If you’re exploring a career as a paralegal, you may be wondering exactly what education you really need to get started in this career. Strictly speaking, a bachelor’s degree is not an absolute requirement for entry into the paralegal profession. You could enter this occupation with just a certificate program or an associate’s degree. However, paralegals who choose to earn a bachelor’s degree enjoy a number of benefits. If you want to maximize your earning potential, improve your career and advancement opportunities or develop greater expertise in the field of legal assisting, you should at least consider enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program.
The Paths to a Paralegal Career
The most common educational requirement for an entry-level paralegal role is an associate’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Half of paralegals report an associate’s degree as their highest level of education. However, the BLS recognizes three different educational paths into the paralegal profession – and statistically, half of the occupation is following one of these paths. In addition to the two-year associate’s degree, paralegals may come to the field from a certificate program approved by the American Bar Association or from a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
If you can become a paralegal with just a two-year degree – or even a one-year nondegree program – why should you spend twice as long (or more) pursuing a bachelor’s degree? There are certain benefits to holding a bachelor’s degree as a paralegal, including the potential for higher pay, better job prospects and greater opportunities for advancement. These benefits are so compelling that one-third of paralegals and legal assistants report having a bachelor’s degree.
Paralegal is a paraprofessional career path, which means this role involves performing some aspects of a professional service – such as legal investigation, research and document drafting – without being a fully-qualified and licensed professional, like a lawyer.
The Benefits of a Bachelor’s Degree for Paralegals
Generally speaking, a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies is more comprehensive than an associate’s degree. Students have the chance to take more advanced and specialized coursework when they devote four years of study instead of two. For paralegals who have a thirst for learning and for being the best they can be at their job, the opportunity to learn more may be reason enough to pursue a bachelor’s degree in and of itself.
Having a bachelor’s degree is likely to equate to a pay raise. The salary difference between paralegals with an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree can add up to thousands of dollars per year. In fact, while the difference between the low end of the paralegal salary range between those with and without a bachelor’s degree is just a couple thousand dollars – but at the top of the salary range, that gap rises to $10,000.
Jobs for paralegals are growing at much faster than average rates. The BLS expects opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants to increase by 12 percent over a decade, compared to just 5 percent for all occupations. In total, this should mean 39,000 new jobs for paralegals. Although job prospects in this field should be strong, candidates without a bachelor’s degree may be barred from many roles. It’s not unusual to find paralegal job listings that identify a bachelor’s degree as a preferred qualification, if not a requirement.
A bachelor’s degree may also give you more opportunities to advance your career. In larger law firms where there are numerous paralegals – or multiple departments – having a bachelor’s degree might be needed to qualify you for a role as a senior paralegal, team lead paralegal or department manager. Some paralegals start out the career to get a firsthand look at life in a law firm and decide if they want to pursue a law school degree and a career as an attorney. Since a bachelor’s degree is required for admission to law school, paralegals considering the lawyer profession often choose to pursue this four-year degree from the start. Some bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies even offer a pre-law concentration for students pursuing this path.
Bachelor’s degree programs in paralegal studies are valuable for students who want to take advantage of the perks of having a bachelor’s degree, but schools offering these programs are somewhat rare. You can also earn a bachelor’s degree in another field and a certificate.