal law. From prosecuting or defending someone accused of a misdemeanor offense like a speeding ticket to a felony such as a robbery, experts in criminal law focus on a variety of areas. These legal experts work closely with law enforcement officers and agencies to gather evidence and present it to a judge or jury.
Even though contracts are supposed to be binding, occasionally, someone doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. A legal expert may be called in to resolve a dispute between two parties. In a process called mediation, a third-party legal expert is called in to help both sides compromise to reach a conclusion satisfactory to both parties. The mediation process is not legally binding, but it can save hundreds of dollars in court costs. When both parties come together to present their arguments to a legal expert who makes a legally binding ruling, this process is called arbitration. In both situations, legal experts in dispute resolution are necessary to ensure a fair agreement is reached.
Human Rights Law
Human rights are the basic freedoms defined by international treaties, laws, conventions, and organizations such as the United Nations. The right to live free from slavery; have access to food, water, and shelter; and get an education – all are considered human rights. The laws protecting these basic rights are known as human rights laws. Experts in human rights law are on the front lines, fighting those trying to take these rights away.
If you’re planning to run for political office, you typically take political science courses as the cornerstone of your legal studies program. Courses in political science prepare students to work as legislative assistants or lobbyists, effecting change on a state or federal level. Political science studies prepare students to work as government relations officers, presenting issues to legislative staff and drafting summaries of legislative proposals.
Tax Law & Accounting
According to the old proverb, only two sure things in life are certain: death and taxes. Tax law deals, not only with local, state, federal tax rules and regulations, but also with the constitutional and common laws related to taxation. Courses in tax law prepare students for a career as accountants, helping individuals and corporations calculate the amount of tax they pay.
Career Paths for Legal Studies Majors
Whether you’re pursuing an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in legal studies or you have your eye on law school, several career paths are available for students in a legal studies program.
Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice
A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice opens a world of opportunities. Federal law enforcement agencies usually require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field before you’re considered for employment. Before you can advance through the ranks as a highway patrol officer, many state police departments require you to have a bachelor’s degree in a related field. This type of degree is a steppingstone toward graduate studies, including law school.
Master of Social Work
While a law degree prepares you for life as an attorney, a Master of Social Work degree prepares graduates to assist families and victims after a crime has been committed. Many states require candidates to have this degree before they can be considered for employment. A social worker is a professional tasked with helping vulnerable people obtain the assistance and services they need. Social workers are employed by law enforcement agencies, hospitals, clinics, schools, and community centers, helping people access food, shelter, medical care, and support.
Master of Legal Studies Degree
Also known as an MLS degree, a master’s in legal studies is for those who don’t want to become lawyers, but whose employment requires an in-depth understanding of the law. Typically, an individual who holds an MLS degree works with law enforcement agencies or in government regulations, social work, human resources, investment firms, and financial institutions.
Master of Dispute Resolution Degree
Disputes happen at any level, in both small companies and large multinational corporations. An individual with a Master of Dispute Resolution degree navigates the world of complex negotiations and helps parties at odds reach a resolution. This degree leads to opportunities on teams that specialize in mergers between two businesses or the acquisition of a company by another. It also may lead to a job with the U.S. State Department.
A Juris Doctor (J.D.) is the degree lawyers receive upon graduation from law school. Most states require practicing attorneys to have this degree. J.D. programs typically take three years to complete, with a clerkship or internship requirement during that time. After you graduate from law school, you’re required to successfully pass the bar exam before you can practice law. Criminal lawyers often specialize in one area: prosecution or defense. Some lawyers practice tax law, while others focus on contract law. Others focus on dispute resolution, divorce, estate planning, or even real estate.
Differences Between a Legal Studies Program and a Paralegal Program
Many people think that a legal studies program and a paralegal education are identical. In both courses of study, the law is considered in depth, but a few key differences exist.
What Is a Paralegal?
Paralegals are professionals who assist lawyers in the research and preparation of their cases. Paralegals work in law firms, business legal departments, and local, state, and federal government agencies. These professionals typically work full-time, in some cases, more than 40 hours a week, to meet deadlines and prepare documents. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for paralegals over the next 10 years is projected to grow at a much faster rate than other jobs. Paralegals, the BLS reports, earned $50,940 a year, or $24.49 per hour, in 2018.
Paralegal Certificate Program
Many states do not require candidates to complete a paralegal certificate program before they are eligible to work as a paralegal. Many schools offer a paralegal certificate program designed to prepare student to work at law firms. Typically resulting in an associate degree, the courses required in a paralegal certificate program help students become familiar with legal terminology, legal documents, the criminal justice process, the type of research required on the job, as well as legal writing. You will hone your critical-thinking skills in courses that cover a variety of legal services: bankruptcy, contracts, partnerships, wills and trusts, and domestic issues such as marriage and divorce. Once students complete the courses for a paralegal education, they’re eligible to take a paralegal certification exam offered by their local bar association. This designation often leads to higher pay, and it improves opportunities for promotion.
Paralegal vs. Legal Studies
The most important differentiating factor between a paralegal certificate program and a legal studies degree is the depth of the study of the law. If your end goal is to attend law school, become a social worker, work with corporate legal entities, or focus on dispute resolution, you will take courses that provide an in-depth understanding of the law.
Top Schools for Legal Studies Programs
Whether you’re looking for paralegal studies or law school, choosing the right degree can be a daunting task. The top legal studies programs have a few characteristics in common.
Financial Aid Options
When paying for a legal studies program, loans should not be your only option. Top programs provide comprehensive financial aid options, which include, not only student loans, but also scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and other financial assistance.
An Emphasis on Critical Thinking
Law school classes are usually taught using the Socratic method. During these courses, students are asked to use the knowledge they’ve gained to prove the validity of their points. It requires students to use critical thinking skills to apply their newly gained knowledge to an unfamiliar situation. This process prepares prospective attorneys for law school.
Classes in Criminal Justice & Political Science
Courses in criminal justice and political science lay the foundation for every type of legal study. You cannot understand how governmental regulation of business works without first acquiring an understanding of the government. In the same manner, you cannot understand how to minimize a company’s liability without first understanding what happens when a company is sued. Each of the top legal studies programs requires courses in both criminal justice and political science to prepare their graduates for work in every field, not just their chosen specialty field.
Combine Law With Other Fields of Study
Well-rounded undergraduate legal studies programs combine an in-depth study of the law and legal issues with courses in other subjects, including human resources, accounting, and social work. Most graduates with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree do not continue on to law school. Instead, they utilize their knowledge in another profession. Top associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs encourage their students to pursue courses in law and legal issues, along with courses in business, law enforcement, criminal justice, and social work.
Many people who enter careers in law want to make a difference in their community. Many top legal studies programs offer free or low-cost legal services to members of the public. From reviewing documents to settling disputes with landlords, to helping people gain access to community services, community outreach programs are usually a part of legal studies programs for two reasons. First, they offer a valuable resource to the community, and secondly, they provide students with an opportunity to use their newly-acquired skills.
A Strong Job Placement Network
The saying, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,” is perhaps never more accurate than when you’re a new graduate looking for your first job. The best legal studies programs have an extensive alumni network and a high job placement rate after graduation.
Whether you aspire to be a paralegal, social worker, legislative assistant, accountant, or lawyer, a legal studies education is an ideal way to begin your career.