Online Paralegal Programs: Choosing the Best One for You
With the economy still in turmoil, people are searching for innovative ways to develop career-related skills to increase their employment options. Many sectors of the job market are still suffering the effects of the economic downturn, and job applicants have needed to become more creative, better qualified, and more accomplished in order to prove their worth to prospective employers. Specialized degree programs that offer specific professional training are excellent ways of obtaining a high degree of marketability in a job search. The paralegal industry, in particular, offers considerable opportunities for growth. The number of paralegal jobs has proliferated at almost double the rate of new attorney jobs. Many law firms are increasingly utilizing paralegals to perform (under supervision) tasks once assigned to attorneys, creating a promising outlook for those who pursue paralegal studies. In order to become a paralegal, formal training is essential. Most entrants to the paralegal profession obtain a paralegal certification, often in addition to an Associate’s or Bachelor’s paralegal degree or a college degree in a related field. For those who already possess solid fundamental academic and professional skills, an online paralegal program is often the easiest way to procure the necessary certification and specific legal training needed to move forward in this exciting and dynamic field.
What is a Paralegal?
Paralegals are professionals who assist attorneys; they may work for government agencies or for corporations, although the majority of paralegals are currently employed by law firms. Paralegals compose legal documents, perform research, interview clients and other parties to a case, conduct factual investigation, and are responsible for many other tasks traditionally performed by attorneys. However, paralegals are firmly legally and ethically bound not to engage in certain types of activities, such as giving legal advice, setting fees, or representing a client in court. A skilled paralegal is an indispensible asset to an attorney and experienced paralegals are generally rewarded with a high degree of responsibility and significant involvement in an attorney’s work. In order to be successful as a paralegal, you will need strong written and verbal communication skills, a tolerance for stress in your work environment, superb organizational abilities, and the ability to function both as a team player and as a self-motivated individual. Becoming a paralegal is a smart career move for those who lack the time or financial means needed to pursue a law degree, but who desire a career in which intelligence and responsibility are highly valued.
Career Resources for the Paralegal:
What are the Advantages of an Online Paralegal Education?
If you are intrigued by the idea of becoming a paralegal, your first step may be choosing a paralegal certificate program. There are less formal options for legal assistant training, but if you aspire to work as a paralegal, and not in a purely administrative capacity, it is advisable to commit to a course of paralegal study. On the other end of the spectrum, there are four-year law programs, such as the Concord Law School (associated with Kaplan University) that offer an online law degree, allowing you to apply for admission to the Bar and to work as an attorney. Many people entering the paralegal profession are switching careers or returning to work after a hiatus, such as after raising a child. For such people with pre-existing family or professional responsibilities, online paralegal courses are often by far the most expedient and practical option. Most online paralegal programs allow you to complete the coursework and exams without ever leaving your living room (or Starbucks, if that happens to be your preferred study venue), providing a high degree of flexibility and convenience. Generally, an online paralegal certification from a reputable paralegal studies program is as highly regarded as a certificate from a brick and mortar school when it comes to interviewing for a job. Quality online programs offer plenty of instructor support and interaction, so if you have questions or need clarification, you will be able to seek help easily. Many online paralegal classes have flexible starting and ending dates, so you can register and begin your studies according to your own schedule, although most programs do require completion within a certain period of time.
Are There Disadvantages of Online Paralegal Courses?
While the convenience offered by an online paralegal program will be the deciding factor for many, there can sometimes be disadvantages to online education. Online paralegal classes can sometimes be marginally more expensive than their classroom counterparts. Many paralegal schools charge a premium for the convenience of computer-based education, although the difference is usually rather insignificant. More importantly, it can sometimes be difficult to pursue a demanding course of study while juggling other responsibilities at home. In order to complete the program successfully, you must have highly developed skills of self-motivation and will need to carefully budget your time and energy. Additionally, it is crucial to ensure that you will have access to a quiet, undisturbed environment in which you can study and take timed exams, even if you have to lock your kids temporarily in the backyard or hide yourself in a bathroom at work. Additionally, if you are the social butterfly type, you might want to consider taking your courses in a classroom setting, as your interaction with other online classmates will be minimal, at best, confined to rather sparsely populated chat rooms.
What is the Significance of ABA Approval of Paralegal Programs?
Many paralegal programs describe themselves as ‘accredited’ or state that they are approved by the ABA (American Bar Association). In fact, the ABA (American Bar Association) does not offer formal accreditation to any paralegal programs, online or otherwise, although certain state bars and other organizations do have an accreditation process. The ABA, however, does have an approval process for paralegal programs. The approval process for paralegal programs is undertaken on a voluntary basis, at the request of the institution, and is costly and somewhat controversial. Many institutions have rigorous and well-qualified paralegal programs that would almost certainly meet the criteria put forth by the ABA, but choose not to request approval from the organization. One reason for this, beyond the expense of the approval process, is that many feel that the ABA, an organization of attorneys, should not be the regulator of paralegal education. Some say that this creates a potential conflict of interest, being that the ABA does not allow paralegals to join its ranks as voting members, and that the interests of the attorneys who form the ABA may not be identical to the goals of the paralegals whose education it seeks to regulate.
No online paralegal schools or distance learning programs are currently ABA approved. Generally, ABA-approved schools have higher tuition costs, as they transfer the cost of the formal approval onto their students. However, since the ABA approval process is a hands-on evaluation, involving repeated campus visits and ongoing supervision, some feel that ABA approval is an assurance of an institution’s quality, and some interviewers, especially in certain states, will in fact place more weight on a paralegal degree from an ABA approved school. Nevertheless, if you feel strongly that an online education would optimally fit your needs, you probably should not let the lack of ABA approval be a significant factor in dissuading you from pursuing a distance learning program.
Recommended Online Paralegal Schools
Since there are almost innumerable options for online paralegal education, it can be difficult to narrow a search to any one institution. With distance learning, there is no clear advantage to choosing a school based on its geographical location, so the choices are even more wide open. Furthermore, there are many excellent programs, and each has its own special characteristics. However, there are two online paralegal studies programs that I can recommend without reservation. Both are highly regarded by those in the legal community as well as graduates of the programs and are offered by the continuing education programs of large, well-respected universities, Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Resources for Paralegal Studies:
Placed side by side, Duke’s Online Global Paralegal Certificate Program and U.C. Berkeley Extension’s Paralegal Studies Program are very similar. Both programs are oriented towards providing convenience and quality education to the career-oriented prospective paralegal, culminating in the award of a paralegal certification. A high school degree (or advanced degree) is required to enroll in either program. Students progress through the coursework at their own pace, passing to the next section only after successfully completing timed exams on each set of material. Instructors are available to provide feedback on written assignments, to answer questions via e-mail, and to help with any problems a student might encounter. Students at both programs take a comprehensive course in fundamental paralegal skills, including legal research, writing, ethics, procedure, and terminology, then choose from among several substantive law courses, or ‘electives’. Costs for the complete certification program at either school are currently almost identical, at $7,000.
There are subtle differences between the two schools, however. Berkeley’s program consists of 360 hours of instruction, slightly more coursework than Duke’s 300-hour program. Berkeley additionally offers more choices of substantive law courses, which is beneficial, since Berkeley’s program requires the completion of four substantive law courses, whereas Duke requires only two. Berkeley’s expanded options include such specialties as Intellectual Property Law, California Procedure, Contract Law and Family Law, in addition to the standard offerings at both schools of Contract Law, Tort Law, Business Law, and Criminal Law. Berkeley’s most tempting offering, perhaps, at least for those living in the San Francisco Bay Area, is its hybrid program, which combines online courses with classroom learning, an ideal solution for those who have reservations about committing to the slightly disembodied world of virtual education.
Each person has unique needs, and every paralegal school has distinct benefits and characteristics, so selecting an institution for paralegal studies is necessarily an individual choice. However, the basic process should be the same for everyone embarking on training as a paralegal. First, assess if this career is a good fit for your personality and your talents. If so, take the next step, and research a bit more about different paralegal schools, ensuring that your personal interests and requirements are similar to those of your prospective school. If you determine that online paralegal education is a good option for you, then consider what qualities your prospective employers might deem important in a paralegal degree or certification. Enroll in the school of your choice, and study hard. The exciting moment you earn your hard-won certificate will be a special one, though it will be merely the first glimpse of a promising new career that is almost certain to follow.
Helpful Links for the Aspiring Paralegal:
- National Association of Legal Assistants
NALA is the nation's leading professional association for paralegals. NALA provides continuing education and professional development programs for paralegals, and is the organization which sponsors the CP/CLA exam, a nationwide exam for paralegals.
- Find Paralegal Programs in Your State
Paralegal programs offered online and on-campus listed by state. Find ABA and non-ABA approved programs in your state as well as recommendations for what to look for in a college or university paralegal program.