Paralegal Studies Degrees
The United States does not standardize paralegal education – resulting in many low-quality education programs. However, paralegal associations like the American Association for Paralegal Education offer criteria to help prospective paralegals get the best education. The American Bar Association also publishes standards to promote quality education. In addition to reading the overview information on this resource page, you can also refer to the list of American Bar Association-approved Paralegal Education Programs.
Paralegal Studies Degree Courses
Paralegal degree programs aim to provide students with core legal knowledge, and to help them develop critical thinking, communication, organization, and research skills.
Many community colleges, four-year colleges, universities, business schools, and law schools offer associate's degrees in paralegal studies; some colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees; and few offer master's degrees.
The myriad of institutions that provide paralegal education generates much diversity within the paralegal profession.
Most paralegals acquire an associate's degree in paralegal studies. An associate's degree usually takes two years – around 60 to 70 semester credits – to complete. The curriculum should combine legal specialties with general academic courses to help students become well-rounded paralegal generalists. The program should expand students' knowledge of legal systems while also refining critical thinking, communication, computer, and organization skills.
Two-year community colleges may also form partnerships with four-year colleges to expedite the credit transfer process for students wishing to continue paralegal education.
A bachelor's degree takes about four years – around 120 to 130 semester credits – to complete. During the first two years, courses are broad and general. The last two years, however, offer more advanced courses that allow students to focus on one or more legal specialties.
Many paralegals acquire a bachelor's degree in another field and a paralegal certificate from a certificate program. Degrees in criminal justice, nursing, health administration, and other technical fields can prove valuable to paralegals working in specialized law practices.
Some schools offer paralegal certificate programs through Continuing Education or Extension Division departments. Admission requirements vary by school, but most require certain applicants to have college credits, degrees, high school diplomas, or legal experience. A few schools require standardized exams or interviews. Length also varies, ranging from four months to two years. In general, program courses focus on legal specialty training. Many offer internships and some also offer job placement services.
Quality program curricula require three types of courses – general education, legal specialty, and electives – to create both legal knowledge and academic well-roundedness.
Students pursuing associate's degrees should be required to take at least 18 credits in general education; 18 credits in legal specialty; and 24 credits in electives.
Those pursuing bachelor's degrees should take at least 36 credits in general education; 36 credits in legal specialty; and 48 credits in electives.
General Education Courses give students a well-rounded liberal arts education to complement their legal education. They aim to sharpen critical thinking and writing skills. They usually include courses in English composition and literature, foreign languages, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, technology, and more. Students should be required to take courses in at least three academic areas.
Legal Specialty Courses highlight substantive law, legal procedures, and practical paralegal skills. Some include courses in legal research, legal writing, litigation, probate, real estate, and other specific areas of law practice. Courses in law computer technology and law office management are also recommended.
Elective Courses allow students to explore other academic areas. They may include courses in business law, business English, constitutional law, criminal justice, keyboarding, technical writing, and other technical and remedial fields.
Many law practices, especially large law firms and organizations, require paralegals to perform specialized functions.
Paralegal education programs – especially bachelor's degree programs – allow students to explore legal specialties.
Paralegal Specialties include bankruptcy, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, estate planning and probate, family law, immigration, insurance, intellectual property, labor law, litigation, medical malpractice, personal injury, and real estate.
Quality education programs allow students to intern for banks, corporate legal departments, government agencies, law clinics, legal aid organizations, offices of public defenders or attorney generals, or private law firms.
Programs must supervise and evaluate interns while maintaining open communication between interns, supervisors, and program directors.
Interns should work for three times as many hours as they spend in class. Therefore, interns earning associate's degrees should usually intern for 2,250 total hours; those pursuing bachelor's degrees should usually intern for 4,500 total hours.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
National Association of Legal Assistants
American Bar Association
Standing Committee on Paralegals
"Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs"
American Association for Paralegal Education
"Statement on Academic Quality"
"Paralegal Core Competencies"