Legal work is detail-oriented and requires extensive effort from a team of people to get the job done. Paralegals play a vital role in these teams. They support attorneys by doing a variety of legal tasks, including keeping case files organized, doing legal research and helping attorneys during the trial process. There are multiple paths to a career as a paralegal and numerous career paths you can follow once you become one, both in and out of law firms.
As you consider your paralegal degree options for paralegal students, it can be helpful to know what career opportunities are available for paralegals. It can also be useful to know what is required to be successful in this field. There are a surprising number of options when it comes to schooling as well, including a paralegal certificate and certification, so it is important to know the differences as you choose your school path. Paralegal students have a wide variety of educational institutions to choose from as well. Knowing what the top schools are for paralegals will simplify your decision-making process.
Career Options for Paralegal Degrees
The law is intertwined in every facet of society and touches our lives in obvious and less obvious ways. There is an ongoing need for paralegals in so many different areas that the opportunities can almost be overwhelming. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Paralegals and legal assistants are found in all types of organizations, but most work for law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.” They can be found in the medical industry, education, non-governmental organizations and more.
With a certificate or a paralegal degree, you should be able to get a job in many of the different industries that employ legal services from law firms. An advanced degree from an institution approved by legal associations could make you even more desirable in certain industries. Here are some of the countless industries that utilize paralegals in their operations.
Private Law Firms
The majority of attorneys graduate from school and go to work at private law firms. Private law firms are the single largest sector for paralegal jobs – they need paralegals to maintain the efficiency of their organizations. There are paralegals that serve more general roles in these firms, while there are other paralegals that specialize in certain areas of a legal practice. Private law firms provide legal services in numerous areas of the law, including personal injury, criminal defense, bankruptcy, family law, immigration law and more. If you have an area of the law that draws you in based on your interests and passions, you can probably find a paralegal job helping to provide legal services in that practice area.
One thing worth noting about working as a paralegal in private practice is that many of the skills you employ in one practice area can be transferred to another practice area if you choose to make a transition. While you may begin your career with an interest in one practice area, you can change your mind and work in another practice area if you have proven your ability to serve as a skilled paralegal for the attorneys that you support.
Corporations need to maintain good legal standing to avoid running afoul of regulations or laws that pertain to their business. For larger corporations, they ensure their actions are always above board by employing their own legal teams – which include paralegals. As a paralegal at a corporation, you will support the company’s legal department by doing things like keeping files updated and working on contracts. If you have a specific type of business that you find interesting, you can likely find employment in that industry as a paralegal for large and mid-sized businesses.
Corporations often have complex legal needs that require some of the best-paid attorneys in the industry. These attorneys are in great need of paralegals that they can depend on to be as detail-oriented as possible and capable of exercising sound judgment when significant financial risks are present.
Real Estate and Title Insurance Companies
The real estate industry deals in substantial sums of money, which requires careful legal work to ensure that everything is done according to the law. Title insurance companies support the real estate industry by protecting clients against issues that may arise with the title of properties. Paralegal careers are available across the real estate industry and title industry due to the ongoing requirement for real estate attorney oversight.
Real estate is a huge industry, something that is quite noticeable if you look at all the numerous real estate companies both large and small throughout the country. There are real estate deals happening in the largest cities and in the smallest towns – which means there are plenty of opportunities for those that focus on the law related to real estate and the paralegal support that goes along with it.
Criminal Law and Public Defenders
Many attorneys emerge from law school with a passion for criminal law, both the pursuit of justice against criminals and the defense of the innocent as public defenders providing legal services to those charged with a crime. Law firms that focus on this area of law are regularly in need of those in the paralegal field to help them keep up with the ongoing paperwork and research required to defend the rights of their clients. These attorneys can range from those working on very minor cases, like traffic offenses, to those working on the most high-profile and emotionally demanding cases like serious felony crimes. They are often responsible for protecting the rights of those in serious need, which means that they can greatly benefit from the support of paralegals who are good at what they do and committed to the same cause as the attorney that they work for.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
NGOs can be found in practically every area of society where there is a need for an approach that prioritizes the needs of society over profit. A vital part of the work of NGOs is in the legal arena, as they need to maintain their NGO legal status and may need to pursue legal actions on behalf of their mission for society. NGOs regularly employ legal services from a variety of attorneys and those in the paralegal field. NGOs are one area in particular where the assistance of a paralegal can be necessary both inside and outside of the U.S. NGOs operate in a multitude of countries throughout the world and many of them require the assistance of paralegals to support their attorneys and other legal staff wherever they happen to be.
Nursing and Medical Companies
Nursing and medical organizations need to make certain that the work they do meets current government regulations and requirements to avoid legal liability. Lawsuits against medical companies and nursing companies are inevitable as well, which means that these organizations need the help of attorneys to operate. There are many paralegals that pursue careers in these industries, particularly if they have a passion for healthcare.
State and Federal Government
State governments and the federal government are comprised of legal professionals. Much of the work that goes on in government involves verifying that existing laws are being followed and updating laws as they change over time. All of this legal work requires an extensive team of paralegals, so there are numerous career opportunities in this arena.
Teaching & Education
Paralegal professionals can work in various areas of the education system. You may choose to pursue a path of educating others in the fundamentals of becoming a paralegal, or you could work for the legal department of an educational institution. Both public and private schools are governed by education law, which means there are opportunities for careers in this area.
Components of a Successful Paralegal Career
The role of the paralegal has expanded considerably in recent decades, going far beyond the standard paralegal job at a law firm. While there are certain skills and abilities that will serve every paralegal well, there are plenty of others that may be important in only certain roles and specific industries. What makes a paralegal a great fit for one position may differ from what makes one ideal for another position. However, there are some fundamentals that apply to the majority of paralegal careers, summarized below.
What Are the Duties and Responsibilities of a Paralegal?
The definition of what a paralegal is and does can vary depending on who you ask with knowledge of the paralegal profession, but there are two major organizations that offer their informed definition. The two big law organizations that discuss paralegals and their necessary skills are the American Bar Association (ABA), which has one definition, and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), which has another definition. Both organizations focus on the law and legal work, but they have different priorities. The ABA is more for legal firms and the legal work done by attorneys, while the NFPA is more for paralegals as a profession. Each has a definition that overlaps with the other, but although they are similar there are differences.
NFPA defines a paralegal as: “a Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work. Substantive shall mean work requiring recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.
ABA defines a paralegal as: “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
The job requirements and paralegal salary of each position can vary significantly, but there are some common attributes that most successful paralegals share.
There are so many different things that need to be juggled in a legal practice that it is impossible for a single individual to keep up with it all. That is one of the big reasons attorneys hire paralegals. They need someone who can help them keep track of everything, including documents, deadlines, appointments, phone calls, emails and anything else that may tend to slip through the cracks. To succeed in the law and legal work in general, organization is one of the skills you must have. That is why every certified paralegal is expected to be extremely organized.
Excellent Research, Writing, & Communication Skills
Paralegals need to be capable of researching, writing and communicating on behalf of their employers. While attorneys will ultimately be the ones putting the final touches on many legal documents, the foundation of those documents is often built by paralegals. That is why paralegal degree programs focus so heavily on building solid research and communication skills, both written and verbal.
With so many things coming across the desk of an attorney at any one time, a paralegal needs to have the ability to judge when to involve the attorney and when to not involve the attorney. Part of this comes with time and familiarity with the preferences of your employer, but part of it is based on an innate ability to make good decisions based on the information at hand.
Resourcefulness & Ingenuity
Because you are often on your own when it comes to solving problems, you need to be resourceful and have the ingenuity to come up with creative solutions. Attorneys are busy professionals that will only want to be involved in a situation if they have to be. A paralegal should be able to find the resources they need to address most situations independently. That may mean thinking outside of the box – an ability that every attorney prizes in a paralegal.
Logic & Analytical Skills
Navigating legal subjects and circumstances requires strong logic and analytical skills. Paralegals should be able to think logically about legal cases and related subjects so that they can see the way facts and concepts are related to each case. They also need to be able to analyze their findings and communicate them with attorneys.
Strong Work Ethic & Persistence
The legal profession is known to be demanding and challenging even in the best of times. A paralegal must possess the work ethic and persistence to meet those demands and push through the challenges that are presented. It will often take significant effort and drive to achieve the goals that an attorney sets for a paralegal.
Paralegal Degree Options
There are associate degree programs and bachelor degree programs that teach the foundations of paralegal work. If you want to go as far as possible with a paralegal degree, you could even pursue a master’s degree. However, a two-year degree in the field is the most common for a reason. An associate degree takes a relatively short period to obtain – 2 years – and gives you the vast majority of the skills and training you need to get a job in the field. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree would be most useful for those who want the benefits that come from having a four-year degree in general since you do not typically need a bachelor’s to find employment as a paralegal.
Master’s programs in a paralegal education program can be found as well, but they are not as common. They also take two years, but it is important to note that they are only an option for those with a bachelor’s degree.
Paralegal Certificate vs. Paralegal Certification
A paralegal studies certificate and paralegal certification are easy to confuse when you are unfamiliar with the terms, but they are quite different. When you complete a certificate you will get a certificate indicating that you have completed the program and have the knowledge and skills that employers are looking for in a paralegal. But certification is different. Paralegal associations offer opportunities for current paralegals to obtain certification by meeting certain criteria, like having sufficient work history in the field and passing an exam. Those that can meet these standards and pass the exam can get a certification from associations – something that will make them even more desirable to potential employers.
Will a Degree Help You Land a Better or Higher Paying Job?
Getting a job as a paralegal is not quite the same as getting a job as a lawyer or other professional that needs to go through a full degree program. Law schools are necessary for lawyers – they have to go through these institutions and get their degree to enter the field. But becoming a paralegal is different. While there may be some jobs that prefer applicants with a degree, many will only want to verify that you have the basic training necessary to do the job. You can get that basic foundation from a certificate.
Of course, it is important to think about where you want to go with your career over the long term. If you plan on pursuing further schooling, like getting a law degree or a postgraduate degree, then it would likely be worth your time to get at least a two-year degree while gaining your paralegal skills. That way, if you decide to go to school later on, you can build on your two-year degree and spend less time overall in school to reach your career goals.
The amount of time it takes to get your qualifications as a paralegal depends on which path you take. A paralegal certificate can sometimes be completed as quickly as 6 weeks, although some take as long as 12 months. An associate’s in paralegal studies usually takes two years, whether you get a paralegal degree online or a degree in a community college or other organization. If you decide to get a bachelor’s degree you can expect it take an average of four years. If you are in the position to pursue a postgraduate degree, you can also plan for about two years of schooling before you get your degree.
These times are all average for each type of qualification. Some students take less time to complete their certificate or degree and some students take more time.
Cost of Tuition
The pricing for paralegal degrees and paralegal certificates can vary considerably depending on where you get the qualification and what type you get. One estimate for an associate’s degree puts the price at about $21,000, but that price could be quite low or quite high depending on where you are going to school and what type of school you choose. It is estimated that a paralegal certificate can cost as little as $3,000 or as much as $10,000. Again, it is possible that you may find prices lower or higher than these due to a variety of reasons. Some online paralegal programs can be quite affordable, while other online paralegal programs can be much more expensive.
What is clear is that choosing a certificate is likely going to be the more affordable option, especially if you get your qualification online. It is always a good idea to consider your overall goals and the financial benefits you can expect from your education and qualifications. For example, if you are interested in eventually getting a bachelor’s degree and think that it will yield a higher income, the extra cost for an associate’s may be a sound investment.
Transferrable Skills & Knowledge
The skills and knowledge you gain in a paralegal degree or certificate program are transferable to many different career paths. Your paralegal training will teach you to be a strong communicator, both in writing and speaking. It will also teach you to think logically and analytically, as well as how to conduct thorough research in complex areas of the law. All of these abilities can make you appealing to employers in numerous industries, both in and out of the legal field.
Additional Degree Options for Legal & Criminal Justice Professionals
Top Paralegal Degree Programs
A substantial number of schools offer paralegal programs, from those offering a certificate program to those offering a master’s degree program. You can find paralegal programs online and those in brick and mortar institutions – some of which offer both online paralegal studies certificate programs and in-person programs.
The top paralegal programs have a few things in common. They are all approved by the American Bar Association. The ABA is the main organization for legal professionals in the United States, so you definitely want a program that is approved by them. Beyond the approval of the ABA, the best programs also have a proven ability to make graduates employable. The more graduates are able to get jobs, the more desirable the program tends to be.
In decades past, it was often possible to work your way into a paralegal position at legal firms without a specific certificate, degree, or post-baccalaureate certificate, but those days are long gone. Today, there is an ever-increasing level of competition for positions in the paralegal field and law firms are facing their own challenges. They need to hire people who can walk in the door and start getting things done with minimal training. The combination of increased competition or paralegal jobs and the demand from employers for well-trained employees have made a paralegal degree or paralegal certificate a necessity.
Fortunately, there are more opportunities than ever for those who want to become a paralegal. There are degree programs in schools both online and offline, as well as countless certificate options. You do not have to look very far to find an online paralegal degree program or certificate option – of course, you do not want just any degree program. You want the best. This is why we have collected some of the best and most popular paralegal degree programs out there and put them here for you to review. You can find the right program for your specific needs, one that meets your time requirements and budgetary needs. We are here to help you find the ideal paralegal associate’s degree program to achieve your career goals.