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Complete Guide to an Online Paralegal Degree

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Quick Facts
Regulatory Agencies: ABA
Available Degrees: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Certificate
Avg Tuition: $17,440
Avg Salary: $73,753
Certification: NALA and NFPA certifications are available but not required.
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An online paralegal degree will prepare students to assist attorneys by helping them prepare for trials, maintaining documents, drafting reports, and conducting research. They may also coordinate meetings and organize evidence for hearings. Additional tasks vary by employer, location, and concentration. Areas of specialization for paralegals include litigation, intellectual property, real estate, personal injury, employee benefits, corporate law, bankruptcy, family law, and immigration. Paralegals are usually employed by large law firms and government agencies, although some of them also work in small or midsized firms.

Choosing a degree program at an accredited school will ensure a high quality education that will be recognized and respected by future employers. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation provides a list of accrediting agencies and schools. The Standing Committee on Paralegals and Approval Commission also evaluates paralegal degree programs to make sure that they meet the guidelines established by the American Bar Association (ABA). Read More

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Comprehensive List of Colleges & Universities for an Online Paralegal Degree

Overview of Available Online Paralegal Degrees

Paralegal studies programs are available at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and certificate level, although the standard educational requirement for becoming a paralegal is an associate degree. Certificates in paralegal studies are available to students with a wide range of educational and work experience. Some certificates are designed for current professionals, while others are designed for students who are new to the legal profession.

Associate degrees in paralegal studies teach students how to put basic legal principles into practice and build reasoning skills, as well as written communication and conflict resolution skills. The program addresses topics in commercial law, civil procedure, paralegal litigation, legal research and writing, and domestic relations. In addition to didactic coursework, students may have an opportunity to participate in an internship to gain hands-on experience.

Students who complete an associate degree program may choose to transfer to a bachelor's degree program in paralegal studies to enhance their knowledge of the legal system and complex procedures. Most undergraduate programs place an emphasis on courtroom conduct, investigative practices, and litigation. They may explore a variety of subjects, such as tax law, legal writing and research, legal ethics, wills and estates, and administrative litigation. Additional components of the program include seminars and internships. 

A small number of schools offer paralegal master's degree programs to students who want to maximize their chances of advancing in an organization. Students may select an area of concentration in intellectual property law, international law, or government law. Typical courses include contracts, jurisprudence, and advanced legal research and writing.

Online Associate Degrees in Paralegal Studies

Associate degrees in paralegal studies provide students with the writing, research, and critical thinking skills required to enter support roles in law firms and legal departments. These degrees take two years to complete and require 20 to 30 courses. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Graduates of the associate degree in paralegal studies are prepared to apply for entry-level paralegal, legal assistant, and legal office administration positions. Some employers prefer to hire candidates with hands-on experience in a law firm; students can often choose to participate in internships during the degree to gain this practical experience.

The paralegal studies curriculum covers particular skills of the legal assistant, as well as the ins and outs of different applications of the law. Courses in legal terminology and legal research and writing teach students how to investigate pertinent laws and regulations; students also learn how to write correspondence and other documents. Litigation classes discuss the process of going to court and the paralegal’s role in preparing a case for the courtroom. Other common courses in the paralegal associate degree cover particular areas of law, such as commercial law and real estate law. Business communication and legal office administration are other typical electives in the program.

Excellent writing skills are essential for paralegals, as they routinely prepare legal briefs and other documents, so many associate programs will begin with a course in English composition. Students will learn to write clearly and effectively with correct grammar. They will also practice analytical and reasoning skills. A composition course will lead to a class that is dedicated to legal research. Much of a paralegal's job will revolve around conducting research for attorneys, and associate degree courses in research will focus on navigating Internet resources and other legal databases. 

Although paralegals aren't expected to be as well versed in the legal system as a licensed attorney, they will be expected to know the basics. Paralegal students are usually required to take a class in civil law, as this is one of the most common legal areas addressed in large law firms and corporations. Civil law courses include study of consumer rights and contracts, and knowledge of criminal law is also often beneficial to the work of legal assistants. Though few paralegals work in public defender or prosecutors' offices, some private defense firms hire qualified paralegals. Ethics is another important class for legal assistants. Paralegals are held to certain ethical and moral standards in the practice of law, though they will not have the same responsibilities as attorneys. 

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Paralegal Studies

Paralegal bachelor’s programs are designed to train graduates for positions as legal assistants and paralegals. These four-year programs cover the workings of the US legal system and different areas of law, as well as the writing and research skills crucial for paralegal work.

The bachelor’s program in paralegal studies trains graduates in the skills they will need to assist lawyers in a variety of tasks. Students learn an overview of the major parts of the legal system, as well as the research and writing skills that are central to the paralegal’s job responsibilities. Through their program’s electives, students may specialize their degree in a particular area of law, such as corporate law or civil law. Bachelor’s programs also require students to take a number of courses in general liberal arts areas such as math, natural science, and the humanities in order to establish a solid educational foundation.

Courses in different areas of law form the foundation of the paralegal bachelor’s degree. For example, in a civil litigation course, students learn how civil law functions in the United States and about the rights and procedures of the court system. A course in real estate law discusses the laws involving property ownership and real estate financing. Tort law is a type of law used in all areas of the legal system; it covers the ways that individuals or organizations are to be reimbursed if they are intentionally or accidentally harmed.

While knowledge in specific law topics is important, these classes do not cover the practical skill set that paralegals need in order to be competent in their work; instead, classes in legal writing and legal research cover these most important skills. In these classes, paralegals learn how to research court precedents and laws regarding particular cases, as well as how to write up affidavits, contracts, and other legal documents. 

Many distance learning paralegal bachelor’s programs require students to complete an internship as part of the degree requirements. This professional experience in a legal office can be very helpful in finding employment after graduation. Besides this internship experience, most of the coursework in these programs is information-based and can be effectively transferred to the online format.

Bachelor's graduates may pursue a wide range of careers in the legal system. Career opportunities include case manager, corporate paralegal, junior paralegal, law clerk, law office manager, legal assistant, and legal researcher. Work settings for graduates include corporate legal departments, government agencies, insurance companies, private law firms, real estate companies, and title insurance firms. Bachelor's programs also lay an excellent foundation for further studies and career advancement in the legal field.

Online Master's Degrees in Paralegal Studies

A master's degree is the most prestigious academic credential a paralegal student can earn. The master’s program will provide students with the skills to perform the key roles of the paralegal and legal assistant, including legal writing, research, and office administration. These degrees usually take one to two years to complete and require 10 to 15 courses. Applicants need an accredited bachelor’s degree.

The curriculum in the law and paralegal master’s provides a theoretical understanding of the history and purpose of law, as well as the practical abilities to perform administrative duties in a legal environment. Courses in the history of US law and criminal justice provide a framework for legal work. Other foundational courses discuss the skills for utilizing legal databases, searching for relevant past cases, and compiling notes for attorneys. Students also learn how to fill out certain legal documents and draft correspondence.

Master’s students also take electives in particular areas of the law, such as constitutional law, criminal law, and environmental law. A course in American jurisprudence will cover court systems and an overview of constitutional law, as well as evidence, ethics, and professionalism. A legal research and writing course will expand on students' knowledge of drafting legal documents and conducting research. Corporations and contracts law classes will cover corporate law practice, business ethics, SEC rules, the Uniform Commercial Code, and contract formation. Litigation courses will focus on civil actions within the court systems along with rules, technology, ethics, and procedures. While most paralegal master’s programs do not require a thesis, many require a capstone project, which is completed during the student’s final semester.

The law and paralegal master’s degree can offer professionally oriented training to career changers interested in entering the paralegal and legal office administration career. As these positions do not typically require a graduate degree, those with this advanced credential are likely to stand out in the job search. Current business professionals and entrepreneurs can also use the law and paralegal master’s program to gain a working knowledge of the legal system in order to better understand the legal environment of business.

Online Certificates in Paralegal Studies

A paralegal certificate program prepares students for work as paralegal in private law firms or businesses. The paralegal will have duties that include interviewing, investigation of claims, prep work of legal forms, research activities, as well as assisting lawyers in court and other activities. Some certificate programs are offered for beginning students, while other programs are only available to students who have completed an associate or bachelor's degree. For students looking to enter the field of law as a paralegal, the certificate program can be a positive step toward a better job, a new career, a higher salary, or just more knowledge of the field of law. 

Certificate paralegal programs typically take between 10 months and 2 years to complete. Some online colleges offer a full-time curriculum that can be completed in as little as seven months. The length of the program will depend on the type of certificate you choose and the curriculum covered. 

While all certification programs will have required courses, students are usually allowed some flexibility when choosing electives, which may help with different types of law and legal offices, such as family law, criminal law, intellectual property, or administrative law. Students should expect to take courses in legal research and writing, litigation, legal theories and analysis, contract law, corporations and partnerships, and legal office management. Certificate coursework often includes legal research, writing, and civil litigation, torts and personal injury, real property, constitutional law and criminal procedure, laws of evidence, and legal document preparation.

Those students looking to enter a paralegal certificate program without an associate or bachelor's degree will find classes such as business law, legal assisting, tort law & claims, legal writing, property and creditor rights, probate law, will and trusts, and a legal research lab. For those students entering a certificate program after completing an undergraduate degree, the classes may include legal analysis, computers and the law, torts, contracts, property law, civil litigation, legal research. Ethics for the paralegal and technology for the paralegal will also be included. Students aren't usually required to complete a final project as part of their certificate program, but some schools require work experience or an internship.

Certification Requirements for Paralegals

Certification for paralegals is not mandated by any US state, but more and more paralegals and legal assistants are choosing to earn voluntary certification. Those seeking new employment may find that certification will make them more appealing on the job market. Paralegal certifications are offered by various national and regional legal industry professional groups. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offer some of the most widely recognized paralegal credentials. 

To become eligible for the NALA Certified Paralegal exam, applicants must graduate from a paralegal program or have relevant work experience. Those who successfully pass the exam become Certified Paralegals and must complete 50 hours of approved continuing education hours every 5 years to maintain their certification. The NFPA offers the Paralegal Core Competency Exam for entry-level paralegals or the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) for paralegals with an accredited associate or bachelor's degree and two to six years of professional experience. Successful completion of these exams results in a Core Registered Paralegal (CRP) or Registered Paralegal (RP) designation. RPs are required to complete 12 hours of continuing education courses every 2 years to maintain their certification.

The Importance of Accreditation

Attending a reputable paralegal program will help ensure that you receive a high-quality education and have access to the most current information about the paralegal profession. Although enrolling in a formally recognized paralegal program won't guarantee immediate employment, corporations and firms often prefer to hire applicants from accredited schools because they can feel confident that students who graduate from these approved programs are knowledgeable and competent.

The US Department of Education (USDE) recognizes several agencies that evaluate and accredit schools and degree programs, and they provide a list of accredited schools and programs on their website. The American Bar Association is recognized by the USDE and provides a list of their approved paralegal programs, as well.

What Should I Know About Paralegal Programs and ABA Approval?

There are dozens of online paralegal training programs to choose from in the United States; choosing just one can be daunting. One concept you should definitely understand as you research education options is the American Bar Association approval for paralegal programs.

The American Bar Association does not accredit paralegal programs in the same way that a regional accrediting body accredits colleges and universities. Instead, the ABA may offer its approval to paralegal programs, in exchange for a fee. The ABA approves paralegal training programs that meet certain standards of program administration. The majority of paralegal training programs do not choose to pursue ABA approval. Currently, the ABA does not approve training programs where the majority of coursework takes place online.

Do I Need to Attend an ABA Approved Paralegal Training Program?

In most cases, paralegals do not need to graduate from an ABA-approved program in order to find work. After all, only about 25 percent of paralegal training programs have ABA approval, so the majority of graduates do not have the ABA affiliation. With this in mind, there are some employers who prefer to hire paralegals who have completed an ABA-approved program. It makes sense to investigate the type of paralegal work you want to do and prospective employers you might work for before choosing a paralegal training program. Talk to current paralegals who are doing the kind of work you want to do, and get their perspective on ABA approval.

What Should I Consider When Choosing an Online Paralegal Training Program?

You may decide that it makes sense for you to pursue an online paralegal training program, despite the lack of ABA approval. To find the best online program for you, keep the following factors in mind:

  • Instructor Qualifications: Look for programs with courses taught by licensed attorneys or experienced paralegals.
  • Online Course Style: Online paralegal programs may use one of a few types of online classes. Some use self-paced classes, where students do assignments at their own pace within a certain large time frame. Other programs have weekly video lectures and due dates like traditional classes. Still others are hybrid programs that require students to come to class to complete certain assignments.
  • Study Tools: High-quality online programs provide students with a variety of study materials, such as textbooks, workbooks, online practice exercises, and access to online legal databases.

References

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