Online Paralegal Programs: Options, Specializations and Certifications

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The role of the paralegal – also referred to as legal assistant – is designed to assist lawyers through a variety of supportive legal services. As trained professionals, paralegals can handle a majority of similar functions as attorneys, except those unauthorized by legal statutes, such as setting legal fees, providing legal advice to clients, representing clients in courts, or accepting clients. On the other hand, as legal practitioners, paralegals have a depth of knowledge of the legal system and its various components, which allows them to pursue employment both within and outside of the law office, in corporate and government organizations, as independent contractors and more.

The following page provides prospective students with an overview of the online paralegal degree, including degree types, specializations and curriculum, as well as an interview with a corporate paralegal with years of experience.

Paralegal Education: Moving from the Campus to Online

During the past 30 years, paralegal training has undergone a significant evolution, according to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. During that time, paralegal evolution has moved from the traditional on-campus, brick-and-mortar institution to virtual instruction through online and hybrid degree and certificate programs. Prospective paralegals now have a greater selection of educational options as community colleges, public and private universities and proprietary schools (e.g., vocational) have launched new degree and certificate programs.

Because of the lack of uniformity, paralegal education programs fall into one of several category types, including the following:

  • Certificate: Typically three to 18 months in length; available from community colleges and proprietary educational institutions.
  • Associate: Two-year programs offered by community colleges.
  • Bachelor’s: Four-year programs with a major in paralegal studies from public and private universities.
  • Post-Bachelor’s Certificate: Generally lasting between three and 12 months of study; provided by community colleges, public and private universities, and proprietary schools.

The Varying Paths to an Online Paralegal Degree

No single educational path exists for paralegals; however, according to O*Net, 30 percent of paralegals have an associate degree and 44 percent possess a bachelor’s degree. In turn, students may follow one of several academic avenues for employment in the paralegal profession. Below is a description of the common paralegal training options: certificate, associate, bachelor’s and post-graduate certificate.

Certificate

The paralegal certificate is designed to be completed in as little as six months of full-time study, but depending on a student’s course load, may take up to 18 months to finish. Online certificate programs allow students to complete their education at their own pace, developing the skills and knowledge required to pursue employment as a practicing paralegal. Curriculum is split between foundation subjects such as contracts, torts, legal research and writing and ethics, and electives such as employment law, criminal law, or administrative law. Depending on the institution, credits earned in a certificate program may be applied to future associate or bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies.

Associate

The Associate of Arts and Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies are two options for potential future paralegals. These programs offer students the opportunity to complete professional training through a self-paced, online format. Designed to be completed in approximately two years of study, the associate degree requires approximately 60 semester credit hours to graduate. Curriculum is divided between general education courses, such as mathematics, science, English and the humanities, and core courses in paralegal studies. Topics of study may include the following:

  • Legal terminology and writing
  • Research, investigations and interviews
  • Paralegal ethics
  • Business law
  • Criminal litigation

Graduates of online associate programs are eligible to take the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) certification examinations.

Explore Associate’s Degree programs for Paralegal search programs >>
Liberty University
  • Enrollment: 63,128
  • Tuition: $19,968
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Virginia
  • Associates of Arts in Paralegal Studies
Indiana Wesleyan University
  • Enrollment: 15,890
  • Tuition: $23,164
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Indiana
  • Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies

Bachelor’s

The Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies provides students with a well-rounded, comprehensive education. These programs are designed to be completed in approximately four years of study and can be completed entirely through online coursework. Curriculum of the bachelor’s degree is split between general education and liberal arts course and specialized paralegal studies that cover the major multidisciplinary areas of law, including criminal, administrative, procedural and civil law. In these programs, students develop industry-specific knowledge about and technical skills in legal service delivery and legal research and writing. Subject areas of study may include the following:

  • Legal research writing
  • Legal ethics
  • Litigation
  • Bankruptcy law
  • Law office management

Upon graduation, students with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies are typically eligible to sit for certification examinations from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).

Explore Bachelor’s Degree programs for Paralegal search programs >>
Liberty University
  • Enrollment: 63,128
  • Tuition: $19,968
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Virginia
  • Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies
Mississippi College
  • Enrollment: 3,391
  • Tuition: $14,430
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Mississippi
  • Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies

Post-Graduate Certificate

For students with an associate or bachelor’s degree (in any field) seeking to enter the paralegal profession, the post-graduate certificate in paralegal studies is an option. The online programs are geared towards working professionals, designed to be completed in a self-paced format through online coursework. Curriculum is distributed between paralegal fundamentals, such as ethics, litigation, legal forms, legal research and writing, as well as electives that allow students to customize their program of study. Topics of study may include:

  • Ethics for the legal professional
  • Family law
  • Rules of evidence
  • Dispute resolution
  • Employment law

Online Paralegal Degree Specializations

According to the National Association of Legal Assistants, paralegals may handle a spectrum of responsibilities under the supervision of a practicing attorney or lawyer. Example tasks include summarizing legal dispositions, conducting client interviews, drafting legal correspondence, performing legal research and attending hearings and trials. A paralegal career requires specialized training, which means individuals considering a career in the field should evaluate their educational options prior to enrolling in a program.

Paralegals may choose to specialize in a specific area of law – both through their educational program and on-the-job experience. Some paralegal programs may focus forces in a single specialty area of study, while others may offer a selection of specialization options. Depending on the program, students may be required to complete multiple courses of study in a specialized topics. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations recommends students complete at least 24 semester hours of study in specialty coursework and the American Association for Paralegal Education requires students complete a minimum of 18 semester hours for membership.

The area of concentrations are varied, ranging from construction to immigration, public benefits to employment benefits. Below is a list of 10 common specializations, according to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations:

  • Administrative Law
  • Asbestos Litigation
  • Collections
  • Bankruptcy and Debt Collection
  • Domestic Relations/Family Law
  • Environmental Law
  • Foreclosure
  • Litigation
  • Personal Injury
  • Probate and Estate Administration

Key Elements of an Online Paralegal Degree Program

Prospective students may hear the terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” used to describe a similar set of roles and responsibilities. Neither the American Bar Association nor National Association of Legal Assistants recognize a difference between the two terms. They may be used interchangeably and the only difference in use is geographically – some areas may prefer “legal assistant” while others may use “paralegal.” Ultimately, both legal assistants and paralegals receive the same education required to provide legal assistance under the supervision of an attorney.

Improving the professional standing, knowledge and skills of their students are three of the major goals of today’s paralegal education programs. However, finding a program that not only supports those goals, but fits the personal and professional needs of its students is imperative. Prospective students should seek out not only programs with a firm reputation, but in the larger legal industry as well. The National Federation of Paralegal Association offers suggestions for evaluating the quality of a paralegal training program, including the following:

  • American Bar Association (ABA) Approval(CPC). ABA approval is a voluntary decision on the part of the institution. ABA approval indicates the paralegal training program meets and adheres to the educational guidelines set forth by the ABA and are indicators of the quality and value of the program.
  • AAFPE Membership. Membership in the American Association for Paralegal Association reflects the institution’s commitment to quality and maintaining up-to-date curriculum that responds to legal developments and trends.
  • Faculty Composition. Students should review both the mix (academic vs. professional) and qualifications of faculty members for a prospective program. The NFPA recommends students look for programs with faculty that includes experienced attorneys and legal assistants.
  • Curriculum. Curriculum is not to be overlooked as students should check if the program includes both conceptual, theory-based courses and application, practice-based classes. Students should have an understanding of the number of legal courses required and the type of electives the program offers.
  • Student Services. For students completing a paralegal degree online, student services are just as important as the campus-based learner. Students should review the available student services, including tutoring, technology support and financial aid.
  • Field-Based Experience. Students should ask if the online paralegal degree includes experiential education in the form of a residency, observation or internship.
  • Career Placement Record. Students should also review the job placement record of the program to see where graduates find employment, the types of paralegal assistant positions they secure and the types of law firms and organizations employing the school’s graduates.

Paralegal Certifications and Credentials

Although the overall profession is not regulated, paralegals do have professional certification opportunities through organizations such as the National Federation for Paralegal Associations and the National Association of Legal Assistants. In addition, some states have even created state-specific examinations in partnership with paralegal associations and state bar associations. Again, certification is entirely voluntary, but provides a way for entry-level and advanced paralegals to enhance their professional skills.

NFPA Certifications. The NFPA offers two certification examinations: PACE and PCCE.

  • Paralegal Competency Examination (PACE). Created in 1996, successful passing of the PACE examination allows paralegals the right to use the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation.
  • Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE). Launched in 2011, paralegals who successfully complete the exam can use the CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) designation.

NALA Credentials. The National Association for Legal Assistants offers certified and advanced legal assistant credentialing programs. A 2014 report from NALA showed there are more than 18,000 Certified Paralegals and 3,200 Advanced Certified Paralegals in the United States.

  • Certified Paralegal/Legal Assistant. The Certified Paralegal (CP) and Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) programs are recognized as national professional standards for paralegals.
  • Advanced Certified Paralegal. Through course-based instruction (approximately 20 hours each), students can complete advanced certification programs in 17 subject areas, including Contracts Management, Land Use, Family Law and E-Discovery.

Paralegal Associations

The paralegal and legal assistant fields are expansive and include a collection of professional associations and organizations:

Interview with Leslie Adams, Corporate Paralegal

What is your current role?

I am currently the Corporate Paralegal with General Cable Corporation, a Fortune 500 wire and cable manufacturer and distributor.

Why did you choose to pursue a paralegal career?

I guess you can say that I found the profession by accident. I began investigating possible careers while in high school in the late 1980s. I was interested in the legal field, but did not want to be an attorney. Being an introvert, I am not someone who wants to be out front and knew that I would much rather be “Della Street” than “Perry Mason.” When I met with my high school counselor, I asked for information on court reporting because that was the only other profession in the legal field of which I was aware. She didn’t have information on court reporting, but did have information on paralegals. After researching the profession, I realized that this was exactly what I was looking for in that it allowed me to be actively involved in the legal profession while working closely with an attorney but would not put me on the front line.

Where did you get your degree and why did you choose that program?

I received my paralegal training at Midway College* which, at the time, was an all-female, private college in Kentucky between Lexington and Frankfort. I chose that program because it was a small campus with small class sizes. This enabled me to have more one-on-one contact with my professors and created closer bonds with the other paralegal students. (*Midway College has since stopped offering paralegal studies.)

What’s the most challenging part of the profession?

What I find challenging about the profession is not necessarily the work, although it is important to continue to study the law and its evolution, it is more about dealing with the hectic pace of the job and dealing with challenging people. You may go into the office expecting to concentrate on one item and end up working on something entirely different. Time management, organization and the ability to be flexible is a must. You need to be able to quickly re-prioritize your tasks without missing any deadlines. It can also be difficult dealing with challenging people, but that would be true in any profession.

Paralegal Programs Degree Search Tool

Online students aspiring to work as paralegals can enter the field after completing varied levels of degrees, meaning they should research the opportunities available with each before deciding on a program. Many online programs in paralegal studies exist, allowing students to find the perfect match to meet their needs. In addition to career considerations, students may also want to think about other factors such as ABA approval, cost for value, and student resources. The search tool below will take all of these considerations into account to provide a personalized list of potential schools.

Degree Level:
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Best Online Paralegal Degree for 2015-2016

Online paralegal programs are a great fit for the virtual classroom, allowing students to study at home while utilizing the latest technology in the field. Quality paralegal programs have instructors who possess real-world experience in the industry and provide hands-on practice to students. These programs have high graduation rates and provide career assistance to graduates post-graduation. Prospective students should look for programs with American Bar Association approval, high return on investment and student to faculty ratio — all factors we took into account as we prepared this list of the Best Online Paralegal Programs in the country for 2015-2016. Find out who made the cut below.

RANK COLLEGE ScoreStudent-Teacher RatioFinancial AidCostMORE INFO
1 Liberty University 97.2618:195%

Liberty University offers its Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies program entirely online. Students gain competencies in various areas of law, including the foundations of law, real estate, rhetoric and contemporary worldviews. Classes are taught by practicing lawyers, who teach students from firsthand experience how to write and file a deposition and perform a title search. One thing that sets Liberty's program apart is a Christian worldview that students learn how to apply to ethical dilemmas within the field. The program requires 120-credit hours and prepares students for many careers, including as: paralegals, legal assistants, law clerks and claim adjusters.

2 North Greenville University 96.9314:1100%

Want to become a paralegal or enter the legal or criminal justice profession? Then the bachelor's degree program in criminal justice and legal studies from North Greenville University may be a good fit. The program can be completed entirely online or through a hybrid blend of online and on campus courses. It consists of courses in: ethics in criminal justice; forensic analysis, terrorism & homeland security; principles of investigations; cybercrime; judicial process; research design & analysis; and theories in criminology. The program requires 120-credit hours and teaches ethics from a Christian worldview. Instructors include criminal justice professionals and experts in courts, law enforcement and corrections.

3 SUNY College of Technology at Canton 96.8219:196%

The bachelor's degree program in legal studies from Canton State University of New York goes beyond mere theory. This program, which requires 125-127 credits, gives students the option of doing an internship, as well as features instructors who are current or prior attorneys. Students learn how to undergo legal research and legal writing, as well as various kinds of law, ranging from criminal practice to real property law. Courses range from Family Law to Professional Ethics. The program can be done completely online and prepares students for careers as: paralegals, legal assistants, contracts administrators, claims adjustors and more.

4 Hodges University 96.7314:199%

There's a lot that sets apart the associate's degree program in paralegal studies from Hodges University. For one, its emphasis on eDiscovery and eLitigation. Students will learn how to manage emails, privacy issues and electronically stored information - which is becoming increasingly important in the legal field but not often taught in schools. Another thing setting this program apart is its format. Students can take the program entirely online or on campus. Either way, they'll take both paralegal and liberal arts courses, such as Legal Research and Writing, Computer Applications, Strategic Thinking and Contracts. The program requires 60-credit hours.

5 Dominican University 96.7312:1100%

The interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts program in Legal Studies at Dominican University encourages students to analyze the American legal system from perspectives that include economics, philosophy, theology, and history. In alignment with the character and values of the university, students are required to take courses in legal ethics and general education courses in theology, mathematics, English, and other fundamental subject areas. Students that are specifically pursuing careers as paralegals can focus their studies and take courses in areas including civil litigation, real estate law, preparation for paralegal certification examinations, and preparation for law or graduate school.

6 Mississippi College 96.0515:199%

Mississippi College may be the oldest college in the state, but don't be mistaken: It keeps up with the times. This is especially apparent in its Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies program. The program can be completely entirely online: all 130 credits of it. (It can also be completed face-to-face if the student chooses.) Students in the program learn practical activities of the job today, such as how to draft legal documents and conduct legal research and analysis. Students even get an understanding of court systems and modern ethical dilemmas in the field (and how to avoid pitfalls).

7 California University of Pennsylvania 96.0122:189%

California University of Pennsylvania offers a Bachelor of Art degree in Jurisprudence with a concentration in Legal Studies. This program is specifically designed for students who have already earned an associate's degree or have at least 40 credit hours worth of completed undergraduate coursework. Students can begin their studies at the start of any semester. Subject areas of courses include: legal reasoning, legal research, litigation, criminal law, and family law. After completing core requirements, students can select coursework to best fit their future academic and professional goals. The program accommodates the lifestyle of distance education students who are balancing family and career with their educational pursuits.

8 William Woods University 95.8710:1100%

It's not "every man for himself" in the online Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies program at William Woods University. The school boasts collaboration and networking in this entirely-online program. Students also complete an internship, clinical work or practicum, for some hands-on or real-world experience. In addition to that, students study substantive and procedural law, legal interviewing and investigation, law-related computer skills, legal services delivery, legal writing and much more. Graduates go off into various careers, including paralegals, deputy court clerks, legal administrators, administrative assistants, risk management officers, compliance officers and much more. Success truly starts here!

9 Bellevue University 94.7733:1100%

The Legal Studies Degree at Bellevue University prepares its graduates for continuing higher education or immediate employment in the public or private sector by teaching them to conceptualize and develop ideas from logical and creative standpoints. The program curriculum is broad based and incorporates political science, public administration, economics, management, finance, and accounting. The university encourages real life, field-related experiences with visits to law schools, civic meetings, and shareholder meetings. Lectures often include guests such as federal judges, legal professionals, congressmen, legislators, lobbyists, and corporate executives. Bellevue University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission.

10 Southern New Hampshire University 93.8626:194%

Completely online, students can earn a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice in Legal Studies & Advocacy from Southern New Hampshire University. The program covers a wide variety of topics, including criminal law, psychology, victim advocacy and support and American politics. Courses in this 120-credit program range from Victim and the Justice System to Forensic Psychology. Students even take 24 credits of free electives, which enable them to specialize even further within the field or follow whatever interests them outside of the field. Graduates of the program have gone into careers in human services, victims rights and in child and family services.

11 University of Maryland-University College 93.8417:177%

Whether going off to law school or preparing for a career in the legal field, a bachelor's degree program in legal studies from the University of Maryland University College could be perfect preparation. The completely-online program teaches students how to apply statutes to legal cases, conduct legal analysis, assess fact patterns, perform legal research and review and produce legal documents and forms. The program requires 120-credit hours, in courses ranging from Contract Law to Business Administration. Students are also able to take electives in any academic discipline, ensuring they pursue subjects that interest them and receive a well-rounded education.

12 Brandman University 91.9314:1 N/A

The Bachelor of Arts Degree from Brandman University focuses on teaching students the skills they need to use research strategies, develop critical thinking, and strengthen argumentation abilities for a career in a variety of legal fields. Courses focus on subject matter that includes forensic psychology, correctional systems, diversity, conflict resolution, and community corrections. Courses are offered in 8 week terms, six times per year, allowing students to work efficiently toward their degree completion. A minimum of 120 credit hours must be completed to be considered for graduation from the program. The university also offers a minor in legal studies of 18 credit hours.