Paralegal Studies Topics

Guide to a Career in Paralegal Studies

What is Paralegal Studies? The research, filing, and paperwork that go into the average court case can overwhelm even the most experienced attorneys. Lawyers spend a lot of time in the courtroom, and are often unable to perform these tasks on their own. Paralegals bridge the gap between the courtroom and the law office. Paralegals provide important legal assistance to lawyers. Without their support, lawyers would not be able to function effectively. While lawyers plead cases in the courtroom, paralegals are researching, filling out important legal documents, or meeting with clients. Although paralegals do not often show up in the courtroom, they are essential members of the legal community. A degree program in paralegal studies prepares the student for a career as a paralegal, a legal administrator, or a legal assistant. This course of study is not as rigorous as law school, but still covers much of the same ground. Available degree programs include the Associate's Degree, the Bachelor's Degree, the Master's Degree, and the Post-Bachelors Certificate. Paralegals are not just secretaries that work in law offices. Their roles in a firm are far more complex. Paralegals perform much of the same work as a lawyer. Since paralegals do not sit for the Bar Exam, the only difference is that they cannot give official legal advice or present at a trial. While most of their work is done backstage, any lawyer will tell you that they could not operate their law firm without paralegals. Individuals with prior clerical or secretarial experience that wish to advance to higher paying positions often pursue degrees in paralegal studies. Qualified individuals can now pursue their degree through one of the many accredited online universities or distance learning programs. These flexible degree programs allow candidates to invest time and energy in building the skills for a new career without having to sacrifice career or family commitments. Most degree programs in paralegal studies focus on legal documentation, writing, and drafting, as well as legal processes and administration. Students must have a very strong grasp of the concepts that the legal system is built upon to understand the details of the system, so courses in legal history are also taught.

Computers have also become an important part of the legal system, so students must possess strong computer skills. Many more courses are being geared toward computers and law, so students should expect to use a computer to complete their coursework.

Paralegal studies courses span the entire educational spectrum. The law is involved with all aspects of the arts and sciences, including math, philosophy, literature, environmental studies, history, ethics, sociology, psychology, and writing. Students should expect to take courses in all these areas, learning how they relate to paralegal studies and how to apply them in a legal setting.

The legal system relies upon documentation and accurate record keeping. When people think of "studying law," they often get caught up on the idea that going to school for law is just for lawyers. However, lawyers need a staff of trained legal professionals working alongside them to handle the vast amounts of paperwork that accumulate during litigation.

Paralegals and legal secretaries need as much knowledge and training in legal processes and documentation as any lawyer, as they handle these documents daily. And, since they don't need to go to trial, they operate as the legal office's backbone, filling in for the lawyers while they are in the courtroom and keeping everything under control

Is a Degree Program in Paralegal Studies Right for You?

Many people who consider a degree program in paralegal studies are committed professionals with a sincere interest in the American legal system, but who do not have the time or inclination to go through law school. There are, after all, many ways to be involved in the legal process without being a lawyer.

Paralegal studies degree programs and paralegal careers require excellent organization skills and high attention to detail. Since the law requires comprehensive documentation, the paperwork can quickly overwhelm you if you don't have a top notch filing system.

Good communication skills are also necessary for pursuing a career in paralegal studies. Paralegals and legal secretaries often meet with clients while the lawyer is in the courtroom or out of the office. This means that the paralegal must be able to communicate to the client what certain legal documents mean and how their case is progressing.

Since paralegals and legal assistants will often be in charge of whole cases, they must be goal-oriented. Paralegals must be able to begin a project, knowing that they will see it through to the end. Planning these projects is an important part of being a paralegal. In larger law offices, teams of legal assistants or paralegals will be assigned to larger cases, so teamwork is also very important. Also, a lawyer will be overseeing the case most of the time, so paralegals must be able to effectively follow directions.

Most paralegals work in an office environment, so those pursuing a career in paralegal studies must be able to sit behind a desk or at a computer for hours on end. Occasionally, paralegals will be required to deliver document to the courthouse or run errands for the lawyers, but most of the job happens in the law office.

Preparing to Enter a Degree Program in Paralegal Studies

Some students enter a paralegal studies degree program directly out of high school, but it is more common for people to choose this career track after a year or two of college or working in a clerical or secretarial position.

There are many ways to prepare for a degree program in paralegal studies. These include:

Work experience in a secretarial or clerical position
Keyboarding and word processing courses
Business math courses
Computer literacy courses
Social studies and law courses
American culture courses
Spanish and Latin courses
Grammar courses
Technical writing courses
A familiarity with the judicial system is essential. Visiting your local courthouse to witness a few trials and hearings can give you a familiarity with the process and the language that will aid you in your education.

Career Education in Paralegal Studies

Undergraduate and Graduate degree and certificate programs Most paralegal employers require a certain amount of education in paralegal studies before they will hire an individual for the job. While some lawyers will train paralegals on the job, they usually require at least an Associate's Degree in a related field. This is why having a degree in paralegal studies can aid you in your quest for employment. There are a wide variety of options concerning paralegal studies education. Students just out of high school or who have earned their GED can enroll in an Associate's or Bachelor's Degree program, either through a traditional college or university or through an accredited online or distance learning academy. Working adults wishing to advance their understanding of paralegal studies beyond the undergraduate level and who already have a Bachelor's Degree in paralegal studies or a related area of study can enroll in a Master's Degree Program in paralegal studies. Since these programs are geared toward professionals, many institutions offer these degrees either online or through night and weekend classes. As an alternative to a Master's Degree program in paralegal studies, many institutions offer post-Bachelor's Certificate programs in paralegal studies. These certificate courses specialize in the duties of paralegals, making it useful for people who are definite about their career and want to begin quickly. These certificates are, however, far less versatile than a Master's Degree. Associate's Degree Programs An Associate's Degree is an excellent way to get started in paralegal studies. Simultaneously, students gain a strong, general education and liberal arts background. These two-year degree programs are available through community colleges and universities, as well as through many online and distance learning degree programs. Another advantage of the Associate's Degree in paralegal studies is that the credits gained from completion of the degree are easily transferable toward a future Bachelor's Degree program in a related field. Bachelor's Degree Programs The Bachelor's Degree program in paralegal studies is the most common route to an entry-level position at a law firm as a paralegal. These four-year degree programs are available through any traditional college or university that offers the major. Bachelor's Degree programs in paralegal studies are also available through many accredited online colleges and universities. These distance learning programs allow working professionals the freedom to begin or continue their education without having to give up their careers. Bachelor's Degree programs are designed to give students a broad liberal arts education combined with specialized skills for specific careers. Employers see people holding Bachelor's Degrees as well-rounded and versatile individuals who will be able to adapt well to a variety of situations. The Bachelor's Degree in paralegal studies is a valuable and versatile degree, acting as a springboard into a variety of different career paths and future educational choices. As a Bachelor's Degree, the liberal arts focus of most degree programs allows the student to change career paths after undergraduate school if they so choose. Having knowledge of legal systems and ethics is useful in any career. It allows the student to bring valuable general knowledge to job interviews in any industry, giving them an edge over the competition. Legal standards are often overlooked by many small businesses and individuals, creating devastating circumstances that can destroy a business before it has a chance to grow. Employers like to know that their staff is keeping an eye out for potentially harmful legal issues and avoiding them in time. Aside from the general liberal arts education that most schools offer, students are also exposed to the inner workings of legal procedures and documentation. Courses are offered in the history and evolution of the American legal system, legal ethics, legal administration, family law, and environmental law, to name a few. Those who complete a Bachelor's Degree program in paralegal studies are also eligible to apply for admission into a Master's Degree program or post-Bachelor's Degree certificate program. This means that the student has the choice of whether to enter the work force right away or continue their education past the undergraduate level. Some use the increasingly popular online education and distance learning system to do both at once.

Post-Bachelors Certificate Programs

Designed for the student who already holds a Bachelor's Degree in paralegal studies or a related field, these certificate programs provide specialized paralegal training beyond what the student would have learned in undergraduate school.

Many larger law firms require this kind of specialized training before they will consider an individual for employment. This specialized education is a must for those seeking employment with larger, more established law firms where the salaries are higher and the benefits more complete.

Master's Degree Programs

Students wishing to study the more advanced and complex aspects of being a paralegal after undergraduate school or while working as a professional in a legal setting should consider a Master's Degree in paralegal studies. These programs usually take two years to complete, and often offer afternoon, evening, and weekend classes. This allows the student to begin or continue a career as a paralegal while studying.

Master's Degree programs in paralegal studies are substantially more specialized than undergraduate degree programs. Master's Degree programs focus on specific aspects of law office activity, as well as how they relate to the client in specific instances. Students are given the opportunity to take specialized classes based on what their interests are and in what direction they want their careers to move.

Most courses in paralegal studies at the graduate level are geared toward critical and analytical thinking, legal research, and technical writing. Students come out of Master's Degree programs in paralegal studies able to apply legal theory to real world situations, seeing the entire legal process through in an efficient and accurate manner.

The degree requirements of most institutions vary substantially, but students should expect to take advanced legal coursework, as well as complete a graduate thesis in their second year. Some typical courses offered at the Master's Degree level are:

Philosophy of Law
Labor law
Juvenile law
Judicial administration
Criminal law
Advanced legal procedures
Legal research and citation
Dispute resolution
Family law
Environmental law
Public advocacy
Legal analysis and writing

What Can You Do with a University Degree in Paralegal Studies?

Career options for aspiring legal assistants and paralegals While most people holding a degree in paralegal studies go on to become paralegals, that is not the only option for paralegal studies majors. Professionals who have a familiarity with the American legal system are considered assets in a wide variety of job environments. Moreover, because of the clerical nature of being a paralegal, individuals with a degree in paralegal studies can usually find work as a clerical assistant or secretary in nearly any industry.

A Career as a Paralegal

Being a paralegal can be exciting, fast-paced, and stressful. People who decide to become paralegals usually work very well under pressure and can perform many tasks at once. Unless they have been assigned to a very large and important case, paralegals will usually be working on more than one case at a time.

Paralegals must fact-check and conduct research for lawyers and clients. They must help them prepare for trials and hearings, as well as for meetings with other lawyers. This involves filling out legal documents for clients and lawyers, contacting and interviewing witnesses, and helping to build a flawless argument to be presented in court by the lawyer. They will turn this information into a general summary and draft an argument for the lawyer to approve.

The research a paralegal does can be very intensive. They must search legal records for court cases similar to theirs and see how they were ruled and for what reasons. They must check every fact thoroughly to make sure of its truth before giving it to the lawyer to present to the court. They also must be sure that all this research is thoroughly organized and readily accessible to the client or lawyer.

Paralegals are usually responsible for filing legal documents with court clerks, such as pleadings, wills, marriage certificates, and divorce papers. Filling out these documents accurately is also the responsibility of the paralegal. This part of the job requires meeting certain deadlines and working under pressure, making sure nothing falls through the cracks.

In some larger law firms, paralegals will act as supervisors for legal secretaries and assistants. This means that the paralegal will have to know how to delegate tasks and make sure they are done properly. They must also have good leadership and communication abilities. They must also make sure the law firm's library and software are up to date.

Law firms that specialize in property and real estate may require the paralegal to appraise property and assets. They may also act as a go-between for clients selling a piece of property and clients purchasing property. They will draw up all the necessary paperwork required for the transaction to go through and mediate negotiations between the clients.

Paralegals are often required to continue their education throughout their career. The law is constantly changing, so paralegals must stay abreast of the changes in the legal system to do their job effectively. Also, paralegals will often have to take classes on how to operate new computer software that will help them more effectively research or file.

Paralegal positions are often high pressure and stressful. Everything must be one hundred percent accurate, even the smallest error can lead to serious legal problems for the client later. Paralegals must work flawlessly under the shadow of tight deadlines, often while working on two or three other cases simultaneously. This career is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Salary Information for Careers in Paralegal Studies

Paralegals usually earn between $28,000 and $48,000 a year, depending on the law firm and the paralegal's previous experience and education. Competitive benefits packages are usually offered, as well. Most employers offer their paralegals at least one week of paid vacation a year.