Online and hybrid paralegal studies programs are widely available at the certificate, associate's and bachelor's degree levels. Some programs allow students to complete coursework on their own schedule, while other schools host synchronous classes where students sign into the online learning platform at specified times. Some programs may not be available to residents of all states.
Students are trained in the fundamentals of law, from torts to real estate contracts. They also learn how to work with the Microsoft Office suite and use legal research databases. Some programs provide students with internship opportunities and on-campus classes.
Prospective students may want to consider programs that are approved by the American Bar Association. They may also want to inquire if programs can prepare them to take voluntary professional examinations, like the National Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Examination.
Paralegal Studies Undergraduate Certificate
Traditional on-campus certificate programs in paralegal studies are predominately aimed at associate's or bachelor's degree-holders, but the bulk of online certificate programs are designed to accept high school graduates. These online programs are suitable for people seeking entry-level jobs in law or government, law firm staffers hoping to expand their knowledge base and skill set or college-bound students starting down a path which might lead them to a law degree.
Program Information and Requirements
Fully online certificate programs in paralegal studies comprise 18-24 semester units of paralegal courses. Full-time students could complete all work in seven months, and part-time students could expect to finish in 18-24 months. Some certificate programs also require as many as 36 credits of general education courses, approaching the total coursework of associate's degree programs.
Distance learning programs often use the same faculty and textbooks, offer the same research and study resources, and follow the same lesson plan as their on-campus counterparts. Some programs allow students to transfer credits earned to an associate's or bachelor's degree program.
Paralegal coursework typically starts with research and writing skills, then covers the terminology, background and procedures required in several basic legal subject areas, to prepare students for the tasks awaiting them working with lawyers.
Students are introduced to the primary legal research resources, including the U.S. Constitution, statutory law, regulatory law, case law and executive orders. Traditional and Internet search methods, standard forms of citation, common terms and abbreviations are discussed.
Legal Document Preparation
This course reviews the format and style of documents such as case briefs and legal analyses. Students learn and practice the IRAC style of legal writing, short for Issue, Rule, Application and Conclusion, and are taught the appropriate use of legal precedent and persuasive authority.
Personal injury law, also called tort law, helps plaintiffs collect damages for pain and suffering, medical costs and lost income. Students learn the procedures involved in processing claims and litigating tort cases.
The processes involved in bringing and pursuing litigation are examined. Topics include discovery, trial strategy, disclosure, work-product doctrine and attorney-client privilege.
Paralegal Studies Associate's Degree
An associate's degree in paralegal studies is the most common pathway to a job as a paralegal. Online degree programs are plentiful, and most of them are fully online. A few are endorsed by the American Bar Association (ABA), a distinction which may be beneficial when applying for jobs.
Associate degree programs in paralegal studies require completion of 60-96 semester credits, roughly half in paralegal subjects and the rest in general education. Full-time students could complete their coursework in 15 months, and part-time students might take as long as four years. Credits earned are generally transferable to a 4-year degree.
Program Information and Requirements
Some hybrid programs offer online courses, yet still require the student to attend some classes on-campus, or in a pre-approved setting near the student's home. The on-campus courses typically provide practical training in subjects like writing, research and litigation, offering students professional face-to-face supervision.
Students need access to a computer with multimedia capabilities and a high-speed Internet connection. Live lectures which allow student participation may require a webcam and microphone. Faculty advisors, instructors and technical help are generally available to resolve problems and respond to questions.
Required paralegal course credits increases the students' exposure to more subject areas than a certificate program.
Lawyers and paralegals have their own professional codes of conduct. The ethical obligations of the paralegal are presented and discussed, including confidentiality, the unauthorized practice of law, billing, conflicts of interest and malpractice.
Laws which govern the relationship between employer and employee are discussed. Another major issue presented concerns the distinction between an employee and an independent contractor.
The procedures and laws concerning the holding and transfer of property are the focus of this course. Topics include the preparation of documents, liens, due diligence, certifications of title and payoffs. Students check their work by conducting a series of mock closings.
Immigration law is form-based, and this course reviews all the forms that play a part in the practice of immigration law. Subjects include visas, foreign visitors, and the application process for permanent resident status.
Paralegal Studies Bachelor's Degree
Of the few online bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies, several are hybrid programs, requiring the student to spend significant amounts of time on-campus. Graduates of a bachelor's program have taken more paralegal studies courses and have the greatest exposure to different areas of law, increasing their versatility and marketability.
Program Information and Requirements
Programs typically require completion of 120-130 semester credits, 36-60 of those in paralegal studies subjects. Online bachelors' programs are generally designed to be completed in four full-time years, but times for completion can range from 3-7 years. Online bachelor's degree programs may accept relevant transfer credits from certificate and associate's degree programs, reducing the overall course load and shortening the time required to complete the degree.
The online bachelor's degree in paralegal studies is considered a terminal degree. It prepares graduates for entry-level jobs as paralegals, and is not generally seen as a preparation for law school.
More than half of the courses in a bachelor's program come from general education subjects, broadening students' educational horizons. Students are also exposed to a broader range of legal subjects.
The laws of estates, wills and trusts are presented. Subjects include estate, inheritance and gift taxes, real estate trusts, charitable donations, annuities and life insurance. Particular attention will be paid to estate planning documents, estate administration and probate.
This course discusses the common law of contracts, oral contracts, illusory contracts and the preparation of contract documents. Contract concepts include consideration, fraud, offer and acceptance, termination, enforcement and damages for breach.
Business Law and Bankruptcy
Forms of business and corporate entities are discussed, along with a survey of laws pertaining to businesses. The procedures used to create, operate and dissolve businesses are covered, including bankruptcy regulations and procedures.
Rules of Evidence
An understanding of the rules of evidence is vital for paralegals involved in litigation, so that their pre-trial investigations can produce evidence which meets legal standards of admissibility. Focusing primarily on federal rules, topics include character evidence, relevancy and the impeachment of witnesses.
Most paralegals work in private law firms, but other employers include corporate legal departments, health care organizations, banks, real estate firms and insurance companies. Paralegals also work for federal agencies, the judiciary, prosecutors and public defenders.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 271,930 people worked as paralegals and legal assistants in 2015, and an 8% increase in jobs was projected from 2014-2024, as fast as average. The median annual paralegal and legal assistant salary in 2015 was $48,810 (www.bls.gov).
Duties of paralegals vary widely, depending upon the size of the firm and types of law practiced, as well as the training received by the paralegal. Common responsibilities include writing correspondence, performing research, conducting client interviews and monitoring schedules. Paralegals are used in all areas of legal practice, but are most commonly used to assist in litigation.
Paralegals are assuming a greater range of tasks, increasing their usefulness. An increasing reliance upon paralegals is one way law firms can keep their costs down and improve efficiencies. According to the BLS, because paralegals perform many of the same services as lawyers, but at a lower cost, they may be likelier to keep their jobs in adverse economies. Job applicants with a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies may also have an edge over other those with associate's degrees or undergraduate certificates.
Continuing Education Information
No U.S. state requires paralegals to obtain a license to practice. Of the several organizations which conduct certification examinations, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) is the most active, with more than 16,000 Certified Legal Assistants or Certified Paralegals currently practicing. In addition, NALS (formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries) conducts the Professional Paralegal Exam.
Graduation from most degree programs satisfies the requirements to take NALA's CLA/CP exam. In most cases, credits earned in an online associate's degree program can be transferred to a bachelor's program at 4-year brick-and-mortar or online schools.
National associations for paralegals include NALA, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI). Each is organized into local chapters, and offer training options, seminars, and opportunities to socialize and network with other member paralegals.
NALA offers Advanced Paralegal Certification for paralegals trained in any of 23 subspecialties. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) conducts the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) for paralegals with a bachelor's degree, and The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc., confers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential to experienced paralegals who meet specific educational criteria.
Undergraduate certificate, associate's degree and bachelor's degree programs are available online in paralegal studies. These programs prepare graduates for entry-level work in law or government and emphasize legal research and preparation principles.