The titles Paralegal and Legal Assistant are often used interchangeably. They are one and the same because both designations refer to individuals who, through training and education are qualified, and able to provide and deliver legal services under the supervision of lawyers. More importantly, paralegals or legal assistants provide such legal services at a more cost-effective rate for the lawyers’ clients.
There are various ways to become a paralegal or legal assistant:
- 2-year Associate’s degree;
- 4-year Bachelor’s degree; or
- Certificate in Paralegal Studies.
A 2-year Associate’s degree, whether Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) in Paralegal Studies is the most commonly pursued qualification by those who desire a shorter and inexpensive route to becoming a paralegal or legal assistant. Most 2-year programs require between 60 and 70 credit hours. It is usually quite intense and students acquire the required knowledge from textbooks as well as hands-on legal research, and some training in document database software programs. Receiving instruction in technology is an important part of your paralegal education and training. Though the legal profession is still relatively conservative and “old-school,” lawyers and law firms understand and value the importance of incorporating technology into their practice. So, insure that your program includes some current legal software training. I plan to post an article on legal software and technology in the coming weeks, so check back for update.
Since the last several years, colleges now offer an undergraduate program in Paralegal Studies. Due to the rise in demand for paralegals or legal assistants, colleges now find it viable to offer such a program, and it has quickly become sought after by would-be paralegals, as well as current paralegals who desire to stay competitive in the job market.
What if I already have an undergraduate qualification, but in a different field?
If you have an undergraduate degree in a different field, you can elect to obtain your paralegal qualification through the certificate program. Since you have already completed the general education courses, and business courses, the certificate program covers mainly the legal courses. Certificate programs require from 20 to 24 credit hours to complete or from 45 to 50 credit hours. I encourage you to look at the program and compare the differences between the curriculum from one college to another, and not simply focused on the shortest completion. It is important to receive essential training to help you achieve your goal.