The educational requirements and coursework required to become a certified paralegal are collectively known as “paralegal studies.” Paralegal studies can take many forms. They can be undertaken on college campuses, or online; they can be part of a bachelor’s degree curriculum, but can also stand alone. In the United States, paralegal studies are usually considered “continuing education,” meaning that they typically come after a student has received a preliminary degree, or has started a career. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, paralegal studies are frequently undertaken directly after high school.
Study programs are designed with the end goal of preparing students to become certified paralegals. Paralegal certification requirements vary by jurisdiction, but generally involve a paralegal exam that must be passed by a certain percentage. Once students earn their certification, they can begin work as paralegals.
Paralegals are legal professionals who assist lawyers and judges with all aspects of the legal process, from researching cases to preparing arguments and drafting memoranda. In no jurisdiction are paralegals permitted to actually practice law, but the contours of the paralegal job requires a close familiarity with how the law works and prevailing regulations and requirements. Being a paralegal is considered working in a legal career, and paralegals often decide to go on to law school after gaining some work experience and on-the-job legal training.
There are many ways to undertake paralegal studies. Studies programs exist both as advanced degree programs and as associate’s degree programs. In the United States, advanced degree programs are designed for students who already hold a university degree, and have determined that they want to pursue a career as a paralegal. These programs are typically prestigious, and are often offered by top schools.
The system is slightly different in countries like the UK and Australia. There, students can elect to enter paralegal studies as a full-time degree program right from the start. Students who qualify can enter paralegal studies programs at top universities directly from high school. It is uncommon for American universities to offer similar paralegal programs at the undergraduate level.
American students who want to jump immediately into paralegal studies often enroll in an associate’s degree program, which is typically a two-year course that prepares students for the paralegal certification exam. Associate’s degrees are often offered online, or through local or community colleges. Online paralegal courses are growing in popularity, but not all programs are nationally accredited; students should take care when selecting paralegal studies programs to ensure that the education they will receive will adequately prepare them for both certification and success in the field.
So long as a student passes the paralegal certification applicable to his home jurisdiction, where and how he received his paralegal education loses some significance. In most places, anyone who passes the exam becomes a paralegal, regardless of where they received their education. Education matters more for job prospects. Employers will pay attention to where paralegal studies were undertaken, and students from lesser-known or online programs may find competition for jobs very steep.