According to the American Bar Association, a “legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity, and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
There are more than 1,000 programs nationwide for individuals seeking to become a paralegal. Many individuals seek a four-year degree in some type of legal studies. Others opt for a much shorter, less costly certificate program.
How can there be such a discrepancy? Why is there a range in acceptable educational backgrounds for working paralegals? Let's take a look at some of the ways to work in the legal field.
“Proof of Education” is an Important Distinction
In Texas, a law firm attorney may bill a client for a paralegal’s hours worked on the client’s case. Understanding this key issue helps explain why programs such as PDI’s Paralegal Certificate Program can be a valuable addition to the law firm employee seeking to advance, or to someone seeking to enter the legal field in an administrative or attorney-supportive role.
For some quick background on this issue, an attorney is allowed to bill the paralegal’s time based on a Supreme Court decision in Missouri v. Jenkins. This was further clarified in Texas in Gill Savings Association v International Supply Co. Inc. where the paralegal (or legal assistant) “is qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work”.
Certificate? Bachelor's Degree? Associate's Degree? So Many Options!!!
In law offices across the country, you will find paralegals and legal assistants working who have various levels of education and training. Paralegals, and legal assistants (interchangeable terms), are trained to assist lawyers. Paralegals do not practice law on their own, but they are integral to the success of a busy office. Because these important professionals are trained to assisted licensed attornies, the educational requirements revolve around being able to prove to the court that the working paralegal assigned to any client or case has a rich background in legal terms and issues. Here are some options to consider.
When earning an undergraduate degree, participants study legal research and legal writing as well as courses in basic academic subjects like English, science and math.
According to collegedata.com, earning a Bachelor’s degree will range from per year tuition rates of $32,000 (private college), $10,000 (state) or $23,000 (out-of-state). You will also need to factor in living expenses, transportation, study materials and other incidentals.
A quick search for four-year programs ranks some of the best schools to attend when seeking a degree in legal studies. Earning a legal studies degree will enable you to work for law firms, government agencies and corporations (as will an Associate’s degree or a Certificate program). Some who obtain a degree in legal studies go on to apply for law school.
Two of the top-ranked schools, the University of Pittsburgh and St. John’s University in New York, advise that students must earn between 120 and 126 credits in order to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. Many students complete Bachelor’s degree in about four years.
There are many colleges around the nation offering an Associate’s degree in legal studies. These programs are offered with a blend of online and classroom programs. Like a Bachelor’s degree, students seeking an Associate’s degree will study legal topics as well as general studies like math and science.
Associate degrees can typically be earned within about two years. Like Bachelor’s degrees, tuition will depend on a variety of factors. A quick check of tuition fees for top colleges offering Associate’s degrees in legal studies range from $340 to $375 per credit hour, or $8,000 to $27,000 per year (in state vs. out of state fees.)
For both Bachelor and Associate degree options, rates and choices vary widely. Check out numerous colleges and universities to get the best idea of what a degree program will cost you.
Certificate of Completion
Finally, there are Certificate programs – an often affordable, accelerated option that gives “proof of education” for legal assistants and paralegals in an office – thus allowing their hours to be billable as they work alongside attorneys.
Prices range from $2,000 to more than $6,000. The programs range in length from two months to more than a year. Some require no formal college training, while others require an undergraduate degree.
Certificate programs focus only skills one needs in a legal environment. They are often offered in a blended format (classroom and online), or online only.
Topics include legal terminology, various types of law, legal research, the court systems, and ethics.
With So Many Options, Choose What Is Best For You
There are many options when considering a job in the legal field – and there are no wrong or right answers when it comes to the type of program that works for you. Take some time and do your research. Talk to registrars at various programs and watch the videos and online introductions to the programs. Determine what fits your budget, your schedule, and your lifestyle.
Another way to get information is to talk to professionals in the field and find out what educational background they seek when hiring paralegals.
If you are seeking a way to enter the legal field, or if you are already working in a legal office, one of the fastest ways to increase your skill set is to obtain a Certificate of Completion from a program like PDI's. To start, here’s some information about PDI’s fast-track Paralegal Certificate Program. Could this be the right program for you?