An education is important for a paralegal, who works alongside lawyers to help them with duties like investigating and preparing cases. As a prospective student, though, you can easily get confused and even overwhelmed trying to understand the different career preparation options available. An associate’s degree is the most popular path to this career – and the education half of paralegals report having – but non-degree certification programs and bachelor’s degrees are also options, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Some paralegals hold some combination of formal education, like a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline plus a paralegal studies certificate from a program designed for college graduates. Ultimately, there’s no one right degree or course you need to work as a paralegal, but which option you choose can impact your job opportunities, potential areas for education and salary potential.
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Certification Programs in Paralegal Studies
For obvious reasons, a paralegal studies program is often the education of choice for aspiring paralegals. Ideally, students should look for paralegal programs that have been approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). These programs include certificate programs, associate’s degree programs and bachelor’s degree programs. These programs meet the high standards of the ABA guidelines. An ABA-approved paralegal program is not the same as certification offered through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), but completing one such program is part of the professional standards needed to attain NALA certification.
In a paralegal studies program, students develop the core competencies needed for success in this career, the American Association for Paralegal Education reported. Regardless of your level of academic study, these competencies should include skills in legal research, legal writing, law office management, interviewing and investigation, critical thinking, computer proficiency, organization and general communication skills.
A few schools even offer paralegal studies programs at the master’s level, some of which have earned ABA approval.
Choosing Your Major Based on an Area of Legal Practice
Although there are general practice law firms and lawyers out there, many attorneys focus on a particular area of law. The paralegals they work with, too, focus on certain legal specialties or areas of practice. If you aren’t interested in a basic paralegal studies program – or if you want to switch up your major at either the associate’s or bachelor’s degree level – then you might choose your program of study based on what kind of law most interests you.
Determining the most appropriate college major is easier for some areas of legal practice than for others. Paralegals work on both sides of criminal law – prosecution and defense – and can learn a lot about the legal system and process by studying criminal justice. If you want to go into corporate law, assisting attorneys with mergers, acquisitions and compliance issues, then you could benefit from studying business administration. An academic background in a field like psychology is a good choice for students interested in working as a paralegal in family law, according to The Houston Chronicle.
Another way to prepare to work in your desired area of legal practice is by strategically searching for internship opportunities in that area of law. Internships are valuable for helping aspiring paralegals gain hands-on experience working in a law firm or courtroom.
Picking a Major for Skills Rather Than Content
Ultimately, you don’t need one specific major to work as a paralegal, or even for your college education to count toward a degree requirement. When law firms seek paralegals with a bachelor’s degree, for example, they rarely disqualify candidates based on the subject of their bachelor’s studies. Similarly, many non-degree paralegal certificate programs are designed for college graduates, but these programs usually don’t restrict entry to candidates with only certain academic backgrounds.
Generally, paralegals benefit from having a college education, no matter what subject they study. It’s often a good idea, then, for aspiring paralegals to consider what skills they will most need for their career and choose a program of study that will help them develop those skills. The most important qualities for paralegals to have include research skills, computer skills, organizational skills, communication skills and interpersonal skills, the BLS reported. Majoring in a subject like communications can help students develop skills in reading, writing, research and public speaking. Although you don’t need an advanced understanding of computer science or programming languages, achieving proficiency in general computer skills can help you quickly learn to use software for legal research and case files.
Even a degree in liberal arts helps students cultivate important skills like critical thinking, research and how to effectively learn new information – which they will have to do throughout their career as they investigate case law and legal precedents.