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What is a Paralegal Degree?
Paralegal studies prepare students to perform delegated legal work under the supervision of a lawyer or a court.
The curriculum covers legal terminology and documentation, legal research, legal record keeping, investigations, court procedures, and applicable technology. Many training programs also incorporate an internship with a private law firm, a corporate legal department, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a government agency, or a legal aid organization.
Paralegal education programs exist at the certificate, associate degree, and bachelor’s degree levels. There are also post-bachelor’s certificate programs that allow individuals with a bachelor’s in a different discipline to earn the required credits and certification to work as a paralegal.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) recommends that students choose a paralegal education program that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
According to the [American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), all paralegal training programs should incorporate a hands-on learning component, such as an internship or practicum. It is not uncommon for law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments to establish partnerships with paralegal programs to offer these experiences to students. Internships also provide future paralegals with the opportunity to see if a particular specialty is the right choice for them.
Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies – Two Year Duration
The learning objectives in associate level programs are:
- Paralegal ethics and professional responsibility
- Legal research and writing
- How to conduct interviews and legal investigations
- Legal terminology and the U.S. court system
- Introduction to Paralegal Studies
- Legal Terminology and Critical Thinking
- English Composition
- Business and Technical Writing
- Real Estate Law
- Civil Litigation
- Business Law
- Computer Applications
Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs provide a more in-depth study of the law. They encompass the components of an associate’s program, but at a more advanced level. Additional courses typically include:
- Intellectual Property Law
- Comparative Law
Many Bachelor’s programs in the field allow students to choose a specialty. Paralegal specialties include:
- Bankruptcy Law
- Corporate Law
- Criminal Law
- Estate Planning & Probate
- Family Law
- Immigration Law
- Intellectual Property Law
- Labor Law
- Nurse Paralegal
- Personal Injury Law
- Real Estate Law
Regardless of whether or not they decide to specialize, paralegals generally fall into two broader categories:
Litigation Paralegals prepare and organize legal documents for trial purposes. They conduct research for their supervising attorneys and maintain client documents.
Corporate / Transactional Paralegals track and review government regulations and assist lawyers in drafting employee contracts, shareholder agreements, and stock-option plans.
Bachelor’s Degree in a non-legal field plus Certificate in Paralegal Studies – Four Year Duration plus length of certificate program (10 weeks to two years, depending on the number of courses taken simultaneously)
Students who choose this educational track may seek employment with a law firm that specializes in the area of their bachelor’s degree. For instance, working with a personal injury law firm would likely be a fit for a holder of a nursing or health administration degree.
Degrees Similar to Paralegal
Administrative assisting education programs train students to work in office support roles such as executive assistant, administrative assistant, administrator, administrative services manager, or secretary.
Degree programs in criminal justice teach students about the agencies and processes that governments have created to control crime and punish those who violate laws. At the heart of this training are the five components that make up the criminal justice system: law enforcement, prosecution, defense, courts, and corrections.
A law degree prepares students to work as lawyers. This, of course, is a natural option for anyone who first considers learning to become a paralegal, a role which is so closely connected to that of a lawyer.
Education programs in legal administration train students in law office procedures. Coursework includes legal terminology, documentation, bookkeeping, client billing, and software applications in the areas of wills and estates, family law, litigation, and corporate law.
Degree and certificate programs in legal research are targeted at individuals who wish to work as researchers in the legal field. The curriculum focuses on topics like case law, legal databases, primary versus secondary resources, print versus online research, and the research and writing process.
Pre-law programs prepare students for further studies in law school.
Skills You’ll Learn
The role of paralegals requires that they frequently interact with their supervising attorneys, clients, legal experts, vendors, witnesses, court reporters, opposing counsel, and other parties. Almost every aspect of their work calls for effective communication skills. They are the essential liaison between the many parties involved in legal proceedings.
Concise and persuasive writing is integral to the paralegal role. Litigation paralegals draft and edit correspondence, pleadings, discovery, motions, briefs, legal memorandums, and other documents. Transactional paralegals write resolutions, agreements, and contracts. In simple terms, a good paralegal is a good writer.
Research and Investigation
Research, of course, is fundamental to an effective law practice. The ability to conduct Internet research and effectively use legal research databases is central to the work of paralegals, who are commonly charged with analyzing case facts and citing legal authority. Closely aligned to research skills are investigative skills, which paralegals apply to their work uncovering medical records and evidence and finding documents and witnesses.
The technology skills required by paralegals are wide-ranging. They must be familiar with and comfortable using word processing, spreadsheets, telecommunications, databases, and legal research software.
Litigation and legal transactions generate vast amounts of documents and data. It is the responsibility of the paralegal to categorize, manipulate, and organize all of this information.
Consider the many tasks that can make up a day in the life of a paralegal: Handle several tasks concerning multiple cases led by multiple supervising lawyers. Interview a witness. Communicate with a client. Learn a new database. Train a co-worker. Research a legal issue. These diverse duties can only be managed by someone who is an accomplished multitasker.
The very name of this profession speaks to its collaborative nature. The prefix ‘para’ means ‘beside.’ Paralegals work beside other legal professionals; not independently of them. Their responsibilities require that they consistently communicate, liaise, and collaborate not only with supervising lawyers, but also with partners, associates, fellow paralegals, legal secretaries; and outside parties including clients, opposing counsel, and experts from various professional arenas.
Attention to Detail
For paralegals, attention to detail is paramount. Mistakes in citation (verifying legal authority in briefs and memos), title searches, exhibit numbering, and other inaccuracies can seriously impact a legal proceeding or result in the loss of case or even a malpractice suit. Quite simply, there is no room for error in managing legal documentation, tracking filing deadlines, and working with court scheduling.
What Can You Do with a Paralegal Degree?
The job market for paralegals extends well beyond law firms. Employment opportunities exist with:
- private law firms
- insurance companies
- real estate firms
- legal departments of corporations in a variety of business sectors
- professional trade organizations
- state and federal government agencies
- consumer organizations
- public defenders’ offices
- prosecutors’ offices
- community legal services programs
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