If you're interested in the nuances of the American justice system, a bachelor's degree in legal studies may be a perfect fit. A legal studies degree prepares students for many careers with above-average salaries and promising job growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of paralegals and legal assistants -- common employment options for legal studies graduates -- will increase 15% from 2016 to 2026.
These workers earned a median annual salary of $50,410 in May 2017, and paralegals who worked for the federal government and in the finance and insurance industries made over $60,000 on average. A legal studies degree can also be a gateway to further study, including law school. This guide will provide you with key information about legal studies programs, including admissions requirements, common courses, and job opportunities in the field.
Should I Get a Bachelor's in Legal Studies?
Deciding your major requires research. If you are a high school student interested in a career in law, criminal justice, or government, a legal studies degree can be a good fit. You can pursue a legal studies degree through a traditional, on-campus program, or through an online program. Students enrolling directly in college after high school may choose to pursue a traditional legal studies program, while students with work or family obligations may prefer a distance education, which offers more flexibility.
Legal studies programs arm you with the skills necessary for your law career, particularly legal research, analysis, and writing. Some programs also provide opportunities to participate in mock trials, a competitive extracurricular activity in which students simulate courtroom trials. You may even bring your skills to the real world during your program, as many schools require students to complete an internship or practicum at a law firm, government agency, or nonprofit.
After graduation, your legal studies degree can make you a more competitive candidate for jobs in the legal field. Although it is common for paralegals to have an associate degree, according to the BLS, many employers prefer hiring candidates with a bachelor's degree. Certain legal studies programs, known as "3+3 programs," use accelerated coursework to admit students into their universities' law schools. The structure of these programs vary by school, but students usually complete most of their bachelor's degree credits in three years, then start law school in their fourth year. This allows them to earn their bachelor's and JD degrees in six years instead of seven or eight.
What Can I Do With a Bachelor's in Legal Studies?
After earning a legal studies degree, you will be prepared to pursue several exciting career paths in law. You can assist attorneys as a paralegal, manage disputes as a mediator, or further your education in law school to become a lawyer. As a professional in these jobs, you must have superb interpersonal skills, as your work often includes client interaction. These jobs also commonly include a lot of writing and research, which tend to be more solitary in nature.
- Paralegals and Legal Assistants
These professionals assist lawyers with a number of duties, including legal research, gathering evidence, and managing court documents. Some specialize in specific areas, like criminal law, family law, and personal injury. Although an associate degree is sufficient for some jobs, many employers may prefer applicants with a bachelor's degree in legal studies or a related subject.
Median Annual Salary: $50,410*
- Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators
Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators have specific duties unique to their titles, but they all help disputing parties resolve conflicts outside court. These professionals are typically attorneys, retired judges, or business professionals with specific legal expertise. A bachelor's degree is acceptable for some positions, while others require a law degree, an MBA, or another advanced degree.
Median Annual Salary: $60,670*
- Court Reporters
Court reporters provide written transcripts of trials, depositions, and other legal proceedings. Many of these reporters work in courts or legislatures or as freelancers hired by law firms or corporations for pretrial depositions and other events. Court reporters typically earn an associate degree or certificate in court reporting from a community college or technical institute.
Median Annual Salary: $55,120*
Lawyers counsel clients on legal issues and represent them in court. Their duties vary depending on their job title and where they work. Many lawyers also specialize in an area of law, such as human rights, environment, or tax law. Lawyers must have a law degree, but a bachelor's degree in legal studies can prepare students to apply for law school.
Median Annual Salary: $119,250*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Choose a Bachelor's in Legal Studies Program
Once you've decided to pursue a legal studies degree, you must find a program that best fits your needs. Like most undergraduate degrees, legal studies programs typically last four years, but program length varies based on how many credits you complete each semester, so some students finish in fewer or more than four years. Some programs are exclusively offered full or part time, which will also affect their length (and sometimes cost).
If you are concerned about external factors prohibiting you from regularly attending classes, you may consider an online legal studies program. Distance programs are a great alternative for self-motivated, working professionals looking to complete coursework on their own schedules. Additionally, online courses sometimes cost less than traditional classes.
It's important to choose a legal studies degree program that offers courses, concentrations, and career development opportunities that align with your professional goals. Many legal studies programs require students to complete an internship or practicum, and some schools partner with specific law firms or community organizations for student internships, so prospective online students should research if their program has in-person requirements.
Most importantly, you should find a program that teaches you the skills necessary for your desired career. Some legal studies programs are specifically designed to prepare students for a paralegal career, which may not be the best choice for an aspiring law student.
Programmatic Accreditation for Bachelor's in Legal Studies Programs
Pay attention to accreditation as you choose a legal studies program. The school you attend should be regionally or nationally accredited, which qualifies you for federal financial aid. Regional and national accreditation applies to an entire university or college, while programmatic accreditation covers particular programs within institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, most specialized or programmatic agencies accredit academic units within institutions that are regionally accredited.
Programmatic accreditation indicates that a specific program offers a curriculum that meets standards within an industry -- programmatic accreditation ensures excellence of education and sufficient training for a future career. The American Bar Association (ABA), which reviews law schools, also approves paralegal and legal studies programs. You can search a directory of ABA-approved programs here.
Bachelor's in Legal Studies Program Admissions
Your first step in the admissions process is researching legal studies programs with a curriculum, internship opportunities, and other resources that align with your career goals. Next, apply to those schools. Though you can apply to as many colleges as you see fit, typically students who apply to at least six colleges, including a few "safety schools," have higher rates of acceptance. Each application will require a small fee. The process for applying to online and on-campus legal studies programs are very similar. For each one, you must submit transcripts from schools you have attended, an SAT or ACT score, a personal essay, and, sometimes, letters of recommendation.
- Minimum GPA: Many colleges do not have a minimum GPA for undergraduate student applicants. However, they typically provide information about the average GPA of admitted students.
- Application: You need to apply to each college by their individual deadline. A January 1 deadline is common, but it varies by school. More than 800 schools allow students to apply through the Common Application. With the CommonApp, you only need to fill out one application, which can be sent to multiple schools simultaneously. Applications usually include a personal statement or essay component.
- Transcripts: Almost every college asks you to submit your official high school transcript, or your college transcript if you are a transfer student. Most colleges require your school counselor to send the transcript directly to them. You can usually receive and send your high school transcripts for free, but college transcripts sometimes require a fee.
- Letters of Recommendation: Some colleges ask you to submit one or more letters of recommendation as part of your application. The letter should preferably come from a teacher, school counselor, or another faculty member. You may also ask an employer or community leader for a recommendation. As a courtesy, ask your recommenders at least four weeks in advance of the application deadline.
- Test Scores: Colleges typically require you to submit scores from the SAT or ACT. You should take one or both of these tests the spring or summer before your senior year of high school. Most colleges do not have a minimum SAT or ACT requirement, but they do usually provide the average score of admitted students.
- Application Fee: Application fees typically range from $40 to $60. Ivy League and other top schools, however, sometimes charge upwards of $75, according to U.S. News and World Report. Some schools offer fee waivers for students with financial need.
What Else Can I Expect From a Bachelor's in Legal Studies Program?
Legal studies bachelor's programs offer a diverse selection of classes and, sometimes, concentrations. Specific requirements vary from program to program, but you can generally expect to take at least five core courses in your major. Learn more below about common legal studies concentrations and courses, including how they help prepare you for legal careers.
|Paralegal||Several legal studies programs offer a paralegal concentration. The concentration may include courses in subjects like criminal law, litigation, legal technology, and administrative law. Some programs with this concentration also give you the opportunity to simultaneously earn certification from a professional paralegal association.||Paralegal, legal assistant|
|Pre-Law||Pre-law concentrations are useful if you are interested in applying to law school after earning your legal studies degree. Pre-law classes give you a foundational education in law. Your professors and advisors can help you apply to law schools and prepare for the LSAT.||Lawyer, law enforcement|
|Criminal Justice||A specialization in criminal justice can prepare you for law enforcement careers and other jobs involving criminal law, or for further studies in related areas like criminology. Courses may cover topics like criminal law, juvenile delinquency, and the effects of crime on society.||Law enforcement, criminal law paralegal|
|Environmental Law/Sustainability Studies||If you are passionate about environmental conservation, a legal studies program concentration in environmental law or sustainably studies may appeal to your professional goals. Students study sustainable practices in the workplace, environmental technology, and environmental policies.||Nonprofit management, environmental lawyer, environmental advocate|
|Business Law||Aspiring lawyers interested in legal issues in business may benefit from a legal studies program with a business law concentration. Students learn about contracts, estates and trusts, and employment law.||Real estate, corporate, or labor lawyer|
Courses in a Bachelor's in Legal Studies Program
Each program will have its own required curriculum, but many schools offer similar courses. For instance, almost every legal studies degree requires you to take classes in legal writing and research. Five common courses and their descriptions are listed below.
- Introduction to Law
Many legal studies programs begin with an introductory course that examines the U.S. legal system, legal ethics, legal reasoning, and legal and paralegal professions. This course previews what the rest of a legal studies program will teach you and is applicable to every legal or law enforcement career.
- Legal Writing
Every lawyer and paralegal must prepare legal documents using proper format and writing style. Legal writing courses teach you to draft and cite official documents for clients, including the technical terminology used in legal documents.
In this course, you explore the trial process, including motions and pleadings, discovery methods, and appellate procedure. Some programs teach civil litigation and criminal litigation separately, while others combine the two into one course.
- Legal Research
Just as lawyers and paralegals must know how to draft legal documents, they also need to know how to conduct legal research. This class teaches you the fundamentals of legal research, including locating and analyzing legal references, validating findings, and using documents to build persuasive arguments.
- Interviewing and Investigation
In this course, you learn to gather information from public and private sources through records and interviews. You study questioning tactics and record-keeping. Effective interviewing and investigation skills are essential for lawyers, paralegals, law enforcement officials, and law clerks.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Bachelor's in Legal Studies?
Like most bachelor's programs, a bachelor's degree in legal studies typically requires 120 credits. About 40 of those credits are core courses and electives in the legal studies major. For a full-time student, completing 120 credits usually takes four years: the bulk of general education and introductory courses are completed in your first and second years, while your third and fourth years are filled with advanced legal studies classes.
It may take longer to graduate if you attend a program part time or are otherwise unable to complete 30 credits each year. However, you may be able to graduate more quickly if you take extra credits, summer courses, or enroll in an accelerated legal studies program. Accelerated programs are more common for online degrees.
How Much Is a Bachelor's in Legal Studies?
It's important to prepare for all the costs that may be associated with earning a legal studies degree. For the 2015-16 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education estimated the average annual cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board was $17,000 at public schools, $43,000 at private, nonprofit schools, and $24,000 at private, for-profit schools.
Tuition for legal studies programs vary by school, but per-credit costs tend to range from $300 to $1,000. Many factors affect the cost of a legal studies degree, including the college's prestige and location, whether you attend an in-state or out-of-state school, or whether you attend online or in-person. In-state tuition is generally more affordable than out-of-state tuition.
Likewise, online programs are sometimes cheaper than in-person programs. Beyond tuition, consider additional costs like books, housing, and fees. Typically, online students pay fewer fees than on-campus students because their enrollment doesn't allow them access to amenities like health services or recreational centers.
Certifications and Licenses a Bachelor's in Legal Studies Prepares For
- Certified Paralegal
The National Association of Legal Assistants offers the voluntary certified paralegal program. Candidates must meet one of the following requirements: hold a high school diploma with seven years of paralegal experience, have a bachelor's degree in any field with one year of paralegal experience, or have graduated from a paralegal program. Candidates must pass an exam to earn the credential.
- Accredited Legal Professional
NALS, the association for legal professionals grants accredited legal professionals certification to students and entry-level professionals in the legal industry. Some legal studies programs use the NALS certification exam as a final exam. The test is four hours and has three parts. Eligible applicants must have completed an accredited business or legal course, taken a NALS legal training course, or have one year of general office experience.
- American Alliance Certified Paralegal
This certification is only available to American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. members. Applicants need at least five years of paralegal experience and a bachelor's or advanced degree in any field or an associate degree or certificate in paralegal studies from an ABA-approved program or a program that is a voting member of the American Association for Paralegal Education.
- Registered Professional Reporter
The National Court Reporters Association's registered professional reporter certification is for entry-level court reporters, students, and reporters who need a license requirement. According to the BLS, about 50% of states accept or use this certification in lieu of a state certification or licensing exam. Candidates must pass a typing test and a written test on technology, reporting practices, and professional practices.
- CORE Registered Paralegal
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. administers the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam for professionals seeking paralegal certification. The exam is designed to test entry-level paralegals' knowledge, skills, and abilities. Applicants must meet one of several eligibility criteria, including holding a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies or holding a bachelor's degree in any subject in addition to a paralegal certificate.
Resources for Legal Studies Students
The American Bar Association has a career center website dedicated to career advice and resources. It also includes a job board that allows users to search for available attorney, legal education, and professional legal management positions.
The American Association for Paralegal Education's mission is to promote quality paralegal and legal studies education. Its website includes a paralegal education section for students to find, evaluate, and choose high-quality paralegal programs, and the organization offers an annual conference for members.
The Harvard Law School Library publishes a comprehensive online guide of free online legal research resources. The guide includes links to resources for primary federal law, primary state law, treaties, foreign and international trade, secondary sources, and empirical sources.
For People of Color is a nonprofit organization that provides free law school admissions consulting services to people of color who are considering applying to law school. Its website includes resources for prospective law students, including a list of pre-law programs.
Legal Information Institute
Based out of the Cornell Law School, the Legal Information Institute is a nonprofit group that publishes free electronic versions of legal materials, including the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions. Its website also includes an extensive legal encyclopedia.
Professional Organizations in Legal Studies
Professional associations present networking opportunities with your legal industry peers. Many associations host conferences and some even run mentorship programs that allow you to directly learn from legal professionals. Professional groups can also help you land a job after graduation via online job boards and career centers. Several also offer continuing education resources, like webinars and certification programs.
The National Association of Legal Assistants is a nonprofit association that provides paralegals with continuing education and professional development programs. Members gain access to the organization's online career center, webinars, self-study courses, and annual conference.
The National Court Reporters Association offers student members several benefits, including scholarships, grants, a newsletter, and a virtual mentor program. It also offers members access to an online job board, continuing education courses, and an annual conference.
NALS...the association for legal professionals, once exclusively for legal secretaries, serves all legal professionals, and more than half its members are legal assistants and paralegals. The organization's website includes an online career center, webinars, and a list of academic institutions accredited by NALS or the American Bar Association.
A nonprofit organization, the Association of Legal Administrators boasts membership from professionals in a variety of legal careers, including management and support staff like law clerks and paralegals. The organization hosts national and regional conferences and releases webinars and podcasts.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations was the country's first national paralegal association. It represents member associations and individual members. The group offers scholarships for paralegal students, provides professional development guidance, and hosts an annual convention and policy meeting.