Paralegals must be able to perform various tasks that pertain to helping lawyers prepare for hearings, trials, and meetings. In most cases the specific duties of each paralegal will vary based on job experience and the size of the law firm he or she works at. Smaller firms typically require paralegals have additional duties, while in larger organizations paralegals may focus their skills on a specific area. Regardless of the size of the organization they work in, paralegals must be able to prepare written reports that help lawyers determine how to handle their cases. Paralegals must also be able to prepare legal arguments and draft documents to be filed with the court.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most paralegal professions fall into one of two categories: corporate or litigation. Corporate paralegals help lawyers prepare employee contracts, shareholder agreements, stock-option plans, and annual financial reports. Litigation paralegals maintain documents received from clients, conduct research for lawyers, and retrieve and organize evidence used in depositions and trials. The best online colleges for paralegal studies require students to complete a rigorous curriculum that is directly based on that of one offered at a traditional college. Some of these programs also require the student to complete an internship or work-study program. The top online paralegal programs are approved by the American Bar Association.
Paralegal Course Work Basics
Most online colleges for paralegal studies offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. The most common degree offered is an associate degree in paralegal studies. These associate degree programs require students to complete general education requirements that include English, composition, speech, and social and life sciences. After students finish these courses, they must enroll in paralegal-specific courses that provide an introduction into legal practices in the U.S., how to conduct legal research and writing, and various areas of law such as family, criminal, and business law practices.
While not as common, students can pursue an online paralegal studies bachelor's degree. These programs are similar to associate degree programs in terms of the types of courses required. However, bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies have more stringent basic-level courses and additional major-level courses dealing with more advanced legal issues. Most online bachelor's degrees in paralegal studies require students to pick an area of emphasis, including business, real estate, criminal law, and others. The best online colleges for paralegal studies also require students to complete an internship or work study program before graduating.
- Legal Research and Writing: This courses teaches students techniques for legal research and how it applies to specific legal problems. Students then learn how to translate this information into a formal written document.
- Real Estate/Bankruptcy Practice: Students develop paralegal skills for the practice and procedure of real estate transactions, title searches, title insurance, loan closings, leases, wills, foreclosures, and bankruptcy.
- Litigation – Evidence to Discovery: In this course students learn about procedural aspects of the early stages of civil litigation including evidence and investigation, pleadings, and the discovery and disclosure process.
- Probate Practice and Procedure: This course provides students with probate practice that includes asset accumulation, debt management, court procedures, estate-related tax issues, and forms.
Online master's degree programs in paralegal studies are intended for students who already have a solid understanding of paralegal practice but who want to specialize in one specific area of law. An online paralegal master's degree program is also well suited for professionals seeking to build on existing skills. The top online colleges for master's degrees in paralegal studies are affiliated with a law school and usually offer courses taught by existing law school staff. These programs also provide students with theoretical, philosophical, and historical perspectives on law practices while also offering practical applications of written and oral communication, analysis, ethics, and legal technology.
Careers for the Paralegal Graduate
According to the BLS, paralegals held approximately 256,000 jobs in the U.S. as of May 2010. They are employed by various types of organizations, including law firms, corporate legal departments, or government agencies. The BLS reported that 70% of the paralegal workforce is employed by private legal services companies. In most cases, a paralegal can obtain an entry-level job with an associate degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in another field along with a certificate in paralegal studies. While there is no licensing or certification required to work as a paralegal, earning a certificate can be a great way to set yourself apart from other applicants. There are a number of different certification agencies available, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants.
Paralegals and legal assistants earned a median annual salary of $46,680 in May 2010. The lowest 10% of employees in the field earned less than $29,460, while the top 10% earned more than $74,870 in May 2010. The BLS reported that employment of paralegals is expected to increase 18% from 2010 to 2020, which is about as fast as average for all occupations. Job growth in corporate sectors is expected to be particularly strong as more large corporations seek to bring their legal firms in-house rather than retaining outside counsel. Keep in mind, though, that job prospects and salaries will vary, depending on the individual.