Paralegals provide both administrative and legal support to lawyers. For example, they may organize files, interview potential clients, and draft correspondence. They may also conduct legal research, gather evidence, and prepare legal documents. Most law firms prefer to hire candidates with either an associate degree or a postsecondary certificate in legal studies, though a bachelor's may give you a competitive edge when applying for more senior-level paralegal positions.
Associate programs generally consist of 60 credits, and full-time students typically earn their degree in just two years. In addition to general education coursework in subjects like English composition and the humanities, students explore topics like legal writing, civil practice, and the fundamentals of criminal practice and procedures. Many students also complete an internship with a law firm or legal office in their community.
This page provides an overview of online associate programs in paralegal studies, including additional information on curricula and some of the most common requirements for admission.
Our ranking of the top paralegal schools in the country will help you find the program that best suits your academic interests and professional goals.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals support the work of attorneys in many ways. Some, for instance, play a key role in discovery, or the pretrial process of gathering evidence through depositions, subpoenas, and other methods. Others perform more administrative duties, such as maintaining client databases, taking notes during trial, or scheduling meetings with witnesses and other lawyers. Experienced paralegals may also supervise the work of more junior legal assistants.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for paralegals and legal assistants will increase by 12% from 2018 to 2028, outpacing the average rate of growth for the rest of the economy. In 2018, paralegals earned a median salary of $50,940, which is $12,300 more than the median pay for all other occupations.
While most paralegals work for law firms, legal departments, or government agencies, they can also find employment at nonprofit legal aid organizations and financial or insurance companies. Many paralegals choose to continue their education in order to become arbitrators, mediators, and even lawyers.
With information on educational requirements, earning potential, and job growth, our career guide will help you better understand the professional opportunities available in the field of legal studies.
What to Expect From a Paralegal Program
Most paralegal associate programs require two years of full-time study and provide basic instruction in subjects like legal research, estate administration and probate practice, and business law. Other factors, such as tuition rates, the availability of certain concentrations and coursework, and specific admission requirements, may vary from school to school.
Association paralegal programs equip their students with the skills needed to provide administrative, research, writing, and evidence-gathering assistance to lawyers. They also help students develop a fundamental understanding of the law and legal practices. Along with major-specific coursework, you also need to take general education classes in subjects like math and the natural sciences.
- Introduction to Law for Paralegals
- This course introduces students to the legal system and the paralegal profession. It also lays the groundwork for more advanced studies in areas like research, analysis, and ethics.
- Students in this course learn the procedures for gathering evidence and preparing materials in advance of civil litigation, such as a divorce proceeding or a defamation-of-character lawsuit.
- Criminal Law and Procedure for the Paralegal
- In this class, students learn about the procedures associated with criminal cases. Topics covered include the nature of criminal liability, self-incrimination, search and seizure, and common defense strategies.
- Legal Research and Writing
- Paralegals need strong research and writing skills to succeed in their careers. This course teaches students how to review legal materials, use legal databases, and write both persuasively and concisely.
- Legal Ethics
- Ethics play an integral role in the work of all legal professionals. In this class, students explore subjects like appropriate marketing techniques and the nature of attorney-client privilege.
How to Choose a Paralegal Program
It's important to think carefully about where you earn your paralegal degree. For example, if you hope to work for a firm that specializes in real estate law, you should try to find a program that offers coursework or a formal concentration in that area. Remember to also consider factors like cost, accreditation, and the availability of online offerings.
- Community colleges tend to charge lower tuition than private schools, especially if you qualify for an in-state rate. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, the average cost of one year of tuition, fees, and room and board at a public two-year institution was $10,598 in 2017. Public colleges may also provide more generous financial aid opportunities.
- Degree Length
- Most associate programs require two years of full-time study, though part-time students may need up to four years to earn their degree. Some online programs may also allow learners to advance through their coursework at their own pace, meaning you can potentially graduate even sooner.
- To ensure that their paralegals have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed, most organizations prefer to hire candidates who have earned an associate degree or postsecondary certificate through a program that holds accreditation from the American Bar Association. You can search a directory of ABA-approved paralegal programs here.
Paralegal Program Admissions
Paralegal programs, especially those offered at community colleges, tend to have more relaxed admission standards in order to encourage more students to continue their education. Private colleges, however, may require applicants to have a high school diploma or meet other standards to be admitted. You can read more about common admission requirements for paralegal programs below.
- High School Diploma or GED: While you typically need to hold either a high school diploma or GED to apply to paralegal programs at private institutions, most public community colleges do not share this requirement. Instead, you may need to take a placement test that assesses your readiness to begin studying at the postsecondary level. Students who do not pass this test may need to take remedial courses prior to formally enrolling in a program.
- Minimum GPA: Again, while public two-year colleges do not typically set a minimum GPA for prospective students, private schools may require applicants to maintain at least a 2.0 during high school. If you have a lower GPA, you may be able to receive an offer of conditional admission on the strength of your other application materials, such as letters of reference or work experience.
- Placement Test: Many colleges require applicants to take some form of entrance exam or placement test. For example, many schools use the ACCUPLACER, an exam administered by the College Board, to assess potential students' reading, writing, and mathematics skills. These online exams are typically multiple-choice, though some colleges may request that candidates also complete an essay test.
The first step in the admissions process is completing an application. Many colleges and universities now use the Common Application, though some institutions may still require you to complete their specific application form. Community colleges generally tend not to have firm application deadlines, though you should aim to apply by January if you hope to attend classes in the fall.
Most colleges require applicants to submit copies of their high school or GED transcripts. To get official copies of these records, contact your high school guidance counselor or GED provider directly. Prospective students who do not hold either a diploma or GED may instead need to take a placement exam to qualify for admission.
- Placement Exam Results
Placement exams like the ACCUPLACER or COMPASS help determine your readiness to begin college. These tests are online and computer-adaptive, meaning how you answer a question determines the type of question you receive next. Contact your college directly to learn what type of exam you must take and the deadline for submitting results.