Programs in legal studies are primarily offered at associate, bachelor's, and master's degree levels. Associate's degree programs introduce students to criminal litigation procedures and contract law, while bachelor's degrees prepare students for law school.Students of bachelor's degree programs might receive a more comprehensive education or prepare to enter law school. They could choose areas of specialization at this level. Master's degree programs in legal studies are also available. They are designed for professionals who want to increase their knowledge of the discipline. Some schools offer these programs in an online format. Each of these programs may have specialized entrance requirements.
Preparatory academic requirements usually only include a high school diploma or GED for associate and bachelor's programs. A bachelor's degree with some legal training is a common admissions requirement for graduate and master's programs.
Associate Degree in Legal Studies
An associate degree program in legal studies, which is sometimes offered concurrently with an undergraduate paralegal certificate program, provides entry-level skills needed to perform non-lawyer legal work. Some schools offer online or evening courses for working professionals, although participation might be required for internship training. The degree usually takes two years to earn, and students might be able to apply credit toward a bachelor's degree program.
Students learn how to review legal documents, prepare cases for hearings and trials, handle investigations, brief clients and interview witnesses. Legal assistant and paralegal students gain knowledge about the types of litigation, procedures and research methods typically used in legal work. These lessons include the following topics:
- Bankruptcy and Torts
- Criminal litigation
- Wills, trusts and estates
- Contract law and Civil litigation
- Legal ethics
- Legal research
Bachelor's Degree in Legal Studies
A bachelor's degree in legal studies provides a well-rounded background in the U.S. legal system and the knowledge needed to work in the legal field. Graduates could be employed as paralegals and legal assistants, though these programs also serve as an academic foundation for law school. Applicants typically need a high school education, though completion programs require an associate degree in a law-related field. Some colleges require students to complete concurrent national certification as a legal assistant before graduation.
A four-year bachelor's degree program teaches students how to develop effective oral communication, analytical and written skills. Upper level coursework allows students to specialize their legal training in such areas as litigation, dispute resolution or contract law once major core requirements are complete. Individuals may choose from course topics such as:
- Probate and estates
- Bankruptcy law
- Civil trial evidence
- Intellectual property
- Immigration law
- Business organizations
Master's Degree in Legal Studies
A graduate program in legal studies teaches individuals to consider the American legal system from a theoretical and practical point of view. Teachers, government employees, legal assistants and managers who desire further knowledge to improve their skills and career opportunities might find a master's degree program in legal studies could help them meet their goals. Some graduate programs in legal studies allow students to concurrently seek a certificate in paralegal studies.
People seeking a master's degree in legal studies are generally required to take more specialized courses than undergraduate students. Taking about two years to complete, topics explore the role of law in our society, how law affects societal change and the ethical situations that confront lawyers, legal assistants and paralegals. Some of the course topics offered at this level include:
- Theories of justice
- Computerized legal research
- Legal ethics
- American constitutional law
- Courts and policy making
Popular Career Options
A legal studies education prepares individuals for employment and careers as legal assistants or paralegal professionals at law firms, legal departments, insurance firms, title companies and other organizations that require non-lawyer legal work.
Paralegal and legal assistants work in many different areas of the law, such as real estate, insurance and government. Specialization gives individuals a greater understanding of a particular field of law, an opportunity for advancement and higher salary potential.
Students in a master's degree program usually have an established career in a legal setting or require specialized legal knowledge for a particular field. Some professions that benefit from earning a legal studies degree, from associates through graduate program levels, include:
- Law clerks and Paralegals
- Title examiners and researchers
- Claims examiners and adjusters
- Health and safety investigators
- Educational administrators
- International business professionals
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
As of May 2015, the BLS listed the mean annual wage for professionals in legal services at $50,280. Federal legal assistants and paralegals earned an average of $66,840 during the same period. The highest-paid paralegals and legal assistants at that time worked with semiconductor and other electronic component manufactures averaging over $89,270 per year, according to the BLS.
There were 271,930 legal assistants and paralegals employed across all industries in 2015, and the BLS anticipated an 8% increase in demand for qualified professionals from 2014-2024, which is as fast as the average projected job growth for all occupations.
Individuals who have earned a bachelor's degree in any field could consider enrolling in a post-baccalaureate certificate program in legal studies. Depending on the university or college, these programs could be intended as continuing education for those working in this field as a way to update their training and provide more career opportunities.
Students interested in work as a paralegal may pursue an associate degree in legal studies. Those interested in a specialization or the pursuit of law school will need to earn a bachelor's or master's degree in legal studies.