There are many ways to get a paralegal education, including Associate’s degree, Bachelor’s degree, and even Master’s degree programs, online programs, and certificate and diploma programs. Most paralegal programs require only a high school diploma or a General Education Degree to become enrolled. In the early days of the profession, paralegals often did not have formal training, and instead learned the career through on the job experience. While this is still possible today, competition for paralegal jobs is stiff, and a candidate that has a formal education will likely get a position over one that does not.
There are more than 1,000 colleges, universities, vocational schools, community colleges, private for-profit colleges, and law schools offer paralegal training. Paralegal education is not standardized, and as a result, there are a great variety of formats, and the length of various programs may vary greatly.
Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree paralegal programs usually combine legal training with courses in other academic subjects, such as business, communications, and economics. Completion of 60 to 70 semester hours over the course of two years typically earns paralegal students an Associate’s degree. When considering an Associate’s degree paralegal program, students should decide whether or not they might continue their education by pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at another school, and if it is a possibility, they will want to check into whether or not their credits will transfer. Bachelor’s degree paralegal programs offer a paralegal major, minor, or concentration within a major, and require successful completion of approximately 120 to 130 semester units of study, typically taking approximately four years. In both Associate’s degree and Bachelor’s degree programs, about half of the required credits are paralegal courses, and the other half are in general or related study.
Besides classroom instruction, many educational programs for paralegals also require an internship, in which students gain “real world” experience by working for a required number of hours in a private law firm, the office of a public defender or a prosecutor, a corporate legal department, a legal aid organization, a bank, or a government agency. Because college internships many times turn into full-time positions, this experience is a valuable asset in seeking a job after graduation.
Paralegal certificate programs usually require completion of 18 to 60 semester units, and may range in length from several months to two years. Longer programs usually include both general education and paralegal courses, and are similar to associate degree programs. Many certificate programs offer intensive paralegal training to those who already have a college degree.
A few colleges and universities, such as George Washington University, William Woods University, and Hamline University School of Law, also offer a Master’s degree in paralegal studies. Some universities also offer advanced degree programs in law-related areas such as legal administration and legal studies.
For those who would like to obtain a paralegal degree without physically attending school due to work, family, or other obligations, online paralegal degree programs are available.
A variety of paralegal degrees, including Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and even Ph.D.s, as well as certificates, can all be earned online through over 20 programs nationwide.
Online degree programs offer great flexibility and rely heavily upon the computer, provide interactive lessons, and virtual classrooms. Graduates of online paralegal training programs usually receive a diploma or certificate upon completion. Because most online programs are self-paced, the time to completion can vary, but most require about the same amount of time as a traditional certificate program. While early online programs were not always considered to have the same quality of education as traditional paralegal programs, most are highly respected today. Completion of one, as with any online education, requires a great deal of drive, self-discipline, and organization – qualities that are also possessed by top paralegals.