With so many online and traditional higher education options available to prospective paralegal students, it is important to decide which one is right for you. Associate, bachelors, or master’s paralegal degree programs will prepare you for a career in the paralegal field. Your educational path depends on what the college or university offers, and what you would like to achieve in your career.
To help you weigh your options carefully, we have created this checklist to ensure you are on the right path to achieving your goals.
- Accreditation: Before enrolling in a program, make sure the institution is accredited. Why? Accreditation ensures that the institution has met strict standards with regard to degree programs, faculty, administration, student support and services. It also ensures that courses taken and degrees earned by an accredited institution will be accepted by other accredited institutions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. If a school is not accredited, you cannot receive any federal financial aid and employers may not accept your qualifications. Most schools mention their accreditation on their website. If you can’t find any mention of an accreditation, you can check out the American Bar Association (ABA) for a directory of approved paralegal education programs.
- Program Length: The length of the program will depend on the level of education you decide to pursue. If you enroll in an associate’s degree program, the program should contain at least 18 semester hours of skills-based paralegal training. You can also earn a bachelor of science degree in legal studies, which often takes about three or four years to complete. A bachelor’s degree goes beyond what is taught at the associate level, and provides the opportunity for you to learn more about the many different types of law. A master of science degree in paralegal studies can take an additional one or two years to complete. This is a great option for those who wish to take their education to the next level for varied career opportunities and greater earning potential.
- Cost of Tuition: Tuition varies according to course load, degree level, delivery program (online or traditional), and program length. Check with the school’s financial department before applying to see if they offer any scholarships for incoming students. When comparing tuition fees, it is important to consider what services are available through the schools and what you will get in return for your investment of time, money, and hard work. For online students, tuition often includes online classroom access, email and telephone support during your program, online tools to enable you to interact with your peers, paralegal software applications, and access to an online career and employment center.
- Internship or Externship Opportunities: Both externships and internships allow students to gain practical experience in their area of interest. When researching schools, find out if they have a career services center or if their paralegal program offers on-the-job experience opportunities as part of the curriculum. Some schools may refer to on-the-job-training opportunities as apprenticeships or traineeships.
- Graduation Rate and Success: If you can, find out the graduation rate and employment rate by program type. Many schools offer prospective students this information on their website. If you choose to speak to an admissions representative, make sure to ask how long it typically takes graduates to find employment.
- Class Schedules: If you need maximum scheduling flexibility, find a program that offers a class schedule that fits your needs. By speaking with an admissions representative, you can determine how classes will accommodate your schedule and if you can keep working and maintain other obligations while earning your degree. Online programs typically offer flexible scheduling options that allow for a balance of work, study, and family time.
- Program Structure and Content: Your career goals will play a big part in choosing a paralegal education program. You will want to make sure the curriculum prepares you for professional work that coincides with the current paralegal employment trends. If you are currently employed in the legal field and want to advance your career, their are “continuing education” programs that you can research that offer opportunities to learn the skills necessary to be a paralegal supervisor or manager. If this is your first career, you will want to find a program that teaches you about the many different areas of law and how to conduct legal research.
- Specialization: If you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree in paralegal studies, you may want to consider a program that offers an opportunity to specialize in a particular area of law. For example, you can work for attorneys who specialize in banking, adoption, business litigation, and commercial real estate, to name a few. Other areas that you can specialize in are family, corporate, immigration law, and more. Look for a program that provides the classes or training you will need to work in your desired area of law. Many law firms now specialize in a particular subset of the law so in order to make yourself a stronger candidate, verify the school you choose offers additional courses in a specific legal topic.
- Legal or Law Library: Having access to a legal or law library is essential, since it will be your biggest asset to your studies and professional development. Most schools have a physical library and/or an online library with a paralegal database available to students enrolled in their program. Legal libraries are full of useful information, like these 25 essential paralegal reference books, that help students understand legal terminology and practices.
- The Heart Factor: The most important factor to consider when choosing a paralegal education program is the heart factor. Is the program structured to meet your needs, allowing you to pursue your career goals to the fullest? Do you feel as if you have researched the program thoroughly enough to enroll and complete the program? By doing your research, you will know if you have made the right decision.
The above checklist is to help you make a smart decision about your education. As tuition rates continue to rise, you want to make sure you enroll in a program that will prepare for the workforce and work well with your schedule. Whether you choose an online or campus-based degree program, you need to fully commit to investing the time and effort necessary to finding the right institution.