Types of Paralegal Education Programs

There are four basic kinds of paralegal education programs. Each of them offers something different.

Certificate Programs

Certificate paralegal education programs are nondegree programs, usually ranging from six months to eighteen months in length. Class times vary — some programs schedule classes during the day; others offer night classes ; still others offer concentrated or accelerated classes on weekends.

The typical certificate paralegal education program focuses entirely on the acquisition of legal knowledge. There are no requirements that the paralegal demonstrate or learn competency in oral and written communication, analytical thinking, or computer proficiency outside the context of core legal courses. Typical core legal courses include real estate law, bankruptcy law, litigation, and probate administration.

Universities, colleges, and community colleges offer certificate paralegal education programs. Proprietary schools — institutions that specialize in concentrated training programs on several different subjects — also offer them. Proprietary schools may or may not be accredited institutions.


The shorter program length of certificate programs attracts some students who are interested in joining the work force as soon as possible. However, the rapid educational pace of certificate programs often overwhelms these students. Most certificate programs are designed for persons with a prior degree or with substantial work experience. Students who enter a program that matches their needs increase their chances of success.

Candidates for paralegal certificate programs are:

  • Students who have a prior college degree and need to supplement their education in the legal area in preparation for a career change.

  • Students who are currently employed in the legal field and seek to supplement their practical knowledge through formal education.

  • Students who want to add a legal component to their education, but do not intend to seek employment in the paralegal field.

Associate Degree Programs

Associate degree paralegal education programs are typically two-year programs. A large number of these programs are offered through community colleges. Some colleges and universities offer associate degree paralegal education programs. These programs often have advisory committees comprised of former students, community employers of paralegals, and other interested community members. They advise the institution on changes and trends in employer demand for paralegal skills. This information helps the institution direct curriculum development, advise students on choice of electives, and determine frequency of course offerings. As a result, these institutions tend to offer a more varied selection of specialty legal courses. Typical courses include a paralegal survey course, legal research, and legal writing. The paralegal student might then be able to choose among courses in real property, business law, bankruptcy, torts and personal injury, civil procedure, criminal law, criminal procedure, and wills and probate.

The nature of the associate degree offered depends on the program requirements. Some of the programs that require course work outside the courses have a business focus. Candidates for these degrees will often take courses in business communication, office software applications, terminology, and other practical skills. Other associate degree paralegal education programs require general education courses in addition to core legal courses. Candidates for these degrees take courses in the humanities to broaden the scope of their appreciation for the role of the law in our society. Many associate degree paralegal education programs offer classes at a variety of times to accommodate traditional and nontraditional students.


Generally speaking, the Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree is appropriate for the student who plans to enter the work force immediately after completing the program. The Associate of Science (A.S.) degree is intended for those students who plan to pursue further education after completion of the paralegal program.

Students who apply for associate degree paralegal education programs must be well qualified. Paralegal course work requires a considerable amount of time and effort to prepare for classes and complete assignments. Legal classes often demand sophisticated analytical thinking that is the product of thorough preparation and study. Some institutions may utilize prescreening, such as standardized test scores, to select students for admission to the program. Other institutions require preadmission interviews or rely on an advising model to ensure that students entering the program are capable of succeeding.

Four-year Programs

Four year paralegal education programs can be found at some colleges and universities. These programs are often minor field of study, although an increasing number of institutions offer Paralegal Studies as a separate major. These fields of study are often found in the Political Science or Business departments.

The four-year paralegal education program offers a longer period of study, giving the paralegal student more options for legal study. Four-year programs typically require the student to meet course requirements in a broad liberal arts curriculum. The paralegal education courses include introductory courses such as terminology and legal research. As the student advances, there are opportunities to choose classes in business organizations, corporate law, employment law, and constitutional law. The longer course of study allows these programs to offer the paralegal student more in-depth study on specific legal topics.

Distance Learning

Programs The traditional method of teaching lawyers and paralegals is through in-person dialogue — a question-and-answer format known as the Socratic method. Many paralegal programs still follow this educational format. Students attending these institutions must attend class at a “brick-and-mortar” location and attend classes at specific times. As this arrangement is often inconvenient for students who must travel long distances to attend class or who are employed and unable to attend class at the scheduled time, paralegal distance education programs are becoming increasingly popular. Some of these programs are offered by proprietary schools and result in a certificate award. Others are associated with community colleges, colleges, and universities and allow the student to obtain any degree offered to a traditional student.

Course offerings for paralegal distance education programs generally duplicate the offerings of on-ground programs. Course materials are delivered through a Web site maintained by the institution. Some programs offer the student an opportunity to interact with the instructor and other students by means of discussion postings, online chats, and group assignments. Other programs offer minimal interaction, relying instead on the student's individual assignments to demonstrate knowledge of the subject.


The American Bar Association recommends limiting the number of online legal courses a paralegal student can take. A program that is ABA approved is unlikely to offer as many online courses as other programs. If your job market requires a degree from an ABA-approved program, you will not be able to complete all of your legal coursework online.

A student considering a paralegal distance education program must have certain qualities:

  • Technological proficiency. Since paralegal distance education programs are offered by computer, the student must be comfortable using technology. Common issues include the ability to navigate a Web site and the ability to create and download documents in a particular format.

  • Organizational skills. Online courses tend to proceed at a set pace. This set pace often involves sequenced learning: textbook reading followed by online course content, followed by assignments, followed by testing. The student who falls behind in this sequence may find it impossible to catch up.

  • Self-directed learning. Not every paralegal distance learning programs utilizes online opportunities for group discussion and individualized feedback. Very often, the student is left to explore the subject matter with only the textbook and cues from the online course content as guides. The student must be persistent and resourceful in locating answers to questions that arise.

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