Is A Paralegal Degree Worth It?

paralegal

Key Takeaways:

  • A paralegal degree can be a stepping stone to a rewarding legal career with numerous opportunities and a solid job outlook.
  • The cost of paralegal education is generally lower than a law degree, offering a quicker path to the legal field.
  • Paralegal work provides intrinsic rewards through varied work and the chance to make significant contributions to legal outcomes.

    Understanding the Paralegal Profession

    Paralegals are like the strong support of the legal world, even if they don’t always get noticed. A good paralegal is priceless for those who understand how the law works. While they can’t give legal advice or go to court for clients, they’re still important in ensuring legal stuff gets done right and on time.

    It’s important not to confuse legal assistants and paralegals.

    Legal assistants primarily focus on administrative tasks such as organizing files, scheduling appointments, and managing correspondence. On the other hand, the ABA defines paralegals as more involved in substantive legal work, such as but not limited to:

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    • Legal research. This involves gathering information relevant to a particular case or legal issue.
    • Drafting legal documents. They help lawyers prepare legal documents.
    • Assisting with client communication. This involves gathering client information and updating them on the status of their cases.

    Without paralegals, legal firms would struggle to handle the sheer volume and complexity of their caseloads. They serve as the right hand of attorneys, providing crucial support that allows lawyers to focus on advocacy and strategy. Their skills make them indispensable members of any legal team. 

    Educational Pathways for Aspiring Paralegals

    The journey to becoming a paralegal is not a walk in the park. For you to gain credibility, you need to pursue formal education. You’ll be handling documents that require attention to detail and in-depth understanding of the legal procedures.

    There are three educational pathways to becoming a paralegal:

    Associate Degrees

    A paralegal associate degree is a basic qualification after studying for about two years at a recognized paralegal program. You can earn it at community colleges or regular universities, either online or in person.

    In this program, you’ll study things like managing a law office, researching business law, civil law, criminal procedure, and ethical standards for paralegals. By the end, you should be able to:

    • Know what paralegals do in the American legal system
    • Improve your skills in researching law, investigating, and interviewing
    • Analyze legal papers and make summaries
    • Follow the ethical rules for paralegals

    Paralegal associate programs usually cover a wide range of legal topics. However, some programs let second-year students choose specific subjects. Students might also do internships.

    There are two types of associate degree in paralegal you can pursue:

    • Associate of Arts (AA): emphasize the liberal arts and humanities
    • Associate of Science (AS): geared more toward career preparation

    Even though Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees might have different ways of teaching and subjects, they both can get you to the same place. Both AS and AA degrees in paralegal studies need about 60 credits. They’re good paths for starting as a paralegal or going for more education later.

    Bachelor’s Degrees

    A bachelor’s in paralegal degree value is higher than an associate’s. This is often the minimum requirement for paralegal positions in large legal firms. Compared to associate’s degrees, bachelor’s programs offer more in-depth coverage of the field. Moreover, this education level offers more options for paralegal studies.

    Some of the most common courses found at this degree level include:

    • legal ethics
    • electronic legal research
    • torts law
    • evidence gathering
    • civil practice
    • contracts
    • constitutional issues

    Among the most popular bachelor’s degree majors for this field include:

    • Bachelor’s in Paralegal Studies: focuses on practical skills and knowledge specifically tailored for working as a paralegal.
    • Bachelor’s in Jurisprudence: takes a philosophical and theoretical approach to understanding legal principles and systems.
    • Bachelor’s in Legal Studies: provides a comprehensive academic study of the legal system. It covers various legal topics without a specific focus on preparing students for paralegal roles.

    These programs typically require 120 credit hours and three to four years of learning.

    After getting a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, you can apply for certification from groups like the National Association of Legal Assistants or National Federation of Paralegal Associations. While you don’t have to get certified to work as a paralegal, some employers might like or need you to have it.

    Certificate Programs

    Certificate programs are a faster way to become a paralegal than getting an associate or bachelor’s degree. These programs are mainly for people who already have a degree in something else but want to switch to working in law. They focus on teaching paralegal skills and usually take less time to finish than degree programs.

    You learn important stuff, including:

    • how to research and write about legal issues
    • how civil court cases work, criminal law and procedure
    • what’s ethical in the legal world

    Some programs even offer classes on specific types of law, such as patents and copyrights, family issues, or business law.

    These programs can be different lengths, but most last six months to a year. Many certificate programs offer flexible schedules, like evening classes or online learning, so people who work or have other commitments can still enroll.

    Having just a certificate might not be enough for some employers, especially big law firms or government offices. But it can help get you started in entry-level jobs or get better at a certain part of the law.

    Paralegal studies degree programs can now be completed via online learning. Many students ask, “Is an online paralegal degree worth it?” Well, yes! But only if the program is:

    • reputable
    • properly accredited
    • offers practical learning experiences

    These are the elements that can truly make an online paralegal degree worth pursuing.

    Online paralegal programs offer the same quality of education as their on-campus counterparts. In fact, this learning modality is more beneficial to those who have work or other commitments. Another benefit of pursuing an online program is its possible cost savings.

    Unlike on-campus programs, online classes don’t require daily visits to the campus. This not only saves you time but also money on transportation. Additionally, some online programs offer lower overall costs since you don’t have to pay staggering campus fees. This makes online paralegal programs a cost-effective choice for your education.

    Job Market and Career Outlook for Paralegals

    Law jobs generally have steady growth. Yet, the paralegal career outlook has been growing faster than the national average for all occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics thinks they’ll grow even faster in the next ten years, about 4%.

    The legal services field hires most paralegals, about 74%. Some also work for the following sectors:

    • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: 5%
    • Federal government, excluding postal service: 5%
    • Finance and insurance: 4%
    • State government, excluding education and hospitals: 3%

    The paralegal salary potential can vary depending on factors such as experience, location, and specialization. According to the US BLS, the median annual wage of paralegals with associate degrees is $60,970. Meanwhile, paralegals with a bachelor’s degree earn 5% more than community college graduates.

    Those with extensive experience or specialized knowledge in corporate law, intellectual property, or healthcare law can command higher salaries.

    Another factor that affects salary is location. Some states offer more generous financial aid packages than others, typically states with high cost of living. Here are the top-paying states for paralegals:

    • District of Columbia: $94,290
    • California: $79,210
    • Delaware: $71,360
    • Florida: $61,830
    • New York: $78,850
    • Texas: $63,720
    • Illinois: $63,340

    Cost-Benefit Analysis of a Paralegal Degree

    Some paralegals begin their careers as legal secretaries and work their way up. However, this can take years. As a result, most pursue formal education to advance to paralegal positions swiftly. Yet, this path can be costly—and may not be the best option for everyone.

    According to the Education Data Initiative Foundation, the average cost of community college tuition is $4,110. Four-year university tuition costs an average of $19,806. Certificates are cheaper, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000. 

    Take note that paralegal education costs entail additional expenses beyond tuition. Additional fees may include textbooks, supplies, and potentially housing if attending a university away from home.

    Out-of-state tuition is also very high, which adds to the overall cost burden.

    When pursuing an on-campus degree, you’ll likely be required to quit your full-time job. This may result in a loss of income, further straining your finances and increasing the financial challenges associated with pursuing higher education.

    The question is, are you willing to risk your current position and obligations to pursue formal paralegal studies?

    Although pursuing a degree requires significant investments—your time and money—the advantages of getting a paralegal degree are abundant and far-reaching. Here are a few tips to reduce the financial burden and maximize the benefits of pursuing a paralegal degree:

    1. Consider online or part-time programs.
    2. Apply for the FAFSA early.
    3. Apply for all kinds of scholarships you’re qualified for.
    4. Explore employer tuition reimbursement programs if you’re currently working.
    5. Seek out paid internships or work-study opportunities.

    The Advantages of Being a Paralegal

    There are plenty of advantages to being a paralegal. Going beyond financial gains, paralegals often find fulfillment in their meaningful work and their impact on legal proceedings. Here are some additional advantages:

    High professional satisfaction

    Being a paralegal offers a unique chance to support others during their most challenging moments. Whether guiding them through legal processes or providing crucial assistance, the role is deeply rewarding.

    You can also do freelancing as a paralegal with an excellent education and experience. This enables you to operate as an independent contractor, giving you more control of your schedule and rates.

    Plenty of opportunities to specialize

    The law has several branches. As a paralegal, you can focus on a particular area of law and get certified as a specialist. This can mean better pay and more job opportunities. Specializing in a specific law area is a smart strategy to attract law firms needing expertise for certain cases.

    Lots of advancement opportunities

    There are several certification options available for paralegals. Some of the most popular ones are:

    • Core registered paralegal (CRP)
    • Professional paralegal (PL)
    • Accredited legal professional (ALP)
    • Certified legal professional (CLP)
    • PACE registered paralegal (RP)
    • Advanced certified paralegal (ACP)

    Pursuing certifications can lead to higher pay. They help future employers understand your knowledge level and expertise.

    It can serve as your stepping stone for a law career

    Many paralegals continue their studies and become lawyers. Your education and background as a paralegal offer a distinct advantage over someone who has never worked in the field. According to the BLS, lawyers are paid a median of $145,760 annually.