Completing an associate’s degree in paralegal studies can be the first step towards a career in the challenging legal field. Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, typically work as part of legal teams and assist with research, interviewing, administration, and preparation. While there are no formal requirements to become a paralegal, an associate’s degree provides a broad foundation of general education subjects, such as communications and English, as well as legal systems. The required paralegal content in an associate’s degree program does not differ significantly from that of a foundational paralegal certificate. Instead, the associate’s degree curriculum includes more general education requirements that are necessary to continue to paralegal studies at the bachelor’s degree level and beyond. The paralegal associate’s degree takes approximately two years to complete.
Paralegals can find work in a variety of environments but typically work in private legal companies under the supervision of lawyers as paralegals are prohibited from offering legal advice themselves. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals earned a median salary of $49,500 and a mean salary of $53,180 in 2016.1,2 Growth within the paralegal job market was projected at 8% through 2024, which was average compared to other types of professions in the United States.1
The minimum admission requirement for paralegal associate programs is most often a high school diploma or equivalent. A foundational paralegal certificate or previous post-secondary education is not required. Some schools may offer transfer credit for general or paralegal coursework completed at another institution, such as a paralegal certificate program. Schools may require a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher, but the GPA requirement varies for each school. A minimum GPA is also required once a student is officially admitted into the paralegal program for courses completed towards the degree. Applicants usually need to submit high school transcripts, application forms, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation from teachers or employers.
Core Concepts and Coursework
Course topics vary in associate degree programs in paralegal studies. Most programs will require some foundational general education coursework in English, math or science, and communications to meet general university degree requirements. For the paralegal major content, some institutions offer the same courses as their paralegal certificate programs while others may offer a greater breadth of paralegal topics and electives to associate degree students. It is always a good idea to check course offerings if you have a particular area of interest. Some examples of required courses in paralegal associate degree programs include:
- Introduction to Law
- US Legal Systems
- Paralegal Research
- Legal Ethics
- Organizational Law
- Contracts, Torts, and Wills
- Business Communications
- Estate Law
- Advanced Legal Research
- Work Experience/Internship
Paralegal Associate Degree Learning Goals
1. Understand of the roles and responsibilities of the paralegal profession.
Paralegals work with clients, lawyers, and other legal and administrative professionals on a daily basis. Paralegal associate degree programs prepare new graduates to work as part of this professional team by developing and applying their legal skills.
2. Gather and analyze detailed information.
Each legal case is unique and requires a customized approach; therefore, paralegal students learn how to gather information through various research and interview processes. Students also learn how to research related cases and develop creative arguments in collaboration with the legal team.
3. Gain hands-on experience in a legal environment.
Many associate degree programs in paralegal studies offer internship or work placement opportunities. This “real world” experience helps students apply classroom knowledge under the guidance of an experienced mentor.
Traditional Paralegal Associate’s Degree Programs
Many colleges offer on-campus paralegal associate degree programs. Formats, study options, and course topics vary so be sure to check course information if you are interested in a specific area of law. We have provided information on several programs that are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) and offer foundational coursework for individuals with no prior paralegal experience.
Essex County College (Newark, NJ)
Essex County College offers an ABA-approved Associate in Science (AS) in Paralegal Studies that can be completed on a full-time or part-time basis. The program teaches students about the role of a paralegal in the legal system and the necessary skills to start a career in various areas of law. The program requires 63-66 credits and can be completed in two years or less if taking summer courses. Up to 15 credits can be transferred from a comparable, ABA-approved program. Students take general education and foundational paralegal courses in the first year and specialized paralegal courses in the second year. Some examples of course titles include Introduction to Law for Paralegals, Contracts, and Administrative Law. While the college does not offer a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, this AS degree does aim to prepare students to pursue higher education in the future if desired.
Chattanooga Community College (Chattanooga, TN)
At Chattanooga Community College, students can earn an ABA-approved Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Paralegal Studies in two years of full-time study. Students complete 60 credits across a range of disciplines, including English, politics, legal studies, and technology; however, at least 36 credits must be completed in the paralegal major. Paralegal course topics include legal ethics, legal research, and litigation skills. The course structure follows the semester model with courses offered in fall, spring, and summer terms. This program may appeal to students who plan to complete a bachelor’s degree as the college has a 2+2 agreement with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s legal assisting program. The college also offers a 21-credit post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate open to applicants who already have a bachelor’s degree in any subject.
Spokane Community College (Spokane, WA)
The Associate of Applied Science (AAS) – Legal Administrative Assistant program at Spokane Community College prepares graduates to perform a variety of functions as part of a legal team. The school follows a quarter calendar and students must complete 95-103 quarter credits to graduate with this ABA-approved degree. Start dates are offered in the fall, winter, and spring. The program can be completed in as little as 18 months through full-time study although not all courses are offered each year. Students are advised to meet with academic advisors prior to choosing courses to ensure they complete the program in a timely manner. Required courses include Introduction to Law, Law Office Procedures and Technology, and Legal Ethics. Specialized electives include Principles of Accounting, Introduction to Probate, and Employment Law. Students must also complete a work experience. Most classes are offered in the evenings to accommodate working professionals. It is also possible to organize an internship as part of the program. The college also offers a certificate program to students who have already completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
Online Paralegal Associate’s Degree Programs
If you are working or have a busy schedule, you may be interested in completing your entire paralegal associate’s degree online or through a hybrid of online and on-campus classes. We have provided information on several online programs for individuals who want to pursue a career in the paralegal field.
Clayton State University (Morrow, GA)
Clayton State University offers an ABA-approved Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in paralegal studies through the Department of Social Science. The program curriculum requires students to complete the same range of paralegal courses offered in the certificate program along with general education courses for a total of 61-63 credits. Students can graduate from the program in as little as two years. The majority of the course requirements can be met online, although some courses may only be offered in the evening on-campus. Paralegal courses include Legal Research & Writing, Law Office Skills, and Legal Studies Capstone and general education requirements include English, Math, and Communications. Students can study full-time or part-time and can transfer credit towards the completion the university’s Bachelor of Arts (BA) in paralegal studies degree at a later date if desired.
Liberty University (Lynchburg, VA)
Liberty University is a private Christian institution that offers an Associate of Arts (AA) degree fully online through the School of Law. The program comprises 60 credits of study and accepts up to 45 transfer credits from other schools. Students complete 36-39 credits of general education including Critical Thinking, Christian Life & Thought, and Math, Science, & Technology. The paralegal major includes 21 credits and three additional credits may be taken as electives. Examples of paralegal courses include Foundations of Law and Criminal Practice and Procedures. This online program utilizes Blackboard online learning technology that can be accessed by students at any time. Students can study either full-time or part-time and finish the program in as little as two years. Graduates can also choose to continue into Liberty’s online bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies if desired.
Rio Salado College (Tempe, AZ)
The online Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree at Rio Salado College is a 64-credit degree program that takes two years to complete through full-time study, although part-time study is also possible. Multiple start dates are offered throughout the year and courses are offered in eight-week blocks. Students complete the 36-39 credits required for the paralegal certificate first and then choose six to nine additional electives such as Corporate Law for the Paralegal, Paralegals and Immigration Law, and US Constitution. The remaining 19 general education credits are comprised of English, math, and electives. Internship opportunities can also be arranged in the students’ local area. Upon graduation, students are awarded both a certificate and an associate’s degree in paralegal studies.
Paralegal Certification with an Associate’s Degree
Paralegals do not need to be licensed or certified to work in this profession and employers vary with regards to educational requirements. California is the only state which specifies that individuals using the term “paralegal” in their work should meet certain education or work experience requirements, but there are no regulating bodies responsible for ensuring consistency within the state.3
Completing an optional certification or professional exam through an organization such as the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Assistants, or The Association for Legal Professionals may lead to increased job resources or networking opportunities but are usually not specifically required by employers.
Other optional certification processes may focus on skills and programs used on-the-job. For example, LexisNexis offers a Paralegal Student Certification of Mastery covering LexusAdvance software and Litigation Tools for Paralegal Students. The program is comprised of five modules that help students learn how to best utilize this particular software for legal research. Additionally, Thompson Reuters WestLaw offers webinar training for that may benefit paralegals who use their legal research software in the workplace. Students must complete three modules and pass an online quiz to earn the certification.
Some schools seek program certification from the American Bar Association to highlight that their program meets established standards, but this is optional and lack of certification does not necessarily indicate a program is sub-par.
Jobs with a Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- Administrative Assistant
- Court Reporter
- Executive Assistant
- Generalist Paralegal
- Law Clerk
- Legal Advocate
- Legal Assistant
- Legal Researcher
- Legal Secretary
- Specialist Paralegal
Frequently Asked Questions
How does the associate’s degree in paralegal studies compare to the bachelor’s degree?
As the associate’s degree program is designed to be completed in two years, it teaches students foundational information about the law and the legal system. While most associate programs allow students to choose some electives, bachelor’s degree programs allow students additional time to gain in-depth knowledge of particular areas of the law. Both programs will also have general education requirements.
Can I earn credit for my associate’s degree towards a bachelor’s degree in the future?
Generally, yes. Most institutions offering four-year bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies will evaluate the courses you have already taken to reduce redundancies. Some institutions also have a formal arrangement that allows students to seamlessly transfer from an associate’s degree program to a bachelor’s degree program in the same region.
Do I need to complete an ABA-approved program to work as a paralegal?
No. ABA accreditation is completely optional and some colleges choose not to apply for this distinction. These schools may still offer high-quality programs that are acceptable to employers. If you plan to pursue a career with a particular employer or in a specific area, you may wish to check whether they have any specific standards.
How long does it take to complete a paralegal associate’s degree?
If you plan to study full-time, you can usually complete the program in as little as 18-24 months. If you plan to study part-time or take certain terms off, such as summer, it may take you longer. Most schools require students to finish the associate degree program within five years of the start date.
Should I complete my paralegal associate’s degree online?
Choosing whether to complete your degree online or on-campus depends on various factors. If you are a disciplined and independent student, an online format may work well. Online programs are also more flexible and can work well for students who work full-time. On-campus programs offer the benefits of face-to-face engagement with faculty and colleagues. Both types of programs are available for paralegal associate’s degrees as well as hybrid programs.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes232011.htm
3. American Bar Association: Directory of Paralegal State Activity: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals/profession-information/state_activity_home.html/